A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“By the time I’m 67 – next March – I want to have had a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me…”
One of my recent writing commissions has been to adapt Jane Juska’s best selling autobiography “A Round-Heeled Woman” for the stage. The play is based on the true story of what happened when retired college professor, Jane Juska, put this ad in the lonely hearts page of the New York Review of Books.
Juska talks very frankly and openly about the adventures that ensued – some funny, some embarrassing, some deeply humiliating. She fills in between the sexual encounters (of which there are quite a few) with painfully honest stories of her childhood, her failed marriage and her broken relationship with her only child, Andy.
Juska has been divorced and celibate for over thirty years when her story begins. She is agonisingly bereft of human touch and desperate to encounter men sexually again. The book is vast and the anecdotes are many. Juska has a great command of language and an engaging sense of humour and self-deprecation. So how to turn this hugely popular book into a compelling, dramatic stage play – that wasn’t going to offend half the audience and cause multiple walk-outs within the first few minutes?
Fortunately, I was completely hooked from the very first page of the book. I loved it – I was inspired and moved and in awe of Jane Juska’s courage and her perception about the journey she’d undertaken and the world we live in. It was immediately obvious to me that the story was not so much about the sex as about going after what you want in life. I was also lucky enough to be writing for the actress who will play Jane Juska. Sharon Gless (Christine Cagney in the exceptional and ground-breaking TV series, Cagney & Lacey) had optioned the book and was how I came to be involved in the project.
I first met Sharon when she was in a stage version of Steven King’s Misery in London’s West End. She was marvellous as Annie Wilkes – terrifying the life out of audiences and her co-star, Bill Paterson, on a nightly basis. Sharon is a funny, creative woman with similar self-awareness and self-deprecation as Jane Juska. I knew Sharon would enthral audiences of all ages – both men and women – and her very involvement would already make the subject matter far more palatable.
Sharon and I agreed that we had to be courageous and not try to censor Jane Juska’s material. Jane was incredibly brave as she made her way through a minefield of dates and sexual encounters – and so we must be equally brave as we sought to find the way to put the material on stage.
I tried out my idea of how to deal with the sex – and particularly Jane Juska’s first orgasm with a man after 30 years – on our producer, Brian Eastman. All credit to him, he laughed (it was supposed to be funny…) and immediately commissioned the script.
I knew this could not be presented as anything approaching live sex on stage. I knew that Jane’s story should be told to a wide audience because the themes are actually not age and gender specific, but universal. And I knew that humour would be the way to deliver this tricky material and that we should reassure our audiences right up front that they would be in safe hands – but that the talk about sex should always be as bold and frank as Jane’s descriptions in the book.
As well as the actual encounters, Jane Juska received many more responses to her ad (63 in all). These letters were another wonderfully rich strand – though some of them were filled with very colourful, sometimes graphic, sexual imagery. We debated and argued with various producers and backers about what language we could use. How easily would people take offence? How much does any audience really want to hear about the sexual exploits of a 66 year old – or indeed, an 82 year old man?
Happily, a rehearsed reading at Richmond Theatre confirmed that it was possible to put this material in front of a live audience and not alienate them. Far from it – the feedback questionnaires showed that people were not at all offended by the sexual content or the language. Quite the opposite in fact. People were happy and relieved to finally hear some of Jane Juska’s issues talked about in an open, honest way. The reading was an incredibly helpful process for me. There’s nothing like sitting amongst an audience to truly understand where the humour’s working and where people are most engaged – or not.
And of course everyone loved Sharon. The reading has led to a workshop production in San Francisco at the start of the year and now an upcoming full scale production at the GableStage Theatre in Miami, opening at the end of the year.
I’m going to direct this production and feel happy to have had a lot of experience directing women of a certain age in scenes of a sexual nature. Most notably, Brenda Blethyn having her first ever orgasm – and sex with several different men – in Kay Mellor’s Between the Sheets (also starring Richard Armitage, Alun Armstrong and Julie Graham with some equally frank sex scenes of their own). The day when we shot five sex scenes – all featuring Brenda – was one of the funniest working days of my life. But then that’s a whole other story…
It’s been inspiring to adapt material that is so challenging and thought-provoking. I’ve loved finding humour in the pain – and I’ve feasted on talking about sex in such detail and at such length. And now I can’t wait till we put this script in front of an audience. I do hope you’ll all get to see the play somewhere or to read Jane Juska’s book – and that you get from it what the book first gave to me. Courage, confidence – and permission to go after what you want in life. In my case, that now means asking an octogenarian actor to get sexy with Sharon Gless, live on stage…
I love my job.
Jane is a writer of books, television and films. She also directs theatre and television. You can read more about the play at: www.aroundheeledwoman.com and about her children’s books – the Hattori Hachi series (published by Piccadilly Press) – at: www.hattorihachi.com.
Jane is no stranger to Vulpes Libris, either. We interviewed her and reviewed her first Hattori Hachi book – The Revenge of Praying Mantis – last year, and in the next couple of weeks we’ll be publishing a special guest review of her latest book – Stalking the Enemy – so stay tuned …