I am thrilled to make my debut post on Austen Authors, and to share the highlights reel of the THE AUSTEN ASSIZES, the comedic play I co-wrote and co-produced with Diana Birchall for the JASNA-AGM in Brooklyn in early October. Putting on this play was a unforgettable experience!
But first, a little bit about me. I have always been a voracious reader, and I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. I’d studied Austen’s works in college and greatly admired them, but like many other Austen Authors, it was the movies that made me fall in love with Jane. I was a screenwriter for many years before I returned to novel writing, and every day since my first Austen book THE LOST MEMOIRS OF JANE AUSTEN was published has been a fabulous adventure.
The Jane Austen Society of North America has truly changed my life. I’ve made so many friends, and I never miss a meeting of my local Southwest Chapter, or the JASNA Annual General Meeting—they are Jane Austen heaven.
The theme of this year’s AGM was “Sex, Money, and Power in the novels of Jane Austen.” Diana and I were thrilled when our proposal to write and present a staged reading of a comedic Austen-themed play was selected as a breakout session.
Here’s the logline of THE AUSTEN ASSIZES: “Three of Austen’s most colorful characters are put on trial for crimes committed involving abuses of power, sex, and money in a delectably disputatious verbal free-for-all.” (The “Assizes” were periodic criminal courts once held in England and Wales. The word assize refers to the sittings or sessions–Old French assises–of the judges, who traveled across the seven circuits, setting up court and summoning juries at the various Assize Towns.)
The set up of our play was relatively simple: a judge would hear three cases; the audience would be the jury; the defendants and the prosecutors (all well known Austen characters) would take the stand simultaneously; and hilarity would hopefully ensue. We knew at once which Austen characters we wanted to put on trial, and for which crimes: Lady Catherine de Bourgh for abuse of power, Mr. John Willougby for harassment and sexual seduction, and Lucy Steele for criminal mercenary intent and another, far more serious charge (you’ll have to watch the video to find out what it is!) Pitting Lady Catherine against the flighty Mrs. Bennett, and Mr. Willoughby against the sterling Colonel Brandon and Marianne, turned out to be hilarious indeed–and Diana and I had a wonderful time playing the nefarious Fanny Dashwood and Lucy Steele.
We spent months writing the play, and cast it mainly with enthusiastic and talented fellow JASNA members. The only cast member who wasn’t a Janeite was the handsome, delicious, professional New York actor Jonathan Ross who we found to play Mr. Willoughby. The moment he stepped on stage, audience members whipped out their cameras and took pictures of him. His voice would melt butter; I daresay that many ladies swooned.
Because our cast came from all over the globe, we weren’t able to rehearse until we got to Brooklyn. Even then, due to everyone’s busy schedules, we couldn’t get everyone together at the same time and had to hold two separate, partial rehearsals. The first time we ever acted all together was at the performance itself on October 6. Fortunately it all came together perfectly. Union rules at the Marriott hotel prevented us from using professional equipment to record the play, but we were lucky enough to find an intrepid soul who was willing to videotape it from her seat.
The play was an hour long, filled with standout performances from our cast and one laugh after another. We estimate that 300 people attended, and their response was thrilling, ending with a standing ovation the brought down the house! Diana and I were delighted to learn that “The Austen Assizes” was voted the #1 breakout session at this year’s AGM. (If you belong to an organization or JASNA chapter that would like to put on a production of “The Austen Assizes,” please let me or Diana know.)
HERE’S THE LINK to the highlights reel of THE AUSTEN ASSIZES on YouTube. I hope you enjoy it, and look forward to your comments!
Since I won’t be posting again until January, I wanted to mention that my next book, THE MISSING MANUSCRIPT OF JANE AUSTEN (from Berkeley, an imprint of Penguin Books) is due out on New Year’s Eve! It’s about a scholar in England who finds a clue to the existence of an unknown Jane Austen manuscript—a quest that leads to romance and the discovery of the missing Austen novel, both of which change her life forever. I’m thrilled and humbled to announce that Kirkus gave the book a starred review, saying, “This richly imagined Jane Austen ‘road novel’ is such a page turner,” and Austenprose calls it “A novel within a novel honoring what we love most about Austen…James’s pitch perfect, brilliantly crafted prose will have you enchanted and in awe of her mastery until the very last page. 5 out of 5 Regency stars!” Here’s an excerpt of the book. You can read more about it and pre-order it here.
Thank you again for welcoming me to Austen Authors. I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season, and a happy new year!