When Dashiell Hammett originally wrote THE THIN MAN, he was drawing less on his real-life experiences as a private detective for the famous Pinkerton Agency, and more from his long-term relationship with Lillian Hellman, to whom the novel is originally dedicated. Like any good writer, Hammett pulled experiences from his own life. This allowed him to populate the worlds of the genre he is largely credited with inventing, the hard-boiled detective novel.
Yet THE THIN MAN is better remembered as a movie - and later series of movies - starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. The 1934 film adaptation was created soon after the publication of the novel, with MGM paying Hammett $21,000 US for the rights to his work. The first indicator that the film would have a tonal shift from the source material was in the people hired to adapt the book into a screenplay: married couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. It's telling that the relationship between Nick and Nora Charles is more equitable in the film than in the book, though Nora remains distanced from much of the core story, serving as a foil to her husband.
And our own Lucia Frangione has taken her own role in adapting the novel to the stage. Fragione further expanded on Nora's role to add complexities in racial politics. Said Frangione, "An element that was in the original novel and the film was the fact that Nora and Nick were a married couple with no children who spent their Christmas with strangers. Both joy and sorrow hold a couple together, so as a writer I had to ask myself, 'Why are they socially isolated?' Hammett and Hellman were outsiders because of race and politics. So, I decided to flesh out a story point that was already hinted at in the novel and film. Nora is a wealthy heiress from San Francisco, why couldn't she be Chinese? I have always sought intelligent ways to diversify my casts. We live in a multi-racial society, that should be reflected on stage."
Across these adaptations - Hammett adapting aspects of his own life, Goodrich and Hackett adapting and refining Hammett's work while adding their own experiences, and now Frangione adapting aspects of current affairs to mix while further expanding Nora's role in the story - THE THIN MAN remains a landmark work in the detective genre. Nick and Nora remain one of the few - if only - famous detective couples to hit the stage, the big screen, the small screen, and the page. And audiences love sharing in their adventures at every step.
THE THIN MAN features the ever-stylish work of our incredible contract designers, including Set Design by Scott Reid, and Costume Design by Deitra Kalyn. These talented members of the creative team help transport our shows to all kinds of time periods and styles, and THE THIN MAN is an opportunity for them to showcase some sleek American architecture and fashion. This rom-com/detective story is set around the winter holiday season of 1933, a time when Art Déco was all the rage.
Art Déco originated in France as a reaction to the then-common Neo-classical and Art Nouveau trends of Europe. Part of this reaction was spurred by French artists feeling the pinch of German imports on their local market. In an attempt to introduce modern trends in a major way, the Société des Artistes Décorateurs held a major international exhibition where only new works would be presented. Initially, this exhibition was to be held in 1914, but had to be postponed till 1925 with the outbreak of World War I. As such, Art Déco, while beginning roughly in the 1910s and 20s, didn't really have its heyday until the 30s, stretching into the 50s.
Compared to the more elaborate styles of the Neo-classical and Art Nouveau periods, Art Déco was considerably pared down, focusing on modernity and luxury, with geometric shapes and lines to emphasize a sense of grandeur. In the set for THE THIN MAN, Scott Reid has used this style in the luxurious hotel suite of our main characters, Nick and Nora Charles, with gold lines that reflected the style of inlaid patterns used in that time. Art Déco reflected on the building materials that were becoming available with the modern age - fancy wood inlay, gold, and chrome, to name a few. Reid says "I looked at the Art Déco hotels of New York such as Chatwal, Normandy and Wellesley along with bars and restaurants of the 1930’s. I was inspired by the lines and shapes within the architecture of those spaces."
In fashion, the styles of the 30's reflected the transitional period of the widening economic struggles of the Great Depression. Women in particular found their fashions impacted by a work force that at-first embraced them during the post-war period, then rejected them in favour of jobs for men . Designers like Louis Vuitton and Paul Poiret began using very bright colours, and emphasized sporty, casual, modern looks. Corsetry started to fade away in favour of dresses with a "silhouetted" semi-fitted look, which gave women an almost tubular or pillar-like shape. Transitionally though, this less feminine look blended in the 30s with Hollywood glamour bringing bright floral patterns and shorter, more feminine hemlines. Deitra Kalyn reflects this transitional point in fashion by dressing characters like Katherine Fadum's Mimi in bright floral patterns, while Nadien Chu's Nora wears the more "modern woman" look of Art Déco dresses with long hems, and the instantly-recognizable Cloche style hat.
Art Déco is present in Calgary, as well, with examples including the AGT building (completed in 1929), the Model Milk Building (completed in 1933) and the Barron Building (Calgary's first Skyscraper, completed in 1951).
Check out THE THIN MAN until October 14 for a taste of Art Déco and mystery!
NiCk and NOra : Hard- Boiled Detective Work and MArriage
Kicking off our upcoming 2018-2019 season, Lucia Frangione (who previously appeared in our 2014 production of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY) has adapted Dashiell Hammet's famous story, The Thin Man, for a brand new, world-premiere production. We talked with Lucia about her work in writing and adapting THE THIN MAN, and the heroic couple at the centre of the action, Nick and Nora Charles.
(NOTE: this interview has been edited for clarity and length)
What drew you to adapt Dashiell Hammet's classic story of THE THIN MAN for the stage?
It was Craig Hall's idea to put me and Dashiell Hammett together. I love to play with rhythm and language and so did he, so it felt like a compatible fit. I did a synopsis for an adaptation of The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon and loved both for different reasons, but I couldn't wait to put Nick and Nora on the stage so I started with them. I'm always looking to write exciting roles for women in the theatre and this story offers up some juicy characters for both genders and a diverse cast which has always been important to me. I tend to write three plays at a time and all within a certain theme. Right now my focus is on family: how to negotiate differences, the importance of loyalty, functioning as a family outside of the typical construct. Nick and Nora are a family of two. They face the dark underbelly of society together and they do so with elegance, wit and mutual respect.
It's rare to find a male and female detective duo, and even more rare to find a detective couple. What special and unique dynamics do you find the heroes, Nick and Nora Charles, bring to the usual "detective story?"
What is so interesting to me is almost everyone I've spoken to fondly thinks of Nick and Nora as a detective team. We want them to be. We remember them that way. But really, if you read the novel or watch the movie, Nora is actually given very little to do. She practically disappears halfway through, popping in occasionally with a martini and her dog, Asta. Though I have been quite faithful to the plot of The Thin Man, I've followed the public imagination and made Nora much more of an equal partner to Nick. In The Thin Man, Nick and Nora are surrounded by a gaggle of hilarious and volatile personalities, especially the Wynant family. As the murder mystery gets unpacked, it's a joy and frankly a comfort for me to see a married couple navigate these murky waters together as a loving, honest and trusting team. There's a real sense that Nick and Nora are the only two sane people in a mad mad world. I wonder if Dashiell Hammett felt that way about the love of his life, Lillian Hellman? Like Nick and Nora, they were an elegant, highly intelligent, "it" couple of their time, but they were also outsiders socially and politically. I find this all very fascinating, the dark and the light in this story. As for what a husband and wife team do for the hard-boiled genre...they lovingly take the piss out of each other constantly. Sometimes this relieves tension, sometimes it creates tension. It keeps the story grounded, Nick and Nora are real, so we care about them and what happens to them. They make being married sexy!
The original story and hugely successful film adaptation came out in 1934. How have you found it adapting this story for a modern audience? What appeals across time and place? What no longer quite works or makes sense today?
Whenever I write a show I have to ask myself, "Why am I putting this out into the world?" It's very important to me to entertain my audience while also offering up some food for thought. I love to rollercoaster a plot with highs of laughter and then dead drop into the dark, then shoot back up again with hope. The Thin Man does this. It's tricky doing an adaptation of a work because our sensibilities have changed. Sexism, racism and homophobia run rampant through anything written in this era and earlier. I don't want to put anything on stage that diminishes anyone just because it "was the the way it was". However, I also don't want to white wash the past. Luckily, Nick and Nora are very progressive. I can maintain the grit and prejudice of the 1930s because we experience it through the eyes of Nick and Nora who have a different view. Nora was inspired by Lillian Hellman, Hammett's lover, a famous but notorious playwright, a childless divorcee and a Jewish member of the communist party. All of these things made her an outsider. The actor who played Nora in the film was Myrna Loy. Loy was a studio name given to Myrna who looked "exotic" and started off her career doing "yellow face", playing a lot of Chinese women in films like The Mask of Fu Manchu. So, there is a kind of poetic justice in making Nora Chinese American in the stage version of the story. But it also makes sense for the story itself. Nora is a wealthy heiress from San Francisco who seems to have married later in life and chosen to not have children. They celebrate Christmas with a room full of strangers. It makes sense that Nora, like Lillian, would stand out from the crowd. I love what this says about Nick too: he chose love over social convention. This all supports and deepens the conversation the original story has about family. The Thin Man is funny and sexy but underneath every single character is a deep longing to belong. Don't we all?
The third show of our season, DEATHTRAP, is a returning classic with a terrific director, Jamie Dunsdon! Jamie is the Artistic Director of local indie company Verb Theatre, and she sat down with us to chat about the suspense genre, and Ira Levin's mind-bending script.
DEATHTRAP is one of the most successful Broadway plays ever, with nearly 1800 performances over four years. What do you think makes it so appealing to audiences time and time again?
To quote the main character, "Sound construction, good dialogue, laughs in the right places." The play is built to delight, and I can't get into the details of what makes it work so well without spoiling things, but that alone should tell you what kind of a ride you're in for. And in a thriller, isn't that what we all want? To be thrilled?! The first I time I read it, I gasped out loud many, many times. My cats were worried.
Also, one of the things we discovered during auditions is that the roles are pretty darn juicy. Sometimes when a play relies heavily on plot, the characters can get flattened out or take a back seat, but the characters in Deathtrap are wonderfully playful and nuanced. I think when actors enjoy playing their roles, audiences can feel that and it amps up the electricity in the theatre.
There's a huge amount of "meta-commentary" in DEATHTRAP - self-aware winks to the audiences, references to suspense works, and of course the literal play-within-a-play. What is your personal relationship to the suspense/mystery genre, and what are some of your favourites?
Ho boy, I could write an entire blog entry just on my top 10. I've become a bit of a mystery/thriller nut in the last few years, so my list of favourites is long (and luckily, Deathtrap is near the top!). My own company, Verb Theatre, has even started working on a thriller, so I'm knee deep in the genre and loving every minute of it. I'm partial to thrillers, because there is so much action - characters actively seeking what they want. And I'll take a ghost any day. I worked in a haunted theatre for three years, so a good ghost story will always get me.
The very first Vertigo show I saw was The Mystery of Irma Vep in 2005, and it holds a special place in my heart because it opened my eyes to what suspense has to offer an audience, thriller or otherwise - I'm not sure I valued suspense until then. Plus it was hilarious. The Woman in Black and Evelyn Strange both stick out in my memory as plays that made me laugh and scream, which I think Deathtrap does as well. And actually, The Woman in Black was turned into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe just a few years ago, which I also enjoyed, but I think the play is better. Fear is a feeling best felt LIVE! Any Night by Daniel Arnold and Medina Hahn is a wonderful psychological thriller written by a couple of wonderful Canadians that makes the viewer question the nature of reality itself. Oh dear, I'm rambling. And I haven't even mentioned Accomplice by Rupert Holmes! Seriously, this list has barely dusted the surface. I have a spreadsheet of mystery scripts on my computer. No joke.
What do you think is key to building a suspense across a show like this? How do you as a director play with audiences and get them on the edge of their seats?
Great question. I don't think there's a single key, but a series of careful choices. Casting, design, delivery of plot... and these elements work together to create a sort of atmosphere of curiosity. You need your audience to be asking "but what is going to happen next?" but suspense doesn't work if the audience doesn't care.". And I don't want to dodge your question, but I also don't want to explain too much more because a good production kind of functions like a magic act - the less the audience knows about the machinery, the more magical it is!
That said, one thing I will say is that I always try to surround myself with experts. That goes for any play, but I think is particularly important in a play that relies so heavily on the individual pieces doing their job. Designers who understand the subtleties of creating atmosphere, actors who can both build and diffuse tension, playwrights who can drop a red herring with just the right amount of eyebrow. I'm SO excited to have Vertigo's former Artistic Director, Mark Bellamy, playing the lead role in our production, bringing his years of expertise and skill, alongside so many of Calgary's favourite actors - Tyrell Crews, Barbara Gates Wilson, Karen Johnson Diamond, and Kevin Corey.
Fun fact: Kevin Corey and I grew up in the same small town of Coaldale, Alberta. Irrelevant but it's a small town, so I enjoy the coincidence.