Danielle Mohlman and Jasmine Joshua in conversation with Sara Keats
Sara Keats, dramaturg: Congratulations on this world premiere. How did this adaptation come to be?
Danielle Mohlman, playwright: Gus [Book-It’s Artistic Director] wanted to do a murder mystery this season and gave me full reign to read broadly and decide what to adapt. I read a ton of mysteries and ultimately landed on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because it seemed exciting and challenging. As far as I know, this is the first adaptation for the stage of Ackroyd at a professional theater.
Sara: What about Ackroyd stuck out to you?
Danielle: It felt like an organic story where you love all of the characters for different reasons. And by the time you realize who murdered Ackroyd and what’s at stake for that choice, it’s heartbreaking.
Sara: Once you’ve picked the novel, how do you start the adaptation process?
Danielle: I started with a fresh read for major plot points. I took each chapter and tried to get the main action down to a single sticky note, and then I distilled more from there. I sent the first draft to Jasmine last May, and we had a great workshop in October.
Sara: Why was that an important part of the development process?
Danielle: The workshop and rehearsal both helped me figure out what details from the book to put back in and which part to distill or lose entirely. I’m looking for stuff like, does everyone look too innocent? Do the servants feel too similar? Do the characters all sound different? When I’m with the actors, I’m like a sponge just taking it all in, seeing what sticks.
Jasmine Joshua, director: My involvement with the revision process was mostly making sure that Danielle’s intent made it through intact, and exploring what doubling and acting tracks would support that. The workshop was a great place to play with what it meant storytelling-wise to have the actors play different combinations of characters.
Danielle: I knew I really wanted a doubling where we didn’t care what the gender of the performer was. That was important to me from the beginning.
Sara: In the audition process, we had actors choose the parts they wanted to read for, regardless of their gender, which is atypical for most productions. But that’s often how you work, right, Jasmine?
Jasmine: Yes, my company, Reboot Theatre, specializes in “nontraditional” casting. I love finding where different casting choices shift how we tell the story and what that story means.
If you go into casting thinking “Well, Poirot has to be a white man,” then you’ve blocked out a lot of opportunities to find something new about this character. It’ll still be Poirot—Belgian, particular, delightful, well-dressed, and handsome—but why not see what happens when Poirot has a different lived experience than what other interpretations might assume?
For any role, I free the actors to explore different interpretations, while also thinking through the reality of what the audience will see, the various oppressions and privileges that exist in the real world, and what that means about the world we’re building on stage.
Sara: That brings up another adaptation question: Characters say problematic things in the novel that are in the play, but you removed some of those elements, too. How do you decide?
Danielle: An example that comes to mind for me is a line in the book from Ursula Bourne, where she says, “I enjoyed my work as a parlor maid,” and in this adaptation, Sheppard pushes back on the word “enjoyed.” The book doesn’t really explore class, even though the servants are a huge part of the story.
Jasmine: I’m quick to remind the actors, too, people had opinions about class back then, people of all different genders and races and sexual orientations and backgrounds and abilities all existed. The full spectrum of human experience has always existed. I don’t think of bringing that awareness to the adaptation as “modernizing.”
Danielle: I modernized it by taking out all the anti-Semitism.
Jasmine: Yes, Christie clearly did not like Jews. The woman was anti-Semitic.
Sara: What do you think is unique about adapting this story now?
Danielle: There was something about seeing Poirot in this state of his life that hooked me. He’s retired to a small English village, he’s growing his vegetables and having this quiet life and then he’s pulled out of that when he’s compelled to solve this case. It felt relevant in this phase of the pandemic where we’re starting to do things again.
Jasmine: What is most exciting to me is that none of our casting or interpretative choices change any part of anyone’s understanding of the core mystery and the main story.
Danielle: I agree, if anything, it adds to it. It’s an adaptation that reflects the artists in the room.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.