By the play's author – Jane Prowse
It must be four years or more since I met up with Sharon and her husband, Barney, for supper in London. They were passing through on their way back from one of their European trips – the Venice film festival this time, I think. Sharon gave me a copy of A Round-Heeled Woman and asked me if I had any ideas about how to make it into a drama. She’d optioned it because she loved the story but at that stage, wasn’t sure about the best way forward.
I was very busy at the time, directing a UK TV drama called Between The Sheets about a middle-aged woman discovering her sexual self. It was a timely moment as I’d already been giving a lot of thought to the issue of older women’s sexuality and how it would be possible make the subject palatable to a wide audience. Because of the volume of work I already had on, I didn’t actually get down to reading Round-Heeled for some weeks.
When I did, I was completely hooked from the very first page. 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. I couldn’t wait to find a way to work on it with Sharon.
We approached various TV and film companies and although everyone was very excited about Sharon and about the book’s popularity, no one at that stage could be persuaded to invest in a story about a 66 year old woman putting an ad in The New York Review of Books asking for sex...
It was a completely unrelated meeting with Brian Eastman, who I’ve worked with on and off for nearly 30 years, that took us to the next stage of our journey. I co-wrote and directed Brian’s first play Up On The Roof, which was an accapella musical about five university students growing up – and growing apart – over 10 years. The play had a very modest start at the studio theatre in Plymouth but grew – via a limited season at the Donmar Warehouse – to a run at the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End. I also directed two US productions – at the Longwharf in Connecticut and the Alliance in Atlanta.
I had first met Sharon through another of Brian’s theatre productions – a thrilling stage version of Steven King’s Misery in the West End. Sharon was marvellous as Annie Wilkes – terrifying the life out of audiences and her co-star, Bill Paterson, on a nightly basis. I knew Brian shared my love of Sharon as an actress and also as a funny, creative woman and as I talked to him about the book, I was intrigued to hear he was moving away from his massively successful career in TV and film to concentrate on theatre.
It was a moment of great serendipity – and without pausing, I found myself giving a vivid description of how I would deal with the sex and particularly Jane Juska’s first orgasm with a man after 30 years! All credit to Brian, he laughed (it was supposed to be funny) and went off, chuckling, to research the book and to evaluate whether there might be an audience for such a venture. Very soon, I found myself writing the first draft of the stage play.
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 viewers right up front that they would be in safe hands.
I had a very clear vision of how I wanted to open the play – and joyfully, the rehearsed reading at Richmond 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 us that people were not at all offended by the sexual content or the language. Quite the opposite in fact. The audience members were 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. We were thrilled she managed to persuade her Burn Notice producers to let her make a lightning trip to London to make the most of the play reading opportunity.
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 January. I do hope you’ll all get to see the play somewhere and that you’ll get from it what I got from Jane Juska’s book. Courage, confidence - and permission to go after what you want in life. Thanks Jane!
Photo of Jane Prowse - reproduced with permission from Hattori Hachi