Wednesday, November 27, 2013

In a Word... Chris Hanratty and Shira Leuchter on The Tin Drum

(photo by Jennifer Liao)

Adapting Without Rules
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

A writer and director, Chris Hanratty's first full-length play, A Thousand Words, premiered at the 2012 SummerWorks Festival and was named “one of the top four productions” of SummerWorks by Lynn Slotkin. He has co-created many of UnSpun Theatre’s past work, including minotaur, Don’t Wake Me and One Block (Harbourfront HATCH program). He also works in film, and was the director and story editor for the shorts Family First (Worldwide Short Film Festival; Palm Springs International Film Festival), and Rung (Tribeca International Film Festival). He recently completed his third film Robert’s Circle. Mr. Hanratty studied Drama and Film at the University of Alberta. Upcoming: He will be directing The Speedy, part of Harbourfront Centre's 2014 World Stage season. 

Shira Leuchter is an actor, theatre creator and artist. Her work as a theatre creator includes: One Block (UnSpun Theatre, Harbourfront’s HATCH program), Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (UnSpun Theatre), Sperm Bank (with Julie Tepperman, SummerWorks Performance Gallery), Bardbie (Nuit Blanche/Engine Gallery), The Red Machine (The Room, Harboufront’s HATCH program) and Uninvited (with Julie Tepperman, Theatre Passe Muraille's Bring the Buzz Festival). She has performed with some of Toronto's most innovative artists and companies, including Cahoots Theatre (Paper Series - Magnetic North), Convergence Theatre, fu-GEN, Native Earth, The Room and others. Her ongoing series for the Praxis Theatre Blog, Your Process is Showing, explored the theatrical process using visual imagery. Ms Leuchter has created live art for companies including Praxis Theatre, Canadian Stage and The Room. She is a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada. Upcoming: She will be performing in The Speedy, part of Harbourfront Centre's 2014 World Stage season. 

CHARPO:  When I was a kid - a long, long time ago - everyone was reading Tin Drum - why was a book originally published in German an international best seller do you think?

LEUCHTER:  I think, firstly, that it's just an incredible piece of writing. I've never spoken to anyone that hasn't had a strong reaction to the book - they've either loved it or hated it. It's dark, it's funny, it's ugly, and it's full of magic.

HANRATTY: I imagine, in that postwar period, that there must have been a great deal of curiosity about the German consciousness. How could that horror have happened? The novel was one of the first German works that examined the culpability, the complicity of the German public with regards to Nazi war crimes. 

CHARPO: Despite the book being a success, there were many who thought it was unfilmable and it took 20 years before it was finally done. If that was the case, where the heck did you get the cojones to adapt this for the stage? Or has the audience’s ability to adapt to stagecraft actually made the task easier since 1959?

LEUCHTER: We decided to adapt this without knowing the rules. I generally work best when I don't know how things are supposed to work, when I can dive into a project without thinking about how hard something might be. I had been kind of obsessed with the book for years. I used it for a number of projects in theatre school back in 2001. Some of the imagery in the book is so theatrical and magical that, to me, it begged to be staged. I mean, a voice that shatters glass on stage? How could we not take up that challenge?

HANRATTY: When Equity Showcase put out a call for their (now defunct) Artist Showcase program in 2007, I knew I wanted to apply with something and it seemed like the right space to test this piece out. We quickly got a first draft done for the application and then started rehearsing a few weeks later. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into and didn't have time to think about how big a task we had given ourselves. Which was really perfect.

LEUCHTER: Part of the challenge with The Tin Drum is that its structure is episodical and the story is so sprawling that finding a clear through-line and main conflict was a long process of distillation: six years of distilling and distilling until we really found the core of the story we wanted to tell.

CHARPO: Now the process - first, getting the rights and onto cracking the code of the work for the stage - who did what or was the consciousness of this becoming a production always part of the process?

HANRATTY: The original workshop at Equity Showcase was sort of a test for us: does this really work on stage the way we imagine it does? And while the process was quite harried, we were both encouraged enough by the results that we knew we had to continue working. But we also knew that we actually needed to acquire the rights, which we didn't have that original trial workshop. We didn't want to put more work into the piece only to find out that we wouldn't be allowed to stage it.

Just finding the right contact for the rights was part of the struggle. I put calls in to different literary agents across Europe, emails were forwarded and then forwarded again, until we found the right person. That process actually took quite a while. But once we found our contact, things moved relatively quickly. We had to submit our first draft to the agency so that Mr. Grass could read it. 

LEUCHTER: We were so nervous! I think we lived with a very palpable tension for a couple of weeks knowing that Mr. Grass was reading our little adaptation of his amazing work. And then we got a simple email back that he was "quite content" for us to continue. It was really an amazing moment for us. We recently went through that same tense period as he was reviewing the current script before we got the final go-ahead to production.

HANRATTY:  In between those two drafts that Mr. Grass read, we made sure to take our time with the adaptation. We workshopped the piece again (with help from the Toronto Arts Council) and went on a lot of writing retreats together.  And spent time away from the piece, too. We both needed the space to continually walk away from the script and then return with new ideas.   

CHARPO: Are you being faithful to the source or are you transposing any of the story to make it more accessible to your audience?

HANRATTY: The novel is definitely recognizable in our adaptation, but we've focused the story and pulled out what we think is most interesting and relevant to us. We've kept a lot of its spirit but rewritten and simplified Oskar's journey quite a bit. 

LEUCHTER: I've actually never felt the book to be inaccessible; I found Oskar's voice so compelling that I had to keep reading once I started. I loved that the book was narrated by a kind of unpleasant character, and that we're taken on a journey into the lives of those on the 'wrong side' of history.

CHARPO: What were the specific difficulties of the task?

LEUCHTER:  For me, it was finding the confidence to make big changes to such an important text. That took time. We were fairly delicate with the original text at first (especially knowing that Mr. Grass would be reading our work). But as we continued we needed to take more liberties with characters and intentions. We had to rework the story if we wanted this to work on stage. Simply finding a clear story out of a 500+ page novel required quite a lot of endurance. 

HANRATTY:  I think Shira hits on it there. It's a big sprawling work and maintaining the essence of the story and being as true to that as possible while translating it to the stage was certainly difficult. Plus every time I returned to the novel I read a beautiful passage of text that I wanted to include, so it was very much an exercise in restraint. 

CHARPO:  Finally, what in Tin Drum still resonates; what will strike the audience as having the most currency/urgency?

LEUCHTER: There's so much. But we've used the text to ask questions about the role of the witness. How much responsibility do we bear for the crimes our country commits? By not acting, or by merely going with the flow, are we complicit? And how does this complicity affect our personal lives?

HANRATTY:  Within the smaller acts of our lives too. How do we look back and claim responsibility? Can that act ever be a process of healing? Oskar is a character who refuses to grow up and participate in adult life, this is an extreme version of something I think we've all felt - the desire to return to childhood and bare no responsibility. I think those things will really resonate with an audience.

The Tin Drum Runs Dec. 5 - 14

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