By Joey Phoenix
This past Sunday, January 16th, Breaking Light Productions released the long awaited filmic adaptation of the Victorian mystery caper Mrs. Hawking: Part 1 on Youtube. The production is available to stream free on the Mrs. Hawking YouTube channel.
Mrs. Hawking: Part 1 by Phoebe Roberts (she/her/hers) and Bernie Gabin (he/him/his) is the first episode in a six-part series of stage plays following the adventures of Mary Stone and Mrs. Hawking, performed and filmed live at the Manchester Community Theater in NH.
The year is 1880 in the reign of Queen Victoria. Young Mary Stone has just arrived alone and friendless in London, unsure of what to do with herself after a lifetime of keeping house for her late parents in India. She has no choice but to accept a position as a house girl for Mrs. Victoria Hawking, an aloof, mysterious society widow who seems to want nothing to do with her. But when she discovers Mrs. Hawking’s true business, as a secret champion to the otherwise helpless women of London, Mary is drawn into a world of new heroic purpose battling against devious blackmailers, rescuing kidnapped children, and struggling against the restrictive place their society forces on women.
In years past, Mrs. Hawking has found its home in Boston during Arisia – New England’s Largest and Most Diverse Sci-Fi and Fantasy Convention. Each January, Roberts and Gabin have released a new episodic stage play to an avid following. But when COVID swept in and the in-person Arisia was cancelled in early 2021, the duo knew that creating film versions of the production would be the next logical step.
“Filming Mrs. Hawking was insurance against cancellation. It’s very frustrating to work really hard on a show that’s suddenly not safe to put on. It’s, of course, understandable, but also really heartbreaking” Writer/Director Phoebe Roberts explained. “But it was more than just insurance, it’s also about accessibility.”
How film is making theatre like Mrs. Hawking more accessible to new audiences
With federal health mandates being an ever moving rollercoaster of information and requirements, having alternative ways to produce new works of theatre has become more and more relevant.
And in making the choice to move to film in addition to stage productions, Breaking Light has preserved the performance, giving people a chance to see contemporary theatre without worrying about public health related cancellations.
By the time Arisia had been cancelled this year, Breaking Light had already made the decision to not produce a stage version of the show, but instead to use it as their launch weekend for the filmed adaptation.
“We did get lucky with doing that, because even with the cancellation one of our shows was able to go up exactly as planned. But we’re not just filming these for COVID insurance, but also because of accessibility. We’ve learned that having them recorded gives people who would never have been able to see our shows in person the ability to see Mrs. Hawking in action,” Roberts said.
Not only will the film allow for the production company to make their work accessible to new Boston audiences, it also gives Breaking Light the opportunity to show their work at renowned venues like WorldCon, the annual convention of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) with rotating venues. WorldCon 2022 will be held in Chicago.
“In years past, we never would have been able to physically take our property-intensive shows and medium-large casts on the road, so film extends the ability for people to see it, whether or not they live near Boston or whether or not they go to cons,” Roberts explained.
“For me as an actor it’s exciting, not just because more people will be able to see it, but also the original cast will be preserved in this way,” said Arielle Kaplan (she/her/hers), who plays Mrs. Frost – the Moriarty to Mrs. Hawkings’ Sherlock – across three of the shows, and whose father, the playwright Dr. Alan D. Kaplan, is the Artistic Director Manchester Community Theatre Players/Second Stage Professional. “Being immortalized as Mrs. Frost is the best possible outcome for me.”
“Part of what I love about the series is how expansive the universe is becoming. We’re seven episodes in if you count the spin off, and there are more planned. So it’s really nice to have a filmic version of the first episode that, if somebody joins us in episode four and is a little bit lost, we can point them to,” said Cari Keebaugh (she/her/hers), who plays the lead role of Mrs. Hawking.
“I love theater for it being very in the moment, but it’s also really nice to have that record that you can send people back to and say: ‘Hey, go watch this at your leisure,’” she added.
Mrs. Hawking, 12 years later
Roberts and Kaplan first met in 2009 at Brandeis in a playwriting class. Roberts was working on the earliest drafts of Mrs. Hawking, some of which Kaplan got to read. Neither of them knew that more than a decade later the production would have achieved the current scope.
“[In the years since], we’ve been able to start dreaming bigger with slightly larger casts and more involved tech, but we’ve also dared to have storylines that require more knowledge of the last story,” said Roberts. “In the first three, we made a pretty careful effort to make them stand on their own with each being a self-contained mystery, but with the new episodes, especially where the Mrs. Frost character comes in, the narrative builds on its own history more and more.”
Fortunately for Breaking Light Productions, their following is excited by the development and the feedback has been universally positive. This support is allowing them to engage with social and historical issues in a way that isn’t as achievable in a single production.
“We’re accessing layers of complexity that standalone capers weren’t really able to grapple with,” Roberts said. “We’re able to examine themes and elements that require time and attention, and we’re grateful that our audience seems to be for it.”
“The story has really gotten richer over time,” said Kaplan. “What Roberts and Gabin have been doing in the second trilogy is really illustrating to the audience the inequalities of race, gender, colonialism and giving space to voices which normally you wouldn’t hear.
“This is particularly true of Mrs. Hawking: Fallen Women, where [Roberts and Gabin] were able to get into the mythology of Jack the Ripper, taking research from many historians to incorporate into their own work, and separate some of the truth from the lies in these tales,” she added.
You can watch Mrs. Hawking: Part 1 for free on YouTube at https://youtu.be/EGhhxRr_CJE – but for more information about upcoming productions (episodes 7, 8, and 9 are forthcoming!) and new film adaptations, visit http://www.mrshawking.com/
Joey Phoenix (they/them) is an interdisciplinary artist and the Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation at Creative Collective. As the resident storyteller and town crier, they encourage you to send story ideas, inspiration, or pictures of adorable critters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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