“Wuthering Heights,” “Jane Eyre” and “Agnes Grey” — Recognized today as classic literature by the Brontë sisters, these celebrated works were originally published under the male pen names Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell. As the books caused a stir upon publication, readers wanted to know more about these mysterious, elusive authors.
“Dear Charlotte,” written by Joy Gregory and directed by guest artist Christopher Owens, teleports the audience back to mid-19th century London, revealing the private lives of the Brontë sisters’ lives as they rose to fame and wrestled with the social pressures of writing as women.
Owens, who teaches theatre direction at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, enjoys how the play sheds more light on the internal lives and experiences of the Brontë sisters.
“It’s not about what happened to them, but it’s about how it happened and how it felt along the way,” says Owens. “Even though their lives had some tragedies, I think it is going to be a fun evening of things that people will retain for a long time.”
While revealing the critical moments that brought the Brontë sisters to fame, Owens also integrates several fantastical effects into the performance.
“There’s a lot of fantasy in the way we chose to dramatize parts of the story,” shares Owens. “For instance, when Charlotte opens her beloved book of birds, a shower of feathers comes down from the rafters on top of her. It’s how she would feel as a kid. We are looking for moments that seem to be modern, so it transcends time.”
The play also moves the audiences through time and space, delivering different scenes with varying atmosphere. To produce a smooth transition from one scene to another, Afsaneh Aayani, a scenic design graduate student at UH, focuses on how the fashion choice might affect the way the scenes unfold.
“As a scenic designer I needed to design a set that was both specific enough to align with the needed location and place, yet vague and flexible enough to quickly transition to the next scene,” says Aayani. “This introduced both technical and creative challenges through the design process.”
As the play delves into the private lives of the Brontës, viewers will get a sense of the social obstacles the sisters had to navigate as women in the 1800s. Though set in a different era, the play’s themes of female oppression and sexism will resonate with modern audiences, says Aayani.
“The most exciting facet of the play is unraveling the social and cultural barriers that the sisters faced that forced them to present their original ideas under male names,” says Aayani. “What makes ‘Dear Charlotte’ so relatable is that even though the times and situations have changed, women still face so many social barriers that they have to fight to overcome that their male counterparts do not.”