Welcome to Austenland: Move over, Dickens: Jane Austen Is Theatre's New Literary Brand

By Considine, Allison | American Theatre, July-August 2016 | Go to article overview

Welcome to Austenland: Move over, Dickens: Jane Austen Is Theatre's New Literary Brand


Considine, Allison, American Theatre


JANE AUSTEN'S SIX NOVELS ARE FULL OF winsome characters, well-turned marriage plots and manipulations, and timeless tropes about family, class, money, and sex. In other words, they're ripe for adaptation, and so they have been--into films and TV miniseries, even Parisian jazz ballets, puppet shows, and musicals. Now, increasingly, Austen's work is turning up at resident theatres all over the U.S., in a welter of versions, reverent and cheeky, musical and otherwise. And Austenites, theatregoers, fans of classic texts, and giddy young women (and men)--groups whose Venn diagrams of taste overlap considerably--are flocking to the theatre to see Jane.

Austen herself was no stranger to the theatre, visiting English stages in Bath and London throughout her lifetime. The Austen family even created "private theatricals" in their living room--amateur shows performed before an invited audience. So Austen's stage popularity is a kind of homecoming. With the bicentenary anniversary of Austen's publication of Emma this year, and the anniversary of her death coming up in 2017, expect to see the young Englishwoman's name crop up more and more in season schedules.

Indeed, while stagings of Dickens consistently light up marquees during the holidays, Austen was the second most-produced literary figure on the stages of TCG member theatres with 14 productions of works based on her novels in the 2015-16 season (Harper Lee trailed not too far behind, with 8 productions of To Kill a Mockingbird). And she's even horning in on Dickens territory: Last year Seattle's Book-It Repertory presented an adaptation of Emma by Rachel Atkins as their holiday show; TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif., reprised Paul Gordon's musical Emma at Christmastime; and, in perhaps the truest sign that she's arrived as a stage brand, the holiday season also included the latest mounting of Jane Austen UnScripted, an improv show by Los Angeles's Impro Theatre.

But there are more: In February, Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs, Conn., offered Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan's Sense & Sensibility, while Cincinnati Shakespeare Company mounted Jon Jory's Emma and People's Light in Malvern, Pa., staged Hanreddy and Sullivan's Sense & Sensibility. In May, Bag & Baggage Productions in Hillsboro, Ore., performed Michael Fry's modern adaptation of Emma, and in January, Bedlam Theatre in New York City opened a remount of its popular staging of Kate Hamill's Sense & Sensibility, running through Oct. 2. And, again storming the Dickens holiday fortress, Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, set for a National New Play Network rolling world premiere this fall.

Members of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), an organization of Austen fans and scholars, are often in the audience of theatres celebrating her works. Kerri Spennicchia, the program chair of JASNA, believes that Austen's own enthusiasm for the theatre is part of what makes her works ripe for the stage.

"Austen is very adaptable for the stage because she wrote like a screenwriter," says Spennicchia. "While she might not be giving stage directions, we are getting direct dialogue, and we are also getting, 'What is the character thinking in the background?' So I think she really writes for the visual."

"Austen has these incredible characters that are so rich and engaging," adds Robert Kelley, artistic director of Theatre-Works. "There are only six novels put together, but it really is a treasure trove of characters." Theatre Works staged the world premiere of Paul Gordon's musical adaptation of Emma in 2007; it broke box-office records. The 200th anniversary of the novel's publication, paired with the subscribers' pleas to revive the show, convinced Kelley to mount the show again during the 2015 holiday season, when the show broke its own box-office record, with ticket revenue of more than $500,000. …

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