“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.”
-F Scott Fitzgerald
That iconic sentence from The Great Gatsby sums up what Jill Anderson is to the Joslyn Literary Festival. When living as an actor in Omaha, you have two choices: work for free while supporting yourself with some other job or make your own productions in the hope of creating something beautiful while maintaining some semblance of financial dignity. Jill Anderson did exactly that 2 years ago when she started organizing literary festivals at the Joslyn Castle.
The first was a self described “dinky little experiment’ surrounding the Bronte family and their classic works of literature. The Highlight of the Bronte Festival was the wildly successful show Bronte by William Luce in which Anderson portrayed Charlotte Bronte returning from her brother’s funeral and reflecting on life’s trials and triumphs. After seeing what a success her dinky experiment was, Anderson immediately began thinking of what to do for the next year.
In year two, she zeroed in on the master of flamboyance and wit, Oscar Wilde. Once again, the centerpiece of the Festival was a play, Oscar Wilde: From Barbarism to Decadence by local playwright Max “Bunny” Sparber and starring Kirk Koczanowski. The show was a one-man play about Oscar Wilde reflecting on his life’s story filled with quotes from his books, plays, and poetry leading up to his famous last words, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”
As for the rest of the festival, Anderson shot for the moon. 14 events were scheduled over the course of less than two weeks.
The list included:
The centerpiece play, new play workshops, acting workshops, Wilde film screenings, analysis of Dorian Gray, an absinthe tasting, a tea tasting, a children’s workshop, a tour of Omaha, analysis of the Wilde Trials, a fashion show, an opera, an art exhibit, and a play reading series.
All organized by one woman.
“It was extremely ambitious and somewhat stupid,” Anderson said. “It’s hard to advertise and market that size of festival. Some events were well attended and some were under attended. That proved we mustn’t spread our resources too thin. I was proud of everything that was put together but if there’s not a full enough audience to see it, you have to rethink things.”
Although the second festival extremely tired her, Anderson stayed busy finding the next focus for the event’s third year. When her eyes found the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, she knew exactly which author and era to pursue. The result is Jazz Age at the Castle: F Scott Fitzgerald.
Remembering all too well the perils of spreading resources thin, Anderson dialed back the sheer number of events by half.
“There are seven events this year. They are more complex than they were last year but they are also more condensed,” said Anderson who wanted to make sure this year’s events were evenings to remember. “It’s easy to think of a literary festival as something that’s dry and scholarly. You sit politely and listen to a man talk at you. That is not what this is about. Go back to college if you want to go to lectures.”
The events this year, Anderson said, will reflect the life and times of Fitzgerald. The writer was part of a youth culture the redefined itself after the horrible atrocities of World War I.
“Young people were disillusioned and damaged from the war…so they had to reinvent a new existence for themselves, this modernism appeared. Fitzgerald was about a party lifestyle and being completely absorbed in living in the present, in sensory things. His literature is quite sensual. That’s what we want to imbue all this programming with. Everything is for the eyes, the ears, the mind, and the heart.”
The festival began this past Saturday with a Jazz Age cinema presentation, where images and clips from Fitzgerald motion pictures were shown to an audience on the north lawn of the Joslyn Castle. The night included an introduction and analysis from UNO English Professor David Peterson.
Sunday brought a classic car show. Around 100 cars and motorcycles from the Jazz Age were brought to the castle for ticket buys to peruse throughout the day along with food and prizes.
Monday continued the tradition of the literary festival’s fashion show, a favorite for Anderson. As a little girl, she would play in her grandmother’s basement, dressing up in vintage clothing, doing fashion shows for her family, and imagining she was a 1920s flapper.
“I love to draw parallels between the world of these figures and fashion. Look at what happened in this era. In the past, the Victorian woman was corseted tightly, every inch of flesh was covered. By 1920, women were literally wearing see-through dresses that were cut slightly above the knee. They rouged their knees in an erotic fashion. Ankles and calves were on full display. Necklines were lower than ever, arms were visible, hair was chopped to the knape. It was a sexual, erotic look that typified the modern woman. F Scott captured that spirit and put it into his stories one after the other.”
During the whole festival, the Durham Museum has featured exhibits at the Castle, highlighting 1920s fashion, sports, college life, as well as prohibition and World War I.
“Durham is bringing their curatorial skills out in full force,” said Anderson. “When you enter the Castle, you will going into a 1920s world. Everything you see on display will be actual objects from the period with wonderful text panels to put everything in context.”
The festival continues this weekend with this year’s centerpiece drama, Scott and Zelda: A Drama Duet. What makes this year’s event unique is that two shows will be performed at once. At the start of the evening, the audience will be split in half and sent to two separate performing spaces. One group will see Jill Anderson playing Zelda Fitzgerald in The Last Flapper written by Bronte playwright William Luce. The other group will view Brendan Kelly’s one man show about F Scott Fitzgerald entitled Expensive Jazz. At the midpoint, the audiences will switch spaces and view the other performance.
“We are taking a journey into what made their marriage tick,” Anderson said. “It’s an incredible story of how they influenced one another.”
August 9th and 10th will be highlighted by an evening speakeasy event featuring Fitzgerald readings, jazz music, and plenty of 1920s-inspired drinks.
The festival will conclude on the 10th with Opera Omaha performing selection from John Harbison’s 1999 opera based on The Great Gatsby.
“These literary festivals are all about immersing an audience in the era in which the author lived. Fitzgerald lived a very tumultuous life, but out of those strange and conflicted stories came beautiful and fascinating works of art for us to experience.”
The 2013 Joslyn Castle Literary Festival, “Jazz Age at the Castle: F Scott Fitzgerald” runs July 27 – August 10th. The Joslyn Castle is located at 3902 Davenport St. For a complete list events and ticket information, visit www.joslyncastle.com or call 402-595-2199.