As a long time member of JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America), I’ve been to many of their annual conferences, held in different parts of the country every October. The one that took place in Huntington Beach, California, last weekend, was one of the best ever. I live about an hour’s drive north of there, but I wasn’t sure the location was ideal because Los Angeles is so spread out, with cultural centers of interest such as the two Getty Museums and the Huntington Library and its famous gardens being quite far away. However, it was a great success. The spa hotel on the beach was beautiful, making you feel as if you were away from the world in a golden pampered spot; and all the side trips were well managed.
In addition to helping with preparatory matters behind the scenes over the last couple of years (duties ranging from stuffing envelopes, to helping review the long list of speakers), I also participated on the front lines when the conference went live. I was glad that my play, “You are Passionate, Jane,” took place on the first night of the conference, as it was my big event and it was good to get it done so I could relax! The play is a two person dialogue between Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte in Heaven. Jane is the literary gatekeeper who decides which authors can enter, and she is not sure about Charlotte, whom she dislikes. She questions her rigorously, and Charlotte defends her choices passionately, so things become pretty intense – though it is a comedy. My friend Syrie James, best selling author and former Austen Variations associate member, played Jane Austen, while I was Charlotte Bronte. Syrie is a skilled actress who plays heavenly Jane with elegance, while I form a contrast, trying to be a fiery Charlotte! For me, as a writer, it is a thrilling experience to perform in my own play, and to see, on the spot, how the audience responds to the words you have written! It’s a unique learning experience too, both for writing and acting. We’ve performed the play a few times, most recently at Chawton House Library in England, and each time I’ve seen what parts the audience responds to most, emotionally and comedically, and that has shown me how to say the speeches more effectively. I can honestly say I’ve seen ‘em laugh and seen ‘em cry, and it’s only made me want to write more plays!
But that wasn’t the end of the performance anxiety. In addition to introducing a couple of the speakers, and socializing with high speed intensity with Janeites from all over the country whom I’d met over the years, I also had the great fun and honor of participating on the Austen Variations panel with our group’s co-founders Maria Grace and Abigail Reynolds. This event turned out to be less formal than most of the speakers’ sessions, because it directly followed the grand banquet, and therefore took the form of a more relaxed, after-dinner sort of conversation. We talked about how we each came to Austenesque writing, how the group was founded, how it operates, how we find our inspirations, our methods of working together, and how we publish. Pretty interesting stuff, both technical, literary, and personal, and there were lots of audience questions.
So that was what I personally did at the AGM, but oh, there was so much more! More than 30 speeches, including brilliant keynote talks by Gillian Dow, head of Chawton House Library and the effervescent Devoney Looser; conversation with film director Whit Stillman and a screening of his film Love and Friendship; and so much more. The Emporium was a wonder, full of Jane Austen merchandise, books, and gorgeous costumes for sale. And when you had enough of being indoors, a step outside took you to the beach, or to one of several very good restaurants, to sit at an outdoor table under an umbrella, gazing at the sparkling sea, everything bathed in the most glorious sunshine. At one point I was eating meringue with figs, pomegranate seeds and cream, while catching up with a bunch of like-minded friends both old and new, and felt as if I was in the heaven of my own play. And I haven’t even mentioned the costumes and the ball! Well, I shall decorate the page with pictures I took, hoping to share the images and pleasures of the JASNA conference that danced before my eyes for four days.