“Jane Austen UnScripted” is like fan fiction with a live audience, created in real time

By Christina Campodonico

The cast of “Jane Austen UnScripted” riffs on the milieu of Regency England to bring Austen’s literary world to life

The one thing audiences can know to expect from Impro Theatre’s completely extemporaneous show “Jane Austen UnScripted” is a ballroom dance.

“We don’t rehearse anything that’s set, except for the dance,” explains Impro Theatre producing artistic director Dan O’Connor, who co-directs performances at The Broad Stage this weekend.

But that’s not to say the cast knows when, if, or how the dance will appear in the random course of events that unfolds from an audience suggestion taken at the top of every show.

“You may know the dance very well,” says O’Connor, “but you’re doing it as a character that you just created. So now are you dancing with the person you’re in love with? Are you bitter because the girl you’re in love with is in love with a different boy? Are you a fop? Are you a cad? Are you the sister who’s jealous of one of the ladies? … All of the grist for the mill, in terms of what’s going on narratively, also has to play during that dance.”

Character, motivation, dance steps. It’s a lot to remember when you’re making up a show completely from scratch and in real time.

But Impro Theatre has managed to pull off the miraculous time and again since forming in 2004, staging completely unscripted and fully improvised riffs on Shakespeare, Chekhov, Sondheim and even film noir.

“The pleasure of Impro is its tightrope walk of sustained improvisation. The possibility of failing — or at least stumbling — gives its work its giddy buzz,” wrote the Los Angeles Times of Impro’s “L.A. Noir UnScripted.”

But how does Impro pull off the magic of making up shows on the spot?

“How we prepare is like we would for a written piece,” says O’Connor. “We read everything we can.”

For “Jane Austen UnScripted,” for instance, the cast read and researched everything that they could on Regency England, the time period when Austen lived and set many of her novels.

“In one of the very first productions we did, we assigned people — ‘you go research the military, you go research food, you go research dances.’ And everybody came in and we were able to define the cultural bandwidth of Regency England for everybody so that, like learning the scales to play the saxophone, we got the basics down,” says O’ Connor.

That historical knowledge allows the cast to not only better understand the life and times of the writer they’re studying, but also defines the boundaries of the world they’ll be creating on stage.

“It was important to get as close to Jane Austen as we could,” says O’Connor. “That allows us the freedom, once we start improvising, to know the story’s going here or there … and we’re going
to be able to do it in a way that if Jane Austen was sitting in the audience, she would recognize what it is we are doing.”

The reception of “Jane Austen UnScripted” from even the most hardcore Janeites (or Jane Austen devotees) has been warm, notes O’Connor.

“They’re happy we’re carrying the Jane Austen torch,” he says, adding that the company has performed “Jane Austen UnScripted” for the Jane Austen Society of America, as well as gained the seal
of approval from Jane Austen societies in Canada.

The aim of each improvisation, explains O’Connor, is ultimately not to parody but to pay homage to Austen’s work.

“Like any sort of fan fiction,” he says, “it’s something that continues her tradition.”

 

“Jane Austen UnScripted” plays at 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 15, 16 and 17) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St. Santa Monica. Tickets are $65. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.org.

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