Jane Austen gets an off-the-cuff makeover


It is a truth universally acknowledged that not everyone enjoys cozying up with a gold-embossed edition of Pride and Prejudice on a Friday night and wading through some of Jane Austen’s denser prose. This weekend, audiences can get all the witty banter with none of the eye strain as Victoria’s Paper Street Theatre Co. performs Yes and Yesteryear: An Improvised Jane Austen.

“It’s an identity story, right? Someone coming to terms with themselves and being comfortable with themselves,” says Paper Street Theatre Co. founder Dave Morris of the broad appeal of Austen’s narratives.

First-year UVic theatre student Monica Ogden, one of eight cast members, says she found Austen difficult to read. Were it not for Morris assigning the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice as preparatory reading, she would have never likely picked up Austen’s books. But once she started watching the numerous film adaptations, she fell in love with the characters.

“I want to believe the romance more than anything,” says Ogden of her aspirations for the improv, adding that she hopes there will be at least one Mr. Darcy-style embrace during the show’s two-night run. She describes this as a brooding man grasping the object of his affection by the shoulders, pulling her close, and then pushing her away.

Morris says he’s hoping for a dance scene. But because the actors are making up the show as they go, what will transpire is as much a mystery to him and Ogden as it is to audience members.

The one guarantee is that the audience will name the show by picking a letter and then two words that begin with that letter (so if “T” is picked, the show may well end up being “Triumph and Tyranny”).

“It’s only that one moment, just for the audience that’s there that night. That’s the beauty of improv,” he says.

Improvised it may be, but Morris says the cast has still gone through two months of rehearsals and background research. They looked at three Austen works — Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma — and had a big movie night that included modern adaptations including Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary. From there, they tried telling one-word stories and fairytales in the style of Jane Austen. They found the spider in Miss Muffet can be quite a gent: “I beg your pardon — excuse my intrusion,” impersonates Morris.

“We always start with language, and then work with physical body of the work,” says Morris, adding that the hardest part is comprehending the etiquette — who can speak to who, and when. The cast has spent a lot of time working on Austen-style acerbic jibes — “the subtle insults that the people don’t notice they’re receiving.”

What sets this adaptation apart from other, more slapstick literary improvisations is that Morris wants to honour and recreate Jane Austen’s style rather than parody it. “You’ll leave going, ‘That was like Jane Austen,'” he says.

Morris chose Austen to round out a literature-themed season that also included 2012 shows based on works by H.P. Lovecraft and Charles Dickens.

“I wanted to do three authors that all had very unique and different styles from different time periods,” says Morris. “Lovecraft and Dickens both wrote men a lot, so having a female author was pretty important to give our women a chance to be the star of the show for once.”

So, it’s not just about the weddings and enormous country estates to be had? Are feminist endings on the horizon?

“There is a high probability that the character will decide to get married, whether it ends with a marriage or just with the character coming to the realization that getting married does not mean sacrificing herself,” says Morris.

Still, he concedes, it is improv, which means freedom to deviate from the expected.

“I guess we could do a twist ending: ‘And she shoots him!’” he says with a laugh.

Yes and Yesteryear: An Improvised Jane Austen
April 12 & 13 @ 8 p.m.
Intrepid Studio Theatre (#2 – 1609 Blanshard Street)
$12, available at Russell Books and at the door