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The art of adapting novels for the stage

"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," now playing at Book-It Credit: 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.

Because many of the scenes in Jesus’ Son take place in bars, Josh decided to move the play back and forth between the Rendezvous’ lounge and the Jewelbox Theatre, with the audience following us from room to room. Not everyone in the bar had a ticket: some were just people who’d come in for a drink and unwittingly found themselves in the middle of a performance. The band Janglewagon provided the music, adding a country tinge to rock classics like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” (from which Jesus’ Son takes its title) and Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” as well as a few songs from Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. As Fuckhead, we cast the talented young actor Scott Abernethy, who had just graduated from the University of Washington’s MFA acting program but managed, for the show’s purposes, to look like he’d just woken up in a Belltown doorway after a rain-soaked four-day binge. 

With Josh’s encouragement, I also made a choice that had a profound impact on the show: a character we dubbed the Barfly, meant to provide a voice of experience if not wisdom in counterpoint to our protagonist’s increasingly extreme behavior, became an older version of Fuckhead himself, looking back on the central turning point in his life. We developed this idea on the fly, and the actor who played the role, David Quicksall, had his hands full: luckily, he was one of Seattle’s best and most experienced actors and a director himself. A member of Book-It’s board, he joined the proceedings, which had been granted a waiver by Actor’s Equity, for the same sub-subsistence rate as the rest of the cast (as did another local Equity veteran, Andrew DeRycke). 

In the middle of rehearsals, Josh told me he was going to a reading by a writer we both loved, Michael Chabon, and planned to ask him to let Book-It produce an adaptation of one of his books. Which one should he try for? I immediately suggested "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," Chabon’s epic, WWII-era novel about two cousins who achieve immortality in the comic book business, though I pointed out that a) the rights were probably tied up due to ongoing efforts to make a movie of the novel; and b) it was way too big a story to do onstage. Josh agreed, then went ahead and talked Chabon into giving Book-It the rights anyway. It would be another two part production, like "The Cider House Rules" 15 years before. I mentioned I might like to do the adaptation. Josh said we’ll see. And a couple of months after our first production of Jesus’ Son, he told me I had the assignment. 

The challenges of Kavalier & Clay were very different from the challenges of Jesus’ Son. Jesus’ Son is 160 pages; K&C is 639 pages. Denis Johnson writes in short bursts of explosive language; Michael Chabon writes long, labyrinthine sentences that sometimes require multiple readings to reveal their meanings. Jesus’ Son had a small, manageable cast of characters; K&C, even in the abridged form of our production, had upwards of eighty roles that would require a cast of eighteen actors. Given the size of the production, it was decided that Myra Platt, the company’s co-founder and an experienced director of more than twenty shows, would direct. We debated how long the play would be. Two nights, like The Cider House Rules? Three hours, the general limit of an evening of theater? Neither, as it turned out: Book-It made the brave choice to take four hours with the story, with a six p.m. start time and an eight o’clock dinner break.

Myra mostly left me alone as I wrote a first draft. I jettisoned some plotlines, scenes, and characters right away. Sammy Clay’s grandmother and Joe Kavalier’s grandfather were the first ones to go: they added to the strong familial themes that run through Chabon’s novel, but they didn’t figure in the dramatic action, and their presence ran the risk of diluting the central relationships between Sammy and his mother and Joe and his younger brother, Thomas. Plus, keeping the grandparents would have required two more actors who could play septuagenarians — and with a cast of eighteen already planned, that was a luxury we couldn’t afford. A more difficult cut involved a character named Carl Ebling, a German Bundist whose fixation on comic books and Joe Kavalier mirrors Joe’s own obsession with his family’s Nazi captors. With Carl, a whole plotline was excised, including a bar mitzvah scene that is one of the novel’s most memorable set pieces.

As it happened, the novel had another bar mitzvah scene that was indispensable, and while two bar mitzvahs comfortably fit the contours of a 639 page novel, they didn’t fit comfortably into a play — even one that lasts four hours. Another key element in the novel that I reluctantly cut was the 1939 World’s Fair, which symbolizes the hopes of pre-WWII America and provides the backdrop for a key moment in Sammy’s life. It was another location that would’ve been hard to recreate on stage, and I was able to combine that scene with another, on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, which gave us a great cliffhanger ending to Act Two of the play, going into the dinner break.

Once I’d delivered the first draft, Myra and I went through the script time and again, at one point reading the whole thing aloud, each of us playing countless characters and alternating line by line over a two week period. We cut, and cut, and cut some more; Myra counted twelve drafts in all. Midway through that process, Josh Aaseng called to tell me Book-It wanted to stage Jesus’ Son again, this time for a full three week run in an actual theater rather than a bar. Could I expand it to ninety minutes while at the same time working on Kavalier & Clay? Yes, I could. It was a dream come true. So, come November, 2013, Jesus’ Son opened at West-of-Lenin in Fremont, and Kavalier & Clay began a two week workshop with a full cast, musicians and a design team in the Seattle Children’s Theatre’s rehearsal studios. 

The workshop gave Myra a chance to develop her amazing visual concepts for the show — so important in a story about two comic book artists — as well as hear feedback from the actors who would actually have to bring the script to life. At one point, we went around the room and they told me the things they loved in the novel that weren’t in the script. This led to adding a couple of scenes to the play, though one of them was eventually cut in the final week of rehearsals. In fact, we were still cutting right up to the previews — the loss of two scenes the night before we opened was particularly heartrending. It was hard to argue with the logic of shortening a four hour play, but argue I did; I didn’t realize Myra had made the right call until I saw the opening night performance. 

Opening night! Eighteen months into the process, and I was still learning: what more could an artist ask for? I’m looking forward to putting everything I learned into the two new plays I am writing now.

Crosscut's arts coverage is made possible through the generous support of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.  

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