In the summer of 2021, theatre major Mattie Tindall ’23 and Hannah Chaikin ’23, who is double majoring in film and French, got together for brunch in Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. Close friends and artistic collaborators since their first year at Hollins, Tindall was excited to share with Chaikin her enthusiasm for a book she had just finished reading: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s classic 19th century novel about a man who sells his soul for eternal youth.
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that was my favorite book in high school,’” Chaikin recalled. “We had a great conversation about everything from our favorite part to who we would cast in a film version.”
Suddenly, they both had inspiration for their senior thesis, on which work needed to commence soon. “We decided to put our passion for this novel into that project,” Chaikin said.
“We were sold on it,” Tindall added. “We were like, ‘This is happening, we’re doing this in some way, shape, or form.’”
A creative process was underway that ultimately resulted in Tindall and Chaikin adapting Dorian Gray for the stage and codirecting a full production of their play on Hollins Theatre’s Main Stage this March.
“At first, we weren’t planning on anything more than a reading with our friends,” the pair stated in their Directors’ Note for the Dorian Gray playbill. “Then, as the script developed, we got excited about the possibility of a staged version.”
That script went through several different phases. “The first draft we wrote was super literal,” Tindall explained. “We took chunks from the book and those were the lines that our characters said. But as we went through rewrites and different drafts, we got more comfortable with our voices as playwrights. Once we learned how to write as a team, we became more confident, and the script transformed. It was important to us to make the language a little bit easier to understand.”
“It was difficult for me to let go of that Oscar Wilde language that was so rich and why I loved the novel so much,” Chaikin noted. “But as it became more ‘our’ project, we had to make it ‘our’ voice. In our version, the characters are not necessarily making the same decisions that they made in the book. They’re put into different circumstances based on our own writing, which is really cool. That was something fascinating I found out about the adapting process: we’re taking the source material and creating new life for its characters.”
Tindall and Chaikin finished their first draft in November 2021. “We got a huge group together in the Hollins Theatre Green Room, read it through, got feedback, and then left it alone for a while,” Tindall said. “We didn’t know what was going to become of it, but then Wendy-Marie [Martin, assistant professor of theatre and chair of the theatre department] mentioned that the season selection committee was going to meet to determine the 2022-23 schedule. Hannah and I were both like, ‘What the heck, let’s submit this script we are proud of.’”
“We were very excited about the opportunity to have faculty and peers on the committee read it next to a bunch of other preexisting plays,” Chaikin added. “We thought their assessment would be helpful. But we were actually selected, and it was just wonderful.”
The writing of what ultimately wound up on stage largely took place during the summer of 2022. The two made remarkable progress despite the fact that Tindall spent those months serving as a counselor at a sleepaway camp while Chaikin worked on campus at the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum.
“We were FaceTiming every day, which was challenging,” Tindall said. “I had to search for good wi-fi and find at least an hour where I didn’t have any other responsibilities. We had to do a lot of revisions in which we were cutting characters and adding scenes. It was a beast, but it was something we were incredibly passionate about and didn’t want to give up on. It gave us the motivation to push to the end.”
One of the exercises that Tindall and Chaikin employed to make their time apart constructive was to write the same scene separately, compare each version, and determine a combination of the two with which they were both satisfied. The pair also found that their unique writing styles complemented one another. “Mattie’s writing constantly,” Chaikin said. “But I’m someone who is nothing or everything. There are times I’d go to Mattie and say, ‘I don’t have anything,’ but then suddenly I’d have a lot of ideas. It was helpful to have a partner because I wouldn’t be able to do this without working with another person.”
Another obstacle that Tindall and Chaikin successfully overcame was the changes in cast and crew that occurred over the course of the roughly year and a half it took to bring their Dorian Gray adaptation to fruition. As Chaikin stated, “At Hollins Theatre, you’re cast in a show, it goes up in a month in a half, and then then you’re done. We didn’t have that. We originally started rehearsals in March 2022 and some people were just not able to stay on this project for a long period of time. But everyone was so integral to the shaping of the show, and it wouldn’t have been the same project if those people hadn’t been there. So, the challenge was, how do we bring someone new on board to replace a person who was so important to the process? Even though the team was constantly in flux, we were able to maintain a sense of stability over a long period of time, and the journey through all those ins and outs – I don’t even call them ups and downs – was gratifying. The end part was amazing, but to me the most rewarding part was getting to that point.”
Tindall agreed that “we had an incredibly rich rehearsal process, as long as it was. As codirectors, Hannah and I tried to cultivate a supportive and caring community. We aimed to make sure every member of our team – the actors, the crew, the techs, the designers – was approached with love and kindness. We had lots of laughter and dancing and being silly and making big, bold, goofy choices. There was so much joy filling every rehearsal space at any given point.”
Witnessing their Dorian Gray adaptation come to life before a live audience in March of this year was surreal for Tindall and Chaikin in the best possible way.
“There is nothing like seeing a play that you wrote being performed before other people, and I know this is something I need to do for the rest of my life,” Tindall said.
“It was so wild,” Chaikin stated. “It felt like a different play we were seeing. It had nothing to do with us anymore. Our actors and crew were doing amazing things. It was kind of terrifying – a Hollins audience is unique. It’s lovely because it’s so authentic. I liked being able to do it at Hollins because there were people in the audience I respected and who I wanted to make laugh. There’s nothing I’ve ever felt that is like that.”
Tindall and Chaikin are delighted with what they have accomplished, but to them, their Dorian Gray adaptation is still very much a work in progress with further edits planned to solidify the script. They admit they have to decide whether they want to send the play off into the world for others to produce and perform, or if it’s something that will always be changing and thus will necessitate their direct and ongoing input.
Right now, the two are busy making plans for life after graduation from Hollins this spring. Tindall has a summer job lined up but is anticipating moving to New York City this fall. “I don’t know what I’ll do there yet. I like to write, whether that’s plays or anything else. I like to tell stories and I just want to see what that holds for me.”
Chaikin is working this summer with Roanoke’s Grandin Theatre but is hoping to join Tindall and another friend in New York. Graduate school is also possibly on the horizon. “I love academia and I would love to continue studying in the next few years.”
According to Tindall, one thing that is certain is that she and Chaikin will continue to partner on creative projects. She fondly remembers their fateful meeting in French class during the first semester of their first year. Chaikin, who learned that Tindall had done theatre in high school, asked her to act in a short video she was producing for a film class.
“It was the start of something wonderful and who knows where life will take us next,” Tindall said.