Playing with ‘Persuasion’: Sarah Rose Kearns talks about adapting Jane Austen and the biggest Austen fest in America

Playwright Sarah Rose Kearns | Photo by Jesus Ward

Every year, fans from all over the globe gather in Louisville to celebrate their shared fervor at the biggest event of its kind in the nation. Not fireworks, not horse racing, not even Lebowski Fest — it’s the 10th annual Jane Austen Festival, and it’ll be held once again this weekend, July 13-15. 

That’s right — the English novelist known for books like “Pride and Prejudice,” “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility.” Her fan base is passionate, and active, with festivals and conclaves happening throughout the year.

But the biggest and coolest festival is in Louisville, and it happens in our most Austensian spot — Locust Grove.

“Jane Austen, outside of Shakespeare, is the classical author with the biggest following,” playwright Sarah Rose Kearns tells Insider. “Her books are wonderfully technically innovative and complex and thought-provoking. And they are really fun.” 

The festival runs July 13-15 at Locust Grove. | Courtesy

Kearns is the writer behind one of the festival’s most intriguing events this year, a new dramatic treatment of Austen’s last book, “Persuasion.” She is a New York-based playwright and passionate Janeite — or possibly an Austenite, there seems to be some controversy.

A native of ChampaignUrbana, Ill., Kearns says she was exposed to theater at a young age.

“I grew up seeing my mom do a lot of local theater. Actually, two of her friends are among the actors participating in the reading at the festival,” she says.

After high school, Kearns followed her dreams to act, not write. After hanging out in New York for a while and studying acting, she decided to go to college. She ended up with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, graduating from Columbia in 2014.

“I was exploring different things, and that’s what I enjoyed most,” she explains.  

Kearns has a history with Jane Austen, stretching back long before she became a writer.

“I started reading Austen when I was in middle school. I think my cousin gave me a copy of ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ ” she says. “It was little bit over my head. But a year or two later, I picked up ‘Persuasion’ and loved it. This has been my favorite novel for a very long time.”

Many successful plays undergo a pretty long development process from the playwright’s first idea to a finished product. Kearns started her adaptation in 2015 and finished her rough draft by the end of that year. Then she revised.

In June 2016, Kearns’ “Persuasion” had its first table read — i.e. a bunch of actors sat down and read it out loud for her to hear. Then she revised.

The play’s first public readings and workshops happened in 2017. Then she revised some more.

Sarah Rose Kearns (right) with actor Karen Crane at a Jane Austen Society of North America event | Photo by Miragia Wang

Kearns started working with a director, the HB Playwrights Foundation, and did a reading for the Jane Austen Society in New York — and she continued to revise.

“Every time it gets up on its feet, I see new things,” she admits. “A play is a collaborative thing that requires different perspective and different voices. It’s never really ‘finished’ until there is a full production.”

Kearns is hooked into the Austen subculture, and she became even more immersed researching as she worked on the first draft. That immersion served two purposes — it helped her find a possible home for her play among its natural fan base, and it got the play in front of audiences who could offer critique informed by a strong knowledge of Austen and her works.

She also has a good time among her fellow Austen fans, and, according to Kearns, not only is Louisville’s festival the biggest in America, it’s also the most fun.

“Austen world is so interesting. Most events are sort of centered around an academic conference, and then they also have social event,” explains Kearns. “But Louisville is more like a Renaissance Fair. A larger proportion of people dress up. There are some speakers, but it’s mostly hands-on stuff. There’s a penmanship workshop … and making your own regency jacket.”

“Persuasion” will be performed Friday and Saturday, July 13-14.

There’s also a grand ball, but tickets sold out almost immediately.

Kearns has a deep love of “Persuasion.” She’s not interested in “updating” the work, but she’s also not afraid to take liberties.

“There’s not really danger of the work being misrepresented forever. I think people get sort of uptight about that,” says Kearns. “There (are) things that are changed to bring it from the novelistic medium to the dramatic. But the intention is to explore thematic questions and character types.”

Kearns also says that of Austen’s oft adapted works, “Persuasion” is the most difficult to dramatize.  

“It’s a challenge. There is a lot of subtext. The two central characters spend a lot of time trying not to talk to each other.”

But the No. 1 rule in writing is “Show, don’t tell,” an axiom that is more literally true in a theater.

“Part of the challenge and fun has been trying to figure out how to share that subtext with the audience,” she says. “One way we are doing that is with music … and some other sort of surreal bits we’ve worked in.”

In addition to the reading of Kearns’ “Persuasion” and all those hands-on activities, Louisville’s Jane Austen Festival is locked in mortal combat with a festival in England, played out in pictures of petticoats and promenades.

“They vie with each other, year by year, for the Guinness World Records of People in Regency Garb, Promenading Together,” she adds.

The Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, first set the record, which they lost to Louisville. But in 2014, Bath regained the title.

More than 550 people dressed in regency garb for the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England. | Courtesy of the Jane Austen Centre

So go get garbed and rep our town. If you can do it for zombies and pirates, you can do it for Jane Austen.

Kearns’ adaptation hits the stage twice this weekend — once at Locust Grove on Friday, July 13, at 7:30 p.m., and again at Actors Theatre on Saturday, July 14, at 3:30 p.m.

A full schedule of events is available online.