Over the weekend I had the pleasure of sitting down
—via Google Meet—with MTC Mellon National Playwright in Residence Lauren M. Gunderson and former-Director of New Play Development Margot Melcon, to discuss the debut of Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley, which opens this Thursday, Nov. 18 at the Marin Theatre Company. This is the final installment of their three-part play, The Pemberley Trilogy, which follows the Bennet sisters after Pride and Prejudice. New to the entire endeavor, and a great Austen appreciator, I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation.
Jane Vick: So, this is the third and final installment—what’s the story of the other two?
Margot Melcon: The first one, Miss Bennet, following Mary Bennet, premiered at Marin Theatre Company in 2016, and the second installment, The Wickhams, following Mr. Wickham and several new characters, premiered in 2018.
JV: So there’s a throughline between all three pieces?
Lauren Gunderson: So, each one actually takes place over the same Christmas—the same year, same place, different perspective. The first installment takes place upstairs, the second downstairs in the serving quarters, where we meet the people who make the house run and know the family really well. This final installment actually does a bit of a loop de loop—the first part does take place in the same house, but the second act sends you 20 years into the future.
MM: And all three parts of the trilogy take place two years after the end of Pride and Prejudice. We pick up two years later and check in with everyone.
JV: That’s so cool—were there any rights you had to acquire?
LG: Not a one.
MM: Jane Austen is public domain, and the plethora of fan fiction out there is vast. This is our contribution.
JV: Did you engage with any particular other writers or playwrights in this process? I know there are tons of other Austen writers.
LG: A lot of them have been adaptations of Austen’s work but not continuations, so this is our little niche, at least in the theater. In the world of novels and films there are many continuations. But we did engage with the Austen Society on a number of occasions, which was very fun.
JV: So how long have the two of you been working together?
MM: Oh, a long time.
LG: Almost a decade? For most of our relationship it was dramaturg and literary director on Margot’s side and playwright on my side, so at the beginning of this project we became playwrights together. Our talents and instincts complement each other in such a way that we can sort of draft off of each other’s momentum.
JV: That’s lovely. Looking at Austen more closely, something I’ve always appreciated about her work—a big part of what makes her such a pivotal feature in female literature and literature in general—is how much dimension and agency she gives her female characters, without renouncing the love story or degrading the beauty that marriage can provide. How did you relate to that tone in these plays?
MM: I think it’s a combination of loving what Jane Austen did for women in her era, and also coming at it with a contemporary sensibility. We recognize that all of these women, and all women full stop, are complicated and multi-dimensional. So this is a great opportunity to take what Austen started and run with it.
LG: It is a very high bar, to attempt to put words in the mouth of these iconic and beloved characters—we don’t take that lightly, and what we definitely don’t do is attempt to do it exactly like she would have done it. We’ve allowed these characters to feel slightly more contemporary than they would have in the novels, and it’s a conversation between the two eras, allowing us to see what has changed, and what hasn’t. And all of the sisters are so different, and in this final installment we incorporate Georgiana Darcy as well, who adds another layer of what feminine is and what womanhood is. We’re able to really unpack and tease apart the threads of standards for women across the ages and how they resonate now.
JV: So Georgiana and Kitty star in this final installment—I love that, I remember wanting to see more of Georgiana, especially after watching the Kiera Knightly adaptation of Pride and Predjudice, which I actually really loved—
LG: I did too! We’re split; Margot didn’t.
JV: Margot, you didn’t like it?! I remember so vividly when that film came out—I was 12, it was a rainy day, I was in a black-and-white sweater, and I fell so in love with Mr. Darcy—
MM: Oh, Matthew MacFayden, God.
JV: Oh God! I wasn’t well for some time. What a performance. Georgiana and Kitty are interesting characters in that adaptation—especially Georgiana, who has a terrible relationship with Wickham when she’s so young. We don’t really get to see any of the rest of her story. Without giving too much away, how did you approach her as a character?
MM: The wonderful thing about working with existing characters that aren’t main features of Pride and Predjudice is that they’re actually way easier to write. We don’t know a lot about Georgiana or Kitty, and what we do know gives us a great jumping-off point to imagine her, based on that relationship with Wickham, on being raised by her brother, etc. We were able to draw a character that we found interesting and complex without being a departure from the novel.
LG: And in this installment we focus on female friendship, which is nice. There’s certainly a love story, but the heart of the piece is really that friendship between two women.
JV: I love that—it’s beautiful to focus on non-romantic love relationships and give them the credit they deserve.
LG: Yeah, it’s sort of the Jane-and-Lizzie relationship. Georgiana and Kitty are different from each other—they complement one another, and have each other’s back throughout.
JV: So, is this the last one?
LG: Of this … so far …
MM: A trilogy feels nice—three is solid.
LG: We’re kind of Pride and Predjudice’d out.
JV: For sure. And are the two of you considering future collaboration?
MM: We talk about it all the time, and also we’re like, “We gotta get through this one.”
LG: It takes a lot of time and dedication to tell a story well. We’ll get to the next thing.
JV: And in this process, is there something in particular that stood out for each of you?
LG: What makes Austen so gripping is that even if you’ve read Pride and Prejudice three times, and know Lizzie and Darcy are going to get together, for a good while it feels like there’s no way forward. Really making sure that each of our plays had a moment where it felt absolute, broken beyond repair, and then the change to a breakthrough, was pivotal. Because how you find your way out of that, the growth and resilience you develop, is really the work of being a human.
JV: I was going to say—that’s profoundly applicable to life itself.
LG: Right, everyone has that. And we didn’t just want these characters to be pretty and lovely the whole time—they’ve got to work, learn, grow. So that was my moment.
MM: I think when we first started, one of the things we really wanted to do was write plays for the holidays, because there just aren’t enough good stories to be told at the holidays. And when we were coming up with this idea it became really critical to build around family. Because, denominational-everything aside, the holidays are times where you gather with family. And in Austen’s work the family is so central to how the stories unfold. It’s a challenge, to be in a family unit—you have to make space for each other. And the definition of family is broad. It can be blood relatives, or a chosen group of people you carry with you throughout your life. So, to be part of a family and still able to show up as your authentic self is the process. How do you remain true to yourself within this larger group? So, the Christmas aspect of these plays is there, but the more important part of it is the gathering of family. And everybody being in that messy time where you’re all up in each other’s business and navigating together when things go sideways.
JV: Your focal points really compliment each other—coming together with family and working to establish your individuality will get you to that stuck point that initiates so much change. And those lessons, especially after 2020, are so relevant. It’s great to see them from the lens of Jane Austen, through the two of you!
LG: I also want to express immense appreciation for our director, Meredith McDonough, and our composer, Jenny Giering, who’s written all Georgiana’s piano pieces.
MM: The collaborators and cast members as well—they’ve brought these brand-new characters alive in an incredible way.