Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ernest Gaines: A Timeless Storyteller


Ernest J. Gaines
(Photo by Joseph Sanford, courtesy Ernest J. Gaines Center)


Slidell Little Theatre's production of "A Lesson Before Dying" was adapted for the stage from the novel of the same name, written by Ernest J. Gaines. SLT's production is onstage through March 20, 2016.


By Cheylon Woods
In 1933 a child came into this world with so much potential to learn from, be influenced by, and influence the world around him. As the world was slipping in to political and economic devastation, no one knew that a small boy born on River Lake Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana would become Ernest J. Gaines, One of the most prolific and timeless authors of the 20th century.
Growing up on a plantation gave Ernest J. Gaines a unique type of perspective on life. Gifted with the talent of honest observation, as a child Gaines was able to perceive the crux of complicated social issues such as race, gender and class. He was also able to see how people influenced their world around them and how, in return, they were influenced by the world. As he embarked on his career he used all of the things her learned from River Lake Plantation, adolescence, and San Francisco State University to create honest depictions of how he saw life in the South. Mr. Gaines used the information he gleamed from observing personal interactions throughout his life to create characters that wholly embodied the essence of being alive. Characters like Miss Jane Pittman (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman), Catherine (Catherine Carmier), Louis (Of Love and Dust), and James and Jefferson (A Lesson Before Dying) all embody a realness that draws you deeper into your own awareness about self and the world you live in.
It is this realness that makes the work of Ernest J. Gaines so timeless and pointed. All of his books paint a complex picture of real life filled with love, sadness, hardship, betrayal, mistreatment, and hope that resonates beyond the Civil Rights Era. His novels and short stories strike at the heart of real issues such as racism, oppression of all kinds, miscarriage of justice, gender inequality,  while showing us that through it all people can still love, learn, be strong, progress, and care about one another and their places that shaped them.
The topics that can be found in Gaines’ writing are not only as old as humanity, but have been driving forces in shaping civilization, both good and bad, as we know it. To this day some are looking for ways to ensure equality for all while others may be looking to secure their personal power. We still look for love and acceptance while there are those who look  to live a life strictly by their own whims, unconcerned with who or what gets hurt in that process. Throughout his work, and throughout his career, Gaines strove to show the world a mirror of itself through a Southern lens. He crafted people from different upbringings, with different interests and peculiarities, and showed us both the good and the bad in all. Readers can find some vestige of themselves in all of his characters, and are reminded that they possess as many complexities as those on the page. His work forces us to think about our own perceptions reality and righteousness and how these ideas actually work in our own communities.  
 Common themes throughout Gaines’ work are the ideas of justice and accountability. In almost every novel there is some measure of justice and accountability, although often subtle. A Lesson Before Dying is one of his more powerful novels that directly puts these issues in the forefront for the reader. This book not only looks at the idea of justice and the justice system, but it also calls the idea of masculinity, advocacy, reality, and community responsibility to the forefront of our minds. All of the characters are confronted with their ideas of right and wrong through the incarceration of one man, and throughout the book you see how each character comes to some kind of terms with the idea of justice as it relates to the society that they live in. Gaines expertly crafted the story and characters of this book in a way that conveyed the true weight such an incident would have on a small community and community leaders today. In 2016 most people who read A Lesson Before Dying can remember at least one time during their lifetime where something similar happened, and their community (physical community or intellectual community) discussed the ideas of justice and personal accountability.
Ernest J. Gaines has created some of the most moving and accessible pieces of literature of the 20th century. He wrote during a time of social awakening which is reflected throughout his work. He strove to show the humanity in all and all of humanity, and succeeded doing so in such a way that is never dated. His characters are not locked in some era from so long ago, distanced from us by a great cultural chasm of days long gone, but are real, breathing and visible to us today. The plots and the characters created by Gaines so beautifully reflect the complexities that is life and humanity that they still resonate with readers more than fifty years since his career began. This in itself is the mark of a great author, and this is the mark of great literature. 

Cheylon Woods is the director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she is also the Center’s archivist and ULL assistant professor of Library Science. She received an MLIS from LSU and an MA in Heritage Resources from Northwestern State University.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

‘Tricked’ Into Acting, Williams Discovers Passion For Theatre

By Don Redman

Will Williams was a successful pharmacist, enjoying life as a husband and father of three children when he says he was tricked into acting at Slidell Little Theatre and he has never been the same.
Will Williams


Since his stage debut in the 1991 production of I’m Not Rappaport, Williams has appeared in the HBO series, Treme, as well as the movie, The Runner, featuring Nicholas Cage, and several independent films. But live theater remains his primary passion. He developed his craft in New Orleans at the Anthony Bean Community Theater and has appeared on stage at regional theaters in Houston, Pittsburgh, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio.

Will was introduced to the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fences, by August Wilson in 1993. Since that first introduction, he has become sort of a fixture in Wilson’s plays within the New Orleans theater arena.
He has recently returned from Ohio participating in a festival of August Wilson’s works and has been asked to return to take on a role in another Wilson work as soon as he completes directing A Lesson Before Dying at SLT.

Will's route to the stage is a convoluted and amusing story that began about 25 years ago when he was coaching his son’s youth basketball team and looking for a place to practice. That lead him first to Gwen Wade, the principal of Alton Elementary at the time, who then recruited Will to participate in Leadership Slidell (now Leadership   Northshore). It was through the community leadership development program that Will met Dr. Joan Archer, Leadership Slidell’s curriculum facilitator and a longtime patron of Slidell Little Theatre – and, according to Will, a devilish trickster.

It was during SLT’s 1991-1992 Season that Will was “tricked” by Joan into becoming an actor. He explains: “During a segment covering Cultural Events, Joan assigns me to cover an audition at SLT to become familiar with the organization’s workings. So, I appear at the audition ready to take notes and to my surprise I am asked by the director of the play, I’m Not Rappaport, to read for a character, Midge Carter, an old Black man. I explained to the director that I was only there to cover the audition for an assignment by Joan Archer. He told me that was not what was told to him by Joan Archer.”
 
Realized he had been set up by Joan Archer, Will reluctantly read for the part, largely because he didn’t want to appear rude. A week later, he received a call from the director asking him to start attending rehearsals for he had been cast in a leading role. Will met the director at the theatre and protested the casting, explaining he had never done theatre in his life.

One of the co-leads in the production – Bob Gault – overheard the conversation and became enraged that the theatre was trying to rope Will into a role that he did not want or ever intended to audition for. “(Bob) practically cussed the director out,” Will recalled. 

But there was a reason Joan Archer and others were adamant for Will to audition and accept the role. When a playwright specifies a character’s race, the theatre is obligated to cast the role accordingly or must cancel or postpone the production until the role is filled as written. “SLT had scheduled I’m Not Rappaport, a play that called for a role of an old black guy  conversing  on a park bench with an old Jewish guy, without considering where they were going to get the old black guy from,” Will explained. “The season line-up hinged on them securing an old black guy as the co-lead in the play.” 

Recognizing the theatre’s dilemma, Will reluctantly agreed to take the role. “The long and the short of it, I’m Not Rappaport  became my first play(not by choice); Bob Gault became my best friend in Slidell Little Theater (by choice); I received the Ginny Award that year for Best Actor; and SLT completed its season without canceling a show.”  
 
Will Williams, seated next to the late Bob Gault,
with the cast of SLT's 1991 production of I'm Not Rappaport
It wasn’t until a couple of months after his debut on stage that Will realized he had been bitten by the acting bug when he was asked to perform in a staged production of Driving Miss Daisy. “My wife insisted that I do the show because she had just read the book,” he said. After that, he was definitely hooked.

“I was attracted to theatre after meeting and working with so many people that really loved what they were doing,” he said. “The passion put into performing by all involved became sort of intoxicating.”

He maintains his interest in theatre today because he relishes the opportunity to allow audiences to see themselves portrayed on stage, as characters with whom they can identify or empathize. “It is fascinating to hear people say to you after they have seen a live stage play, ‘That was my uncle or father or brother or friend up there.’”

When offering advice to actors, Will passes along the words of wisdom he received from the artistic director at the Anthony Bean Community Theater in New Orleans: “Sit on a busy corner of any city or town and watch and listen to the people that pass by—they will tell and show you all you need to know about them.”

Will has come a long way from his first cold read from a script for I’m Not Rappaport, and he has developed some opinions about the auditioning process. “I have come to conclude that no matter how you prepare, it is all decided by some person that has it in his mind what type of ‘look’ he or she wants on his stage or in his film,” Will said. “You may deliver a perfect word-for-word monologue and if that person does not see you as what he sees in his mind, you are not getting that part. So don’t sweat it. Learn to take rejection, but prepare to the best of your ability.”

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Gumbo Cook-Off Committee Braces for Saturday's Event


 
Gumbo Cook-Off Committee
Front (from left) Christine Barnhill, Jackie Beau, Janet Robertson and
Tracy Gallinghouse; Back (from left) Allen Little, Steve Cefalu and Don Redman

Organizers of the 7th Annual Northshore Gumbo Cook-Off keep their expectations simple: all they want is good weather, great crowds, awesome music, and of course, award-winning gumbo. And after a year of preparation for this one day, it appears that all their expectations will be met this Saturday when the event gets underway under crisp, clear skies on the grounds of the Slidell Little Theatre, featuring 20 cook-off teams, live music, sweet treats, beverages, face painting and more.

At first blush an incongruent partnership, the Northshore Gumbo Cook-Off is made possible because of the efforts of volunteers from Slidell Little Theatre and the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), who share equally in the proceeds generated by the cook-off to be used for their youth programs. Additionally, both organizations direct some of the donations to Homeless Outreach for Youth in St. Tammany (HOYST), a very worthy program targeting the underreported displaced children in the parish.

The gumbo cook-off was the brainchild of the late Pat McCloud, who was desperate to find a funding mechanism for an expansion of the theatre that could be utilized to enhance and expand the theatre’s youth program. He found a kindred soul in Christine Barnhill-Tramel who straddled two worlds: theatre and construction. Christine had been very involved in SLT’s Young Actors Theatre of Slidell (YATS) program as well as with NAWIC’s various youth programs and soon a plan began to gel – a gumbo cook-off fundraiser benefitting the youth programs supported by SLT and NAWIC.

Meet the Team


The Gumbo Cook-Off committee is staffed by volunteers from both organizations, but most SLT volunteers will tell you that it is the NAWIC volunteers who do most of the heavy lifting. The committee is chaired by NAWIC’s Janet Robertson of Coast Concrete Services, Inc., whose leadership is rarely trumpeted, but extremely vital to the operations of the event. Other NAWIC committee members are Christine Barnhill, president of BillBar Construction, and Jackie Beau, co-owner of Beau's Air Conditioning and Heating. SLT committee members are Allen Little, Babette Griffin, Steve Cefalu, Tracy Gallinghouse and Don Redman.

Allen Little was on the original committee that organized SLT’s first youth program back in the 1970s. Presently serving as SLT’s vice president of Productions, Allen became involved in the community theatre when he moved to Slidell in 1970 and has been an integral part of the organization ever since. He has received numerous awards over the years, including being named St. Tammany Parish’s Performing Artist of the Year for 2010.

Allen Little and cast of 1982's On Golden Pond
It was only a few years after Allen became involved in SLT that Steve Cefalu appeared onstage in 1974. A multiple-award winning actor, Steve is a teacher of Talented Theatre in St. Tammany Parish. He credits the YATS program for having given his son Stephen Cefalu, Jr., the acting bug. Today, Stephen is an actor in Chicago and is in rehearsal a show making its world premiere next month.

The Country Girl - 1990
Christine Barnhill and Steve Cefalu
Babette Griffin has been involved the cook-off since the second event and has been deeply involved with the YATS program for years in various roles on the committee including treasure and co-director, and even directed a couple of YATS shows. She currently serves as Treasure on the SLT board of directors.
  
Rumors - 2009
Don Redman
Don Redman volunteers at the theatre in various capacities, most recently as chairman of the Grants Committee and editor of SLT’s audience guide, "Prologue." He was the 2006 recipient of the St. Tammany Parish Literary Artist of the Year Award and marked his official debut as a playwright with the critically-acclaimed adult comedy, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia’s Wolf Note?” 

Redman recalls his first experience with YATS in the early 1990s in the old playhouse, now just a slab in the parking lot. “Grace Marshall recruited me to lead the children in a session about voice projection  -- a not-to-subtle hint that she thought I was loud.

“It gives me immense pleasure to see that the youth program continues to thrive decades later and I hope every dollar we raise through the cook-off will not only enhance the experience of YATS participants, but will grow the program even further.”

During the hours of 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tracy Gallinghouse works as a paralegal in a New Orleans law firm. During her spare hours, she devotes her time and energy to Slidell Little Theatre, in the most recent capacity, as vice president of Marketing. 

“I thoroughly enjoy the people on the Gumbo Cook-Off committee and their passion for making gumbo and creating experiences for St. Tammany’s youth,” she says. “SLT’s YATS program allows us to reach out to youngsters, starting as early as age 4, and give them that feeling that is like no other – for that moment, you and the audience are one.”

Child’s Play


NAWIC supports youth through a variety of programs, including Block-Kids, Building Design program, and the Computer-aided Design (CAD) Scholarship Awards competitions. The CAD/Design/Drafting Competition is a contest designed for Senior High School students. The contest provides recognition to students for creative design, successful problem solving and craftsmanship in preparing architectural drawings. Since its founding, the NAWIC Founders’ Scholarship Foundation and NAWIC chapters nationwide have awarded more than $4 million in scholarships to students pursuing construction-related studies.

“One of the program's we have for kids K- 6 is our Block-Kids competition,” explains Jackie Beau. “The award-winning program introduces children to the construction industry in an effort to create an awareness of and to promote an interest in future careers in one of the many facets of the industry.”

 The competition involves the construction of various structures with interlocking blocks and three of the following additional items: A small rock, string, aluminum foil, and poster board.  “They build everything from recycling plants to communities,” says Beau.  “I really enjoy hearing the stories they tell about their projects.”

Another NAWIC program is MAGIC (Mentor a Girl in Construction) camp.  MAGIC is a free, week-long camp for high school girls providing opportunities for hands-on experience in activities such as plumbing, safety, carpentry and welding. 

YATS


Slidell Little Theatre’s renowned YATS program is designed to introduce young people between the ages of four and graduating high school seniors to the stage. And while certainly the primary focus is on providing students with skills needed for the stage, the program also teaches kids a whole lot more: self-discipline, teamwork, responsibility, work ethics, creativity, and self-empowerment.

Unlike any other children’s theatre camp on the north shore, Slidell Little Theatre’s program is the only one to offer help with college tuition through the Lonnie Hass Scholarship, which is awarded to YATS graduating high school seniors who intend to study the performing arts in college. Since the year 2000, Slidell Little Theatre, through its YATS program, has disbursed more than $50,000 to local YATS high school graduates to help further their studies in the performing arts.

HOYST


While St. Tammany is one of the wealthiest areas in the state, there are many people who don’t have the basic needs of food and permanent shelter.  HOYST uses its funding to offer youth 16 to 22 years of age transitional housing as well as supportive services that will lead to self-sufficiency and stable living conditions.

The success of this event could have an impact on the lives of thousands of school-age children and young adults on the Northshore by funding education programs and additional opportunities and resources. How can you help? Come join us this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., eat gumbo, listen to great music and simply enjoy the day. Helping our youth can’t be any easier.









Thursday, February 11, 2016

Audition Tips for Monty Python's Spamalot

 Director Larry Johnson, has these Top 10 Tips for auditioning:
  1. BE PREPARED. This is an audition! Knowing your material shows us you are serious about the role/character you are singing for. It will definitely make you less nervous, and when you know your material, you perform better.
  1. HAVE CONFIDENCE. This isn’t always easy, but I want to see the “BEST YOU” I possibly can. Hold your head high, smile, and plant your feet. Most importantly, don’t forget to breathe. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so make it count! DO NOT FAIL, FIND YOUR GRAIL!
  1. SHOW US YOUR PERSONALITY. It’s always great to see who the person is in their audition. It gives me an idea of what it’s like to work with you and shows you have character. This does not however mean wearing a suit of armor to the audition should be your first choice of wardrobe.
  1. TRY NOT TO MAKE EXCUSES. I don’t need to know that you’re sick, tired, or that you ran a marathon to get to the audition. Mistakes are expected, so don’t focus on them. Instead, focus on showing off what you’re capable of. When it’s your time to shine, work through whatever is in your way and SPARKLE.
  1. BE HONEST ABOUT CONFLICTS. Come prepared to write down your schedule conflicts during the production period. If in doubt, put it down. Be honest and clear. Misunderstandings can cause trouble later.
  1. IF ASKED TO MAKE A CHOICE, MAKE ONE. Your ability to take direction, respond to change, and make strong, clear choices when put on the spot shows me you’re willing and capable to “PLAY.”
  1. DON”T BLOCK OR CHOREOGRAPH YOUR AUDITION. I really want to hear you sing and look at your face. I’m looking to see how engaged you are in the song and listening to your voice. Movement is often very distracting, so keep it simple. Showcase your ability to act through your voice. This is an audition, not Dance Dance Revolution.
  1. REMEMBER WE ARE ON YOUR SIDE. The production staff and I want you to succeed. Don’t fear us, embrace the fact you have an audience and PERFORM.
  1. DON”T GET OFFENDED. If you don’t get to sing your whole song and someone else does, if someone gets to sing two songs, or if you don’t get a call back, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road. It simply means the production staff and I have seen and heard all we needed to.
  1. HAVE FUN! Yes, it’s an audition, yes, it’s serious, and yes, it’s stressful, but guys…it’s SPAMALOT! I can’t wait to see everyone at auditions….so ready, set, GO GET PREPARED!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Head of Ernest J. Gaines Center Discusses ‘A Lesson Before Dying’

Ernest Gaines Expert to Lead Audience Discussion
Following SLT performance of ‘A Lesson Before Dying’

The stage adaptation of Ernest Gaines’ critically-acclaimed novel, “A Lesson Before Dying,” makes its dramatic Northshore debut in Slidell Little Theatre’s retelling of a devastatingly powerful story that still resonates today.

Cheylon Woods
Ernest Gaines discussion set for March 6, 2016
(Photo courtesy Ernest J. Gaines Center)
Onstage March 4 – 20, “A Lesson Before Dying” tells the story of Jefferson, a young, black man in backwoods Louisiana in 1948, wrongfully accused and convicted of murder of a white man, and sentenced to death by electrocution.

Following the performance on March 6, Cheylon Woods, director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, will lead a discussion about the story’s relevance today and offer additional insight into Ernest Gaines the author.

Ernest J. Gaines, born in 1933 on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish near New Roads, La., is professor emeritus at ULL. His novel, “A Lesson Before Dying” won the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and is regularly included in high school English classes. In addition, his novel, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” is recognized as a classic in 20th century American literature.
Ernest J. Gaines
(Photo by Joseph Sanford)
Courtesy Ernest J. Gaines Center

Performances of Slidell Little Theatre’s production of “A Lesson Before Dying” are weekends, March 4 – 20. Curtains rise 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Slidell Little Theatre is also unveiling a new website that replaces the reservation system and allows audiences to purchase tickets and select their seats online. Tickets go on sale February 19 and can be purchased online at www.slidelllittletheatre.org. Admission is $16 for adults and $8 for students. There is no cost to attend the discussion on March 6, led by Cheylon Woods of the Ernest J. Gaines Center.


“A Lesson Before Dying” was adapted for the stage by Romulus Linney and is presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service. Slidell Little Theatre’s production is directed by Will Williams and produced by Marcello Barbaro.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Learning to Dance Like Jane Austen

Learning vintage dance steps.
(photo by Lee Dukes)

Cast Spends Weeks Learning Regency Era Dance Steps

By Don Redman

Dancing in Jane Austen’s era was a vital thread in the social fabric of the times.  The dance floor was the courting field where gentlemen and ladies in the marriage market could finally touch one another and spend some time chatting during their long sets or ogle each other without seeming to be too forward or brash.

Jane Austen socialized frequently with friends and neighbors, which often meant dancing, either impromptu in someone’s home after supper or at the balls held regularly at the assembly rooms in the town hall. Her brother Henry later said that “Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it.”

Regardless whether some gentlemen may have found dancing “a very trifling, silly thing,” they were nonetheless expected to memorize the rules of ballroom etiquette and to learn to dance well.

With dancing being such a vital part of Austen’s stories, Laura Mauffray Borchert, director of Slidell Little Theatre’s staged adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, needed a period choreographer. She found that person in a chance encounter with Anne Calvert at an event hosted by the New Orleans Jane Austen Society.

Anne Calvert, founder of the nonprofit North Shore Vintage Dancers organization in Covington, was
Anne Calvert
participating in the event with other vintage dancers when Borchert approached her and asked for help. Calvert readily agreed and even recruited a few of her own children to become a part of the stage production as dancers.

Calvert identified four different dances for the script and the rehearsals with the cast began on Day One. “The show hadn’t even been fully cast when we began rehearsing dances,” Calvert said. She said the cast took about four weeks to learn the dances.

Calvert’s introduction to vintage dancing took a very circuitous route. It began with the basics – ballet. When she was in her 30s. And pregnant. It was in 2000 when she went to a dance academy to enroll one of her daughters in ballet. The instructor convinced her that there was room for mom, too, and so Calvert began learning ballet alongside her daughter.

At the same time, she took up the violin with one of her sons and one day they were out in the community playing various tunes they had learned when they came across a troupe from the Louisiane Vintage Dancers from Baton Rouge who were dancing to one of their tunes. Intrigued by the group, Calvert and her kids began traveling to Baton Rouge and learning the various jigs and reels and other period dance steps. Calvert said that’s where her ballet lessons paid off.

“I found out that any kind of European dance goes back to ballet,” she said. “It helped with learning the historical dances.”

Calvert eventually branched off from the Baton Rouge group and founded her own dance troupe. It isn’t surprising that living in a historic region gives vintage dancers plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their skills. “We have been dancing in the community at the Jane Austen Festival and the Christmas Past Festival in Mandeville, at historic sites and plantations and with local ballet schools ever since,” says Calvert. “I was deeply involved in organizing Le Grand Bal victory dance as part of the 200 Year Celebration for the Battle of New Orleans last year.”

She and her dancers can also be glimpsed in the Academy Award-winning film, “12 Years a Slave.”

Calvert says her group is always looking for more members. If you are interested in learning historical dances and want to help keep the past alive – and lively – please send Anne Calvert an email at northshorevintagedancers@charter.net.  The North Shore Vintage Dancers can also be found on Facebook.


______________________________
Photos by Lee Dukes and Justin Redman

Lee Dukes has been taking photos for years and even donated his wildlife photographic artwork to help restore the Louisiana wetlands. That story can be found here. Once a popular actor on the SLT stage, Lee Dukes continues to support our productions from behind the curtain and, for "The Snow Queen," from behind the lens. Some of Lee's artwork can be found here.

Justin Redman is the current SLT Publicity chairman and he has been doing most of the heavy lifting (photographically speaking) for the past couple of years. A veteran of the U.S. Marines, Justin has recently returned to college to finish his degree in Communications at Southeastern Louisiana University. He is also the owner of Redman Media Productions and his work can be found 
here.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Jane Austen's Voice Resonates with Modern Audiences

Unappreciated in her day, Jane Austen has found
relevancy in the modern world

(Illustration by Don Redman

By Don Redman
How is it possible that a nineteenth century writer who was relatively unknown in her own lifetime could become one of the most influential authors today?
The theories vary among her fans, but there’s no denying that Jane Austen, an English spinster whose first novel was published anonymously, is today a household name. Austen is, as author Claire Harman said, much more than a mere writer, “she’s a cult, a brand and a cultural touchstone.”
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Alexander McCall Smith marvels, “(Jane Austen) is not only a climate of opinion, she is a movement, a mood, a lifestyle, an attitude and, perhaps most tellingly of all, a fridge magnet.”
And in 2017, she will also be the face of the British 10 pound banknote!
J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, grew up reading Austen, who she described as “the pinnacle to which all other authors aspire.” Writing in 1929, Virginia Woolf said of Austen: “Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.  That was how Shakespeare wrote . . .”
That’s lofty praise for a writer who never came to realize real success before her death at age 41.  Jane Austen’s first novel was published anonymously in 1811 – Sense and Sensibility, By a Lady – almost 20 years after her first draft. According to biographer Claire Harman, the book received “two brief, polite reviews, sold 500 copies and was swiftly forgotten.”
By the end of her life, she had published a total of six books, but after her death they fell out of favor and went out of print. That was until 1869 when her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published the first biography of Austen: A Memoir of Jane Austen.
“Victorian society became fascinated first by her exemplary, quiet life,” explains Claire Harman, “then by her novels.”
Writing for Stylist, Harman, author of Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, says this reintroduction to Jane Austen was the first opening of the floodgates leading to “Austenmania” in the modern era, with millions of copies of her books in print worldwide and translated in 35 languages, dozens of films and television series, hundreds of book sequels, games, dolls, toys, t-shirts and more. She has become a media mogul posthumously.
The Birth of Austenmania
Pop culture writer Anna Leszkiewiczi traces the outbreak of “Austenfever” to 1995 with the cinematic debut of Sense and Sensibility, as well as Persuasion, Clueless (Austen’s Emma reimagined) and the immensely popular BBC television production of Pride and Prejudice. It was also in 1995 that Doug McGrath began filming Emma and the BBC went into production on a television series, also Emma.
 “First there is no Jane Austen then it’s raining Jane Austin,” Leszkiewiczi wrote in the New Statesman. In 1996, Vanity Fair declared Austen “the hottest writer in show business,” and Entertainment Weekly ranked her among the Top 10 Entertainers of the Year for 1995.
But why? What sets Jane Austen from all the other authors that followed her? What is it about Jane Austen that 200 years after her death, she still has countless fans across the globe who read and reread her books, eagerly await the latest film adaptation, and who attend conventions in Regency Era costumes?
“Thanks to her sharp wit and strong female characters, Jane Austen’s literature is still utterly relevant,” writes biographer Claire Harman. “We read her because we feel she understands us – despite being born over two centuries ago.”
“Themes of family, love, and relationships in nineteenth century England were not much different than today,” says Laura Mauffray Borchert, director of a staged adaptation of Pride and Prejudice at Slidell Little Theatre. “They had their unique manner of dress and speech, but they were still just ordinary people living extraordinary lives.”
Issues facing the women in the nineteenth century still apply to today’s women, says Borchert. Women in Austen’s era “suffered society’s injustices, not unlike today where women are frequently under-paid and under-valued, creating the timeless fears of financial ruin and social disgrace.  Peer pressure and social expectations still control the hearts of the young facing the dilemma of whether to marry for love or for financial security, or whether to marry at all.”
Alexander McCall Smith agrees: “There are plenty of superficial romantic novels that are forgotten as soon as they are read. Austen is far from superficial. ... She is also extremely funny, able to paint the foibles of characters with a dry wit that has dated very little. Her books are intimate and compelling. She has a voice that somehow seems to chime even with a modern sensibility. She is, in essence, timeless.”
Ahead of Her Time
Or is it possible that Jane Austen is simply timely?
Today, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy would
communicate quite differently.
Claire Harman argues that Jane Austen was not successful in her own lifetime precisely because her audience was not quite ready for her. Instead, her stories are well-timed for today.
“In many ways, her books are more in tune with our times and tastes than her own,” writes Harman.  “In the first review she ever received, she was taken to task for a ‘want of newness’, but her books now seem markedly more original than anything else of the period.”
Harman cites for example the writings of Austen’s contemporary – Sir Walter Scott. Despite what is widely viewed today as dreadfully bad writing, in the 1800s, Scott’s books sold proportionally as well as Rowling’s Harry Potter series and he was adored by the critics, the same critics who were less than enthused with Austen. “Austen simply wasn’t loved by the reviewers of her time,” Harman writes. The plot in Emma was described as dull and Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet was said to be tacky and devoid of taste.
It is obvious, says Harman, that Austen was ahead of her times and that she was not understood or appreciated by her contemporaries. While it undoubtedly ruffled the feathers of the women of her time that she would lift the veil on money and marriage and social standing, audiences today howl at Elizabeth Bennet’s confession that she had begun to love Mr. Darcy when she first saw his vast estate. Creating main characters that cut against the grain of society, Austen was consciously stepping out of her own times.
Romancing the Tome
It could be, too, that fans are simply lured by the romanticism and wit in Jane Austen’s books. Writer Lori Smith likens Jane Austen’s books and movies to “literary comfort food.”
Jane Austen is the mother of the romance novel, says Harman, who also recognizes the appeal of Austen’s fantasy world where “there are single men of good fortune like Mr. Darcy round every corner, in possession of a stately home and in want of a wife. There’s something for everyone: a great plot, a happy ending (always), carriages, ball gowns and romance.”
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, James Collins says Austen’s focus on moral education is the key to understanding Austen’s appeal today.
“Jane Austen is very funny,” writes Collins. “Her characters are vivid. The poise of her sentences is perfect... However, to write brilliant novels was not Jane Austen's foremost goal: What was most important to her was to provide moral instruction.”
And what does Jane Austen teach us? According to Collins, in addition to instructing us on “self- knowledge, generosity, humility, elegance and sensibility,” Jane Austen is the only credible writer who can “show us that it is possible to have moderation and deep feeling, good dinners and good poetry.”
Writing in the New York Times in 1995, Edward Rothstein tried to explain the Austen phenomenon similarly: “As Austen keeps showing, again and again, the language of gesture and counter-gesture ultimately reveals a person's deepest nature.” However, with the decline in manners in today’s ever-growing crass society, we are left to “gaze upon Austen's world with … envy.”
Manners and morals side, virtually every writer commenting on the power of Jane Austen notes her humor and wit as first and foremost among her assets. That’s also why she’s so widely adored today, says Laura Boyle, a contributing writer at the Jane Austen Centre.
Austen’s allure, says Boyle, is “her keen observation of human nature tempered by humor and the ultimate romance of the playful, witty repartee between her hero and heroine.” According to Boyle, many of today’s romance movies and books fail to deliver because they “lack an essential element of romance– witty repartee.”
“Playfulness and wit are something we all look for in our romantic attachments,” says Boyle. “How often has a female friend described the new man in her life to you as someone who makes her laugh? We all seem to be looking for someone to share a few laughs with on the road of life. There is also something so sexy about being intellectually engaged with another which can only be improved by the addition of humor.”

Whether drawn by her humor and wit or by romance and social commentary, Jane Austen’s fans are lured by her voice, resonating across the expanse of time with relevancy even in the twenty-first century.
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RESOURCES
Laura Boyle: Jane Austen’s Wise Wit https://www.janeausten.co.uk/jane-austens-wise-wit/
Alexander McCall Smith: The Secret of the Jane Austin Industry - http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-secret-of-the-jane-austen-industry-1427473889
James Collins: Jane Austen’s Lesson for the Modern World -- http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703683804574531863687486876
Claire Harman: Jane Austen, An Influential Woman - http://www.stylist.co.uk/books/jane-austen-an-influential-woman
Anna Leszkiewiczi: Why 1995 was the year Jane Austen catapulted into pop culture - http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2015/12/austenmania-why-1995-was-year-jane-austen-catapulted-pop-culture
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Don Redman, associate editor of the AAA Southern Traveler magazine, is a veteran journalist whose work has been recognized by the Louisiana Press Association and the Associated Press. In 2006 Redman was named the St. Tammany Parish Literary Artist of the Year. A former volunteer on the Board of Directors, he is the editor of Prologue, SLT’s main stage audience guide and he volunteers as the Grants chairman.