Q&A: Student play takes dystopian twist on a 1905 feminist novel


Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin stands Feb. 11 outside Franklin Hall. Her play, “Haus of Mirth,” will premiere at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Studio Theatre inside the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center. Colin Kulpa

The Indiana Daily Student sat down with Master of Fine Arts student and playwright Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin to talk about her new play, “Haus of Mirth,” produced as part of  IU's "At First Sight: A Festival of New Plays." The play runs Feb. 27-28 and Mar. 1-2 at the Studio Theatre in the theater building.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

IDS: Could you tell me about the premise of the production?

Garvin: This is a very loose take in reframing the novel “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton, which is a 1905 novel set in high society New York. I reset the play in a near-future dystopia where women have taken over the world, had a revolution, but recreated a lot of the same issues that there were in society, now in all female government. 

That’s an interesting time period to take work from, especially to make something dystopian out of it.

For me, I was very attracted to the source material. “The House of Mirth” was a novel that I had been gifted by my grandmother. I just loved the book. When I was thinking about how I was going to adapt it, I didn’t immediately set it in this dystopian future, I was first thinking about, "OK, well what’s going to be effective on the page to replicate these hyper-strict social norms," because I do think on some level I’m always into a period drama with the 1905 costumes and the historical aspects of that. 

At the same time, for me, just looking at the politics of it, as a mixed person, I’m not going to get cast in one of those shows, and I know there’s a lot of people of color on the campus who don’t get roles very often, so I was like, ‘How can we relate what I am zoning in on about this play, which is a narrative about this women who has to constantly code switch, pretend to be someone she’s not, to convince everyone, ‘I belong here.’ It’s something I really relate to.

What kind of themes or ideas is the show dealing with?

Something we’re zoning in on is this idea of code switching, of presenting different faces to different groups of people in order to succeed in the world, which is something I relate to racially and that’s how it’s presented in the adaptation. We’re in this new society the white women have created where it’s replicated a lot of social problems of aspiring to whiteness, aspiring to fit into these molds in the way that in the original novel, the character Lily Bart has to act a certain way, present herself a certain way, dress a certain way, in order to fit in with her friends, who are gajillionaires. You’re dealing with themes of where we’re currently at, both with feminism and the left in general. What we label as progressive politics is not always inclusive. It’s not always serving everyone.

At its core, both the source material and this adaptation are all about power. The play really narrows in on the importance of economic power, particularly. The idea of class, and how it is tied in with race, how it is tied in with feminism. These things are all sort of interconnected.

What does “The House of Mirth” — the novel and the adaptation — mean to you?

It has a special place in my heart, partially because my grandma gave me the book. I discovered this after I finished writing the adaptation: I was looking at the book, thinking, "Oh, what else is up here," and my grandma had left me a note that said: “This would make a great play!” 

I really love the book. I love the world it creates. I really connect to the main character, Lily Bart, and how she goes through it. 

One of my favorite things about the character is she’s kind of stupid. She’s always doing things, like, "No! Your values are messed up! Ditch your rich friends and go live with the poor people.” There are ways that’s impossible for her, and I relate that directly to my experiences in professional or educational settings. At the same time, that’s a messed up ideal, but in order to succeed, I feel like I have to do that, if I want to have a career.

What hopes do you have in telling this story to a community like Bloomington and IU?

That’s an interesting question, because I know our audience is partially students, partially donors, partially people from around the community, so that’s a pretty wide cross-section. Ideally, my audience is the people that the story is about, is queer women of color, and is for that audience. But I’m also reckoning that’s maybe two percent of the people who see it, if I’m lucky. The play is, on one level, aiming to talk to my community about the state of the union and hope and survival tactics and how to move forward, but also trying to talk to the general Bloomington community. A lot of times, people feel absolved of any wrongdoing if their politics look right. It’s becomes less about action and what you’re doing in your daily lives. 

What should the average audience member look forward to in terms of entertainment, production value, etc.?

Oh my gosh. We have an incredible cast, all-stars. We’re working with the Ph.D. student who is directing the piece, Joe D’Ambrosi. There’s some really exciting work I’ve seen from the actors. It’s light sci-fi, there’s that to look forward to. The second act opens and we’re on a spaceship, which is super fun. People are giving really beautiful performances, and it’s also, for as much as we’ve talking about social justice these past few minutes, it’s a comedy. It’s a comedy of manners, it’s a comedy about how to act with your friends. Even though the themes are deep, it’s presented in a pretty stupid way.

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