House of Cards Writer Adapts Winter Classic for Arden Children’s Theater

Laura Eason talks about her adaptation of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, which opens this week in Old City.

Photo by Meredith Zinner

Photo by Meredith Zinner

The Arden’s production of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates hopes to cast a spell on its young theatergoers and transport families from the theater in Old City to the frozen canals of 19th-century Amsterdam. Playwright, director and screenwriter Laura Eason’s sensitive adaptation of the story about Hans Brinker competing in a skating contest to win a shiny pair of silver skates is enhanced by director Whit McLaughlin’s clever conceptualization to recreate the exhilarating skating competition with the actors speeding along the “canal.” Be prepared for a lot of sock skating at home after the show!

Though the name Mary Mapes Dodge may not be very familiar, the American author’s 1865 novel Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates certainly is. Eason was given the challenge to adapt the classic novel for the Arden’s family series opening this week. Eason’s credits include more than 20 plays, including her recent hit Sex With Strangers, serving as executive story editor on season four of Netflix hit series House of Cards, and her children’s adaptations of Huckleberry Finn and Around the World in 80 Days. I caught up with Eason by phone at her Brooklyn home office to talk about the craft of writing, theatrical illusion and knowing when to diverge from the original text.

Is it different creating family theater now that you have a daughter?
Making shows for a family audience is much more personal now that I have a 5-year-old daughter. My play, Sex with Strangers, I can’t even say that title around her, but with this one, she asks “Is Hans Brinker the one I’m going to get to see?” I say yes! It’s extra special.

Does being a parent give you an advantage when writing for kids?
I think it gives me even more investment than I had before. It makes me a little more sensitive to the aspects of the show that are dark, dangerous or scary. At the center of the story are Hans and Gretel, living in a difficult situation.They are poor and life is challenging for them. But there’s a way to balance the truth of their circumstances without it being too hard.

Had you read the book as a child or seen the movie adaptations?
I don’t think I had, because it felt very new to me. The one thing that was familiar was the story about the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, but that’s not in my adaption. The novel is a travelogue, with long sections that talk about Amsterdam and its culture, with stories of the country that have nothing to do with the center narrative. What was compelling to me was the story about the family and the children finding hope in this challenging, almost hopeless situation with hope winning in the end.

Eason and the cast of "Hans Brinker" | Photo by Maura Roche

Eason and the cast of “Hans Brinker” | Photo by Maura Roche

Have you spent time in Holland?
I lived in Amsterdam, because I dated a guy for a few years who founded a theater company [there], Boom Chicago. I got to spend a great deal of time there so I know what the canals and the city look like.

The story has some surprising plot points, including the father falling off a dike and being an amnesiac and needing an operation by the grumpy doctor. Was it a challenge to pack all those details into the play?
As always with adapting, I’m looking at a novel that contains more than you can ever hold in one evening of theater, particularly with a family audience. I first gathered the big idea that frames the adaptation. I knew I wanted the story to center around the family and to put Gretel’s hopefulness at the heart of the show. I was interested in the ability of people to hang onto their hope in really difficult situations, and to ask for help, and for those people to be open-hearted. When those two things come together, that’s paramount to me.

In terms of what to exclude from the book, it wasn’t so hard for this adaptation. But for my adaptation of Twain’s Huck Finn, it was an agony to make that into an hour-and-a-half. It’s a masterpiece so whatever I touched could change the story. It feels like sacrilege to people to change anything, so it can be challenging. … But what I really loved about [Dodge’s] novel was the world she created, that’s what I preserved and its clever plot and many happy coincidences. I would say it feels a bit like a Dickens novel you’ve never read.

Writing for a children’s audience is different than what you put into Sex With Strangers or a scene with Francis and Claire Underwood in House of Cards. How do you keep the play engaging for children, but age appropriate?
Part of it is the source material, which is already primed to fit well for a family play. Terry Nolan [Arden’s producing artistic director] was really helpful because he knows his audience. The specter of loss and death hovers over the entire book, because of the era it was written. It’s pretty strong, but Terry helped us frame how much risk the dad is in. The father worked on a dike and fell off, hitting his head. He’s almost in a coma, and gets a fever, so there’s concern about him surviving the night. In my earlier drafts, I was hitting danger and fear a little too hard, especially since the story turns out well. I wanted the audience to feel the gravity and stakes of the situation, but I didn’t want the fear to be so overwhelming for the kids that they wouldn’t be able to engage.

Eason with Arden Producing Artistic Director Terry Nolen and Director Whit MacLaughlin

Eason with Arden Producing Artistic Director Terry Nolen and Director Whit MacLaughlin

I understand the director, Whit McLaughlin, has done a fair bit of research to get the stage floor just right for “skating” — putting down a combination of high gloss sealer, paint and buffed wax.
The way we are doing the skating is in stocking feet, like children on a slippery floor. I hope kids will go out and skate in the lobby at intermission or later at their house.

The story builds up to a climactic race along the canals. How did you tackle the challenge of writing a scene that needs to convey speed, movement and distance?
I wrote the scene so that the only people skating are the actors. It feels like the audience is the crowd on the canal watching. So it doesn’t feel strange and it makes architectural spatial sense. Whit is a real theatrical visionary. A lot of story lives in the physical life of this play, and I needed a director who knew how to do it. He’s incredible in that regard, with bodies moving in space, having a physical life in relation to space. But he did a creative thing with the set design so the canal continues off into the distance, so the actors look like they are taking another loop, but then they race back on stage. It’s a visual trick that’s incredibly effective, funny and fun. Whit has done a beautiful job with a great design. It will be a really special experience. I can’t wait to be in the audience, surrounded by little people watching it.

Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates runs November 24th to January 31st at Arden Theater. For tickets and more information, go here

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