Monday, June 22, 2015

A Life in the Story Department

Midnight blue sparkles and rhinestones for the party!

I can't believe it's more than six months since I wrote on "Light, Bright, and Sparkling" - but I have been working. Now, however, there is no more working, for as Jane Austen said, "But now suppose as much as you chuse; give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight which the subject will afford" - and if you didn't know it already, the news is that I am retiring from Warner Bros this week! 

 Story Department colleagues at Ca del Sole

 Bill, Val, me, Margaret, Debbie - together we represent an aggregate couple of centuries of reading! 

My purpose in retiring is to spend my days writing full time and traveling full time (with some necessary overlap). There will be books and memoirs, plays and blogs, trips to England and to Italy; and my first step is this blog account. To my delight, the occasion was rousingly celebrated last Friday by a glorious lunch thrown for me at the Ca del Sole restaurant, and all my colleagues attended. I was all decked out in my Chico's Midnight Blue sequin outfit, with Weiss rhinestones for maximum light, bright and sparkling effect!

Pumpkin risotto

Holly and me

Afterwards, I wrote to the Story Department: "I don't think anybody can really grasp what it means to be given a retirement party like that - and mine was one of the thumping greatest I ever heard of - until it happens. There's a reason for ceremonial occasions, and it's hard to convey just what this one meant to me. The fact that you all came! I was truly overwhelmed, and although I'm too hard boiled an old movie biz dame to show much emotion, I felt it. The moment that hit me most was when, at her far end of the table, Teresa said, "You never let us down." I felt I had been handed my gold watch (and I guess I could have literally had one if I'd asked!), and told, "Well done, good and faithful servant." That might sound a bit too Victorian, but honestly, after long and anonymous service done to the best of one's ability, to have everyone there like that, showing appreciation in so many ways, was absolutely...well, gratifying is too small a word."

Me and boss lady Teresa

So, illustrated with pictures from the party, I thought I'd share the Retirement Speech I gave. The talk was adapted from one I've given at Oxford several times, though my own colleagues had never heard it before; I cut out the bits about how to do story analysis and how to sell books to movies, because they didn't need to hear that! Without further ado, here's the talk, entitled:

A Life in the Story Department.

How and why did I become a story analyst? It all goes back to my grandmother, who was story editor of Universal Studios in 1924. When writing her biography, one of the things I learned is that despite all the technological changes that have happened, life in story departments has remained recognizably the same for at least three quarters of a century.

My grandmother Winnifred Eaton, 1903

My grandmother, Winnifred Eaton, born in 1875, was the first Asian American novelist. She was one of a family of fourteen “half-caste” children of an English father and his Chinese wife. Her father Edward Eaton was an artist whose family, silk merchants, sent him to the Orient on business in 1860. On board ship he met a Chinese girl, Grace Trefusius, and married her. Grace had been born in Shanghai, but was sold into slavery as a small child to perform as a circus artist all across Europe. Rescued by an English missionary she was taken to London and educated to be a missionary herself. Instead, her husband brought her home and paraded her through the streets of Macclesfield in Chinese robes crying “Behold my Chinese bride!” This story was used in a famous novel, JAVA HEAD, in 1918, and twice made into a movie.

The Chinese bride did not go over well in Victorian Macclesfield, so the young couple emigrated to Montreal, where they raised their large family in poverty. Two of the girls, Winnifred and her oldest sister Edith, were ambitious to be writers, and Edith became known as the godmother of Asian American fiction, under the pen name Sui Sin Far. She’s considered the “good sister,” and my grandmother, Winnie, is by default the bad sister. Winnie’s aspirations were commercial; in fact, the first words of the very first story she ever had published at the age of 14, were “Since I was first able to think, I have had intense longings for wealth.” She left Montreal at 20 to become a girl journalist in Jamaica, and from there made her way to New York where she took on a fake ethnicity (more than a century before Rachel Dolezol). It was more fashionable to be Japanese than Chinese, so Winnie called herself Onoto Watanna, and swanned around in kimonos to publicize her 15 pseudo-Japanese romance novels with titles like The Heart of Hyacinth. The most successful, A Japanese Nightingale, sold 200,000 copies in 1901 and was made into a Broadway play and a silent film. Winnie married an alcoholic journalist and was the sole support of her family, churning out a “book and a baby a year.”

Winnie as "Onoto Watanna" - my book cover

A chameleon who reinvented herself whenever things got rough, she went to Reno to divorce her husband, and met her second husband there. They went to Calgary to try ranching, but when that failed she returned to New York and got the job at Universal; she was the protégé of Carl Laemmle, who sent her to run the West Coast story department. Another woman writer was fired to make room for her, and 75 years later I read this woman’s autobiography for work, and found it contained a vindictive diatribe against my grandmother. The writer was still alive at the age of 100 and I called her in the nursing home. She still hated Winnie, and exclaimed “that woman destroyed the story department in 6 months!” But that was all I could get out of her.

Winnie arrived in Hollywood in the days of the silent 5-reelers, and her time there coincided with the transition to talkies. She worked like a dog, turning out hundreds of scripts and treatments, and she is credited as screenwriter on six films, including SHANGHAI LADY, EAST IS WEST and MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER with Edward G. Robinson. She was the first Asian American woman to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but by now she was done being Japanese. Even though she dressed in white lady business costume,  was mostly assigned to write scripts with exotic themes, about Gypsies, French people, and Chinese cooks. But she worked on more mainstream scripts as well, such as early versions of BARBARY COAST, SHOWBOAT, and EAST OF BORNEO (an early KING KONG called OURANG). Her papers are all held in the University of Calgary library, and it was fascinating for me, as a story analyst, to read my own grandmother’s screenplays. It was like a time capsule, and surprising to see how her memos (mostly asking for more money) and script synopses could have been written today. The process of reading and passing on screenplays was virtually identical.

1985 Hollywood. Working with Cloe Mayes at MGM!

Winnie had to fight to stay employed in Hollywood, and lost the struggle at a time when the women who wrote the silent films were losing their jobs to the men who wrote the talkies. To supplement her income she wrote for movie magazines. In one piece called “Movie Relatives,” she vented about people who got jobs through nepotism. In another article, “Butchering Brains: An Author in Hollywood is as a Lamb to the Slaughter,” she described the experiences of authors who came to Hollywood in the Eminent Authors Program started by Samuel Goldwyn. Winnie wrote, “He sits in his office and scans, with bulging eyes, his first assignment. He is presently either convulsed with mirth or is stricken dumb with incoherent wrath. He has been assigned to adapt and treat an “original” by one Suzy Swipes or Davy Jones of Hollywood. It is an amazing, an incredible document. Its language is almost beyond credence. It is a nightmare patchwork that contains incidents and characters and gags and plots of a hundred or more stories that are horribly reminiscent to the Eminent Author.”

So, things haven’t changed much! As for Winnie, her estranged husband in Calgary struck oil and became a millionaire; he also took a mistress, and came to Hollywood to ask Winnie for a divorce. So, at the age of 56, she seduced him back, and vanquished the mistress. She returned to Calgary, and lived out the rest of her life as a white Canadian housewife. During World War II, she’d talk about “the dirty Japs,” just as if she had never pretended to be Japanese at all.

My father Paul Eaton Reeve, photographed by Bruno of Hollywood, 1920s

Her son, my father Paul Eaton Reeve, was a dissolute Greenwich Village poet, but when he was in Hollywood as a young man his mother got him work as a reader at MGM. My own son Paul, before he became a librarian, was a story analyst at Columbia. I believe we are unique as the only family in which four generations have worked in movie studio story departments. I grew up in New York with my mother’s family who told me nothing about my flamboyant grandmother; I had one of her books, a Canadian Western called Cattle which seemed to be mostly about rape. I suppose this is how I got the idea be a writer. After college, in the early 1970s, I moved out here, a single mother with a small child, and had to find work. My aunt recommended that I look up Winnie’s old literary agent, Ben Medford. He was old style Hollywood, a little red haired man with a bow tie, who gave me scripts to read in exchange for lunch. My career began - as now it is ending, appropriately, at lunch.

To get my first job I went through the Yellow Pages, and called up a list of about 25 literary agencies, production companies and so on. The H.N. Swanson agency said they needed a receptionist who could read scripts. Their office was unchanged from the 1920s, like something out of a Raymond Chandler novel, wood paneled walls with an enormous bluefish trophy, and a library full of books by clients. I remember finding an early draft of Catcher in the Rye there. A few years ago I rediscovered my old boss, Ben Kamsler, another 100-year-old person; still sharp as a tack and reading the trade papers. I told him it was wonderful to meet somebody 40 years older than me who was still active, and he immediately retorted, “I hope you don’t tell Warners your true age!” He was still being bombarded with screenplays himself.

I worked for “Swanie” for about a year, and one day a girl my own age came into the office. She was Story Editor at Tomorrow Entertainment, and I thought, gee, why can’t I have a job like that? So I approached her for a job and she hired me as her reader. I worked for her for a couple of years; her name was Marcy Carsey, who later went on to become one of the most successful women in television. When she went to ABC she got me an interview as program director. I was a story editor briefly but I realized that these “career” industry jobs were not what I wanted. What I wanted was to stay home and write, and sleep late. So that’s exactly what I did. First working at Orion Pictures for Mike Medavoy for about five years, then The Ladd Company for Laddie and John Goldwyn, for another five years; then John took me to MGM. When MGM folded John said it would take him about a month to get me over to Paramount, but I took a more immediate offer from John Schimmel, here. That was in 1991, and you know the rest of the story.

It was Raymond Chandler who said, “A good script is as rare as a virgin in Hollywood.” In my first days reading screenplays, I read some great ones, like CARRINGTON, and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. I thought reading screenplays was all going to be like that, but that’s beginner’s luck! Over the years I was the first reader on scripts such as ROCKY, TERMINATOR, BLADE RUNNER, THE RIGHT STUFF, MOONSTRUCK. Later at Warner Bros, I became the “book person,” specializing in novels, which fulfilled my idea that reading always seemed the perfect way to earn a living.

Until just about a year ago I would still get a little frisson of excitement with every new manuscript I was sent. Only when I started to look at them with a shade of reluctance instead of eagerness, and started buying rhinestone necklaces and Kate Spade handbags on eBay every two hundred pages to spur me through my night long tasks, did I realize it was time to stop! But it took 43 years to get to that point (24 at Warners), so that was pretty good going. I used to call the job my writing scholarship, for it trained me in the craft of writing and the discipline of deadlines. It was productive, it was pleasurable, and I am very grateful to have had what I consider the most wonderful working life imaginable. And now I can devote myself fully to the work that is my own.                                                                                                                                


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

We Pay a Call at El Alisal!

 A remarkable, flamboyant character was Charles F. Lummis (1859 - 1928).  Harvard dropout and journalist, he  took a well-publicized "tramp" from Ohio to California in 1884 to take up a job on the Los Angeles Times. Adventurer, poet, historian, ethnographer, womanizer, and librarian, he (among other things) fought for Indian rights, edited the early California publication "Land of Sunshine" (later called "Out West"), established the Southwest Museum, and built, mostly with his own hands, the house which my friend Mary Chapman and I visited, El Alisal.

El Elisal

I have a personal family historical connection with Charles Lummis, because he was the early mentor, editor and friend of my great-aunt Edith Eaton, pen name Sui Sin Far, the first Asian American fiction writer (1865 - 1914).  We have several letters between them (the originals are at the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center), and know that Edith was published in "Out West" and also visited at El Alisal.  Lummis called her "the only Chinese American woman who is publishing fiction."

Come into El Alisal!
El Alisal is Rustic American Craftsman stone house located at 200 East Avenue 43 in the Arroyo Seco, South Pasadena. Now that is just exactly twenty miles from where I live, in Santa Monica, yet I'm ashamed to say I'd never visited before, though I've long been fascinated with Lummis.  This weekend, however, I had an extra motivation for going. Professor Mary Chapman of the University of British Columbia was coming to town for a conference, and we decided to visit together.  Mary is the discoverer of no fewer than one hundred of Sui Sin Far's stories, published in many magazines around the turn of the last century. (The collection will soon be forthcoming.) We met because of my biography of my grandmother, Edith's sister Onoto Watanna; but although we've corresponded for several years, this was the wonderful occasion of our first meeting in person! 

The beautiful old handcrafted windows frame views of the garden
So, arriving at El Alisol, first we meandered through the garden, marveling at the little oasis of peace so near downtown Los Angeles. Even more than that, the garden is like a journey back in time, for many of the trees were planted by Lummis (the house takes its name from its old sycamore grove), and is full of native plants, such as a beautiful bed of rosy red yarrow and other drought-resistant plants. Some were most curious, such as bright hard-shelled fruits that no doubt attracted the many giant Monarch butterflies. The trees gave a cool dappled shade, and the place was altogether idyllic. Then at noon the house opened, and we went in. Here is what we saw.

 A bank of windows contain transparency photographs of Lummis's life and travels. These he made and mounted perfectly to fit in the window spaces. The bottom picture shows a hummingbird sitting on his finger.

In the central room are display cases of old photographs of the many famous characters who visited at El Alisal. Lummis kept immense records of his guests and dinner parties, some of which have been compiled in a book on display in the house. In this picture, bottom left is Mary Austin.

Left, Lummis shortly before he died, and two pictures of him in  younger days.

A chair he hand-crafted.  I love it!
Bust of Lummis, with a photograph of the sculptor, Julia Bracken Wendt

The bust sits as if Lummis were at  his famous table. Actually, this must be a smaller table than was used at the time, if his large guest lists are anything to go by; but it is a thrill to think my great-aunt Edith sat there once!

His nice homely blue willow-pattern plates.  A favorite of mine, too.

Bas-relief on the fireplace. That's not Samuel Clemens on the mantel, it's Lummis's father!

Odd little man on the loo

I'm not quite sure what this means, but Lummis has it over another fireplace...this is the man who used an elaborate code for lovemaking with different women, all referring to "al cielo"

Wonderful old hand crafted wood

The sycamores in the courtyard
A lovely water color of the sycamores as they were then (approx. 1915)

Odd little chimney in one of the out buildings (built for his daughter, and servants)
Lily pond
There are lemons, oranges, kumquats and many other fruit trees in the garden

Me and Mary in the courtyard

A better view of the mural behind us

Plants in the garden

Goodbye to El Alisal, and our lovely, memorable, historical day in the dappled sunshine!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

View from the third row...By C. Allyn Pierson

Karen Doornebos, C. Allyn Pierson, Diana Birchall - three members of the popular "Austen Variations" writing blog
A guest blogger!  I have a guest blogger on "Light, Bright, and Sparkling" for the very first time!  As a companion piece to my previous post, "A View from the Stage," C. Allyn Pierson (more familiarly known as Carey), has agreed to tell the story as she saw it from the other side of the footlights.  (Not that there were any actual footlights.)  Carey is a member of Austen Variations, the "Austenesque" writing blog I belong to, and we both write stories there regularly. She's also a physician living in Iowa, with many fascinating interests, which you can read about on   And now, here's Carey's tale of matters Montreal...

View from the third row…

By C. Allyn Pierson

My miniscule part in “A Dangerous Intimacy” began almost a year ago when I followed Diana’s Facebook posts and blog posts about the 2012 AGM and I discovered that she and Syrie would be writing a new play and presenting it for the 2014 AGM in Montreal. During her comments she lamented that her only Regency gown had been deemed DOA by her friends and that she would need to get a new gown, sighing that she would have to have someone make one, as she does not sew. I volunteered to sew her a new gown…but it took about 2 weeks to convince her that I really meant it! It would be a dangerous thing (not intimate, but clearly dangerous…) to volunteer such a thing if I didn’t mean it!

After some wasting of time, twiddling of thumbs and a couple of months, we finally came down to the cotton thread (sort of like the brass tacks a là sewing…) and I obtained royal blue satin and selected and altered my pattern. I used the wrong side of the satin, as Diana wanted a gown that could be used for daytime as well as for any Regency balls she might come upon, so she did not want it to be too glossy. I chose to make it a drawstring dress so that she could not only adjust it to fit perfectly, but she could actually get in and out of it on her own (those who have been to Jane Austen events have probably dealt with the “OMG! How do I get out of my dress here, alone in my hotel room? Is this included in room service?”).

After the gown was finished and as the AGM approached, I offered her a cap, fichu, etc. and then discovered that she would be costumed in green baize! When I finished laughing, I went on to work on my fleur-de-lis embroidered gown, hoping to finish it before I left for beautiful Montreal (I finally finished it 45 minutes before the Saturday evening banquet...whew!)

Another view of my couture gown from the House of Pierson
Carey wears her own elegant gown to work!

On Friday evening, the night of Diana and Syrie’s tour-de-force, I ran into Karen Doornebos, another Austen Variations friend, and found out that she was in the play too, but needed help getting into her gown (see above, paragraph 2…). She gave me the time she would be dressing, and I packed up needles, thread, hair doodads, flowers, hairpins, and jewelry and stepped into the elevator, generating much comment about the red and white striped bandbox I had all my accessories in…there was also considerable disappointment when I admitted that there was no bonnet in the bandbox.

I won’t go into details about the dressing experience…we dressers need to be discrete about our activities…let us just say that it involved one zipper, two safety pins (not Regency approved), bobby pins, a pearl hairclip and a pearl necklace (fake, but hopefully not colored with fish scales). You may imagine the details yourself.

I took my bandbox and retired to the auditorium, ready in case of theatrical emergencies, but everything was prepared so I found a seat on the third row aisle where I could see the entire show without getting a kink in my neck looking up at the stage. I prepared to be entertained.

While awaiting the curtain, I was a little confused by the piano tuner tuning the grand piano in the room…but later realized that it was for a concert later in the evening. The audience straggled in and a glance around just before curtain time revealed that there was standing room only. There was a buzz of conversation and a rustle of programs as spectators speculated about the props that were visible on the stage, and which actors were playing which parts. They did not have long to wait…

Reading Diana’s version of the writing and staging, I am even more impressed that she and Syrie were able to bring together people from three countries and, with two short rehearsals, pull off a comedy that called forth cheers and applause, boos and hisses. There is no question that Mrs. Norris stole the show (as we know she always tries to do) and Diana did an outstanding job being mean, nasty, dismissive, and patronizing. I have never seen an Austen-based entertainment that actually engendered hissing at the villain in the piece!

I have to say that Julia and Maria Bertram did far too good a job at cat fighting…I hope this was just for the stage ladies…ahem. The best part about the vignette was that the actors obviously enjoyed their parts! I do still wonder what Mrs. Norris did with that roll of green baize with which she absconded when Sir Thomas returned from Antigua earlier than expected…

The theater-goers trickled out after the play…far too busy laughing and talking about the play to hurry on to the next entertainment. They were still talking about it the next night at the banquet and ball, and I’m sure will continue to do so until the next AGM.

The ball on the following night was an excellent example of how difficult it is to put together a multinational production, when the Austen Variations gang tried to get together for a picture…we finally managed to get three of us in one place (unfortunately, we could not find Syrie when we had the inspiration for the photo, but you may look on Diana’s Facebook page and this blog for pictures of the cast)…Diana Birchall in her new royal blue gown and beautiful embroidered shawl, Karen Doornebos in my pearls and pearl hairclip (and her new ball gown), and me in my fleur-de-lis gown. I think we made a respectable showing! Somehow, even though Diana and Karen wore heels and I wore ballet slippers, I managed to tower over their delicate selves…but then being tall was one of the signs of Maria’s and Julia’s superiority…I will say no more than that.

Well, except to look forward to a reprise of Diana's earlier play, "You are Passionate, Jane," with herself and Syrie playing respectively Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen, which may happen at the 2017 JASNA AGM in Huntington Bedach, California, with a "Jane Austen in Paradise" theme.  Oh, dear, how can I make a Regency gown look more…Brontë?

[From Diana] No worries, Carey, I found a pair of gorgeous blue feathered angel wings at the Salvation Army, which will look sublime with the blue gown!  A snood, and I'm a dead Bronte...

C. Allyn Pierson

Author of Mr. Darcy's Little Sister

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A View from the Stage

The cast of "A Dangerous Intimacy"
Peter Sabor (Mr. Rushworth), Natasha Duquette (maid), Patrick Stokes (Prince Regent), Karen Doornebos (Julia), Frederick Duquette (Tom), Syrie James (Maria), Diana Birchall (Mrs. Norris), Karen Fuller (Fanny), Edward Scheinman (Henry Crawford), Juliet McMaster (Edmund), Miriam Rheingold-Fuller (Mary Crawford), and Kimberly Brangwin (Lady Bertram).  Picture by Erna Arnesen.
After the success of our "Austen Assizes" play in Brooklyn (at the 2012 JASNA AGM) to our delight Syrie James and I were commissioned to write a "behind the scenes" play-within-the-play in Mansfield Park for the Montreal AGM. We knew this would be even trickier to bring off, as Mansfield Park is arguably the least comic, and most structurally complex, of Austen's novels. So we decided to begin with a series of brisk sketches, each a dialogue between two characters, and then move into the rehearsal scenes incorporating dialogue straight from Lovers' Vows. That would link  that play to the Mansfield Park "actors," and reveal what, exactly, they would have been rehearsing. We didn't think the interaction between the two had really been shown before, and it would be enlightening, and funny.
Fred, Miriam, Syrie, Edward, Peter, in rehearsal

Fred, Syrie and Edward, as Tom, Maria and Henry emoting in "Lovers' Vows"

Of course, the actual writing was mostly done in the last six months when time started to press in! ("We'd better get serious.") Our method was basically to take turns, each writing a scene, the other countering with rewriting and then adding new material, back and forth, with several in-person discussion meetings (fortunately we don't live far apart), until we had what looked like an hour-long play. The polishing we did by sitting together and reading the whole play aloud, in several sessions, to meticulously refine the dialogue and make it funnier. By the time it was done, as usual it was hard to remember who had invented what. We do know that Laurel Ann Nattress suggested the green baize and curtain rod a la the Carol Burnett "Went With the Wind" skit, and Syrie actually sewed the contraption!  For every scene that one of us conceived, the other had improvements, changes and inventions, but remarkably, we nearly always saw eye-to-eye, and when one improved something the other had done, reaction was rapturous! It was a true joint effort, done in workmanlike, waste-no-time fashion, an efficiency which never ceases to surprise me, since I never wrote anything in partnership before. The most fun was the reading aloud and making subtle changes; we would alternate speeches, and both Syrie and I "were" Tom, Henry, Mary, Julia, all the characters, at different times. It gave us a facility and intimacy with all the roles, and a good idea of how the speeches should be delivered.
Miriam and Peter at rehearsal
Syrie and Ellen
From early on, casting was always under discussion. Syrie knew from the start that she wanted to be Maria Bertram, and probably wrote the part with herself in mind; I never could see it, and wanted her to play Mary Crawford, for I think of her as having more of Mary's qualities than Maria's. But I would not interfere, trusting she knew best for herself and would bring it off in the end - which she most emphatically did! For myself, I never had an idea of what part I could play, if any. I have virtually no acting experience (though I've always read my stories aloud), and have no clear idea of myself as any kind of "type." As I have trouble projecting (the one thing Syrie keeps on at me about!), I imagined I might make a "creepmouse" Fanny Price. So I was startled when Syrie, Laurel Ann, and even my own son Paul, declared with one voice that I must be Mrs. Norris - and everyone who heard the suggestion said "Oh YES!" Not very flattering, and I couldn't understand it, until I remembered that I do always seem attracted to the nasty caricatures (like Mrs. Elton and Lady Catherine), and that my age suited me to Mrs. Norris far more than to Fanny. To prove everyone wrong, I tried reading Mrs. Norris's part out loud to myself, and what came out was this alarming carping caw that was undeniably - Mrs. Norris! 

 The incredible costume!
The inspiration!
That settled, we knew that we'd ask Juliet McMaster and Miriam Rheingold-Fuller to play parts, as they'd been in other plays of ours; if Syrie was Maria, Miriam would be Mary. Juliet plays en travestie amusingly, with a specialty in clergymen, so she would be Edmund. The difficulty was finding not only men, but men reasonably young and handsome, with real acting ability, and who would also be in Montreal for the AGM! We needed several of them, Tom, Henry and Mr. Rushworth. Not easy! Laurel Ann suggested the brilliant young scholar and writer Edward Scheinman for one of the parts, Elaine Bander suggested Natasha Duquette's Shakepearean actor husband Fred for another, and my son Paul would do Rushworth. Fred liked the idea of orating as Tom, Edward would be a perfect Henry - but Paul got a new librarian job and couldn't go to Montreal. The almost last-minute replacement was one of our best pieces of casting. I remembered seeing McGill professor Peter Sabor read in a Fanny Burney play once, I knew he was good, and I thought it would be funny having such a brainy man play a complete dolt!
Peter Sabor (far right) making "Rushworth-face" in performance!
Picture by Sarah Emsley

Syrie and I had always agreed that her husband Bill would be Sir Thomas (fortunately he agreed too), and we always wanted stylish Kimberly Brangwin of Seattle to be the perfect languid funny Lady Bertram. Pretty Austenesque author Karen Doornebos would be the petulant Julia, in the cat-fight with Syrie, and Miriam volunteered her lovely twenty year old actress daughter Ellen to be Fanny.

Bill's entrance as Sir Thomas Bertram fresh from Antigua

Natasha was to persuade her and Fred's pug dog Esmee to play herself, with Natasha as the maid to mind her. Unfortunately, two days before we were to fly to Montreal (Syrie was already on a cruise up the St. Lawrence) the hotel belatedly decided that poor Esmee must be caged, muzzled, heaven knows what restraints put on the poor little thing. So, scratch Pug (so to speak), and I had to immediately come up with dialogue to explain her absence, since we didn't want any stuffed Pugs! Natasha remained in the play, doing her Maid with a soft Irish accent, and actually "maiding" me in earnest, helping me into my unwieldy costume, which tended to slip down my back.
I think Patrick Stokes, as the Prince Regent, was the last written and cast. Having met him in England, I knew he would bring the house down as the prince, but my emails went wrong, and I was sending him ones that began "Say no, if it is to be said," when he replied with bafflement that he didn't know what I was writing about, he had received nothing! When it was all explained, he jumped in with full alacrity and played the part to the hilt. There was the problem of his costume, since his luggage would already be exceeded with the Admiral's uniform he was bringing for his own presentation; but Bill lent a brocade vest, Patrick brought a very effective white wig, and I found a jeweled crown in the Salvation Army! He looked magnificent.
Syrie and Patrick in performance as Maria Bertram and the Prince Regent
Picture by Erna Arnesen
As with Austen Assizes, we had two hour-long rehearsals, one the day before and the other the day of the performance. Owing to scheduling and commitments, not everybody could get to both, but everybody did get to at least one.  Syrie using her staging knowledge to efficiently wield microphones and effectively direct the troupers, particularly difficult for her as she had the most ghastly cold acquired on the chill Quebec rivers; she had to save her voice for her part, and it was touch and go as to whether she might not succumb to laryngitis. But she didn't, real trouper she. On the day of the play her voice merely had a sultry huskiness that was just right for her part!

I was quite nervous when the actors assembled for the first rehearsal, not sure if the play would work or be as funny as the Assizes; but in the very first minute, when Fred Duquette stood up and delaimed in his resonant booming flexible voice:

"At Mansfield Park, November comes
There's naught to do but twiddle thumbs..."

I knew everything would be absolutely all right! All the words we had written jumped to vivid new life when spoken by these speakers of talent. Everyone was super good, and when Peter Sabor contorted his face into that of the doltish dunce and spoke in tones that showed complete inside comprehension of Mr. Rushworth, the effect of the whole was fantastic! (A video will eventually be available so everyone can see.)


Seen on the screen - Karen, Fred, Syrie as Julia, Tom and Maria
Screen set-up. Karen, Syrie, Kimberly

The actors assembled on the stage in the big ballroom at 7:15 for the 8 PM performance, and sat in their row of chairs, all but me, Bill and Patrick, who were going to make "surprise appearances," and mustn't be seen by the audience. We sat in a little tented alcove on the stage, in a litter of crowns, green baize, scripts and curtain rods. As the audience came in, I asked Syrie, who was sitting on the stage (in a "stage whisper" of course), "How's the house?" "Every seat is full," she said with suppressed excitement. Patrick and I amused ourselves counting and lost track at 500.

We began. Elaine gracefully introduced us, Fred as Tom did his Prologue, and people started to laugh as Maria and Julia expressed their booooredom. The laughter didn't stop - everything rolled out with perfect timing. One actor skipped a couple of lines but they were unimportant, and Syrie covered with aplomb. Soon it was time for my entrance, which was anything but an easy one! I had to emerge from the tent, wearing this curtain rod contraption across my shoulders, swathed in green baize, and walked forward slowly to the microphones giving everyone a sight of the costume. Laughter began, and proceeded to build, so I took my time. Then at the microphone I read my lines, remembering to project as young Ellen Fuller had coached me. She must have done it well because I was LOUD, and in Mrs Norris's meanest moments, the audience hissed - a new sensation for me!
Syrie was particularly wonderful as a deliciously amoral Maria, and got a lot of laughs, but then, everyone did - each part was played to perfection, with the elan and enthusiasm of people who are having fun, heightened by the audience having fun too! Special bring-the-house down laughter greeted Sir Thomas, straight from Antigua in his Bermuda shorts, talking of Mai Tais; and the Prince Regent, sweeping Maria away to see the Cupids on his ceiling. Lots of applause, call for "Authors!" and then we left the stage for picture-taking, and rapturous happy mutual compliments. Oh, what a night! And for the rest of the conference I had the happiness of being recognized Mrs. Norris!

Now - does anyone have any more pictures of the performance to share with us?  We'd be grateful!
Cast photo session
Picture by Erna Arnesen
After the play - me, Patrick, Syrie, Bill