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Playwright of Champions

Aaron Posner reflects on his upcoming play at OCT, Vonnegut and filling the seats
Aaron Posner
Aaron Posner

For those among us who prefer our artists to be a bit prickly — the artist as porcupine — let me first point out that playwright Aaron Posner is the recipient of the 2012 RuleBreaker Award from No Rules Theatre in Washington, D.C. During the award ceremony in June, actor Holly Twyford summed up her appreciation of Posner thusly: “Your honesty is usually right on, sometimes brutally so.”

Honesty can be hard to come by in this world, but Posner — a Eugene native now living in D.C. — seems to make pointedness and authenticity his stock-in-trade. For instance, Who Am I This Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love), Posner’s adaptation of three works by author Kurt Vonnegut (another prickly truth-teller) is set for a hometown run at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, directed by Brian Haimbach and running Nov. 8-30.

Of course, Posner isn’t just a rule-breaker: He’s an award-winning director and writer whose impact is nationwide, ranging from stints with Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, Two River Theatre Company in New Jersey, Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company and Folger Theatre in D.C., to name but a few. He also worked with Chaim Potok in adapting the author’s novel, The Chosen, and recently adapted another of Potok’s works, My Name is Asher Lev.

EW recently caught up with Posner to discuss theater, the theater scene and adapting Vonnegut.

 

I’m a huge Vonnegut fan. What was it like adapting his work? Is it particularly suited to the stage (or, given the time and ingenuity, can anything be adapted to the stage … like, say, Finnegan’s Wake)? What about a work of literature sparks your imagination when it comes to bringing it to theater?

I am a huge Vonnegut fan as well, and have been since I read Breakfast of Champions at Roosevelt Junior High. I think a great deal of his writing is highly theatrical in a variety of ways. There are strong characters, bold ideas, highly charged situations and a really fun and playful use of language. 

While I suspect that nearly anything can be adapted (perhaps even Finnegan’s Wake, which I have never read) there are certainly certain qualities that make a work of literature more ripe and ready for adaptation. Those include the ones I mentioned before in terms of Vonnegut, but most importantly, perhaps, the adapter really needs to have some strong personal response and point of entry to the work. If you just try to “put the book on stage,” you end up with what is sometimes called “a dramatization,” simply trying to alter the work from one form to another without any real point of view. This is part of the reason the cliché “the book is better than the movie” is so often true.

You need to serve the originating author by bringing all of your own passion, perspective, heart and humor to the work. The stage is inherently different than the page. Different rules are in play and you have to be smart about those and aware of the differences.

 

You’ve said, “Theater doesn’t do as much as it needs to. It’s too pale and small in its ambitions.” I love that comment, and can’t help but thinking about the Eugene theater scene. What is the responsibility (for lack of a better term) of a theater company to its audience? What can smaller theater communities like Eugene do to shake things up? Is it risk and finances versus artistic innovation and oomph? Or is there a better way, a middle ground between renewing subscriptions and challenging people with new, risky work?

Oh, that is a huge and nearly impossible question.

I wouldn’t dare say anything about the Eugene community because I haven’t been a part of it for 30 years. No matter where you go, however, this is a difficult and dynamic tension between what artists really passionately want to do on stage and what will sell tickets to the broadest possible public. If you are very lucky, very good and have a really favorable set of circumstances, you can find ways of attracting audiences for newer, riskier work, but it is never easy. We all know all the reasons: money, time, quality, familiarity, accessibility and on and on. It is always much easier to criticize from the outside, but the reality of keeping a company afloat these days is really tricky. 

 

You’ve also said, “If we are going to survive in a heavily saturated market, it’s important for us to grow our audience and donor support.” Amen. God bless our blue-haired audiences, but how can theaters get new, uninitiated audiences into the seats? How can theater compete with TV, movies, YouTube, a general apathy or ignorance about the excitement of live theater?

I don’t know. But let me know if you figure it out. No, I think there is really only one way. Do great work. Not just good work, but really great work. Work that is so dynamic, so invigorating, so engaging and surprising and funny and moving that people will tell their friends, come back again and again and come back to that theater or space to see more. That’s all I got …

 

Who Am I This Time? is a pretty poignant, and perhaps pointed story, to put on stage. What were your considerations in bringing such a story to the stage?

I love the story, too, and have for many, many years. I know what it means to me, but I don’t think I can or will or want to say exactly what the story might be about for others. I know what core questions he is dealing with, but how it gets heard will depend not only on how it is directed, designed and performed, but also on the ears of the audience. One of the wonderful things about the theater is that a bunch of folks can sit in the same room, breathing the same air, hearing the same exact story, but can be taken to radically different places because of the experiences and ears that they have brought to the theater. n