Last year, Joel Sass directed a crisp Neil Bartlett adaptation of “Oliver Twist” for Park Square Theatre. Being a good student of the game, Sass has put his pencil to work himself, shaving down Dickens’ immortal “Great Expectations” for the St. Paul playhouse for a production that opened this weekend.
How does one find the stage play within a sprawling novel spanning years and locations and myriad characters? Sass said the first thing is to realize that you are not the author and that you cannot possibly touch on everything. He talked about his process.
Q: What’s the first thing you do in adapting a novel for the stage?
A: I acknowledge the wisdom that experiencing it as a novel and as a stage play is different. It’s a mistake to conflate the two. I read the book twice with a highlighter and pencil and highlighted everything that lived well in the ear — dialogue, iconic quotations, piercing descriptions. Then I got an electronic version and began to whittle away.
Q: Did you look at movies or other stage adaptations?
A: I am not someone who fears potential contamination from someone else’s creative expression. I do back off from exposing myself to another adaptation in the four months when I’m in the crucible of my own process with my own collaborators.
Q: Do you articulate a guiding thesis?
A: If you’re going to adapt something, you have to ask, “Why this one again?” What I found attractive about this story is that even though it’s set in “olden times,” the challenges are contemporary. Who hasn’t experienced a childhood of privation and having become aware — as Pip says, “infected” — with a sense of inadequacy and becoming driven to undertake a self-transformation? And will this change help you become a better human being and find your way in the world?
Q: How about the structure?
A: There’s a certain fairy tale architecture to the story, like a Grimm’s tale. You have orphans, each of whom is adopted by a fairy godparent who is determined that their child will achieve things they did not. It’s the story of any kid who hopes through luck and exertion to become a star athlete, or invent something that can catapult them to fame and fortune.
Q: What was the first writing you did?
A: I charted the book chapter by chapter. Then I ran it through my filter to see what supports my desire to focus on Pip, Estella, their adoptive parents and this notion of transformation into a better self.
Because Pip is our narrator, what is his emotional journey from privation to having everything? How does that transform him? Where does he feel the pangs of alternately turning his back on a place and people who loved and supported him? Anything that takes our eye off Pip, if it’s not something in which he is directly involved, I let it go.
Q: When did you start writing dialogue?
A: Ninety to 95 percent of what is on our stage is Dickens’ own words or slightly modified. I only added where there was need for interstitial tissue. The Dickens experiences I have enjoyed the most are those that give a more palpable encounter with the author’s voice.
My interest is to whittle it to several different cores, hewing to the author’s voice. If you think of a book as a harp with 100 strings, which of the 12 will you pull and get a set of chords that are resonant enough to provide a rich journey?
Q: How much do you balance the challenge of staging against the writing?
A: I was always thinking about what the staging vocabulary would be. Dickens was a man and a fan of the theater, so we would not do a naturalistic, documentary presentation. It should be very theatrical, with a small ensemble playing many parts and the invitation to the audience to conspire in this make-believe. It’s framed slightly as a memory play — someone in the grip of crisis and memory and as an adult making sense of choices. It’s half playing out in Pip’s head.
Q: A 2013 production set the story in Miss Havisham’s rooms, which if nothing else shows the work’s elasticity.
A: Yes. Working with [set designer] Rick Polenek, we chose to make a set that would not have a lot of scenery moving around. He’s given us a theatrical Joseph Cornell box — a fragment of a fireplace, chunk of window, cuts of the piano, footlights. The style of the staging is our hybrid of what a melodramatic Victorian theater would be. Characters have the capacity to address and appeal and editorialize to the audience. Pip has the most porous relationship across the footlights.
Q: One of the great cocktail debates in the theater is whether a writer should direct his own work the first time out.
A: No, for me the fact that I can argue with and win the debate as either the director or the adapter allows me to make quicker compromises. Maybe because it’s an adapted text, I don’t feel a sense of blood loss when you are amputating or shuffling.