Behind the scenes of JASP’s annual theatricals

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Last year’s theatrical, “Henry and Eliza.”

By Jennifer Abella

Every year the Jane Austen Summer Program takes to the stage — not for a lecture or discussion panel but for a theatrical written, directed and produced by grad students/volunteers.  Adam McCune is a vital part of the Jane Austen Summer Program’s annual theatricals. We caught up with him for a behind-the-scenes peek at how the production comes together each year.

Can you give a little of your background?

I was born in Virginia but raised mostly in the Philippines and Russia. (My parents met in a linguistics PhD program and are now consultants on Asian Bible translations, though much of my childhood they were doing leadership training for Russian churches. We moved around a lot.)

A lot of my hobbies are oriented toward words and performance — for example, my wife (Blanche) and I often read books aloud to each other. Lately we’ve shared classic science fiction (“The Left Hand of Darkness,” “Ender’s Game”), literature in and beyond our periods of specialty (Plato’s “Republic,” Augustine’s “Confessions,” Mallory’s “Morte D’Arthur,” James’s “Turn of the Screw”), and comic writing (Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories). I also write a bit of poetry and fiction — my father and I even published a co-authored novel called “The Rats of Hamelin.”

Whose idea was it to stage theatricals in the first place and how did you become involved?
James Thompson suggested for the first JASP that we put on one of the short dramas in Austen’s juvenilia — works she had originally written as dramas. Ted Scheinman and I got on board, but Ted decided (and I think he was right) that these brief plays would be very hard to put on in a way that would make sense to an audience. So instead Ted adapted “Love and Freindship” and “The Beautifull Cassandra” (two of Austen’s juvenile short stories — though she calls them novels — and, yes, that’s how she spelled the titles) into one theatrical. I added a couple of scenes I adapted from the end of “Love and Freindship” to give a little resolution, and we had our first theatrical adaptation from Austen’s juvenilia.

What are a few Austenian aspects you had to keep in mind while you write/produce them?
Austen’s wit comes out both in her dialogue and her narration. Dialogue translates well to drama, of course, but narration is trickier. Our first year, Ted handled this by having the narrating character on stage doing the narration. The last two years, I’ve tried to translate the narrator’s humor into dialogue or action.

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2014’s “Jack and Alice.”

Where do you get the costumes?

For the most part, the costumes are generously provided by UNC’s drama department and Professor Inger Brodey. Sometimes we need to fill in a few other pieces ourselves. The props are a mixture of loans and custom-made pieces.

How do you choose which pieces of literature to riff off of?

We started with some of Austen’s better-known juvenilia (Love and Freindship) and juvenilia with a theme appropriate to the conference (the year of Sense and Sensibility, we did the sensibility-parodying Jack and Alice). But a lot of it has to do with what will work on stage. I looked long and hard at Austen’s hilarious (and famous) History of England, but it depends so heavily on the narrator’s tone, and because it’s a brief history, it has no unifying plot, and the characters appear only to immediately disappear and be replaced by new characters. (I’ve heard there is a company that adapted it for the stage, but I don’t see how they could do it without basically writing it from scratch.) The pieces we performed had relatively few characters and relatively unified plots.

How much time do you give yourself to writing the theatrical and how much rehearsal time do you all get?

 The writing has usually gotten done in a few days (though it may prove more elaborate this year). The rehearsals have gotten more intense over time. The first year, we had a few scattered rehearsals of individual scenes with different parts of the cast, but only ran through the whole play with the whole cast once or twice the day of the performance. Last year’s play (Henry and Eliza) required more coordinated movement (“blocking”) and props, so we rehearsed for several weeks.

How do you and the “company” keep a straight face while you’re up on stage? Or is it difficult?
We do laugh on early read-throughs, but we mostly get it out of our system by the time we perform. It may help that we’re trying to think of things from the perspectives of the characters, and the characters take everything very seriously (which is what makes it funny to the audience).

Do you get nervous on stage?

I mostly find that an audience energizes me as a performer, but as a director, I did worry about things going smoothly.

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2013’s theatrical, based on “Love and Freindship” and “The Beautifull Cassandra.”

Can you talk a little about the importance of theatricals in Austen’s life?

As I mentioned, Austen did write short plays, though I don’t know whether they were intended for performance. I do know that many people put on theatricals at home, and that (at least later in the century) people even published books of short, silly plays to be put on at home. And, of course, “Mansfield Park” features a longer, more ambitious home theatrical.

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