For Homewood Library Program Director Ashley Sander, the evening production of “Improvised Jane Austen” on June 27 was something of a homecoming. She said she was introduced to the troupe’s masterful improvisation skills as part of her birthday celebration a few years ago.
She loved the show so much, she immediately added it to the diverse list of classes, presentations, and experiences she curates for the library to present Homewood residents.
The troupe’s Homewood debut received rave reviews from the audience, but as it turned out, the live performance in March 2020 was one of the library’s last before COVID closed everything down a week later. This encore improv presentation picked up where that left off and brought down the house.
So what is “Improvised Jane Austen?” It is both the name of the troupe and the title of this purely off-the-cuff show, which limits its improv scenario to the Regency world of Jane Austen. The rest is built on audience participation, the actors’ improv skills and their knowledge of what it might be like to be constrained by the societal rules in place in Austen’s world. The only pre-determined elements are the show’s setting in 18th century Regency England and the Comedy of Manners style of Austen’s writings.
There is no plot to follow, no dialogue to memorize. Instead, the actors bring their characters and their situation to life via a mix of audience participation and the knowledge and verbal dexterity of the troupe’s actors, Katt Parker-Barrows, Daryn Robinson, Emily Friedrick, and Fee Basanavicius.
To begin, the four-person troupe asked the audience to shout out a letter of the alphabet, there was a little hesitation, but the first letter out was a “P.” The audience then was asked to provide two words starting with “P” and they came up with “passion” and “predilection,” which became the theme of the performance.
Once that was established, the actors snapped into character, acquired British accents and began spinning a hilarious conversational tale of romance, rejection and societal mores worthy of any Austen novel.
As the performance progressed, the actors smoothly moved between multiple roles, morphing from a demure 23-year-old in danger of becoming a spinster into an overbearing grandmother, or from a hormonally emotional 21-year-old in competition with her sister for the same suitor to eavesdropping busybody servant with her ear to every door.
The Improvised Jane Austen troupe has been interpreting the author on stage since 2008 and currently boasts a roster of a dozen actors, all with robust improv experience.
If you can’t wait for their next booking at the Homewood Library, you can catch their act at 8 p.m. on Saturdays in the Weed Theater at the iO! Theater in Chicago.