Regional Conference Report — “Austen at Altitude”
at the Denver Center for Performing Arts
April 13, 2013

By Leee Overmann and Joan Ray

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In conjunction with the world premiere of Sense and Sensibility, The Musical, which opened at the Stage Theater of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) on April 11th, the JASNA regional groups of Pikes Peak and Denver/Boulder hosted the “Austen at Altitude” conference at the DCPA Jones Theatre on April 13th. But events were hardly limited to that day!

Nearly 50 conference attendees opted to attend the musical’s April 11th world premiere (reviewed here), which features a Broadway creative team, Broadway singers/actors, and splendid music and staging. After rendering a well-earned standing ovation, many JASNA attendees attended the cast party in the DCPA’s Seawell Grand Ballroom. Earlier that day, attendees enjoyed a backstage tour of the DCPA, the largest performing arts center in the United States. This theatre complex is far more glamorous and technically sophisticated than the stage with the green baize curtain at Mansfield Park! It was great fun and a real learning experience to see how a multi-theatre complex like the DCPA operates behind the scenes.

The highlight of “Austen at Altitude” was the Saturday conference. Welcomed by conference host, former JASNA President and Emerita Professor Joan Ray (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs), Princeton’s Claudia Johnson gave a superb keynote address, “Jane Austen’s Altitude.” As we always expect will be the case with Professor Johnson, whom Joan readily acknowledged as the Austen scholar from whom she has learned the most, Claudia’s talk made everyone in the audience think more about how we read and interpret Austen’s novels. Playing on the Burkean sublimity of our setting amidst the Rocky Mountains in the mile-high city of Denver, Claudia reminded us that sublimity deals with “the mind’s encounter with its own limitations.” Hence, Sense and Sensibility defies sense and sensibility in terms of its characters’ abilities to interpret other characters and events. For example, upon learning about Willoughby’s engagement to Miss Grey, Elinor observes to Colonel Brandon, “‘Willoughby is unfathomable!’” (SS 2:8). Contrary to the idea that Austen’s novels are clear with their “lapidary elegance,” Claudia explained how “obscurity prevails.” Thus, in Pride and Prejudice (2:13), in the well-known scene where Elizabeth exclaims she does not know herself, she undergoes what Professor Johnson terms “a crisis of astonishment.” Indeed, many of Austen’s characters who learn things about themselves experience this crisis. However, a character like Mr. Collins is never capable of learning anything. Likewise, Lydia, after the Wickham crisis, learns nothing: “Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless” (PP 3:9). Such characters never have “a new understanding of reality,” and so they never grow. Claudia concluded that Austen’s style is “mysterious” and “full of altitude.” Claudia graciously answered questions from the audience, and in so doing gave us the treat of seeing what a wonderful Austen class Professor Johnson offers at Princeton!

Professor Johnson’s talk was followed by a roundtable with the musical’s creative team: Marcia Milgrom Dodge, director and choreographer; Jeff Haddow, book writer and lyricist; Neal Hampton, composer; Alice Walsh, lead producer; and Kent Thompson, Artistic Director of the DCPA, with Joan as host. Jeff and Neal explained how musicals need “hooks,” and the hooks for Sense and Sensibility are the love stories of Elinor and Marianne. This is why characters such as Margaret and several memorable scenes of the novel — including the curious incident of Edward and the hair ring at Barton cottage or the conversation between John and Fanny Dashwood in Chapter Two — must be omitted lest they slow down the main action on the stage. Marcia Milgrom Dodge explained that seven years went into creating the show, and that Jeff and Neal were, respectively, the “sense” and “sensibility” of the team! Jeff and Neal described their creative process, finding and presenting the essence of each character and plot twists in music; whenever there was any doubt about what to do, they were always returning to Austen’s novel for guidance. Kent observed that the DCPA receives between 600 and 700 scripts each year, and he noted that the DCPA department reviewing those submissions was immediately enthusiastic about Sense and Sensibility, The Musical. Indeed, the DCPA gave the show a top production. The cast includes many veterans of Broadway, including Robert Petkoff, who played Tateh in Marcia’s 2009 production of Ragtime, which earned her a Tony nomination in 2010 for Best Director. Alice spoke about the work of producers and her enthusiasm for the musical.

After breaking for lunch in downtown Denver, attendees reconvened to hear a presentation by Cisco co-founder and philanthropist Sandy Lerner, who talked eloquently about the challenges of rescuing a great house such as Chawton and its environs from centuries of disrepair. She showed us images of the Chawton Great House both before and after its transformation into the Chawton House Library, the beneficiary of the conference’s proceeds. Sandy also spoke of the Library itself, which now houses thousands of novels published by female writers who published before Austen’s day. The Library has, in some cases, the only extant copy of some of these early novels, which were printed with ink containing iron, a substance that has caused the pages to deteriorate, a circumstance not helped by England’s damp climate or the circulation of these books in the traveling circulating libraries of their day. The Chawton House Library is preserving these novels for future generations of readers. To make them available to scholars around the globe, CHL is having them retyped. Each manuscript is independently typed twice to allow comparison of the resultant texts for transcription accuracy. Joining Sandy, the Chief Executive Officer of the Chawton House Library, Mr. Stephen Lawrence, talked about the Library’s printing press and its publications, including Sandy’s novel, Second Impressions (all profits from sales go to the Library). The press has also issued an edition of Fordyce’s Sermons, edited by Persuasions’ editor, Susan Allen Ford.

The “light, bright and sparkling” closer was Fordham Professor Susan Greenfield, whose popular “Jane Austen Weekly” was featured in the Huffington Post. Her lively talk was on “Unlocking Elinor Dashwood; or, Men Behaving Badly and the Problem of Irony,” which frequently turned to her students’ views of the novel. One of the most provocative views was that of one of her students, who pointed out Elinor’s tendency to exonerate the men, no matter how badly they might have behaved, while blaming the females, who may in fact have been innocent bystanders or unwitting victims of the males’ action. For example, Elinor blames Lucy but forgives Edward for their near mésalliance! This exoneration of the guilty and blaming of the innocent is ironic, since it is precisely the opposite of what we should expect, given Elinor’s well-proclaimed quality of “sense.” Professor Greenfield also touched on the problem of irony (that of its definition, the contrast between what is and what seems to be), concluding that it is something we know when we see it and questioning whether Austen always intends to be as ironic as she is sometimes interpreted as being.

The Regional Coordinator of the Pikes Peak Region, Leee Overmann, closed the conference by thanking the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, all of the attendees, the speakers and members of the creative team, Rae Wiseman (Regional Coordinator of the Denver/Boulder Region), and the many volunteers who helped realize the “Austen at Altitude” events: Rebecca Posusta and Aurora Glaze (Registrars), Beth Uhlinger (Treasurer), and Jennifer Petkus (coordinator for The Tattered Cover’s book signing events). A special presentation of roses and a gift card was made to Tina Risch, the DCPA’s Community Services Manager and the dynamo whose enthusiasm and liaison between the JASNA Regions and DCPA was critical to the success of “Austen at Altitude.”

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Photos from the Backstage Tour

Costume Dept. 1

The costume department


Costume Dept. 2

Costume department with tools of the trade


Costume Dept. Dresses

Dresses ready for the stage


Costume Dept. Fabrics

So many fabrics from which to choose!