Arvada Center Blog
An Interview with Jessica Austgen, playwright of Sin Street Social Club
by Leslie Simon
When English Restoration writer Aphra Behn wrote The Rover in 1677, she broke cultural barriers and became a role model for women authors everywhere. Reputedly the first Englishwoman to make her living writing, Behn broke barriers that subversive female playwrights continue to break down today. The Arvada Center is proud to present the World Premiere of Sin Street Social Club, a play based off The Rover that we commissioned Colorado playwright Jessica Austgen to write. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Jessica Austgen about writing Sin Street Social Club and the importance of female playwrights.
Q: Why did you choose to adapt The Rover, and what differences will we see in Sin Street Social Club?
A: The Rover is widely considered to be the first play written by a professional female playwright and is an important part of theater history but…it hasn’t really aged well. The cast size is humongous (twenty-one named characters!), some of the language is pretty antiquated and—most notably—it features one of Restoration Comedy’s most problematic tropes: comic sexual assault. Sin Street Social Club cuts the cast size to nine, streamlines the plot and moves the action away from 17th century Naples and lands in the tawdry Storyville District of 1917 New Orleans. The plot does still involve the aforementioned moments of sexual harassment and assault but reframes them and, hopefully, puts more power in the hands of the female characters.
Q: Have you learned anything valuable from Aphra Behn on your own journey as a playwright?
A: Aphra Behn was a phenomenal, fascinating figure. I think I was impacted by her tenacity and willingness to compete with her male peers and succeed. She made it into the history books and that is no small feat.
Q: Why is it so important to have female voices represented, both as a writer and a character on stage?
A: While any writer of any gender can write female characters, there’s a difference between imagining a life, and drawing from your own life experiences. Also, it’s so important for everyone—women, people of color, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, people of different ages—to see themselves represented on stage. If theater is for everyone, then it is crucial that—at some point, in some script, at some theater—they see a version of themselves up there under those lights. How can a human know that they are welcome at the theater if they don’t ever see someone up there who looks like them? Or sounds like them? Or moves like them? They can’t. We have to tell all kinds of stories if the theater is truly for all people.
Q: What do you hope the future of female playwrights looks like?
A: I hope at some point, female (and POC, and LGBTQ, etc) playwrights are prevalent enough in this industry that we can just call them “playwrights.”
Sin Street Social Club opens in the Arvada Center Black Box Theatre on March 15, and runs until May 19. Tickets are on sale now!
An interview with Abner Genece of The Diary of Anne Frank
How often have you attended a play with a vision of what the characters look like beforehand? What happens when they look nothing like what you expected? With today’s atmosphere geared toward inclusion and racial equity, diversity in casting is a hot topic. Color-conscious casting aims to choose performers based on their skill and character fit, but also to embrace how an actor’s race, gender, or disability can reveal new and interesting elements of a character and a story. In the Arvada Center’s 2019 Black Box Repertory season, The Diary of Anne Frank uses color-conscious casting for the role of the Dutch character Hermann van Daan. We spoke with Abner Genece, who portrays Mr. van Daan, on his views of casting diversity and how it can illuminate a play’s universal themes:
- In this spring’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank, you play Mr. van Daan, a character who in real life was a white Jewish Dutch man. As a man of Haitian descent, how did you approach inhabiting the character?
As a man of Haitian descent, I approach the character with a deep sense of respect, admiration and sincerity for Hermann van Daan’s cultural identity and historical significance. In The Diary of Anne Frank, I’m telling the story of a man who actually lived; a specific man: of a specific culture and time in history. My goal is to honor his story and culture as best I can, using all the tools that I have (including my own cultural perspective). In the end, I am telling his story within Anne’s story, in a way that aims to serve and enlighten.
- What universal themes of the play do you think are illuminated when race and ethnicity are not a factor while casting?
I recognize numerous themes that infuse my character’s journey in the play; such as honor, pride, resiliency, patience, humor, discrimination, passion, diligence, love, and loss. My goal was to bring such themes forth, through the character’s perspective.
- How do theatres respectfully create racially diverse companies and casts while recognizing the playwright’s original intentions?
I feel that it begins with an open, honest dialogue. How does one choose to define the position of the company? Is the theatre asking the right questions when it comes to racially diverse companies and casts? We, as theatre artists, have an opportunity to explore such questions with sensitivity, curiosity, and honesty. For me, it’s also important to remember that historically-marginalized groups, as a whole (such as those of African descent, for example) have never been on completely equal footing with regard to “mainstream” storytelling. To a large degree, choices in storytelling have been based on preconceived notions. To start these dialogues with such truths, with each story told, requires patience, commitment, and discipline.
- Diversity of casting is an important part of the Arvada Center’s IDEA initiative (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access). How does this affect the stories we can tell and how a philosophy of IDEA can play a part in telling those stories?
For me, the Arvada Center’s IDEA initiative represents an exciting opportunity to approach and tell stories with uniquely fresh perspectives. The truths of these stories can be explored through formerly hidden lenses. My very casting illustrates a commitment to the philosophy of IDEA, and seeks to uncover truths that can be revealed and celebrated for the benefit of our audiences.
The 2019 Black Box Repertory Company features a rotating cast of talented actors – both new and familiar faces. Meet the company, and learn more about the plays presented this season, on the Arvada Center website. The Diary of Anne Frank runs until May 17.