Books Magazine

Jane Austen on Stage – Promise and Promiscuity

By Mariagrazia @SMaryG


Breeches, Bonnets and Big Balls – Interview with Penny Ashton

Penny Ashton is New Zealand’s own global comedienne who has been making a splash on the world stage since 2002 and she has sold out shows from Edinburgh to Adelaide to Edmonton. She has four Best NZ  Female Comedienne nominations, three Adelaide Fringe People’s Choice nominations, a Winnipeg Best in Fringe for Hot Pink Bits and won best performance by an International Poet at the London Farrago Awards.
Penny has represented New Zealand in The World Cup of Theatresports in Germany and Australasia in a Performance Poetry Slam Tournament Tour of the UK. In 2010 she performed by invitation at The Glastonbury Festival and reported from the Miss Universe Pageant in Las Vegas. 
Hello and welcome to My Jane Austen Book Club, Penny. Can we start saying how you came to discover Jane Austen and her work, first of all?
I must confess to being forced to read Pride and Prejudice in my first year of High School and finding it pretty dull. I, like many others, had a change of heart upon watching 1995’s Pride and Prejudice but even more so because of Ang Lee’s beautiful adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.  I simply adored that film, particularly the character of Marianne. So I am afriad I am  one of “those” people who love her screen adaptations where to my mind they bring to life her best feature, which is her sparkling dialog.
Then when was the first time you brought her on stage as an actress? I perform improvised comedy shows, and one day when jumping through different genres we did a bit of Austen and I felt immediately home and, more importantly, got a lot  of laughs.  We then decided to go all out and perform a long form improvised comedy musical in the style of Austen.  This was called Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen and sold out the Adelaide Fringe and NZ Comedy Festivals. That started life in 2008.  Last year I decided it was time to write a solo piece that could travel easily as our group show had 5 people in it, basically because I am tight. And so Promise and Promiscuity was born! I just love inhabiting the Regency world and playing all the characters.

Is is true that you recently discovered you are a descendant of Jane Austen’s young flirt, Thomas Lefroy? Could you tell us more about it?  Incredibly yes it is true.  My uncle alerted me to this fact only this year as he saw I was doing quite a bit of Jane Austen stuff. The lineage goes like this: Me →  Judy Ashton (my mother) → Charles Lukin (her father) → Beatrice (Garn) Lukin (his mother) → Margaret Crossland  (her mother) →  Gerald Lefroy (her father)→  Rev. Henry Lefroy  (his father)  → Thomas Lefroy, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland ( his brother)
So I am his 5th Great Niece in a very direct line.  I couldn’t believe it!  I loved the movie Becoming Jane and had sobbed watching it on a plane in 2007.  There is even some conjecture he is the inspiration for Darcy, soooooo now I like to say Mr Darcy is my uncle. Spurious at best BUT I love it. How weird was it to discover that while acting Austen on stage?
Totally and completely. A lot of people might not know who he is (well Janeites not included of course), but I was well aware of the story, which made it all the more delicious.
The solo show your are taking on tour  soon is Promise and Promiscuity, written by you and … Jane Austen! Can you tell us something more about it? When I read The Watsons I was really engrossed, it was an Austen story BUT I didn’t know what was going to happen and I loved that.  Sadly of course it was never finished but rather than re-create one of Jane’s stories onstage, I instead decided to use a lot of her fabulous dialog to make a whole new story with new characters so that the audience wouldn’t know the out come before it began.  Obviously there are character types, it’s essentially the women of Sense and Sensibility and the men and other characters from Pride and Prejudice and a touch of Jane Austen herself.  Elspeth Slowtree (aka Dashwood) wishes to become a writer, BUT her family has been made impoverished by the great Nutmeg crash of 1808 and her mother is hell bent on getting her married off post haste with none of this writing nonsense. It’s also a musical with famous classical pieces such as Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and the Tritsch Tratsch Polka by Strauss, with lyrics I have written.
What else do you do in Promise and Promiscuity besides  singing and acting? I also dance.  I pluck an unsuspecting audience member from the crowd and teach him a dance I have named The Wiggly Maggot, I also do a song/dance duet between two characters which involves me jumping between them as I dance.  Can be a bit confusing.
What is the funniest anecdote you can tell us about which happened to you acting or touring? When I was doing another solo show in Saskatoon in 2007 all the lights shut down completely and I was onstage in a blackout.  So the ushers started shining their torches on me, and eventually so did lots of audience memebers.  They had maglights and mini torches and about 20 of them shone on me so I could be seen.  I did the first 5 minutes of the show like that until the lights came back on.  I enjoyed running around the stage seeing if they could keep up.  It was a wonderful moment of sharing, I loved it. As a comedian and a playwright, how difficult was to adapt Austen’s style and her subtle irony to our contemporary comedy ways ? Not hard at all.  Her style is so strong that it is therefore easy to parody, which I do with affection. It is a wild departure from my full on adult themed sex based humor of the past.  Let’s just say I’ve never welcomed teenagers into my audiences before, but now I have and I really enjoy the subtleties. I use modern references with a twist constantly, ie the poet William Joel and his classic Pianotforte Man, and a lot of innuendo about Balls, so I guess some of it isn’t so subtle after all, HA. What in your opinion makes her so universally acknowledged? I mean, why is her world so alive still nowadays and her message appreciated so widely by people with such different backgrounds?
I think it is because at its heart is a good old fashioned love story with a happy ending.  In a world that was very clear cut about what was expected. Life is way more complicated now (thank god) but I think people like her tales of finding love… oh and incidentally a rich man too. It’s escapist and they imagine they would love to find a Darcy. Yes there is a lot of satire on society of the time in there too which is also delicious to read. Personally if I found a Darcy I think I would be irritated by him, I am thrilled to bits not to have been born a Regency Lady, the freedoms of my life are truly appreciated. And how different  is it loving Jane Austen as  a young kiwi actress like you from… I don’t know … let’s say loving her as a middle aged Italian teacher like me?
I don’t think it’s very different at all (and at 39 I’m pretty much middle aged these days, sigh). The themes of finding love AND security are universal human desires. But I happen to be almost related to her, hahaha. Who is your favorite Austen heroine? What can you recognize of yourself in her? The character I most identify with is Elizabeth Bennett. I am pretty headstrong and can be quick to judge and don’t like my mother telling me what to do.  I also loves Marianne’s passion, but I’m too cynical to be her.  Well I guess I am more her at the end of Sense and Sensibility than at the beginning.  And what about your dream hero? Does he resemble any of the dashing men in Austen’s novels?  My dream hero is Mr Matthew Harvey.  He’s from Yorkshire, is a poet, 6 ft 2, balding and very funny. He’s happy to let me do exactly as I choose at all times and supports me working for a living, so nothing like an Austen hero no.  And happily so. It’s a shame he doesn’t posess Darcy’s squillions, but not many people do and laughter is more important than money in my mind. Great Penny, before leaving you at your rehearsals, could you please tell us where and when we can see you on stage with Promise and Promiscuity? has all the details, along with videos and images!

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