“We haven’t done anything romantic in a while,” said Susan Kerner, the director of this year’s production of Pride & Prejudice, on why the Montclair State University Department of Theater and Dance has chosen this production for the semester. Originally a novel by Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice is set in England in the early 19th century and revolves around the witty and intelligent heroine Elizabeth Bennet, who gradually falls in love with the seemingly presumptuous and disdainful Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Kerner, who is a long-time professor of acting and directing here at Montclair State, was sitting at a table on the patio outside Cafe Diem on a sunny afternoon, wearing a floral printed skirt and a black cardigan. She could only sit down for a few minutes before going off to her rehearsal.
Since Pride & Prejudice is a well-known novel and a favorite for many lovers of English literature, it comes with many expectations. “I try not to think about that,” said Kerner, smiling. “You just plow ahead and do your best work, in the best [way] you can. I use the resources that are available to me.”
She wants it to be fun and enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. Her shows are always incredibly well-prepared. I think if you talk to her cast before opening night, they’ll tell you ‘We are ready to do this.’ Her actors go on stage with enormous confidence. -Deputy Chairman Eric Diamond on Susan Kerner
Another reason why the department picked Pride & Prejudice is for the actors-in-training, according to Kerner. They tried to pick something from a different time period. “It’s different from contemporary speech,” Kerner said. “It’s all part of getting different aspects of acting training out of a four year program.”
The stage adaptation is relatively new. “Most people haven’t seen it on stage,” Kerner explained. It was first performed in London in 2013 and has only been staged a couple of times in the U.S.
Most people who are in the field of theater started out with acting and Kerner is no different. She started acting at 8. Her parents asked someone to come in and give her and some of her friends acting lessons in their basement. In graduate school, she made the switch from acting to teaching and directing.
When asked what she expects from her actors, Kerner’s face turned from warm and friendly to a more serious countenance. Discipline and memorization of lines are important to her, “but also bringing their own choices, so that it’s really coming out of them,” she said. “I don’t like having to tell them how to do it. I like it when they come in with their own creative imagination.”
Eric Diamond, a professor of Theatre and the Deputy Chairman of the Department of Theatre and Dance, explains that Kerner is an outstanding director. “I don’t mean to gush about her. She wants it to be fun and enjoyable and intellectually stimulating,” Diamond said. “Her shows are always incredibly well-prepared. I think if you talk to her cast before opening night, they’ll tell you ‘We are ready to do this.’ Her actors go on stage with enormous confidence.”
Kerner’s professionalism and preparation are also qualities of her teaching. “She knows what she is doing,” Diamond said. “She has an agenda and she does it.”
Before Kerner went to graduate school, her father gave her a director’s notebook as a gift. She would use the binder to put in her scripts and notes for the many shows she would direct from that point on. “I have never done a play without using this binder,” she said.
Kerner has recently directed successful productions of Big Meal and Clyborne Park.
Some of the challenges Kerner faces as a director are with undergraduate students, specifically crew members who are learning how to collaborate. “They get very protective of their own design. And then you come in as a director and say ‘I don’t like it. I want you to do it this way,'” she said. “It’s teaching them to collaborate and sometimes it’s hard.”
Christina Angotti, a fifth-year senior BFA Production major who has worked with Kerner on several productions in the past including Big Meal, finds that Kerner knows what she is doing. “She is wise and, as a director, she really knows what she wants.”
The Department of Theater and Dance will be presenting the stage adaptation of Pride & Prejudice from Nov. 12 to 14 at the Alexander Kasser Theater.