Member Spotlight: Jessica Austgen

It's not often you get to see a writer in action (and be entertained, anyway), but Lighthouse member Jessica Austgen recently premiered her play, Sin Street Social Club, at the Arvada Center. And there's still time to see it (until May 19)!

Tell us about the journey of writing Sin Street Social Club.

My favorite part of this process was taking Behn’s characters—the nine who made the cut, that is—and reimagining them in the world of Sin Street: Behn’s earnest young lovers Florinda and Colonel Belvile became Florie Mae St. Claire—a naive New Orleans nightclub singer—and Richard Belville, Esq.—a New York lawyer who is almost as earnestly dopey as his beloved.

As each Restoration stock character found their equivalent in 1916 Storyville, I was able to clarify their comic voice, motivations, and relationships with the rest of this play’s grubby misfits. Once I figured out who they were in the new world of this adaptation, the script, jokes and plot points became crystal clear.

I also discovered that, when writing comedy, I talk as I type, and I definitely do all the voices. I kept getting weird looks in coffee shops and libraries and it was because I was sitting there, looking like a crazy person as I banged away at my laptop, having a running conversation with myself in a variety of vocal styles. By the time the first draft of the script was done, I’d already played every single one of the characters and knew their patterns, rhythms and comic timing.


What was it that initially drew you to adapting Aphra Behn’s The Rover? What was the funnest part of moving a play’s setting from the 17th century to the 20th century?

In the spring of 2017, Lynne Collins—the Arvada Center’s Artistic Director of Plays—asked me if I’d be interested in adapting something for the 2019 repertory season. My answer was an enthusiastic “yes!’… and then I immediately became intimidated by the vast possibilities as to what exactly I’d want to adapt. Her parameters were fairly simple: it had to be in the public domain, and the original author had to be a female. Initially, we thought I’d be adapting a novel but after coming up empty on ideas—Austen has been done, I didn’t feel great about the Brontes—Lynne suggested I take a look at The Rover, which is often studied in Theater History courses, but rarely produced due to its enormous cast size, convoluted plot and problematic scenes of comedic sexual assault, a comic trope at the time of the play’s writing. I read the play, it immediately clicked, and off we went.

The joys of putting a 17th century play in a 20th century setting are multiple, but my favorite part was building a language for the characters. They speak in an invented vernacular of legitimate period patois (thanks, Dictionary of Slang!), heightened text reminiscent of Behn’s original verse and my own modern vocabulary. There is definitely anachronism and it gives the play a unique sound of its own. Let’s put it this way: if anyone is coming to this show thinking they are seeing an historically accurate depiction of life in New Orleans in the early 1900’s… they would be very wrong.


Did the process of writing your earlier play, DragON, offer helpful lessons for you in writing Sin Street?

DragON taught me the joys of a guided revision—after the first draft, one of the drag queens sat me down with a vocabulary list of drag terms that I most definitely did not know—being present in the room and open-minded during rehearsals, and writing to an actor’s strength.N

With both of these plays, I was able to get a good feel for most of the performers’ aesthetics and, when that happens, it’s easy to generate new material for their character. And sometimes an actor has such a strong ad-lib in the room that to not use it in the final show would be ridiculous.


The level of collaboration involved in writing a play and then producing one on stage are often very different. What’s your favorite part of making that leap? The most challenging part?

In addition to what I learned about collaboration from DragON, I’d say the main thing is trust. I had a director, Lynne Collins, that I trusted implicitly and she cast a company of actors who all had the right fearless, zany energy for this piece. My favorite part in making the leap from the laptop to the rehearsal room is finding out how the actors track their journey of their characters: do they have enough information about their objectives? Are there any big chunks of info missing that make it hard for them to do their jobs? Do they know how they feel about the other characters? Does everyone have a relationship to everyone else?

I’m an actor as well as a playwright but, when focusing on nine characters rather than one, it’s easy to neglect small things that are important for a performer. Having the actor as a “proof-reader” for their character’s journey is insanely helpful.

My least favorite part is killing my darlings. There are some scenes, speeches and jokes that I absolutely loved but had to go for sake of pacing and the good of the show. There was a lovely scene in the third (or so) draft that gave Miss Angie B and Lu—an aging madame and her right hand gal—a chance to riff about their brothel’s “menu” and play around with innuendo about french-numbered sex position to the flustered almost-antagonist Pete. In later revisions, that scene’s purpose—creating a sympathetic side for Pete—was achieved in a newer scene and the “French scene” had to go. It was a bummer and we lost some really funny material but… bye. Nobody wants a three hour comedy.


Now that Sin Street has been playing for a little while, have you learned anything unexpected about the play from the audience’s reactions?

Each audience is different. Every night has its own energy and the audience brings different things to the space for every show. Sometimes, you can feel them lean into the more intellectual comedy (Latin jokes!) and some nights, you can tell that the crowd just wants to see someone’s pants fall down.

I write pretty broad comedy, but there are small bits buried in there that are only going to be funny to a small section of people, and that is totally okay. Those “little jokes” tend to be the ones that go on the chopping block early (again: Latin jokes!) But I’ve learned to fight for the ones that I think are worth it, because at some point someone who isn’t me is going to find them funny, too.


I know you’re in the midst of Sin Street’s run, but any thought of what’s next? A vacation? More writing? Acting?

Oh man, I wish it was a vacation. I’m currently in Between Us, an immersive theater piece for an audience of one at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, through the end of May, then I immediately head into rehearsal for a production of Measure for Measure with Theatreworks in Colorado Springs. After that, I’m traveling to Staunton, VA to hang out down there while my husband (Geoffrey Kent, who plays Wilmore in Sin Street Social Club) spends six months in the acting company at the American Shakespeare Center. Then I’m back in Colorado Springs for a production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in the fall.

One of my other original plays—A Murther of Crows, which was workshopped with Daniel Goldfarb at LitFest 2017—will be getting a small developmental reading this fall with a local company (more details when things get solidified!), and I’ve got a few other scripts that are in their first drafts.

I’ve been really fortunate that both my produced plays were commissions and were pretty much guaranteed a production. From here, I guess I get to keep on writing and wading further into the uncharted waters of the playwriting side of the entertainment industry. It’s a journey, but having support from workshops, classes and mentors at Lighthouse has made it a realistic one, and I’m endlessly grateful to Andrea Dupree and this organization for being such a source of support for writers across Colorado.


Jessica Austgen is a Denver-based actor, playwright and theatre educator. Her first play, DragOn—a comic con-themed drag adventure—was commissioned by Off-Center at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and premiered at the Garner Galleria Theater in 2017. Sin Street Social Club —a commissioned adaptation of Aphra Behn’s The Rover—runs at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities through May 19th. A Murther of Crows received a workshop with Strange Sun Theater Company in New York and will have a local developmental workshop in Colorado in Fall 2019.

As an actor, she was recently seen as  Fanny Dashwood/Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensiblity at the Arvada Center (Henry Award nominee, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Play), where she’s appeared in Tartuffe, All My Sons, The Crucible, and The Women. Other favorite roles include Frank Goodman/Mr. Asa in the Catamount’s production of Men on Boats, Julie in Miss Julie, Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night and Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest. Jessica has been seen at the Aurora Fox in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, I Hate Hamlet, The Last Train to Nibroc and as Jaycee Triplethree in Comic Potential (Westword’s Best of Denver Award) and in the upcoming Second Citys Twist Your Dickens. Jessica performs with ComedySportz Denver, co-hosts the comedy/literature podcast Required Readcast, and serves as interim Artistic Director of the Denver Improv Festival. BFA: University of Colorado at Boulder; MA: University of Denver.

*"Sin Street Social Club at The Arvada Center" by Arvada Center