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How two playwrights brought Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ to life

Tara Raczenski
Tara Raczenski (Courtesy of the playwright)

Sarah Rose Kearns (Courtesy of the playwright)
Sarah Rose Kearns (Courtesy of the playwright)

It’s one thing to read “Persuasion” and take in its themes and characters. It’s another to take those themes and characters and bring them to life on stage. Tara Raczenski and Sarah Rose Kearns have both done just that. The two are scheduled to talk about their “Persuasion” adaptations at the Jane Austen Summer Program in June.

Raczenski says she grew up in central Kentucky entertaining herself from an early age by creating her own world. That became a desire to create those worlds to entertain others. She got a degree in theater and began teaching and directing for children. She eventually became interested in writing plays. “Besides writing,” she says, “I continue to freelance as a teacher and director in order to feed my new and growing addiction to historical costuming.”

Kearns grew up in Champaign, Ill., then moved to New York City after high school to study acting. Eventually, she got her undergraduate degree in creative writing at Columbia University.

We talked with them about their respective adaptations of “Persuasion”:

Tell me about your interest in Austen and about your adaptation specifically? Raczenski: I had been a fan of Austen’s books and film adaptations for some time when I “discovered” Persuasion in 2013. The impulse to adapt it grew from a desire to stay in that world a little longer. … Anne’s world is largely internalized, which is not so conducive to the action and dialogue required by the stage. [In my adaptation,] I addressed the challenge by giving Anne someone to talk to. This confidant became “Anne of Eighteen,” younger and still hopeful, the embodiment of all her past regrets, present mortifications and undiminished desires. I treated the character of Frederick in a similar manner with “Frederick of Twenty-Five, a spirited and confident young man still deeply hurt from Anne’s rejection of him. This was a departure from Austen, who does not generally write from the man’s perspective, but I found interest and justification in Frederick’s actions and especially in his own eventual admission to Anne of being his own worst enemy.

Following several sessions with a wonderful group of local actors who helped me flesh out the text, David Briggs, Daniel Seaman and many of the actors from the table work generously assisted me in a theatrical staging at High Point Theatre in October 2014. This production was of tremendous value to me and to the process. Like Frederick, “I cannot think of it (or them) without gratitude and admiration. “

Kearns: This is my first full-length play, and I have immensely enjoyed the process of writing it. Playwriting seems a natural way of marrying my interests in literature and theater. It is certainly something I plan to continue doing. “Persuasion” is, perhaps, my very favorite novel. I remember reading it for the first time when I was about 13. I had read “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” a year or two before, but the language was just a little too difficult for me, at that time, to appreciate them truly. It was “Persuasion” that made me a thorough Janeite. I adored Anne Elliot (and I still do).

Kearns’s adaptation will be staged in New York on April 23. (Courtesy of the playwright)

My play has not yet been performed, but it’s scheduled to receive a staged reading at a JASNA regional conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on April 23.

How closely do you feel adaptations have to hew to the original material? Where there aspects of the book you felt strongly about including or excluding? Raczenski: It’s a predicament. Some moments are clearly “too good, too excellent” to exclude, but departures which condense the action while expanding the meaning are essential. Even if only for practical purposes. There is a great deal of meaningful action and dialogue, for example, in the walk to Winthrop and Frederick’s assisting Anne into the carriage. A carriage on stage however, while impressive, is expensive, cumbersome and difficult to house when not in use. As are horses. So, I depart and look for opportunities to infuse the meaning of that action into other scenes and other moments. I struggled along these same lines with the scene featuring the Musgrove boys. Having children in a cast, especially knaves so young as Little Charles and Walter, is a real and practical difficulty. However, the moment when Frederick releases Anne from Walter’s clutches is so fraught with delicious conflict, and frankly so deeply and subtly romantic that I hated to leave it out. Eventually the card-carrying romantic in me won out over practicality, and I am hopeful I have found an interesting way around that predicament.

Kearns: Theoretically, I think it’s much more important that an adaptation be strong and satisfying on its own, than that it preserve any kind of “faithfulness” to its source material. Whenever I view an adaptation, I do try hard to take it at face value — to feel my way through the story as presented, rather than getting hung up on comparisons.

Good work is good work, whatever its likeness to the thing that inspired it.

In my own case, however, I find that I am particularly interested in exploring Austen’s characters and themes. I wanted to ask some of the same questions she asks in the novel — questions about love, family, gender identity, and how one adapts to cultural change.

It was also important to me (perhaps excessively so; it’s the method actor in me) to make the world of the story very detailed and coherent. I wanted the dialogue I wrote to feel consistent with Austen’s prose, so I did not include any syntax or vocabulary that could not have been used by English-speakers in 1806/1814-15.

I also strove for historical accuracy regarding social customs: to the best of my knowledge, any impropriety committed by the characters in my play is coded as such, within their world.

Raczenski’s adaptation, with Bailey Rene Snodgrass, Jason Marc Pierce, Amanda Mayes, Spencer Kapral, Casey Crabtree. (Courtesy of the playwright)

If you could cast anyone in your adaptation, who would it be? Raczenski: Since we are speaking hypothetically, I’m going to be totally self-serving and say, Tara of Twenty-nine. (Isn’t that the age Oscar Wilde recommends staying?) Anyway, I’m nearly 42 now, and I have come to terms with the fact that I’ll never play Anne (of either eighteen or twenty-eight), but when I read the book, Anne is the character I want to be. She’s the one I become. And by the way, Frederick and I are doing very well, thank you.

Kearns: That’s a tough question! As far as movie stars go, I adore the cast of the 1995 film adaptation – especially Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. I find that film somewhat unsatisfying, in some of the ways that the screenplay compresses the story. But the people and music and cinematography are GORGEOUS. So it would be cool to have those folks doing my script. But the real truth is, I wrote this piece envisioning people I know in the roles. My truly ideal cast is the one I am working with now.

Or, obviously, Meryl Streep.

What novel would you want to adapt next — Austen or otherwise? Raczenski: I’m currently collaborating on a new musical adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North & South.” Also, I have recently completed a first lighthearted step into fan fiction with “ˆDear Lydia. Love Kitty.” (In Which an Ignorant and Insipid Young Lady Gets Precisely What She Deserves: A Second Chance).

Kearns: I have not yet started writing my next play, but I suspect it will be another adaptation. “Silas Marner” by George Eliot, one of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, and some of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales on my radar. As far as Austen, I am drawn to “Mansfield Park” (such an underrated novel!) and I think I may attempt that someday — but it would certainly be a challenge: it’s almost twice as long as “Persuasion,” and rather less straightforward in its sympathies.

Have you been to the Jane Austen Summer Program before? If not, what are you looking forward to the most? Raczenski: I have not, and I am looking forward to simply all of it. Especially the ball.

Kearns: I have never been to the Jane Austen Summer Program before, but I look forward to spending four days with a lot of people who love Austen as much as I do. I was utterly thrilled to see that Jocelyn Harris will be there! Her book, “A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression” has had a great impact on my understanding of this novel, and colored the interpretation of it in my play. I cannot wait to hear her keynote lecture.


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