The musical version of Was beginning this weekend as the first offering of Northwestern University’s new American Music Theatre Project isn’t the first theatrical version of Geoff Ryman’s origins-of-Oz novel to be developed on the campus. In 1994 a student production of Was with a script by NU professor Paul Edwards opened to an admiring audience; it was followed in ’96 with a professional production by Roadworks that won critical acclaim. That version got a Jeff award for best adaptation and brought inquiries about other mountings, but Edwards hasn’t been able to get the play onstage again. Ryman, the London-based author of the epic fantasy about L. Frank Baum’s classic tale and the movie based on it, gave permission for the first two productions and then–great and powerful as Oz himself–decided not to allow any more.
Edwards has been teaching students how to turn literature into drama for 26 years at Northwestern, where he’s associate professor of performance studies. His sojourn in the land of Ryman began when another professor, David Downs, fell under the spell of the 1992 novel and asked him to adapt it for a campus production that Downs would direct. “Compressing Ryman’s novel into a stage play was a challenge,” Edwards says. “Was is a great big many-stranded novel with lots of layers and subplots.” To deal with that complexity, he wrote a script in the chamber-theater style originated by a former teacher of his, onetime NU professor Robert Breen. “This is not a style everybody likes,” Edwards says. “It retains the narrative language of the original source, and very often characters will do a kind of Brechtian speaking of themselves in the third person.” But he thought it was the only way to do justice to the sprawling novel, with its interlocking multiple plots.
Edwards wrote the script over a summer and sent it to Ryman, who eventually received a video of the student production as well. Ryman then authorized the Roadworks show, which Edwards directed, and even came to Chicago to attend it. “He’s a very lovely man and we had a wonderful time,” Edwards says. “But apparently he didn’t like the script.” People watching Ryman watch the play for the first time told Edwards he was “white-knuckled.” Maybe it was the use of narration, Edwards speculates, or maybe the casting. Another factor may have been a movie version under discussion at the same time but still unmade. Or, says Edwards, maybe it wasn’t different enough from the book. “When we tried to get an additional staged reading in New York, I sent a rewrite to Ryman, and he just closed the door on it. I’ve had lots of requests since then, but every attempt on the part of any theater just gets shut down.”
A few years later lyricist Barry Kleinbort and composer Joseph Thalken–also taken with the novel–wrote some music for it, went to London and performed the songs for Ryman, and got permission to develop their own show. Edwards says he’s heard that their version simplifies the story, which disappoints him; he’s also heard that the music is “wonderful.” He says he still loves Ryman’s book, but his experience with Was has affected his choice of material ever since: “One of the reasons I’ve moved more often to working with material that’s out of copyright is that you don’t have to deal with authors and authorizations and publishers. Unless you’re playing at the level of a film studio, you can’t cough up the money to option a book for production.” Without that, he says, “It’s a crapshoot.”
This winter Edwards will direct a student production of his adaptation of Madame Bovary. He doesn’t expect to hear from Flaubert.
Public Art Rides the Red Line
Chicago’s public art looked gorgeous as it flashed by in a lecture Nathan Mason gave last week to the 20 people in Evanston who care about such things. Mason, curator of special projects for Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, has been with the city since he was hired to administer “Cows on Parade.” He takes credit (or blame) for subsequent efforts like “Suite Home Chicago,” which worked financially, he says, but was a lesson on the dangers of imitating yourself. Most of what he showed was paid for by the program that sets aside 1.33 percent of the cost of Chicago city building projects for public art. Now Mason’s gearing up for a federally funded project: next month Chicago will issue a call for artists in search of work for seven south-side Red Line stations being renovated. The budget is $785,000.
The talk was meant to be instructional–Evanston’s public art com-mittee is teetering on the cusp of some large commissions of its own. But no one asked about the court case over public-art procedures that Cultural Affairs settled earlier this year. Evanston has now backed away from major projects twice. The public art committee, which gave up on a $170,000 piece for the Maple Avenue garage last year and still has most of that money to spend, is just reopening competition for a $300,000 commission for the corner of Sherman and Davis–after deciding that neither of two finalists picked last summer had what they really wanted. They’re proceeding with some trepidation, but when public art committee member Laura Saviano instructed the audience to come up with suggestions for future projects, there was no lack of ideas: everything from installing sculptural bike racks to converting a shopping center at Dodge and Dempster into an art center (never mind that the space isn’t on the market). The new call for proposals for the project on Sherman will go out in November.
Reeltime founder Kathy Berger says the loss of a couple of grants for next year–including $10,000 from the Illinois Humanities Council–will pinch programming at the documentary film series and may mean they won’t be able to bring directors in for postscreening discussions. With a budget of about $35,000, Reeltime (which has also built a 275-title collection for the Evanston Public Library) produces a dozen free screenings annually at the library and the Block Museum. . . . It’s raining business for the Chicago Conservation Center, which is trucking back down to New Orleans this week to pick up more waterlogged and moldy treasures. CEO Heather Becker says they’ve already triaged more than 2,000 items, including work by the likes of Grant Wood and Andrew Wyeth. “Humidity was 100 percent, temperature 95 degrees,” Becker says, “and some of these pieces were literally floating around the room.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.