Larkin about in America: Revisiting Hogwarts

This article first appeared in The Berkshire Edge

Alison Larkin

Alison Larkin reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

While I have dipped in and out of the Harry Potter books and movies over the years, my interest has been mild in comparison with that of my soon-to-be fifteen-year-old daughter who has read every one at least twice and knows everything there is to know about Harry Potter.

For my fifteenth birthday my parents took me to see Nicholas Nickleby in London which I still remember vividly over three decades later. So when I found out we were going to be spending the summer in London I tried and tried to get seats for the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for my own daughter’s birthday. But there weren’t any — unless you wanted to pay 500 pounds a ticket, which I did not.

Then, we found out about the lottery on the Harry Potter website, beat the odds, and won fantastic seats at $20 each for Parts 1 and 2 of what The Stage accurately described as “one of the most influential and important theatrical works of the century.”

As we embarked on our perilous drive through the far-too-narrow Sussex country lanes in our bright blue rent-a-car, my daughter filled me in on the plot of every Harry Potter book to date, so I would be fully in the loop for the start of the play, which takes place 20 years after the final book ends, as Harry Potter’s son is about to head off to Hogwarts.

After a time, I’m deep in my own thoughts. We’ve been catching up with people I haven’t seen for far too long, Oxford and the Sussex countryside are looking lovely and I’m close to tears, feeling the loss of the very English life I might have lived had I not moved to the United States and become a stand-up comic 26 years ago.

“If you could change anything in your life, Mom, anything at all, what would it be?” my daughter asks me as we crawl through traffic on the M 40.

“I’d change the past,” I say.

“No, Mom!” says the little American wizard sitting next to me. “That would be a mistake!”

“What makes you so sure?”

“You’ll see when you see the play,” she says, looking very pleased with herself. “Now I’m even MORE excited! You need to see it Mom. Really. You do. ”

Then, we found out about the lottery on the Harry Potter website, beat the odds, and won fantastic seats at $20 each for Parts 1 and 2 of what The Stage accurately described as “one of the most influential and important theatrical works of the century.”

As we embarked on our perilous drive through the far-too-narrow Sussex country lanes in our bright blue rent-a-car, my daughter filled me in on the plot of every Harry Potter book to date, so I would be fully in the loop for the start of the play, which takes place 20 years after the final book ends, as Harry Potter’s son is about to head off to Hogwarts.

The author at the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

The author at the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

After a time, I’m deep in my own thoughts. We’ve been catching up with people I haven’t seen for far too long, Oxford and the Sussex countryside are looking lovely and I’m close to tears, feeling the loss of the very English life I might have lived had I not moved to the United States and become a stand-up comic 26 years ago.

“If you could change anything in your life, Mom, anything at all, what would it be?” my daughter asks me as we crawl through traffic on the M 40.

“I’d change the past,” I say.

“No, Mom!” says the little American wizard sitting next to me. “That would be a mistake!”

“What makes you so sure?”

“You’ll see when you see the play,” she says, looking very pleased with herself. “Now I’m even MORE excited! You need to see it Mom. Really. You do.”

J K Rowling’s masterful script has been conjured into one of most exciting pieces of theater I have ever seen. In addition to the magical affects and deeply drawn characters who swirl across the stage in dark flowing cloaks, the story at the heart of it makes us feel and think.

We all have something in our past that caused us pain. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. But if it hadn’t happened – the thing that changed everything – while we can’t know what might have happened, we can be sure we wouldn’t be exactly where we are today.

If I hadn’t left England for the United States, apart from everything else, the girl with sparkling eyes eating all my Maltesers would never have been born.

And so, later that night, when she asks me again if I’d change my own past if I could, I say “No way, kiddo” — crystal clear on the answer.

Larkin about in America: Across the Pond

This article first appeared in The Berkshire Edge

Alison Larkin’s Tardis (from ‘Doctor Who’) recording studio.

Alison Larkin’s Tardis (from ‘Doctor Who’) recording studio.

The last time I spent the whole summer in England was a quarter of a century ago. I was in my mid-twenties and working as an actress and a playwright in London. I was just about to go on stage to play Flora Poste in the original stage version of Cold Comfort Farm, when the phone rang in the dressing room. It was a woman from the adoption agency in America who told me that the birth mother I’d been searching for was alive and well and keen for me to come and visit her at her home – in Bald Mountain, Tennessee.

Two months later, after meeting both my birth parents, I went to New York to try my hand at stand-up comedy. Before I knew it I’d fallen in love with the creative freedom I’d found in America, my work took off in interesting new directions, I married, had kids, wrote a novel, way led on to way and although I missed England and went back as often as I could it was never for more than a week or two.

Flip forward twenty-six years and here I am living in the Berkshires with my two all-American teenagers and it’s summer time again and I’m conscious of time passing.

My English parents are in their mid-eighties now and despite evidence to the contrary — they still think nothing of driving up to Pitlochry, Scotland for a weekend of vigorous Scottish dancing for example — they won’t be around forever.

Friends who were single when I left have married, raised children and some have already become empty-nesters.

“I wish I could figure out a way to spend more time in England,” I say to myself, feeling increasingly homesick for the country that I can no longer call home.

“You have teenagers, Alison. They need to be with other teenagers.” I say back.

“There must be some teenagers in England,” I say. “What if I could find some sort of camp for them in the UK?”.

“Sounds expensive,” I say back.

Then someone tells me that the Berkshire Theatre Group is looking for accommodation for their actors and before I know it we’ve rented out our house to the cast of Arsenic and Old Lace, and we’re heading to England for six weeks.

For most of the time we’ll be visiting family and friends, but for two precious weeks, while I re-connect with friends I went to college with, my kids will be at “camp” with British teenagers as interested in film and creative writing as they are.

When I narrate British classic audiobooks by the likes of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll and Agatha Christie from my recording studio in Stockbridge — a.k.a. The Tardis — I get to travel through time to an England that doesn’t exist anymore.

This summer I’m packing up the studio and heading back. And forward perhaps. Making time to get to know England as she is now. To see what’s changed and what hasn’t.

I’ll keep you posted on what I find.

Larkin about in America: Airborne

This article first appeared in The Berkshire Edge

Stockbridge Bowl

Stockbridge Bowl. (Photo Copyright David Scribner)

Stockbridge — If we were to experience the world solely through today’s social and other media, we’d be watching out for terrorists and venal politicians behind the ice-cream counter at the SoCo Creamery or lurking under water at the Stockbridge Bowl, waiting to pull us down.

Every day we get to choose whether to spend our time obsessing darkly over the news, or spend our time trying to make good things happen.

I was reminded of this last week on my way to Kansas City. Here’s what happened.

A few months ago I decided to record the first two-actor audio production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Why? Because James Warwick, who starred in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband on Broadway agreed to play all the parts I wasn’t going to play, i.e., the men. Plus, it hadn’t been done before. Much to our astonishment, thanks in no small part to the technical wizardry of co-producer Steven Jay Cohen, it worked and our audio production was selected to be played in front of a live audience as part of the Hear Now Festival in Kansas City – the largest audio fiction festival in the world.

Which meant I was going to have to get on an airplane.

I am not alone in my dislike of modern-day air travel. I used to love it. Now I loathe it. Every time I enter an airport these days I find myself muttering Dorothy Parker’s famous line “What fresh hell is this?”

But I’m as capable of shutting out the world around me as the teenagers I live with, so as I’m crammed into a tiny seat in a tin can full of stale air, I’m staring at my iPhone manically flicking through Facebook posts about Comey and Trump and the re-election in the UK and a column about persistent glass ceilings and how opportunities for girls and women are dwindling worldwide.

Depressed, I put down my iPhone and, noticing the young woman sitting next to me, I decide to offer her a pretzel. Perhaps if I do that she’ll take her earphones off and we can strike up a conversation. It works.

It turns out I’m sitting next to Ellen Noble, a 22-year-old student at UMass who is also a successful professional cyclist and already a smart business woman. She negotiates her own sponsorship deals and, this summer, decided to start a cycling camp for girls.

“Why?” I ask, hope rising.

“I want to inspire teenage girls to follow their dreams,” she says. “We need to hold young women to the same standard that we hold young men, don’t you think?”

“I do,” I say, tossing the last pretzel into my mouth and smiling.

That was a very good beginning to my week, and I was privileged to spend the rest in the company of some of the brightest lights in the audio industry, who use their time telling stories of all kinds about what it means to be human.

The broadcast news over that same period got worse and worse.

The news we are fed daily is divisive and alarming, but if we get out of the bubble we find there are also good things happening. Right next to us and all over the world.

As I flew home to my life in the achingly beautiful Berkshire hills I looked out the airplane window and thought of a line of Oscar Wilde’s: the night can be very black, “but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Larkin About In America: Teen readers, hope for the future

This article first appeared in The Berkshire Edge

audiobook cottage Alison Larkin

The Teen Book Fest at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, where the author found 1,500 teenagers enthralled with books and their authors. (Courtesy of Teen Book Fest)

Does your heart beat extra fast these days when, despite your intention not to open the New York Times on-line until after breakfast, you do, because, like everyone around you, you can’t help yourself?

And when you find out that yesterday’s drama was nothing in comparison with today’s, does the anxiety that begins early in the a.m. escalate throughout the day? Leaving you on the verge of despair by the end of the week?

If so, here’s something that might help. Turn off your computer and shift your attention to what the teenagers are doing.

Easy for me to say, of course, because I live with two of them.

Generally speaking, my kids would prefer me not to hang out with their friends – or speak to anyone at all, actually. Whenever my 16-year-old son brings his friends over for pizza, he whispers: “Can you go to your studio now, Mom?” And some of the time I do, resisting the urge to bow and exit backwards like a middle-aged British Geisha.

But sometimes my kids have to hang out with me because they can’t drive yet.

So when my 14-year-old daughter asked me to drive her and her friend to the Teen Book Fest in Rochester to see Sarah J. Maas last weekend, I said “Yes.”

In case you don’t know, Sarah J. Maas is the No. 1 NY Times bestselling author of The Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses fantasy series. She has the same effect on today’s teens that rock stars had on you and me in the olden days. She’s so popular she injured her hand from signing so many books.

My two passengers are talking about her books in the back of the car.

“I love how Sarah creates her own world. Like J. K. Rowling.”

“And George MacDonald.” I say, piping in from the front as we whizz past the sign for Schenectady.

“Who?”

“He wrote The Princess and the Goblin. It was the first ever fantasy novel, written in 1872,” I say. I know, because I narrated the audiobook. “He had a huge influence on C.S. Lewis and Tolkien.”

“OMG! Sarah J. Maas says she’s totally influenced by Tolkien! So I guess she owes a lot to George MacDonald, too.”

“Yup.”

The girls glance at the back of their chauffeur for a nanosecond, then return to their reading.

When we walk into the Nazareth College gym at Teen Book Fest the next morning, there are over 1,500 teenagers cheering and screaming as the authors are introduced.

“Who’s the guy?” I say pointing to a cool dude at the end of the stage.

“That’s David Levithan. He writes about LBGTQ issues and stuff.”

They’re writing about things that teenagers are struggling with. I’m reminded of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s powerful novel about teenagers dealing with cancer.

There’s another wave of cheering now.

“OMG! It’s Tamara Ireland Stone!”

“What did she write?”

Every Last Word. About someone with mental illness who finds her voice through poetry.”

“That sounds…”

But they’ve gone. Hurrying into the crowd to hear the first author talk, then take a writing workshop, then stand in line for an hour so the authors can sign their books.

In a couple of years these kids will be voting. Then they’ll be running the country. And I find my worry over the future easing a little.

My first town meeting: Stockbridge chooses the greater good

This article first appeared in The Berkshire Edge

audiobook cottage Alison Larkin

Stockbridge Town Meeting voting on a new school funding formula that would benefit Great Barrington. (Photo Copyright David Scribner)

Stockbridge — Although I was born in the U.S., I was adopted by Brits and raised in England. As surprising as this may sound, the British don’t study American history or American politics from an American point of view. What you call the Revolutionary War, for example, was referred to by my History teacher as “that unfortunate incident involving tea.”

Before Monday I had never been to a Town Meeting. But I’m a writer and the mother of a voracious reader who loves the Stockbridge Library, so when a friend asked me if I could come to the Town Meeting in Stockbridge to help oppose a possible motion to reduce funding to the library, I said “you bet,” I had no idea what to expect.

I was truly astonished to see over 250 people there. My doctor and dentist, the guy who hands me my packages at the post office, the owner of the Stockbridge General Store where my kids get bubble gum, the principal of the elementary school, the Art teacher, the superintendent of schools, the guy who fixed my frozen shoulder in five minutes, dozens of people whose faces I recognized but did not know by name and of course the noble librarians and board members from the beloved Stockbridge Library.

First a man with a white beard stood up and asked everyone to vote on the first four issues on the piece of paper by saying “Aye” or “Nay.” There were no “Nays” at all.

“Is the library safe?” I whispered to the woman next to me.

“Yes,” she said.

“Oh good. What’s next?”

“The school.”

“What’s the issue?”

“The Finance Committee thinks we shouldn’t raise our taxes to help capitalize improvements at Monument because we have far fewer kids living in Stockbridge. We’re going to vote ‘for’ or ‘against’.”

“You mean it will be decided here? Tonight? By the people in this room?” I said.

“Yes.”

“Blimey.”

This would never happen in England.

I knew that Monument Mountain Regional High School badly needs fixing — no school should have to use trash cans to collect rain water because the roof is leaking. I also knew that there had been understandable upset amongst Great Barrington voters who felt the financial burden on them was unfairly high.

Times are tough all over Massachusetts. There are many people in Stockbridge for whom even a slight rise in taxes will be a significant burden. ‘Who votes to raise their own taxes when they don’t have to?’ I wondered.

Then, over the next hour and a half, I witnessed people I knew, sort of knew and didn’t know at all come up to the microphone and express their feelings about the pros and cons of taking on more of the financial burden to help ease the strain on Great Barrington.

“Why should we reward Great Barrington?” someone said.

“Because they’re our neighbors and they need our help. And because we believe in education for all children, not just in our town but in the district.”

And then, despite the fact that no one thought it would happen, against the recommendation of the Finance Committee, the people of Stockbridge voted against their own self-interest. We voted to raise our own taxes, to help our neighbors in the next town.

Instead of the exception, what if this sort of thing became the norm?

Editor’s Note: The Berkshire Edge and the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center have joined forces to encourage discussion about the value of community. The above article represents that effort.

Coming Home to Jane Austen

jane austen literacy foundation

AUTHOR, COMEDIENNE, AWARD-WINNING AUDIO BOOK NARRATOR AND NEWLY APPOINTED JANE AUSTEN LITERACY FOUNDATION AMBASSADOR, ALISON LARKIN, SHARES THE JOYS OF NARRATING JANE’S WORKS AND WHY SHE SUPPORTS LITERACY, IN HONOUR OF JANE.

I was adopted into a loving English family and spent a lot of my childhood in Sussex, not far from Chawton where Jane Austen lived and wrote. I went to country dances in the same church halls that were used for dances in Jane Austen’s time. I was pursued by my share of Mr Wickhams, I was as amused by life as Elizabeth Bennet, I endured the company of many a Mrs Elton and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, I fell in love with my own Mr Darcy.

Then, in my mid-twenties, while working as a classical actress and playwright in London, I found my birth mother in Tennessee, moved to New York and became a stand-up comic. Because what else do you do?

I wrote a one-woman show that led to Hollywood sit-com deals, an exciting voice career, keynote speeches, a London run and The English American, my autobiographical novel about an adopted Englishwoman who finds her birth parents – and herself – in the United States. I was a long way away from Jane Austen’s England.

These days, over twenty years later when I’m not writing, performing or trying to think of something edible to feed my all-American kids, I narrate and produce audiobooks from a small town in rural Massachusetts, near where Norman Rockwell painted and Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick.

I love my life in America. But there’s so much about England that I miss. In addition to my family, I miss Marmite, cream teas, Sunday lunch, people who don’t flinch when I offer them steak and kidney pie, Waterloo station, friends from way-back-when, gum boots, long country walks, blackberry picking and being around other people who apologize constantly for things they didn’t do.

However, even though I can’t get back to England as often as I would like, as an audiobook narrator I do get to travel to England in my imagination. All without having to leave my recording studio – aka The Tardis. And nothing has given me a greater sense of homecoming than narrating the novels of Jane Austen.

audiobook cottage Alison Larkin

Alison Larkin's recording studio

Jane Austen audiobook

Emma, illustrated by New Yorker Cartoonist, William Hamilton

While it was the romance that first drew me to Jane Austen, as an audiobook narrator preparing to narrate them for a modern audience, I was struck by how deeply funny Jane Austen’s novels are.

As every modern day comic writer/performer will tell you, the best humor comes from truth. Jane Austen knew this too.

As Austen’s famous characters came to life in the recording studio, my greatest challenge was to get through each scene without laughing. I’m sorry to say it took me over two hours to record the scene when the obsequious Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. Mr Woodhouse’s views on the evils of eating cake in Emma was another trouble spot. And every time Anne’s sister complained in Persuasion I howled in recognition.

In keeping with the Alison Larkin Presents’ mission to bring the novels of Jane Austen to a modern audience in a wholly, accessible way, the cover illustration of Emma was drawn specially by New Yorker cartoonist William Hamilton. In order to give listeners an authentic sense of what after dinner entertainment might have sounded like in Jane Austen’s England, we released Pride & Prejudice with Songs from Regency England, and added some less well known Jane Austen poems to our recording of Persuasion.

Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park are coming soon! On a recent trip to England my parents and I visited the Jane Austen Museum in Chawton and two wonderful things happened. While strolling in the garden, I was approached by a Jane Austen enthusiast who had heard my audiobook narration of Emma and said “At last! A narrator who understands that Jane Austen is FUNNY!”

Then, I met the Knight family, the last of the Austen descendants to live at ‘Chawton Great House’, as Jane called it, when it was still their family home. In Chawton I met Jeremy, Edward Austen’s third great-grandson who was full of amusing tales and family anecdotes and a week after I returned to America, I spoke to his daughter – the brilliant, effervescent Caroline Jane Knight, Jane Austen’s great-great-great-great-great niece – who really is great – literally and metaphorically. Caroline told me about the work she is doing and asked me if I would like to help literacy in honour of Jane Austen.

There are a lot of good things happening in the world. The Jane Austen Literacy Foundation is one of them.

And so when Caroline asked me if I would like to be an Ambassador for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation in the United States, I said, “Yes. I would.”

Because what else do you do?

For every Jane Austen audio book bought before the end of December 2016 from Alison Larkin Presents, five dollars will be donated to the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. The money raised will be used to provide literacy resources to immigrants and refugees in Southern Berkshire County, Massachusetts

© Alison Larkin – Author, comedienne and award-winning audio book narrator and Jane Austen Literacy Foundation Ambassador

Out of the Box in Chicago – APAC 2016

Out of the Box

Let actors who spend their lives recording audiobooks in solitary confinement out of their studios and they’ll show you how to party.

I’m with my fellow audiobook narrators at the APAC conference at a party hosted by Bee Audio at The Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago.

In one half of the room are maybe sixty audiobook narrators, some of whom are famous, talking in voices that resonate and in some cases boom across the room. They’re dressed like the actors i.e. no one is wearing a tie.

In the other half of the room are about thirty men in suits who are apparently there for some sort of sports convention. There’s a band playing some sort of cheerful blues I think and despite the fact that the room was obviously double booked, everyone’s happy.

I am drinking a glass of cranberry juice at the bar, sitting next to Carrington MacDuffie, fellow narrator and singer/songwriter extraordinaire.

A big man in a suit who looks like Baloo bounces enthusiastically towards us.

“What character do you do?” he says.

“I’m sorry?” we say.

“You’re voice actors, right? So, what CHARACTER do you do?”

There is no point in trying to explain that we’re audiobook narrators so we don’t we ‘do’ a character because he’s slightly drunk, the band is loud and neither of us feels like shouting.

I contemplate pretending to be French but before I can say “Pardonez moi Monsieur, mais je ne parles pa Anglais,” he bends his head down, and, not to be deterred, says again, “What character do you do?”

“Well,” I say, shouting into his ear, “My friend Carrington here doesn’t like to talk about it because she’s very modest, but she’s the voice of the new Muppet.”
The music is so loud he can’t hear Carrington’s “What???”
”For real?” he says.
“For real,” in my clipped English accent.
“Wowsa!” he says, turning to Carrington. “Which Muppet?”
“Yes, Alison,” Carrington says, “Which Muppet?”
With a little stir of my cranberry juice I say, “Why, Barbara the black sheep of course.”
“For real?” the man says, hardly able to contain himself. Then he turns to Carrington and says “Do the voice.”
`“I can’t,” Carrington says without missing a beat. “Because really it’s Alison who plays Barbara the black sheep on The Muppets, she’s just too modest to admit it.”
Damn .
“Do the voice,” he says turning to me.
There’s no way out of this.
“Haaaaaaalllllllo” I bleat. “I’m Baaaaarbara. The blaaaaaaak sheeeeeeeep.”
Then I turn and head towards the throng of audiobook narrators in whose midst I am enfolded within a matter of seconds.

Adopting America – conversation overheard in a cinema

I’m alone at the cinema waiting for the movie to start, half way through my first box of Raisinets when I hear the following conversation in the row behind me. .

Woman One: “You’re a saint, Sherry. Adopting that little girl no one else wanted. I am just so proud of you!”

Woman Two: “We’d wanted an infant, but adoption’s so hard these days, especially when you’re older, so we took a three year old.”

The sound of popcorn munching.

Woman Two: “Just think what kind of a life she’d be facing if it weren’t for you! You’re a saint, Sherry!”

“Excuse me,” I say, turning towards them, “I hate to interrupt, but I was adopted.”

They’re smiling at me. There’s nothing like an English accent at times like these.

“Really?”

“Yes. And isn’t it true that you are adopting a child because you couldn’t have children of your own and wanted to be a parent?”

“Yes,” says Woman Two.

“Then you’re not adopting because you’re a saint, are you?”

“I suppose not.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, honestly I don’t, but I just think people should be honest about what they’re doing, that’s all. Raisinet anyone?”

Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson

A SUPERB novel, set in WW1, Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson is just out! It is beautifully written, gripping and you feel as if you are standing right next to the heroine as she joins the Women’s Army Auxilliary Corps and heads off to France and into great danger during that terrible war. It’s so well researched and the writing so accessible I found myself filming  My First Video Selfie! to let you know about it. I loved it!