Joslyn Castle Literary Festival makes it all about Dickens


The Joslyn Castle Literary Festival gives Jill Anderson the opportunity each year to take the work of one or more of her beloved authors and let her imagination run wild with possibilities for programming events around their fiction.  Having already previously gone through this exercise with the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bram Stoker, she’s made Charles Dickens the focus of her passion for the 2015 festival – “Dickens at the Castle.”  The Dickens theme is getting expressed in multiple ways but perhaps the highlight is John Hardy’s one-man A Christmas Carol.  The November-December fest includes lectures, concerts, and other events.  My story about the fest for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) follows.

 

Joslyn Castle Literary Festival makes it all about Dickens

Artistic director Jill Anderson and Co. devise “Dickens” of a time

John Hardy’s one-man “A Christmas Carol” highlights fest

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the Nov-Dec-Jan Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

A leading light of Omaha stage, Jill Anderson, has brushed up her Dickens in preparation for the Joslyn Castle Literary Festival. The five year-old event Anderson formed and serves as artistic director for is celebrating the prolific Charles Dickens after previously highlighting the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bram Stoker.

“Dickens at the Castle” is the latest iteration of this new fixture on Omaha’s cultural calendar. Per tradition, the November 14-18 and December 12-13 festival offers a live theatrical production, panel discussion, lecture and concert. Anchoring it all this time is a one-man performance of A Christmas Carol by actor-director John Hardy.

That Dickens classic is the basis for the popular musical adaptation the Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP) has produced for 40 years. That connection compelled OCP and Joslyn Castle Trust (JCT) to partner for the 2015 fest. It’s not the first time they’ve conjoined. Earlier this year OCP held its 90th anniversary party at the Castle. George and Sarah Joslyn built the Scottish Baronial Revival Castle at 3902 Davenport that hosts the festival. These early Omaha philanthropists supported the Playhouse in its infancy. Sarah donated the land for the theater’s first home near the Castle. She later built the Joslyn Art Museum as a memorial to her husband and as a gift to Omaha.

None of this legacy is lost on the people who make the festival happen.

“We see every event at the Castle as an opportunity to honor the remarkable lives of George and Sarah Joslyn,” says JCT executive director Gina Primmer. “Like Dickens himself, both George and Sarah lacked extensive formal education but were very committed to lifelong learning through the arts and literature. Our festival guests will see first-hand how this magnificent home is designed in celebration of arts, literature and entertainment.”

A well-made match
Proceeds from the festival support the work of the Trust, which preserves and shares the Castle and its history through programs that enrich the community through the arts, culture and education.

The mansion includes a library, music room and ballroom. Hardy’s show will be in the library. Jill Anderson says “there’s something just kind of fun about presenting a literary classic in the library.” Celebrating great literature in a great home is her idea of paradise. “The Castle is a magical place. It sets your imagination going. This incredible building has been recognized as a treasure to our city. It’s a tremendous blessing to be able to take great literature into a gorgeous space like that with its beautiful architecture and the turrets. It’s enchanting.”

Anderson says the library is such an intimate space it will require ingenuity by Hardy to make it accommodate his vigorous performance.

“Doing theater within a private home you’ve got to be resourceful and figure out how to make that work. It’s going to be very challenging because he’s going to be adapting it to a much smaller space than he’s accustomed to working in, so that’s going to call upon all his creativity.”

She’s says even as JCT leadership has changed since launching the fest in 2011, “Consistently the executive director and the staff have recognized the Lit Fest is in line with the Castle’s mission, particularly the portion that deals with the Joslyns’ legacy of cultural enrichment.”

Hardy and his one-man Christmas Carol
She’s excited to have Hardy aboard. She previously brought him to Omaha to perform his original one-man show, Rattlesnake. He’s directed at the Rose Theatre and acted-directed for the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival. They met working at the Barter Theatre in Virginia.

“He’s just one of those artists who has a spark of genius I think. He’s always pushing for an edgier, very raw, committed style of theater. It has an extra energy that keeps it unpredictable and exciting. So when it came time to choose who the literary figure would be I knew he had this A Christmas Carol. So, why not do Dickens? It’s already a world-class drama and we just needed to build the festival around it.”

She says audiences should come prepared to be surprised by Hardy’s 40-character rendition.

“They can expect a completely unexpected reading of the story. They can expect humor where they least expect it. They can expect some pretty exciting tour-de-force character shifting. And they can expect him to get at the heart of the story. Getting down to what the story really is trying to say fascinates me.”

Hardy says, “I’ve seen one-man versions of this and it’s nothing like the one I do. The one I do is not storytelling, it’s theater, it’s characters involved in a world from moment to moment.”

Anderson says Hardy makes it all seem real. “He brings a startling honesty to his acting style that always takes me off-guard in a wonderful way. He will use very little in terms of set and costume but he will transform things and find every possible way to use the things he does have on stage with him. It’s not about huge production values, it’s about creative transformation.”

She says his Carol and the Playhouse’s couldn’t be more different.

“The Playhouse makes it a tremendous spectacle – so much color and beautiful effects and lavish costumes. Music is a major element of it. It’s this kind of confection of a production and it’s lasted all these years because people love it – they eat it right up like candy.”

By contrast, she says Hardy’s “theatrical style is really stripped down, really elemental.”

The panel and lecture programs (see side story) examine Dickens’ influences and motivations.

The Dickens formula
“Dickens had a powerful agenda with all his novels, It was usually to expose some sort of injustice,” she says. “That was his thing. He was a whistle blower but he didn’t do it in a humorless, dour way. He did it through social satire. What could just be an angry man stridently shouting out discontent with British society is instead clever, it tickles your funny bone, it has great pathos. You can’t miss the social commentary but it’s wrapped up in these episodic stories that are fun to follow. They were actually presented to the public in serial form through different publications, so they’re designed to keep you wanting more.

“They feel like they come to you in little delightful parcels and you fall in love with these crazy, amazing characters.”

“We see every event at the Castle as an opportunity to honor the remarkable lives of George and Sarah Joslyn. Like Dickens himself, both George and Sarah lacked extensive formal education but were very committed to lifelong learning through the arts and literature. Our festival guests will see first-hand how this magnificent home is designed in celebration of arts, literature and entertainment.”
(Gina Primmer)

“Dickens had a powerful agenda with all his novels, It was usually to expose some sort of injustice,” she says. “That was his thing. He was a whistle blower but he didn’t do it in a humorless, dour way. He did it through social satire. What could just be an angry man stridently shouting out discontent with British society is instead clever, it tickles your funny bone, it has great pathos. You can’t miss the social commentary but it’s wrapped up in these episodic stories that are fun to follow.”
(Jill Anderson)

“I’ve seen one-man versions of this and it’s nothing like the one I do. The one I do is not storytelling, it’s theater, it’s characters involved in a world from moment to moment.”
(John Hardy)

She admires Dickens’ facility for finding hooks to reel readers in and artfully keeping them engaged.

“He is a master of creating characters that are truly pitiful and struggling against poverty or disability. They’re up against tough odds and it all comes from his biographical background. His father and mother ended up in debtor’s prison, effectively making him an orphan at 10. He had to fend for himself working in a rat-infested factory that made boot black. He was thrust into the heart of the underclass in Industrial Revolution-era London. The filth, the misery – he lived it.

“His examination of class and the disparity between upper class and lower class is something he was very qualified to do.”

Hardy believes Dickens was ahead of his time in terms of insight into human psychology. He feels the power of the work also resides in how Dickens propels characters and thus readers through situations.

“You only really come to know a character when they’re engaged in doing something and therein lies the key I think to A Christmas Carol. It’s not an accident this story has been made into a play and a movie again and again because it’s so active, somebody’s always engaged in doing something. It’s on its way somewhere a hundred percent of the time. It’s never static, it’s not reflective. It moves past a moment into the next moment. Even as a book it really doesn’t take a breath.

“It’s a series of actions that characters do and that reveals them. So it reveals rather than describes.”

Jill Anderson

Jill Anderson

 

A literary love-in
Anderson is moved that area lit lovers reveal their passion for the classics by supporting the festival, whose audience keeps growing.

“It’s great there are people in this city who appreciate great literature and recognize it tells us something about the human condition. It’s fantastic we’ve lasted five years. I hope we last five more.”

With so much great lit out there, Anderson should never run out of illuminating, stimulating subjects.

“If there’s a literary figure that has sparked my passion or my imagination I know i can produce a good festival around that person, I just know it. You have to have the impetus to be able to create something that has energy behind it. The ideas usually hit me like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. I don’t sit around and chew on it a lot.
I wish for the inspiration to come.”

Several ideas for next year’s theme have already asserted themselves but nothing is definite yet. It’s a fair bet though that The Bard will be featured since Anderson’s a self-described “Shakespeare fanatic.”

Meanwhile, she’ll continue delving into all things Dickens, assured in the knowledge her infatuation will result in a well-rounded experience for attendees.

For details and tickets, visit http://joslyncastle.com or call 402-595-2199.

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