January 8, 2020
A brand-new Jane Austen story is unfolding on-stage at the iO Theater in Chicago. But it’s not one that anybody has heard before, and it’s likely not one that Jane Austen would have written. The story is being made up on the spot by a group of eleven women clad in Regency-inspired clothing, and the audience is laughing.
Meet Improvised Jane Austen, a group that improvises stories set in Jane Austen’s world using the themes, characters, and language of the beloved author. In inventing new stories, the group is celebrating their love for the British author while also poking fun at her world and its characters.
The Chicago improv team, which formed in 2008 and is made up of an all-female cast, performs a 60-minute set. The performers begin by asking the audience for a two-word suggestion in the style of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. The themes are familiar: wealth, marriage, status, and love. The goal is for one of the characters to get a marriage proposal by the end of the story.
“We try very hard to tell a story that has heart and meaning and has real connection between characters,” said Improvised Jane Austen artistic director and performer Kate Parker-Barrows. “We don’t just want our audience to laugh. We want to get them to put their hand to their hearts and say, ‘Aw!’”
For many of the performers, their love of Austen novels began in high school or college. Emma is the unanimous favorite for performers Shannon Bacchus, Kelsey Fehlberg, Jessye Grace Mueller, and Squeek Rangel. They say Austen stories are good fodder for improv because they often have a satirical bend, and her characters are complex human beings.
Bacchus prefers playing an older, unmarried woman. Mueller often opts for the vicar. Rangel likes to play a young man in pursuit of love, because they typically have a fun narrative arc.
“I like to play either dumb guys or hot guys,” Fehlberg said, such as a goofy-but-well-intentioned suitor like Mr. Bingley from Pride and Prejudice.
There is also fun to be had in playing a cad or an older wealthy man, said Parker-Barrows, particularly in having the characters on stage subvert his power.
“I don’t think anybody is laughing because we’re playing men, but they absolutely laugh when a woman gets to control the situation and make fun of the position of where that man is coming from,” Parker-Barrows said.
That concept also leaves room for growth. One of the recurring themes of Improvised Jane Austen’s shows is having characters who learn from their mistakes.
“Because of how intelligent and fully-formed the women are, your [male] character has to grow to be deserving of any one of them,” said Rangel.
At one performance in December, the entire cast is performing (usually, just six or seven women perform in one show) to celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday. In this particular set, three of the performers play a group of Scottish men intent on marrying British women. There are older relatives and silly brothers interfering in the matchmaking, as well as one woman who doesn’t want to marry.
It doesn’t sound all that different than a typical Austen story, but this one makes light of it all with the lens of 21st-century performers. For instance, one woman asks, “Do you think I’ll get to pick my husband?” The other responds bluntly but cheerfully, “No.”
Similarly, the social ball turns into a game of spin-the-bottle. But in this world, whoever the bottle lands on has to recite romantic poetry or sing a song. Being improvisational comedy, the performers trick each other into making up a song or poem on the spot.
In addition to having fun on stage, the performers have a deep connection to the characters and their experiences, even though the novels are now over two centuries old. Part of that comes from how imperfect the characters are.
“There were a lot of perfect heroines and perfect characters in that time, so it’s a real relief to find something where the people are so real, and they deal with the same emotions that I deal with, and they’re jerks the way I’m a jerk sometimes,” Fehlberg said.
They also find a connection in the feminist themes and the challenge to traditional gender roles.
“I think that theme, reading it in a book that was written so long ago, has made me feel connected to my history as a woman,” said Bacchus.
As Parker-Barrows pointed out, a lot of women still find a connection to Elizabeth Bennett’s wittiness, or Emma Woodhouse’s independence, while also enjoying the romance of their love stories. But, Mueller said, Austen’s stories upend the idea that women didn’t get a say in their own future.
“All of the heroines in those books get marriage on their own terms,” said Mueller. “They are still fully-formed people, and they don’t compromise.”