Who Was Jane Austen?

By Anne Flinders, dramaturg

Who was Jane Austen? Where and how did she live? With whom did she associate? How did she become a writer? And what is her legacy? Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is “famously scarce”, but we’ll try to answer at least a few of these questions.

Where did Jane Austen’s begin her life?

“There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.” – Jane Austen

A portrait of Jane Austen, based on a watercolor by Jane's sister, Cassandra.

A portrait of Jane Austen, based on a watercolor by Jane’s sister, Cassandra.

Jane Austen was born on the 16th of December, 1775, in Steventon, Hampshire, England. She was the second daughter of a clergyman and his wife, George and Cassandra Austen, and the fifth of seven children. Jane and her sister Cassandra were educated mostly at home after a brief enrollment in a boarding school in Reading, England. She read extensively from her father’s library, practiced playing the pianoforte, and was engaged in the neighborhood society, attending parties and balls. Her brother Henry later said that “Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it”.

Who were her companions?

Although her brothers all left the family on reaching adulthood, Jane lived at home her entire life with her sister Cassandra and their mother. When her father retired from the clergy in 1800, the family moved to Bath, England. Mr. Austen died of a sudden illness in 1805 and the family’s financial situation was precarious. The three ladies moved around and about Bath in different locations for the next four years, until Jane’s brother Edward invited them to live in a cottage at Chawton, his estate in Hampshire.

When she was twenty years old, Jane may have enjoyed a brief romance with Tom Lefroy—a young university graduate from Ireland who had come to Steventon to visit his family. This romance was suspected from comments in Jane’s letters to Cassandra: “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” Even in regard to her own interest in a young man she shows her ability to recognize and write irony and wit.

How did Jane Austen begin writing?

When she was a girl, Jane wrote short plays and works of fiction that her family would read aloud for amusement. She also wrote A Brief History of England, a parody of historical writers. Her writings were always funny, and always dealt with matters common to everyday life and the foibles of ordinary people. Even at a relatively early age, Jane was a keen observer of human weaknesses and strengths.

Jane Austen's writing table, on display at Chawton Cottage.

Jane Austen’s writing table, on display at Chawton Cottage.

Jane wrote a full-length novel, First Impressions, in 1796, completing the initial draft in August 1797 when she was only 21. Her father attempted to get the book published, but found no one who would accept the manuscript. However, Jane continued to write and revise her work. Her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published in 1811 and was well-received. Jane did not acknowledge herself as the author; the cover page simply read thus: BY A LADY. Jane immediately returned to working on First Impressions.

On 25 January, 1813, Pride and Prejudice, a major revision of First Impressions, was published and released. Again Jane retained her anonymity; the title page identified the book as written BY THE AUTHOR OF SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. The novel was popular; literary circles were talking about it; even the Prince Regent George IV enjoyed it and later asked that Jane dedicate one of her novels to him. Though she disliked the prince, she obliged.

Jane’s Adult Life

Jane Austen never married. She lived with her mother and sister Cassandra at Chawton Cottage, writing and engaging in society there. In 1816 she became ill, but continued to write. Her health worsened, and her sister took her to Winchester to seek medical help. Austen died in Winchester on 18 July 1817, at the age of 41. Jane wrote six novels in all, 2 of which were published posthumously.


Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey (1818, posthumous), Persuasion (1818, posthumous)

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” – Jane Austen

Melissa Leilani Larson: Getting to Know the Playwright, Part II

By Anne Flinders, dramaturg

Melissa Leilani Larson is the playwright of BYU’s 2014 production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This is the second part of a two-part interview with Mel. We’ll learn about what goes into writing a new play, about the process by which this new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice came from the pen of the playwright.

For you, what has the journey of this play entailed so far?

Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson

Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson

First thing, I went back to the novel. It had been a while since I had read Pride and Prejudice. So the first thing was to re-read the novel, and just read it. I didn’t take notes, I didn’t write any scenes. I was just a reader revisiting a favorite novel. Reading the book felt almost new. In spite of familiarity with the book and the many film and stage adaptations, there were moments in the novel that struck me as quite new and stunning. I realized there were indeed different ways I could approach the story and the characters.

So then I went through the novel again, this time armed with highlighters and notebooks. I plotted out the scenes that needed to happen on stage, and tore apart the narrative for dialogue and motivation. And I pounded out a draft over the summer.

The book is just massive, so the big challenge for me was streamlining. The essence of the story has to come out and be clear to people who know it as well as those who don’t. Is this just the story of Lizzy and Darcy falling in love? No. I really wanted to flesh out all the characters and make them real people. Jane, for example, I think gets boxed in as the “pretty one” in that cute “other” couple. Boo on that. I wanted Jane to have opinions, to state her mind, to make choices. I’ve tried to root all of the characters in a very real need; they all have goals and aspirations, obstacles and struggles. Yes, they are funny; but the humor comes out of the fact that these characters are human beings making choices.

In Fall 2012 BYU’s Writer/Dramaturg/Actor workshop worked on six plays, including this one. Workshopping a play as a series of readings with a cast is useful because I hear a variety of voices and get to experiment. The WDA semester culminated in a staged reading. Throughout the drafting process, I’ve had five readings—three with audiences and two without—to gauge the play’s progress.

When the play was selected for production, I met with the designers for their feedback. I consulted with the director and dramaturgs through the summer. More rewrites! I finished a draft for the production team in September, and another for the cast in January.

I love rehearsal. There is nothing quite like hearing actors speak your words aloud. I work closely with the director and smooth out the bumps: Is this line too difficult to say? Will this joke land? Does this make sense? A lot of problem solving happens in rehearsal.

The big challenge with this piece is streamlining. There’s a lot of plot, and we don’t have a 5-hour miniseries to tell it. The essence of the story has to come out and be clear to people who know it as well as those who don’t.

Has it always been writing plays for you?

All growing up and through undergrad, I knew I was going to be a writer. Originally I planned to be a novelist. I became a playwright by accident. One day I saw a poster in the JKHB offering a $500 prize for a playwriting contest. So I went home and wrote a play. The play was pretty awful and it didn’t win, but my life changed.

What lies in store?

Oh, goodness. I hope a lot of things. I have a lot of things in the works, a lot of stories I want to tell. I have a couple of original pieces I’m working on, as well as a couple of other adaptations I’ve been asked to write. (People are asking me to write things! Commissions! Woohoo!) I have a couple of screenplays—one is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It—that I would love to see made. I’m in the midst of drafting a television pilot, and I would like to go back to writing fiction someday.

I just want to keep making stuff, and hope that people keep coming to see it.

What is the most important message you want to share through Pride and Prejudice? What is the most important message you will take away?

Pride and Prejudice is about accepting people as they are, including ourselves, flaws and all. It’s about second chances—both giving and accepting them. It’s about not judging those around us. It’s about finding humor and beauty in things that are supposedly mundane. It’s about a lot of things.

My hope is always that people leave the theatre changed. If not better, at least more are more aware of the ways in which they could be better. Hmm. Maybe that’s what I just hope for myself.

Melissa Leilani Larson is an award-winning writer whose work has been produced all over the country. Awards and honors include KC/ACTF Meritorious Achievement, Trustus Playwrights Festival Finalist, Lewis National Women’s Playwriting award, Mayhew Playwriting award, LDS Film Festival Feature Writing award, and the Association for Mormon Letters Drama Award.  Pride and Prejudice is her fifth BYU production after Lady in Waiting, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, Martyrs’ Crossing (produced under the title Angels Unaware), and Persuasion. Mel holds a BA in English from BYU and an MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. She is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America.

A Wrinkle In Time: An Introduction

by Patrick Hayes, dramaturg

Hello 4th Wall Readers!

My name is Patrick Hayes and I am the Dramaturg for BYU’s upcoming production of A Wrinkle in Time, directed by Rodger Sorensen. I am very excited for the upcoming production. We have a fabulous cast of actors and an excellent production crew that will be onboard to assure that this production’s version of AWIT is one of the best ever produced.

As this is my first venture into social media production blogging I will attempt, with each posting, to leave little snippets of ideas, actor interviews, script excerpts, photos, or other material that will help you, the reader, in gaining an insightful knowledge and picture of the production at hand.

With each post I will also try and post quotes from the script. I feel this will be a fun way to connect to the script / performance.

Let me tell you a few things that make this production so special:

1). We have a brand new script! Professor Sorenson and our playwright (Kate Forsythe) have been working on an adaptation of the book for the last three months.

2). A concept of audience interaction with the actors on stage that drives the principle story on stage.

3).  An object oriented performance where found objects drive some of the action / interaction.

Until next time! I leave you with a quote from the script.

“Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. – Mrs. Whatsit”
― Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

Moment Work and the Henry 5 Project

by Anne Flinders, dramaturg

The development of BYU’s Young Company production of Henry 5 is growing out of a series of workshop-style classes that are part of the course TMA 401 Contemporary Theatre Practices.  Last week the students began blocking some of the segments of the play. Blocking is the process of planning where, when, and how actors will move about the stage during a performance. Normally in blocking a show, the director determines where the actors will stand or cross and position themselves in the course of the play. For Henry 5, however, blocking is being determined by the cast, the crew and the class of TMA 401 using a process called moment work.

Tectonic Theatre Group

Moment work is a technique developed by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project (The Laramie Project, 33 Variations). It focuses on the importance of theatrical exploration in the creation of new work, especially in the early stages of new play development. Describing what moment work is the Tectonic Theater Project’s web site states: “Using a laboratory setting, the technique encourages the participants to create work that is uniquely theatrical. It pushes writers, actors, designers and directors to collaborate in the making of work that focuses on using all theatrical elements. The technique breaks apart the traditional roles of theater artists, enfranchising artists of all disciplines to move out of their defined roles and become theater-makers: true investigators of the possibilities of the medium.”

In the TMA 401 class, members of the Henry 5 project selected a single line, a primary action, or a minute circumstance that arises somewhere in the script of Henry 5, and developed that bit into a moment of the play, an articulated moment of movement and meaning that encapsulated either the concept or the progression of the play as a whole. These moments developed by the students may later find themselves becoming part of the BYU production of Henry 5, which will then travel with the Young Company touring group to elementary schools up and down the Wasatch Front next semester.

Works Cited

Causey, Trish. “blocking – A definition of the theater term blocking.” Welcome to the Official Theatre Site on About.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. http://theater.about.com/od/glossary/g/blocking.htm.

“Tectonic Training Lab.” Tectonic Theater Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. <http://www.tectonictheaterproject.org/Tectonic_Training_Lab.html>.

Meet the Playwright: Carlo Goldoni

by Janine Sobeck, dramaturg

At the end of commedia dell’arte’s 200 year reign in Italy, there came a man name Carlo Goldoni.  Born in 1707, Goldoni had a love of theatre from his childhood. However, though Goldoni had made his theatrical start writing typical commedia scenarios, with little or no alteration from the accepted traditions, he was concerned that commedia did not fully represent the Italian way of life and manners.  So he decided to make a change.

Building off of the works of the Greeks as well as more contemporary playwrights such as Moliere, Goldoni set out to reform the Italian theatre.  Believeing that reform happened through providing strong examples instead of simply ideas, Goldoni started to create his own plays.  Goldoni became famous for his hybrid style which combined the beloved nature of commedia dell’arte with the style and wit of Moliere. Some of his big changes included replacing the improvisational nature with written scripts, removing the masks so that the actors faces could be seen and reinventing the nature of the lazzi.  Legend has it that every time he finished a play he said, “Good.  But not yet Moliere.”

The Servant of Two Masters is Goldoni’s most beloved script.  It has been translated into many languages and has been adapted for theatres, film and televisions around the world.


Design and Dramaturgy

by Ariel Mitchell, dramaturg

This past week, our Gone Missing production team has broken into groups: Design and Dramaturgy.

The design team deep in discussion.

The designers will focus on how the show will look, how many screens we need, how we will use lighting, costumes, and projections to tell the stories of loss outlined in Gone Missing and The Cleverest Thief.

Some of the performance writers (Sarah Porter, Ali Kinkade, and Jenna Hawkins) putting a moment on its feet.

Meanwhile the dramaturgy group will be workshopping the moments we have chosen into a text that the actors can memorize and use. Basically what this means is that the four main writers will each take one moment we have chosen home. They will treat it as it’s own play thinking of traditional plot structure (inciting incident, rising action, climax) and write a draft. The next time we meet, they will bring it to class. The actors will read it and we will all give our comments and ask questions. The next night, the writer will take home a new moment (taking into consideration the comments given in class) and the whole process starts over again. We repeat this until we have a polished script that we can present at the end of February.

Nailing Down the Script (otherwise known as killing babies)

by Ariel Mitchell, dramaturg

Over the course of devising, we have become very attached to certain ideas, interviews and moments. Some of these include a couple who posted a plea on Craigslist for their missing Chihuahua, while warning potential finders not to touch him, or a guy we met at the BYU Creamery on 9th who enthusiastically relayed his story of his lost water bottle (which we then turned into an epic rap battle).

We are fond of these moments and people we have come to know and love.

But, unfortunately, we have too many wonderful moments to fit into our 30-35 minute play.

That means one thing… It’s time to kill our babies.

As a class we sat down and listed all of the moments we liked. Then we looked at out main organizing principle, or theme, we want to pursue: how do we deal with loss? Looking back at our moments, we threw out the ones that didn’t explore this concept: stories about things people had lost rather than how they dealt with the loss itself. Unfortunately, that means that the water bottle rap battle didn’t make the cut.

This list of moments will be given to the writers and they will work out the nitty-gritty details of transitions and the creation of a cohesive whole.

Although these cherished moments have been cut from the script, they will live forever in our hearts.

And maybe on youtube. 🙂


A Playwright’s Perspective: Why Afghanistan?

by Ariel Mitchell, playwright

Believe it or not, when I started writing A Second Birth I didn’t think twice about setting it in Afghanistan. It wasn’t until I brought the script into my first workshop in Playwriting 1 and I saw the faces go slack in astonishment that I think it finally hit me. After we let out, my professor pulled me aside and said, “What on earth possessed you to undertake this story?” I shrugged. “You have some guts, Ariel” he said.

Forty-eight drafts and two years later, the script has grown and changed but I still get the same question, “Why Afghanistan?”

In October of 2010, I had no idea what to write about. I mean, I was really having difficulty, so when my dad sent me a copy of the article “Afghan Boys are Prized, so Girls Live the Part” I thought a great story had fallen into my lap and I knew I had to write it. I connected to these people. I wanted to tell their story. Wherever we are, or how different our culture, we still have the same emotions, desires, and needs. We care for the same things. I wanted to show the people not the stereotype. I love making the world smaller through love, learning about new cultures, and reaching out to them with an increased understanding.

image courtesy of www.thecontrarianmedia.com

Another reason, I chose to tell this story is because I have always been interested in writing about gender. It has interested me personally (being a woman in a man’s world), but I had never really had an opportunity to explore the issue of our divine nature as men and women. I believe that God has given us divine roles that are separate, unique, and incredible, but equal. Setting a play about this in Afghanistan doesn’t dismiss the God aspect of gender, in fact it brings the issue to the forefront. This interested me. Because my characters are Muslim it allowed God, or Allah, to be a part of the discussion. I feel like when discussing gender this is a voice that cannot be left out.

In our modern world, we have lived with the stereotypes of men and women for a long, long time. This has resulted in a great backlash where people pick extremes: either there is nothing different between the genders (it is something society has placed on us) or that they are so different that they are never going to be able to understand each other (that we each have our roles and should stick to them). I would argue it’s more complicated than that. Bacha posh is an Afghani solution to the strict rules surrounding gender. Staging the practice allowed me to explore these issues and to attempt to figure out what gender really is, how important it is, and how much it shapes our lives.

A Playwright’s Perspective: Creating a World

by Ariel Mitchell, playwright

I’m not a playwright who really pictures things. If you asked me about any of my characters, I would be able to tell you all about what they think, who they are, and how they sound, but ask me what their hair color is and I stare at you like you have three heads. I am one of those people who will read a book and picture the characters as faceless blobs until the movie comes out to tell me what they look like. It’s terrible, I know. Especially when it came to casting. I’m just glad I didn’t have to make the final decision.

I find that this attribute is actually a talent in some ways. For example, because I didn’t have a specific image of each character, it didn’t break my heart when the director’s, dramaturg’s, and stage manager’s opinion on who should play a part all differed with mine. I just figured they knew what they were talking about and I trusted their judgment.

It also came in handy when director George Nelson approached me with the idea to set the play on a turntable. A turntable?! Usually world premieres are fairly true to script and not very conceptual, so when the idea of a turntable was mentioned… well, to say I was surprised would be an understatement. But I nodded my head and urged George to pursue his vision for the piece.

And it is fantastic.

The ideas that each member of the cast and crew have contributed make the words come to life. They create the world. And although I may not see where everything is headed or I may hear the characters deliver a line differently in my head, I love what this team has done with the script they were given.

I look forward to seeing what the next production will be like.