From Sweden to America’s Deep South

The best known of 19th century Swedish playwright August Stringberg’s 50 plays revolve around conflicts between the sexes and classes, issues that still inform much of drama today. Santa Barbara Theatre Company co-founder Stephen Sachs has moved the playwright’s classic “Miss Julie,” the story of an ill-fated romance between the daughter of a rich aristocrat and her father’s footman, to America’s deep South in 1964, turning the characters into the black driver and the daughter of a rich white landowner during that fateful summer.

The production received great reviews when it premiered in February at Sachs’s Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, where it was named a “Critic’s Choice” in the Los Angeles Times.

Sachs and his theater company bring “Miss Julie” to the Center Stage beginning this weekend. A conversation with Sachs follows.

Q. Why did you want to present “Miss Julie?”

A. It’s a classic play that has fascinated audiences and theater artists for one hundred twenty years now. But it came about because Tracy Middendorf, who plays Julie, and I were sitting around at the Fountain Theatre while we were working on another show, and she just turned to me and said, “Miss Julie would work beautifully in this space.” She was right, and that got me thinking. I think she also thought it would be a difficult and challenging role to explore.

How did you decide to adapt the play, to transform 19th century Sweden to Mississippi in the early 1960s?

Tracy and I kicked around a lot of ideas, because I knew I wanted to re-imagine it. Racial tension in this country is part of the DNA of America. It’s something we just get, much more easily than class struggle. And the whole civil rights era works so well because it let me retain a little bit of the classic struggle element of the play. It was such a volatile and explosive time of change and growth in America, when the fight for freedom was so much on the forefront in people’s hearts and minds. It immediately felt like a natural fit for the story I wanted to tell.

When I looked for a setting, I found 1964 because it was called “Freedom Summer.” That was when civil rights workers from all over America came to the South to register blacks to vote. It felt like a perfect metaphor for what was happening, because each of the characters in the play are burning with desire for freedom – personal, emotional, physical and/or social/racial freedom. I wanted to explore that more deeply.

Were there any doubts on your part about messing with a classic?

No. Playwrights and producers have been doing that for years. It’s akin to taking the work of Shakespeare, say, and setting in New Orleans, or on the moon, for that matter.

You can always do it traditionally – that’s why they’re classics, of course. But it’s more challenging to take a known work and somehow spin it a new way and come up with a play audiences know – or think they know – and present it with an exciting new take and have them see the play anew. The idea is to make it more relevant and more immediate.

What was the process of re-writing for you?

What I did was get as many different translations of the play that I could find and lay them all out on a table in front of me. And then I went through the script and re-wrote all the text to make it relate to 1964, by giving them Southern vernacular, for example. I kept the original plotline, but all the dialogue is mine. I also expanded the role of Christine, the black cook, because she’s an interesting character who deserved to be more fully explored. She serves a purpose, acting as a kind of moral compass, a grounding presence of reality between the other two characters Julie and John, who are engaged in this passionate, steamy dance of death.

(Santa Barbara Theatre Company’s production of “Miss Julie” opens Thursday, May 17, and plays through Sunday, May 27, at Center Stage Theater upstairs in Paseo Nuevo. Tickets are $33.50-$51, with discounts for students and seniors. Tuesday, May 22, is a “Pay what you can” performance. Call 963-0408.)