Lisa Hayes is not the first to dramatize "Jane Eyre." From a 1934 silent film version to the Broadway-style musical now running in Toronto, Charlotte Bronte's classic has always been choice adaptation material.
Hayes, however, might be the first to act it out alone.
Each weekend, Hayes stands in Universal City's tiny Back Parlour Theatre and covers the whole 20-year saga--solo. Clad in a simple, lace-trimmed dress with a cameo at the neck, she plays some 25 characters, distinguishing each with voices, mannerisms and facial expressions.
Her sole prop is a polished reading stand that holds her 40-page script--not that she needs it. It's there to establish the mood of being told a story. "If I have to look at the script, I'm in trouble," Hayes said.
"Jane Eyre" was not Hayes' first idea for a solo show. She researched women explorers, actresses and then writers in search of material. While reading about the Bronte family--Charlotte's sisters Emily and Anne were successful writers as well--Hayes had what she called a "light-bulb moment."
"Jane Eyre," she thought, that's written in first person, right?
Cutting down the 487-page novel into a one-woman, one-act play took the better part of a year. The first draft, she said, would've taken four hours to perform. The current show runs about 80 minutes.
She would type during her temp day job, she said, and rehearse alone on the garden rooftop of the Greenwich Village apartment where she lives with her husband of 16 years. "I'd go up there and expound 'Jane Eyre' to the world," she said.
As she was closing in on the final draft in 1992, she called the Merchant House Museum, a New York home built in 1837 that still contains its original furnishings. The curators agreed to let her perform "Jane Eyre" in the parlor.
Since then, Hayes has performed "Jane Eyre" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Maryland's Columbia Festival of the Arts. Her showing in New York's Womankind III Festival earned her praise from Village Voice reviewer Evelyn McDonnell: "Hayes plays Eyre with a fiery virtuosity, her wide-open blue eyes not innocent so much as clear."
Hayes also put on a "Jane Eyre" mini-tour in 1995, where she did the show at castles and historic homes around Great Britain in return for lodging.
While there, Hayes visited the Brontes' childhood home in Haworth, Yorkshire. She walked on the moors and followed signposts to the falls where the girls played.
But the final signs were missing, and Hayes wound up lost in the countryside. For Hayes, the experience recalled a scene in the novel, when Jane wanders through the country after her disastrous wedding.
"That section where she's walking for hours after she's left Thornfield," Hayes said. "I feel like now I have a physical and spiritual connection with that life."
The big-sky country of Wyoming and Montana where Hayes spent much of her childhood was a world away from those castles, or even the more humble parsonage in Haworth.
As a child, she found inspiration in the young Jane, the spirited and determined girl who survives the horrible conditions of the Lowood School. Now, she identifies more with the determination of the grown Jane Eyre, the woman who--despite the mores of the time--flatly says what she will and won't accept.
Not surprisingly, then, Hayes left her legal secretary job in New York in order to produce a six-week run of "Jane Eyre" in Los Angeles, and to seek other acting opportunities while here.
But she also hopes to take "Jane Eyre" on a world tour, hitting Europe, Australia and Japan, where, apparently, the novel is very popular--a fact that doesn't surprise Hayes.
"Everyone can identify with being lonely," she said, "and being on the outside, being in love with someone you can't have, being jilted, or desperate for a job."
"Jane Eyre" plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through March 1 at Back Parlour Theatre, which is behind the Kindness of Strangers Coffeehouse, 4378 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. $12. $10 students/seniors. (213) 466-1767.