By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Hi! I don’t know if I have the right email address. I’m a theatre artist from Edmonton, Alberta. I really love your book. And I’d really love to adapt it into a stage show….”
It took persistence and some ingenious sleuthing for Edmonton actor Emma Houghton to connect directly with the celebrated American writer Joyce Carol Oates. Ah yes, and an undimmed heart-on-her-sleeve fascination with Oates’ dark and mysterious “young adult” novel Freaky Green Eyes. That’s something Houghton, now 30, has retained since the moment, at age 11 or 12, when her mom gave her the book.
It’s a well-thumbed copy. “It stuck with me; I’d re-read it every three or four years!” says Houghton, over a pre-rehearsal coffee last week.
How that 2003 Oates novel has become the one-woman play, Houghton’s first play ever — three-and-a-half years and a pandemic in the making, opening Friday at the Backstage Theatre — is a dramatic story in itself. And, as Houghton tells it, in her funny, candid way, it has a looping, absurdist “cart before the horse” streak Kafka would have enjoyed. For starters, you can’t get a writing grant or book a theatre without having the rights to the novel: you can’t get the rights without having a theatre lined up.
The route through the labyrinth of publishers and literary and theatrical agents into which the intrepid Houghton ventured in the summer of 2019 was full of discouraging delays, run-arounds and obstructionist silences. In the end it was the Ivory Tower that coughed up the prize info. Houghton’s email directly to the famous author, at 83 still a working prof at Princeton, got a response in three minutes flat. “Hello Emma. This sounds like a wonderful idea,. I’ve cc’d my theatrical agent, Best of luck….”
Two Edmonton theatre companies, Fringe Theatre and Punctuate! Theatre, stepped up to lend their weight, and resources, to Houghton’s debut as a playwright and producer (Freaky Green Eyes is presented “in association with” them). And so did an impressive array of Edmonton and Calgary theatre artists, both veteran and emerging, including director Chantelle Han, designer Beyata Hackborn, choreographer Deviani Andrea.
Houghton has a history with Edmonton audiences that extends through theatres large and small. “I’ve been onstage here since I was nine,” she grins, remembering her youthful debut as Tiny Tim in the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol. Last week she was musing on the original attraction of the novel for her 12-year-old self. “The story is told first-person, from the point of view of Franky, who’s 14 and reassessing the mysterious recent past. And she’s really strong. It’s a coming-of-age story; she’s figuring out who she is, who she wants to be, how to navigate people and situations — that’s what everyone figures out, constantly, their entire lives.”
“She’s in a lot of hard situations, trying to determine the truth…. Kids get lied to a lot — sometimes for their benefit, sometimes not,” as Houghton says. The children of divorce, for example, are enlisted by each parent as allies, hearing opposing stories as they move between households. “Kids are constantly getting fractured realities about what is and what isn’t. Really hard for a kid to navigate.”
Franky has a sense that “something’s not quite right in the family, and she doesn’t know what, yet.” When Franky’s mom “vanishes,” she is moved to piece things together for herself, assisted by her inner voice Freaky Green Eyes.
What Houghton has fashioned from the novel, she says, is a memory play, with the flavour of mystery and true crime about it. “Franky is telling the story, showing scenes from the last year; she’s both herself and her own narrator.” And Houghton the actor populates the stage with the characters in Frankie’s life — her mom, her little sister Samantha, her father, a teenage boy, her Aunt Vickie.
It’s a plum acting assignment, Houghton agrees happily. If you write yourself a play to perform, why not? The book lends itself to a larger cast, of course, but “I have always wanted to do a one-woman show,” she says. “It’s my dream.” So she has the fun of conjuring the characters in Franky’s world — some with changes in gesture or voice, some emerging as voice mail messages. For the male characters, Houghton uses a lab mic, a “voice modulator.”
The effect of the pandemic on theatre careers has been profound, and devastating. An 2017 acting grad from the U of A’s BFA program who hasn’t been onstage for three years till now, Houghton “felt on the cusp in my career” when the pandemic hit in March 2020. She was “three years out (of school),” mid-run in the two-hander Actually at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary when the abrupt shut-down happened on March 12 that year. “I had a bunch of opportunities; I had put time into both the Edmonton and Calgary communities.”
“I came back from Calgary; I broke my lease,” she sighs. “I sat at home not getting calls.”
For a resourceful artist like Houghton, pandemical isolation has been a call to indie chutzpah. We can look for the launch in June of Scout, a new web series starring Houghton, Gabe Richardson and Hunter Cardinal as three estranged best friends who form a community news network to combat fake news. “All Edmonton writers!” she beams.
“I threw myself into self-production,” she says. “I figured I really needed to make my own opportunities.” Since she’d already started working on a solo stage adaptation of Freaky Green Eyes, she kept at it. The new playwright wrote applications for writing grants, didn’t get them, and still kept at it. Playwright Matthew MacKenzie of Punctuate! Theatre, whose mentoring generosity is second to none, offered her dramaturgical advice.
The novel, Houghton figured, was a natural for theatre. It was first-person, for one thing. “We see the world through Franky’s eyes; she’s a fascinating character.….” And something mysterious is going on; perhaps a crime has been committed. Her memories align one way. Her mind, her inner voice, her outward influences are telling her something else. “But she can’t compute it. Eventually she has to de-program herself.”
Theatre production in all its complications has been an education, and Houghton is an energetic self-educator. “Technically, I don’t fully own the play yet,” she says, “I own this version, for this presentation.” The rights and a flat fee up front came with elaborate specifications, about producing “in association with” Punctuate! (Houghton complied happily, since MacKenzie and Punctuate! producer Sheiny Satanove have been so helpful), about the maximum number of seats in the theatre, the maximum ticket price, the maximum number of performances. Fringe Theatre’s “offer-what-you-will” and tiered ticketing from $5 to $25 at the Backstage Theatre have aligned perfectly. And Houghton has a production that’s primed for touring in every way, including Hackborn’s portable design.
And a 20-year-old novel has found new life on the stage, as a solo memory play. “I started adapting it pre-pandemic. But I’ve found the story so potent right now,” says Houghton. “The brainwashing of kids, their isolation at home, both parents manipulating the kids in certain ways, hiding things from them, not telling them the whole truth, the epidemic of domestic violence with everyone stuck in a contained space….”
“We’re inside Franky’s head, as she tells this story.”
Freaky Green Eyes
Fringe Spotlight Series
Theatre: Emma Houghton in association with Edmonton Fringe Theatre and Punctuate! Theatre
Adapted by: Emma Houghton from the Joyce Carol Oates novel
Directed by: Chantelle Han
Starring: Emma Houghton
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Jan. 10 through 21
Tickets: tiered ticketing and offer-what-you-will, fringetheatre.ca.