Discovering Austen poster

Promotional poster for “Discovering Austen,” a one woman show by Kristin Hammargren.

This post originally appeared on the Library as Incubator Project in 2012. We revisit our interview with Kristin Hammargren this week, 200 years after Austen’s death.

Kristin is still performing Discovering Austen in the Midwest! Check out the upcoming performance dates.

The Library as Incubator Project is pleased to welcome Kristin Hammargren for an interview on her upcoming one woman show, Discovering Austen (running Thursday, January 26 – Saturday, January 28, 7:30 p.m. at the Hemsley Theatre, 821 University Avenue in Madison, Wisconsin). – Laura

Please describe the show for us.

Discovering Austen is a one-woman show that I developed for my MFA Thesis. It’s set in the dressing room of an actor who has been cast as Jane Austen in a play about the author’s life. Before the show on opening night, she is trying to answer her last nagging questions about who Jane Austen really was.

Why this particular subject matter?

Jane Austen has been one of my all-time favorite authors since I first read Emma when I was maybe 12 or 13. However old I was, I remember it took me 15 minutes to read a page, the language was so complex to me. Like the actor in the show, I didn’t know much about the life of Austen before starting this project and was fascinated to experience first hand the twist and turns of negotiating how she is presented at different times in history and by different people.

For all of the hundreds of books that have been written on her (and who knows how many dissertations) up to very recently there has been some major misinformation available, letters that her family edited, doctored pictures of her, etc. So, even though she died almost 200 years ago, in some ways scholarship about Austen is very new.

Kristin Hammargren headshot

Kristin Hammargren will perform her one woman show, Discovering Austen, January 26-28 in Madison, WI.

What sort of research did you do in order to develop the script?

I read nothing but Austen or books about Austen for about 3 months straight before starting the actual writing process. I reread all of her novels and read for the first time her minor works, letters, and several biographies/scholarly books.  I also tried to expose myself to all of the different interpretations that are out there today of Austen and her work. Part of what I deal with in the story is how she is represented or most often misrepresented as a person or even dumbed down as a writer, particularly in film adaptations.

What sort of research did you do in order to develop your own performance?

For the performance itself, I did a little bit of research about the time period. In terms of style, I really had it easy because some of the film adaptations of Austen are quite accurate in terms of clothing, movement and manners. Other than that, it’s been looking for specific bits of inspiration to distinguish the twenty or so characters I play.

Can you talk a little bit about the scriptwriting/performance process?

Writing the script has been so fascinating. I started by making a timeline of the events in her life I thought were significant and could be woven together as storylines. My first draft ended up being a very long, essentially biographical tale. It was not very dramatic. My second draft became a little more like a play but was still way too long. I had so much information and so many pieces from her writing that I wanted to include.

In the end, I’ve had to pare down the story to something that feels more like a play than a lecture and can (hopefully) keep an audience engaged for an hour and a half. The fascinating part has been that things I wrote twenty drafts ago and cut maybe ten drafts ago will come back, maybe just a sentence, but the final script really has woven itself together from many different iterations going back over the past six months.

Any specific titles that you would recommend for people interested in learning more about Jane Austen?

If you’re looking for information about Jane Austen, the best biography I encountered was Jane Austen: A Family Record by Dierdre LeFaye. She also edited the collection of her letters, aptly titled, Jane Austen’s Letters. There are lots of letters but some of them are really fun.

UW-Madison professor Emily Auerbach wrote a book called Searching for Jane Austen, which completely opened my eyes to Austen’s legacy and the way she is treated in today’s society. It’s a great read but you probably would want to be familiar with most of Austen’s novels to really get into it.

A great compromise between information about Austen and fiction is Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon. It’s a great, quick, epistolary novel from author Fay Weldon to her (fictional) niece as she encounters Austen as a freshman in college. If you want to read Austen herself, pick up the Juvenilia, this is everything she wrote as a teenager, and it is hilarious and engaging. She had the same keen eye in her youth but a much more melodramatic style. The Juvenilia is really fun.

Kristin Hammargren is an MFA candidate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Theatre & Drama. For more information about Kristin’s show, including ticket information, please visit the Discovering Austen website.  

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