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Interview: Impro Theatre's Sara Mountjoy-Pepka Bringing Her Full Self & Womanhood to Direct JANE AUSTEN UNSCRIPTED

Garry Marshall Theatre kicks off their 2022 season in their new GMT outdoor stage with Impro Theatre’s Jane Austen Unscripted April 16th

Interview: Impro Theatre's Sara Mountjoy-Pepka Bringing Her Full Self & Womanhood to Direct JANE AUSTEN UNSCRIPTED

Garry Marshall Theatre kicks off their 2022 season in their new GMT outdoor stage with Impro Theatre's Jane Austen Unscripted April 16,2022. Sara Mountjoy-Pepka co-directs (with Paul Rogan) Impro Theatre company members and live musicians as they mingle amongst the audience having afternoon tea and delectable treats from vendors from the GMT neighborhood. Sara carved open some time to give me a peek into the behind-the-scenes of Jane Austen, as well as her own back story of improv.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sara!

You're co-directing Jane Austen Unscripted with Paul Rogan. Had you performed in Jane Austen Unscripted before?

Oh yes! I've been part of the Impro community for many years, and this is one of our signature genres. I originally took Paul's five-month class on Jane as part of Impro's Lab ensemble - still one of my favorite classes of all time - and the Impro Lab concludes each semester with a month-long run of shows. Since then, I have enjoyed many iterations of this show, including full runs and one-offs at several of the amazing stages around town and a few variations like Jane Austen + Zombies and Jane Austen Narrates (in which I played Jane Austen herself, sitting at her desk narrating the story, as I had just sprained my ankle and couldn't stand up). However, this run at the Garry Marshall Theatre is the first time I've gotten to do it 1) outside, 2) with live musicians, and 3) with scones.

What inspired you to direct this time?

It was so easy for me to say yes to this project. At Impro, this show has been lovingly created and developed by two wonderful men who have done an exquisite job. As this ensemble has grown, we all felt it was time for a woman to join the directing team, given Jane's own status as one of the first feminist authors in the English language. I have loved and studied Jane Austen since my pre-teens, and I get to bring my full self and womanhood to this storytelling as a director and an actor.

Is there a core group of Impro Theatre that comprises the Jane Austen Unscripted cast?

Yup! This is Impro Theatre's Main Company, which is about 40 people, and about 1/3 of the ensemble is in this run at the Garry Marshall. We've recently doubled the size of our ensemble and this spring's cast is a blend of legacy and newer members. This particularly excites me, because the fresh perspective and ideas coming out of this new collaborative space is adding so much to the show.

Who's in this production of Jane Austen Unscripted?

Our cast includes myself and co-director Paul Rogan, Dan O'Connor (who co-directed Jane Austen Unscripted with Paul for many years and is now co-producing), and our ensemble: Ted Cannon, Eric Carthen, Nick Clark, Kari Coleman, Susan Deming, Leanna Dindal, Kirsten Farrell, Stephen Kearin, Jully Lee, Kelly Lohman, Rebecca Lowman, Michael Manuel, Nick Massouh, and Mike Rock. You will fall in love with all of them.

What would your three-line pitch of Jane Austen Unscripted be?

This hasn't been approved by Marketing... Jane Austen's love stories make you ache in all the right ways, and so do ours. We give you her happy endings, her examination of the rigid (and ridiculous) British social rules for the owning class, her lively comic characters. But we also give you our own gift: the spontaneity and joy that can only come from making up a story on the spot completely from scratch in front of a live audience... no editor, no rewind button, nowhere to hide. Also: tea, scones, and live scoring by a string trio. Come on!

The template of Impro Theatre is to take a classic as a framework of a 'new' piece, right? What 'classic' has Impro Theatre deemed popular to keep reviving?

Love never dies, and I think that's a story we'll never get tired of telling or watching. But you know what else is still alive? The hoops that women need to jump through to survive in this world. Jane Austen never married, and her books are an expression of her demands for something better for the women in her time: 'Don't just marry us off for wealth and survival... give us a really good love-match and a genuinely happy future.' But because she's so brilliant at witty observation, you almost miss her very real commentary in all the fun! When I read Jane Austen, she still feels completely relevant in her arch search for an improved world for her fellow sisters.

Are there any new 'classics' Impro Theatre will tackle in the coming months?

Ooooh, stay tuned! I know our new Artistic Directors (a trio of women who collectively call themselves "Janice") have some exciting season planning in the works, but I am not 'of' the Janice and therefore cannot speak 'for' the Janice.

You have a history of improv before joining Impro Theatre - company member of Unexpected Productions/Seattle TheatreSports, founding member of Ripley Improv and founding member of What You Will with Ensemble Shakespeare Theatre in Pasadena. What cosmic forces brought you together with Improv Theatre?

There's that Sondheim lyric that feels appropriate here: "If you know what you want, then you go and you find it and you get it." I had been told about Impro even before I moved to Los Angeles. It took me a few months to see an Impro show (first a school performance of improvised Tennessee Williams, and then a main company performance of Twilight Zone Unscripted), but once I did, I was signed up for classes within days. It was far and away some of the best THEATER (let alone improvisation) I had ever seen. I made myself annoyingly present and aggressively studious for several years until they finally invited me into the main company. I know good art when I see it, and I want to be part of it, and then I turn on the Pesky Machine.

You studied with Anthony Meindl. How did his teachings complement or supplement your improv chops?

Really well! Meindl's school takes an approach of finding your way through a scene based on being present and following your impulses, which is exactly the same tool we use in narrative improv. It truly felt like sister craftwork, between Meindl and Impro classes, but one happened to have a script and the other happened to have a genre framework.

Would you credit your ability to improv to your success in booking your over 25 commercials?

Ha! Yes. Full stop. It's probably the main reason I book commercials, because it's called for so much in the auditions these days! And you don't learn improv from taking one eight-week course... it really is a craft like every other that takes time and commitment to develop into a strength.

As a mime in the Magic Circle Mime Co. for over fifteen years, you performed all over the world with major orchestras, including at the Kennedy Center in D.C. Can you share any particular memorable moments of your mime experience?

My favorite show of all time was performing Peter and the Wolf at a children's festival in Taichung, Taiwan, in an amphitheater that seated 10,000. Have you ever experienced 10,000 children screaming at you that there's a wolf behind you? It's really REALLY fun. A visceral moment of feeling the universal power of storytelling and theater, no translator necessary. And I got to be on a jumbotron for the first time! The international shows were always my favorite, working with scripts that were in languages I don't speak, but trusting that mime transcends language.

I had another show in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in which I almost blacked out on stage after 24 hours of food poisoning from eating too many cheese curds. I actually lost my hearing for about three minutes, just a high-pitched ring in otherwise-silence, and had to keep performing based off of the conductor's physicality and watching the bows of the violins to know where we were at in the show. But the mime's power of communication transcends poor cheese curd choices!

Do you like to take on scripted 'straight' classic roles sometimes? Or do you like to always like to be able to put your own spin on a role?

I can answer with an example, but I'm switching to Shakespeare for a moment to do it. I've performed Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream twice. She's got the infamous "Dog Scene" which is a tough pill to swallow for a strong contemporary feminist and her similar-minded audience... and in fact, sometimes those lines are cut from the show because nobody can figure out how to make it palatable. Both times I've played her, I insisted on keeping those lines in. The first time, I took a completely "Sara" spin on it, a more contemporary woman, and a woman in her 30's. I had to really build my ride through the language... she *hated* that she was saying it, she was ANGRY to be in this position, but it was her shameful truth. It worked! The next time I played Helena, I performed her as true-to-the-page as I could... a desperate girl, genuinely begging to be treated poorly as long as she was allowed to keep following her guy. And this time, the language came out easily, but my hard work was getting MYSELF to believe the words I was saying. And it worked too! They were both fascinating artistic experiences and I think there's value in both approaches... sometimes it's great to reinterpret through a contemporary lens, and sometimes it's great to let the audience sit in their own discomfort and challenge with the text.

Is there a role that you would love to sink your improv chops into?

Well, with improv we don't ever know what role we'll play! But I think I'd like to play some of the men's roles though, a disdainful Mr. Darcy type. Our costume designer has built a full men's suit for the women that can go on in about 30 seconds, and I'm really excited to play around with it.

What's in the near future for Sara Mountjoy-Pepka?

As soon as this show ends, I head off to Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, where I'll be working on Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. If I can raise the funds, working with my Shakespeare scholar-buddies Lisa Wolpe and Phillipa Kelly on an L.A. Women's Shakespeare Company production we're calling Much Ado About Hero, which reinterprets the original Much Ado About Nothing to give Hero full agency in her fate. I also have plans to direct a show for Ripley Improv that's a mash-up of Franz Kafka and Lake Wobegon (said nobody besides me, ever). I didn't realize how much work I need to get done until this moment typing it all out!

Thank you again, Sara! I look forward to having tea with your Jane Austen characters.

For tickets to the live performances of Jane Austen Unscripted through May 8,2022; log onto www.garrymarshalltheatre.org/jane-austen-unscripted



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