new take on the classics
The Curious Case of the Improvised Tribute: Gnap! Theater reinvents Nancy Drewand The Hardy Boys
The first book I remember loving was a vintage, cloth-bound copy of Nancy Drew #1:The Secret of the Old Clock; it was from the 1966 reprinting of the series and belonged to my mother before me. An only child, I spent more time sleuthing my way through the slim volumes alongside Nancy than most kids spend with actual friends; part of me is sincerely disappointed that I’ve never stumbled across a covered-up crime and been able to put my informal training to use.
But maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you were more of a Hardy Boys fan? Bobbsie Twins? Boxcar Children? Chances are, you had a favorite kid detective back in the day. And if you’re missing the mystery they brought to your life, good news: Gnap! Theater is presenting Cover to Cover, an improvised show based on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, all month at Salvage Vanguard Theater (you’ve got three more chances to catch Cover to Cover: November 12, November 18 and November 19, all shows at 8 p.m.)
The show was conceived and produced by Julie Gillis (the co-producer of Bedpost Confessions, as well as a producer of the Ladies Are Funny Festival and an company member of Gnap! Theater Projects), and Audrey Sansom (also a company member at Gnap!, and a frequent performer in comedy shows around Austin, including Improvised Shakespeare).
The show came to life after Sansom saw a documentary on one of Nancy Drew’s ghostwriters; while credited to “Carolyn Keene,” the series was actually conceived by the same publishing house that introduced The Hardy Boys and written by a series of anonymous authors (though Mildred Benson is generally recognized as the pioneer of the collection). Sansom was inspired seeing how deeply readers from several generations connected with Drew—and she’s pleased to see Cover to Cover’s audience represents this diverse group.
“The kids are so much fun to watch,” she says. “They just take it all in, listening to everything, and you realize it’s because they want to be Nancy Drew, they want to be the adult.”
“And it’s completely PG,” adds Gillis. “It’s been really fun to have a show that parents can bring children to that can be entertaining for everyone.”
While Nancy Drew, and Joe and Frank Hardy, are teen characters created for young readers, their appeal is eternal; smart, capable and quick-witted, their adventures are exiting to kids, nostalgic for older readers.
“There is a reason why they reinvent her over and over and over with every generation. She was created in the 30s, reinvented in the 50s, the late 60s, the early 70s and the 90s. Just recently there was another Nancy Drew movie. And she’ll be back,” Sansom promises.
It’s true; both Nancy and the Hardy’s keep evolving. “The Hardy Boys went from solving real mysteries to things like international espionage and terrorism,” laughs Gillis.
When you’re dealing with characters who are ever-changing, in an improvised show where anything’s possible, how do you keep all the worlds you can create within one single hour-long show? Simple: by turning the audience into an impromptu “classroom” led by “teachers” Gillis and Sansom, who guide their students (the actors) through made-up—or, as they call them, “limited edition, previously unreleased”—mystery novels.
Students dive into the stories, first reading to each other then acting them out, with scenes shifting seamlessly between the world of the classroom and the world of Drew and the Hardys. Actors play double duty, creating characters in both the classroom and within the world of the novel—all the while staying within the well-known tropes of the vintage teen mystery genre.
“Obviously there’s a mystery that has to get solved,” says Gillis. “With both the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, they’re almost absurdly capable young people. Nancy’s always capable of doing a ballet performance if she has to, or ice skating, or going to Peru, hotwiring a car, diving, whatever it is. And they don’t really have love interests, per se; Nancy has Ned Nickerson, but they don’t indulge in anything our modern teens would recognize as dating. In the original books Ned was not really important, it was about the relationships she had with her friends and her dad, and getting the mystery solved.”
It’s interesting to be reminded of these somewhat antiquated themes, at least in children’s literature—now, we've got Twilight, and there are many differences between Nancy Drew: Heroine and Bella Swan: Heroine.
“Bella is a character that is acted upon; most of her efforts to make choices about what she wants get thwarted by her father or Jacob or Edward,” says Gillis.
Adds Sansom: “Bella’s goal in every single book, her entire goal is to be with Edward. Nancy Drew’s goal is to be the best Nancy Drew she can possibly be at any time. The most romantic things that happen are quaint dates that always get interrupted by something more important. If anything, their love interests are there to help with their passions and interests, which I think is a much healthier way of looking at a relationship than this ‘overcome with passion’ model.”
And that’s one of the reasons why Drew remains so popular—and why my copy was handed down to my mother, from my grandmother. You don’t just want to follow Nancy, you want to be her—and wanting to be a smart, independent woman is a much better aspiration than waiting around for the right sparkly guy to take a shine to you.
“Women and children are two demographics that in literature and film have often been neglected as heroes,” continues Sansom, “because people may believe that strong, handsome men can save the day. In reality, everyone wants to believe that they can solve the mysteries of their lives, including women and children, and I think that these novels give a lot of respect to these people and prove that they’re capable.”
What’s next for the Gnap! ladies? Sansom’s working on a steampunk show that she promises “will definitely be an R-rated show.” You can catch the next installment of Gillis’ monthly show, Bedpost Confessions, on December 8 at Spiderhouse Ballroom.