Jan 25 2013 9:30am

All the Novel’s a Stage: Theater Settings in Romance Novels

We will gladly be the players...

~I once picked up a mystery novel solely based on the fact that it happened in a theater that may have been haunted. I was between productions and wanted a small taste of the world I wasn't experiencing on a nightly basis. The main characters were not part of the acting company, so they had to have people and positions often explained to them. I remember laughing out loud as some of the job descriptions sounded like they were pulled out of a high school level book of “so you want to work in theater” and then these people promptly acted in ways that were convenient for the novel, but didn't suit who they should be if they really were that role, that position. It was then I decided to avoid the entire theory of theater in books.

Reading romance made it very hard to avoid that idea. Desolate dukes patronize opera singers. The theater is the place to be seen and to trade the latest gossip. Theater, and all the cast of characters involved, started creeping back into my reading. Most of the incidentals were never developed enough for me to object, and before I knew it I was picking up novels with deeper theater roots. Some were more well done than others, but three stick out. These three had a very different approach to my profession playing out in between princes and dukes dodging death or magistrates tackling the seedy underworld.

Command Performance by Nora RobertsThe first one to wander onto my reading list was accidental, blindsiding me in a series. Command Performance is the second in the trilogy by Nora Roberts focusing on Cordina's Royal Family. The novel focuses on the heir to the throne Alexander and close family friend Eve, now producer of the Hamilton Company of Players. Eve is the picture of several producers I know: driven by details, occasionally micromanaging and thinking months ahead of the current production.

What kept tweaking at my nerves was the level of scope. At some moments, Eve is as focused as a director on a single production or an artistic director checking in on the final week before opening. Moments later she is telling the prop manager what to buy, without consulting the director or set designer. Next on her rounds of the theater she is meeting with the wardrobe mistress and discussing potential costumes for the children they are auditioning the next day, and a slip for an actress, all without the costume designer consulted—or even present.

Meddling and micromanagement I have seen often, but what kept setting me off was how this is all done by a woman who reminded her royal antagonist how she is an American and whether or not they would perform at his benefit at all would be determined by vote within the company. It is almost as if she is running a small professional theater, where one person plays many roles...not one that boasts of a props manager with assistants, a wardrobe mistress and the ability to mount four plays in four weeks. And for a woman who seems to be needed everywhere during the first production going up, we never see anything past a brief mention of the second production. The theater is redeemed by believable characters in the production and an excellent description of space. On rereading, I will often find myself skipping some of the theater stuff, preferring the relationship between the prince and the producer and the backdrop of an assassin after the royal family.

Unraveled by Courtney MilanThe next book in my theater pile is Unraveled by Courtney Milan. We start with Miranda, a young woman presenting herself as a country lady to testify on behalf of a boy at the behest of the Patron. The Patron is the underworld peacekeeper and enforcer of the Temple Parish, the poor part of Bristol. Miranda presents herself to the Patron after a few incidents asking for help and offers her abilities honed in a traveling players troupe in payment for protection for her and her young ward. It is these abilities to take on different personas that bring her to the attention of the magistrate, Lord Justice Smite Turner.

As a child of a traveling toupe, Miranda learned a bit of everything—how to mend clothes, how to build a wig and maintain it, how to act and change one's appearance and affectations to be someone else. Conveniently, there is an ex-Oxford fellow in the troupe who taught her history and gave her the requisite education to duel wits with a magistrate. The most amusing part of all this was the MST3K-esque commentary when Smite takes Miranda to the theater. Her evisceration of the local acting troupe's ability to properly stage Hamlet reminded me strongly of a recent car ride after seeing a current movie where I listened to a former actor remark on the Muppet-like singing and astounding amount of British accents in Paris.

One Perfect Rose by Mary Jo PutneySpeaking of traveling troupes and continuing a look at the Bard, we have Mary Jo Putney's One Perfect Rose. Here we have Stephen, a duke with a deadly diagnosis running away from his life to get perspective, only to find himself enchanted and rediscovering life by a chance encounter with Rosalind Jordan, foundling of the theater troupe's founders. He recognizes her role as the connecting piece in the troupe, and helps her see her value is as high as her sister's, who's got beauty and talent. The theater troupe served as a backdrop and structure for the budding relationship between Stephen and Rosalind. The troupe performs various pieces by Shakespeare and others, using them to give Stephen an excuse to get close to Rosalind as they play the duke and Hyppolyta in Midsummer Night's Dream to a duke being tricked with a different lover in a bedroom farce. This one has a nice glimpse of the way a theater group often becomes a close knit family, where at a small professional level everyone helps but what is most important is making magic happen that one night for that one audience.

I know many people use reading to escape their day to day life. It is likely while we have so many billionaires and dukes, Navy SEALS and spies. One of the reasons I find myself picking up these novels where my daily life acts as a backdrop is to remind me just how varied my career can be and how others see us. These novels help explain that not all actors walk the red carpet or that every thing goes perfect. And most importantly, that there is room for love and relationships within the theater.

Theater image courtesy of Cali4beach via Flickr


Rae herds cats for a living as a project manager & theatrical stage manager and is kept hopping at home with an energetic toddler and a music-afficianado husband. She can be found online at RaesAlley or on Twitter as @rszalley.

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1. taragel
I love theatre as the setting for books, though I'm more of a contemporary fan than historical. One of my favorite (older) reads is Judith Michaels' Acts of Love, which is a rather epic saga (contemporary-set in the 80s) where a young woman befriends a broadway legend and they start writing letters to each other. After a tragedy of some sort, the girl disappears and the legend's grandson who is a director seeks her out. A lot more transpires but I loved the story for its pacing (set over years and years of these peoples' lives) and all the theater details.

Oh and I recently put Bonnie Dee's The Final Act on my TBR because it's basically inspired by a touring company of the musical Rent.
3. annaR

It's not in the same league as ONE GOOD TURN or REFORMING LORD RAGSDALE, but certainly a very good read.
4. filkferengi
Laura Resnick's Esther Diamond series are fun mysteries with lots of theatrical elements.
5. rubymydear
In contemporaries, I recently read Lucy Parker's Act Like It and loved it. Set in London's West End amidst all the papps and huge egos.
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