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    The art of adapting novels for the stage

    Book-It Rep writer set the lyrical "Jesus' Son" in a bar and distilling Michael Chabon's 639-page "Kavalier & Clay."
    "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," now playing at Book-It

    "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," now playing at Book-It Photo: John Ulman

    Editor's Note: This story is part of an occasional series on the artistic process.

    I first encountered Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre in the fall of 1995, in a low, warehouse-like building on Westlake Avenue, a few blocks north of Mercer. The fledgling company, which in those days specialized in dramatizing word-for-word renditions of short stories, was performing two of my favorites of the genre, “The Five-Forty-Eight” by John Cheever and “The Train” by Raymond Carver. The theater itself was, if memory serves, little more than a large empty room, furnished with folding chairs and stage lights; the style of presentation was self-consciously reverent, with every “he said” and “she said” spoken by the actors reminding us that these weren’t plays but short stories, and daring us to find fault. I loved it — I had been a theater critic in Los Angeles for several years before moving to Seattle, and had never seen anything like it. 

    A couple of years later, when Book-It co-founder Jane Jones spearheaded a groundbreaking, epic, two-part adaptation of John Irving’s "The Cider House Rules" at Seattle Rep, I was blown away: gone was the word-for-word devotion to the original text, replaced by a highly theatrical irreverence in both the adaptation (by playwright Peter Parnell) and the presentation (co-directed by Jones and actor Tom Hulce). After that, I made a point of seeing Book-It shows whenever possible, and when my own career put me in a position to fulfill a long-delayed desire to try my hand at playwriting, I wondered what it would take to get an assignment from the company. As it happened, Jones’s Book-It co-founder Myra Platt came to a reading of another play I was working on, and she invited me to pitch the company.

    The book I proposed adapting was "Jesus’ Son" by Denis Johnson, a brief, lyrical collection of short stories all narrated by an unnamed protagonist whose friends, such as they were, referred to him as Fuckhead. It was my favorite book ever, but neither Myra nor Jane had read it. On my way to pitch the project, I stopped at Mercer Street Books and bought a used copy of the paperback edition to leave with them. A couple of months later, Jane told me she loved the book, but didn’t think it was right for the company. Over the years, Book-It had found their audiences preferred novels to short stories. And the subject matter (drug addiction, abortion, murder, and various sexual improprieties) was fairly rough for a company whose subscribers had shown a particular fondness for the work of Jane Austen. 

    So I was surprised when, a few months later, Josh Aaseng, Book-It’s Literary Manager, told me he was in charge of a new second stage series called Circumbendibus (which means “a roundabout route or process”), and they were interested in beginning it with Jesus’ Son. There were a few caveats: it could only run an hour; there would only be two performances; and Book-It was interested in experimenting with an environmental production that would take place in a bar. On the plus side, Josh was excited about my idea of incorporating a live band in the show, and the bar we settled on for the performances was the Rendezvous in Belltown, which included the aptly named Jewelbox Theatre in the back of its space. 

    Actually writing the adaptation was the easiest part of the process. It was an opportunity to play in the sandbox of Denis Johnson’s words, and I relished every minute of it. Because the stories of Jesus’ Son are filtered through the drug-addled mind of its narrator, the book didn’t lend itself to a linear presentation. Instead, I mixed bits and pieces of the stories together, and chose songs of the era (the late ‘60s and early ‘70s) to comment on the action.

    We also decided, with Denis Johnson’s generous permission, to incorporate some of his poetry into the show. The result was a theatrical collage focused on the conflict between the narrator’s desire to escape and his need to accept the mundane realities of everyday life.

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