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!