Why Jane Eyre Still Matters
Rep stages the famous novel with black actress, veteran director.
KJ Sanchez has directed a wide range of comedies and dramas, plays that encompass the gamut of human emotions. In short, she gets people.
Sanchez recently directed Harvey, The Diary of Anne Frank and Noises Off at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. She is an associate artist at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, where her directing credits include Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason and Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club by Jeffrey Hatcher.
And now she will be directing Jane Eyre, a co-production between the Milwaukee and Cincinnati Playhouse theaters.
Sanchez jumped at the chance to direct the dramatic adaptation of the novel. “I said yes before reading the script. It was my favorite book when I was a kid.” The youngest of twelve children, Sanchez says she didn’t even see a play until she was in high school.
“It’s in my wheelhouse,” she says. “I’m always looking for plays with people searching for redemption, characters living on the edge, outcasts of society.”
“It’s a play about a young woman who suppresses her passionate nature in order to survive in an oppressive society,” Sanchez says. “She learns that to truly live requires equal parts passion and reason.”
Sanchez says the story speaks as much to men as women. “Jane and Mr. Rochester share similar character traits–they don’t fit into their time and place. Both are incredibly honest and neither have a filter regarding what they say. Neither know how to be political, charming, or sugarcoat anything. Everything is couched in absolute honesty.”
Sanchez says Mr. Rochester is forced into a life dictated by his family’s wealth and pushed into a marriage where there is no love. Jane is an orphan living with her aunt. She’s abused, sent to a school where students are starved, some even to death. Both Rochester and Jane are beaten up emotionally and neither feels they deserve to be loved.
“They’re on opposite sides of the spectrum,” Sanchez says. “One faces wealth and one faces poverty, but both are suffering. At the heart of a lot of questions today is how we judge women. How do we treat a woman that is anything less than perfect? Is she held by different standards? I don’t really see Jane as a feminist as much as a survivor.”
When you’re called upon to direct a play, you may be tempted to look at what other directors have done. “I saw some video excerpts from other productions,” Sanchez says. “But each of us has to invent and implement our own system of rules with a production. We make a conscious effort to stay with the moment. You have to listen to what the actors are giving you.” A director observes the play many times before it hits the stage, with many changes and constant calibration.
“Making good theater is about failing to lesser and lesser degrees,” Sanchez says. “It’s a mysterious thing. You know if it’s working during run-throughs. You take notes and pore over them. I have to look at it as though I’m seeing the play for the first time. I ask myself if the moment is honest, do I believe characters are falling in love, do I believe their happenings are authentic.”
Sanchez says false notes can unravel an entire production. Brontë’s 1847 novel has been memorialized time and again in film and on television. Directors go to great lengths to accurately capture the period in its language and costumes.
While a director isn’t given authority to change any of the dialogue in the play, they do have a say in context and how a line is delivered.
Sanchez brings in theories of Marshall McLuhan to explain her approach, noting that theater is a “cool medium”, not a “hot medium.” To McLuhan a hot medium engages your senses completely, demanding little interaction from the user because it “spoon-feeds” the content. A cool medium like theater generally engages several senses less completely and demands a great deal of interaction from the audience.
While Jane Eyre is being played by an African American woman, Sanchez says it was not a conscious effort to do so.
“It’s really a commitment I have to casting in general,” Sanchez says. “I wanted this role to be universal. I wanted to audition Japanese women, Latino women, African American women. I requested a diverse acting pool. It didn’t matter to me. I’m dedicating my career to help remind us they’re actors, not people. When I watch Tartuffe, I realize it’s a character, and I don’t get muddled in not believing it’s an 18th century French guy. Jane Eyre isn’t a certain physical type or race. ‘Jane’ doesn’t exist. It’s not like you’re doing a play about Albert Einstein where you’d cast an actor that resembles Albert Einstein. I’m more interested in what’s behind the character.”
Sanchez says this production has already been performed in Cincinnati to favorable response. The Cincinatti Enquirer says “Ivey is finally able to explore the inner strengths and turmoil of the 18-year-old Jane. Ivey’s performance is wonderfully earnest and consistent.”
But one audience member in Cincinnati couldn’t get past an African American woman playing Jane. “It’s disappointing someone would focus on that,” Sanchez says. “The woman bought everything else in the play except that? Apparently she bought the modernist set: a largely empty space with ramps leading toward rooms, but not a black actress.”
While Sanchez herself has done some acting, she says she was a “bossy” performer, tending to tell other actors what to do. Generally speaking, that’s not a good idea.
“I knew I had a vision of what was going on,” she says. “I prefer being on this side of the table. I like helping each actor believe in their character, that they’re doing the right thing at the right time.”
She says being a director is like piloting an airplane. “I can’t change the route or destination, but I can decide to move around storms or out of turbulence. If I sense something isn’t right, I have to navigate a way around the storm without changing the script.”
Jane Eyre runs from April 25 through May 21 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.