A Theatrical Turn
As Austen Authors we have quite a few experiences in common, but I’ve just had one that’s something a bit different for a writer of books. It’s truly intoxicating to write a play, act in it yourself – and to hear the audience laughing at your lines!
It never occurred to me to try writing plays, but a few years ago two members of the JASNA group in Edmonton used the dialogue from a story of mine, “The Courtship of Mrs. Elton,” as a staged reading. They had the distinguished Canadian professor and doyenne of Austen studies, Juliet McMaster, play Mr. Elton in glorious clergy-drag, and great fun was had by all. Eventually the playlet was staged or read in a dozen other cities around the country, and I had the delicious frisson of playing Mrs. Elton myself in New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver. The New York reading was especially thrilling because Tony award winning actress Kathleen Chalfant was the narrator, and brought a troupe of professional performers.
So, with that encouragement, I wrote a couple more plays – one about Austen and Byron hasn’t been done anywhere yet, but this week “You are Passionate, Jane,” had its debut in Seattle, and will be repeated in Los Angeles September 8. I cast Syrie James as Jane Austen in Heaven since she has just the right airy authorial regality and whimsy for the role, and Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose and Seattle invited us to bring the show up north. Syrie’s had acting training and proved a true star, absolutely priceless in her role as “gatekeeper” of literary Heaven. You really had to be there! I (to quote Fanny Price) am no actress, but it’s far easier to read words you’ve written yourself than anything else, and as Charlotte Bronte I mainly had to just react tearfully, angrily and defensively at angel Jane’s high handed strictures. Syrie is also an expert artist in costumery, and concocted a truly seraphic white lace dream of a costume for herself. By contrast (and it was all about contrasts) I am not fond of dressing up, but I do possess an ancient costume, won at an auction, that was worn in the 1980 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, with Elizabeth Garvie. I remember Sandy Lerner won Garvie’s white gown, but I couldn’t have fit into anybody’s costume but Mrs. Bennet’s, so that’s the origin of my black gown! It’s pretty shabby now, but shabby is actually suitable for Charlotte.
Syrie and I had the most enormous fun ever, and have taken to calling each other Jane and Charlotte. And we’ve co-authored a play for the upcoming JASNA AGM in Brooklyn, called the “Austen Assizes,” in which some of the chief Austen villains are put on trial. Former JASNA President Joan Ray plays the judge, Juliet McMaster is back as foppish Robert Ferrars, Syrie is Lucy Steele, and I have a modest part as the rich and obnoxious Fanny Dashwood. Here’s my current dilemma: Shall I play Fanny with a posh English accent, or a thick Brooklyn one, just for fun? What do you think?
I’ve written up some of the delightful offstage events of the weekend on my blog, www.lightbrightandsparkling.blogspot.com
It was a real “girlfriends’ weekend,” which included antiquing, high tea, hiking, getting together with other AuAus and Janeites, and stuffing down prodigious amounts of High Tea, salmon, and blackberry pie!