Improv a taste of Jane Austen, unbound

They’ve read the books, watched the movies and learned the minutiae of 17th-century etiquette. But only a few things are certain in advance for the cast of an improvised show inspired by the writing of Jane Austen, according to director Dave Morris.

“Everyone will be rich, even the poor people. And nothing’s ever really at stake. The only [crisis] is, ‘Oh, you’re not going to get married. And you’re going to have to live in a cottage instead of a mansion,’ ” he said. “That’s all we really know.”

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Poking fun at the problems of the rich and satirizing expectations of marriage are some ways the eight-member cast plan to pay tribute to the English author, who did the same in her writing.

But while Paper Street Theatre will wing it come showtime, it doesn’t mean they haven’t prepared.

In addition to running rehearsals, Morris distributed reading lists consisting of Austen’s greatest hits (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma) and hosted a movie night that included contemporary interpretations of Austen’s work (Bridget Jones’ Diary and Clueless).

Paper Street Theatre made its debut in 2011 presenting improv inspired by theatre greats like Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams.

This year, Morris has redirected his team to honour literary stars. The season has included a Halloween show dedicated to horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and a Christmas show for Charles Dickens.

“We study a playwright or a writer or a genre and figure out what it is that makes that genre that genre. Then we tell our own stories in that style,” Morris said.

An important part of the process is getting to know the author’s personal history, he said, and how that history influenced their writing.

“H.P. Lovecraft was very frightened of the world. He was agoraphobic — he shut himself in. And all his books are about fear of the unknown,” said Morris.

“Charles Dickens, he grew up very poor. His parents were put into the workhouses for not paying their taxes properly and he grew up never wanting to be poor his entire life.”

Paper Street Theatre incorporated those themes, as well as Lovecraft’s verbose writing style and Dickens’ playfulness.

They took the same approach for Austen, who never married.

“You see that in all of her books: All the characters always start out not getting married and finding the whole idea of it ridiculous. They want to be sort of independent. And they all like writing or reading or music, which are things Jane Austen liked.”

The biggest challenge for the cast has been learning etiquette. In Austen’s time, for example, you couldn’t address someone who was too far out of your social class. You could only address someone one class above you and hope they’d introduce you to the person you really wanted to speak with higher up.

“It turns into this weird game of telephone, which is where a lot of the comedy comes from in Jane Austen,” he said.

But Austen offered some differences, too, such as the opportunity to showcase a strong female cast. Morris said that wasn’t possible with Dickens or Lovecraft, who both wrote male characters, primarily.

“I think this is the largest cast of female improvisers I’ve had the pleasure of directing,” he said.

“It’s nice to have about an even cast, where the men get to hang back and the women take the lead.”

Yes and Yesteryear by Paper Street Theatre

When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Intrepid Theatre Club

Tickets: $12 at Russell’s Books and at the door

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