The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis brings the beloved characters of Jane Austen’s literary world to St. Louis with their upcoming production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have created a fantasy sequel to Pride and Prejudice, this time focusing on the bookish middle sister, Mary. Justine Salata has been cast in the lead role. Read what she had to say about making her debut in St. Louis, why she loves playing this role, and a few notable television credits she has under her belt.
As usual, The Rep has fully realized this production by creating several interactive events. On December 4th, there will be a “talk theater presentation” where you can meet the artistic forces who have created the world for this production as well as take a closer look at the set and the costumes.
On December 6th, 7th, 14th, and 20th, there will be post-show discussions following each of these performances. You will be able to attend a question and answer session with the cast and crew.
The Rep continues their collaboration with The Novel Neighbor with the Pages & Stages Book Club. On December 9th at 2 pm, they will host a Victorian-inspired tea and Austen book discussion. Visit The Novel Neighbor at 7905 Big Bend for more information about the event.
Finally, on December 2nd (11:00 am); December 10th (2:00 pm); and December 23rd (11:00 am) the Saint Louis Art Museum will have docent-led tours that tie in with the theme of the show.
Jim Ryan: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley marks your Repertory Theatre of St. Louis debut. Have you performed anywhere in St. Louis before?
Justine Salata: I haven’t, this is actually my first time in St. Louis. I am so glad to be here.
Is there anything you’re excited to see while you spend your time here?
A very good friend of mine worked here last year. She was in All My Sons. [She] gave me a whole list of things to see and things to do. I have a lot to accomplish while I’m here.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley has been called an “imagined sequel to Pride and Prejudice.” Are you a fan of Jane Austen’s work personally?
I am! I grew up watching Pride and Prejudice. Sense and Sensibility is one of my favorite movies ever. Knowing her through her characters, she wrote such strong women, it’s hard not to know her. I had a fascination—it was mostly due to my high school friend who was obsessed with Mr. Darcy. She was like, “You have to watch this!” so I did and I was enthralled. I was just taken with the characters, and the passion, and love, and the unspoken sexual tension. It was very wild at a young age.
Do you think somebody who is unfamiliar with Austen’s work will be able to follow and enjoy this story?
Absolutely! A lot of these characters are so universal that people can relate to them in more ways than one. The wonderful thing about this play is every single character is really so different. There is something for everyone in the play.
It does make certain comments relating back to Pride and Prejudice and some quote-unquote “inside jokes” for those Austen fans. It’s definitely a piece that can stand on its own without having to have known anything truly about Pride and Prejudice.
How do you mentally prepare for a role like Mary? She’s such a strong character.
I get cast in a lot of very strong female characters. I like to think it’s because of the strong woman inside of me. But honestly, I just go with the text and I find the fire in Mary’s belly. You know, what is her passion? What is driving her? What is obstructing her from getting to what she wants out of life and her goals?
She is very blunt and she is very strong-willed. I think it really just helps to rely on the text. And also, the posture and the period of the time kind of lends itself to this. You know, I don’t take anything from anyone. I’m standing tall and that lends itself quite nicely to playing a strong-willed woman.
How have rehearsals been going?
Rehearsals have been great. Everyone in the cast is so awesome and lovely. I’ve worked with Miles [G. Jackson] and Rhett [Aren Guter]. Miles is playing Arthur de Bourgh, and Rhett is playing Mr. Darcy. I have worked with them before actually, in shows directed by Jenn Thompson.
Jenn has a magnificent way of being able to put together a company of actors that just works so well together. Everyone is just amazing and rehearsals are so much fun. Everything is going really, really well.
Our Costume Designer, David Toser, is a magician. He’s practically hand-making every single one of the pieces that are going to be on stage. All of my dresses are being made for me, the girls are all getting wigs. I got my head measured for my hairline. Oh my gosh, the attention to detail is astounding and I couldn’t feel like a prettier princess. And the set is magical! Wilson Chin is paying such attention to detail. Down to what throw blankets are on the set and when—it’s so lovely.
What do you think is the most exciting aspect of putting on a production like this that is making its debut?
I think it’s really exciting because it’s a way to get butts in the seats, if you will, especially with the draw of it being the [imagined] sequel to Pride and Prejudice. There are some Jane Austen superfans out there that will be coming to the show with such excitement but also a vibe of “Let’s see what they do with these very beloved characters.”
I feel a sense of responsibility to uphold the character that is Mary and the idea of her that people have, so it’s a little scary that it’s a new play, but I’m also so excited. It’s fresh and new and people will have nothing really to compare to this play. I think it’s a fresh Christmas piece.
How did you choose this super stable career of acting?
Ha ha ha! My father is an actor and I grew up in New York City, Manhattan specifically, and I watched him make an astoundingly wonderful career in the business. At age four, I went to see my dad in a performance of Twelfth Night. He played Malvolio, and I sat through 16 performances of the production—and I just absolutely fell in love with the theater. I got to keep his yellow stockings and play dress up in them for years to come. It was a spark that my parents supported. They were like, “Maybe a career in marine biology would be good to go towards, but now you can’t.” You can’t mess with my passion for the stage.
You’ve appeared in Orange is the New Black and Inside Amy Schumer. What were those experiences like?
So magical. In Orange is the New Black, I was in the first season so no one knew anything about it. This was before it blew up to be this gigantically, amazing, huge masterpiece. Going on to set was really fun, being a part of a new show. I didn’t have a huge part, I was in a flashback, I had a couple lines. But it was lovely, everyone on set was lovely.
Inside Amy Schumer was probably one of my favorite experiences ever. Again, I was in the first season so it was a new thing that people didn’t know about. I was in one of the sketches that actually went viral. I was in “Compliments” where the girls run into each other on the street and they are like, “Oh my God, I love your hat.” And she was like “Ew. I look like a cow.” So that was outstanding.
Amy Schumer may be one of the nicest celebrities I have ever met, ever worked with. They asked me back for season two and she remembered my name and was like, “Oh my God your hair has gotten so long, you look gorgeous!” And I was like, “I’m sorry, are you talking to me?” It was amazing—it was a bunch of really, really insanely talented, intelligent, funny women in a room and that’s hard to not have fun when you’re in that situation.
Both [doing TV shows and live theatre] have pros and cons. Which do you prefer?
I prefer live theater.
There’s just something about the communal experience of live theatre, right?
Oh absolutely. As much as the audience needs actors on stage to see a show, we actors need an audience to feed off of their energy. There’s a reason why after weeks of rehearsal we all, actors and directors alike, are just like, “Uh! We just need an audience.” We need to find the spot where things are not landing, or we need to figure out where the laughs are.
The show is so dependent on the audience’s energy and I just love that because every single audience is different every night, just like every single show is different. I love the high of the push and pull of figuring out who this audience is. You never know what’s going to happen on stage—or in the audience. It’s live theatre, and it’s scary and exhilarating and wonderful.
Four of the performances of this show have post-show discussions. Are you excited about this?
As much as I talk in everyday life, I am usually the actor who sits quietly on stage and tries to not make eye contact with anyone. I get really nervous and it’s a little bit scary. So that’s something I’ve already started thinking about. Being the title character in this play, I’m like, “Well someone’s going to ask me something.” So I’m nervous, but I’m excited to hear the audience’s feedback and hear what questions they have. I think it’s so interesting because there is so much to take from this play. It’ll be interesting to hear what the different opinions are and what people have to say.
This production runs right up through and including Christmas Eve. How do you and your family celebrate Christmas?
I’m an only child and I currently live at home right now. I don’t have to go over to my parents on Christmas Eve and sleepover to get presents from Santa, but we wake up Christmas day and open presents. Every year we go over to my uncle’s house in Long Island and celebrate with the family. My cousins are having kids and the family is growing, but every year it is the same. We stuff our bellies and just have the best time. Sometimes Santa comes to give presents if my dad is feeling up to it or not—it’s really fun. | Jim Ryan
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley plays the Browning Mainstage November 29th – December 24th. For show times and ticket prices, please visit www.repstl.org.