Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Who ARE these people?

I'm going to let you folks who've never been on the inside of a New Theatrical Adaptation Process in on a little secret: the process of creating a live performance of a well-loved novel involves a bunch of planning. 

Much of it happens before the actors go into rehearsal.  The writer, the director, the designers and (hopefully, which is not always the case) the dramaturg, discuss the characters in a different way than the author might. We have to take the author's art of fiction writing and extrapolate that into a totally different format that exists physically outside the imaginations of the audience.  We manifest, to the best of our abilities, the author's intentions as we interpret them into a physical presence. I've often felt that New Adaptations don't get the same respect a New Work gets, but they really are different beasts.

When enjoying a good read, like NEVERWHERE, the imagination fills in all sorts of detail thanks to careful and skillful storytelling and the reader's own contribution to making the world feel real.  You have your favorite parts of the book because you personalize them, you fill in the detail based on your own experiences, parts speak to you or don't and the book becomes a part of you in some way.  Which speaks to taste as well - I've traveled with Roland Deschain on many a commute and I voraciously read Dinah's story but never was able to connect with
Lila du Cann, for example. That's me. You may have different hooks into a story, which is why reading is such a special, unique and deeply personal experience.

A few years before I joined the Lifeline Theatre Ensemble, the company producing this theatrical production of NEVERWHERE, they did a new adaptation of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (years before the movie franchise) and experienced a wide range of feedback from deeply passionate fans.  "Gimli wields a
halberd, not a guisarme. Please change this immediately." is one comment I heard about.  Imagine hearing that as a director when your "coffers" are exhausted and safe fight choreography is well established a week before opening!

Here we are also dabbling in fan fiction that has a ravenously passionate following. In distilling the story to a reasonable amount of pages to perform onstage we are bound to disappoint some people.  That is an unavoidable casualty of the art. As Stephen King says, to paraphrase, you have to kill your darlings when editing, and editing we must do. 

As a director I must coordinate the efforts of all of these collaborators - designers, writer, researcher, actors, puppeteers - to create an approximation of what NEVERWHERE means to me. In the interest of fleshing out my ideas, I engage my collaborators in ongoing dialogue. Feldenkrais practitioners encourage curiosity - Remain Curious - and it is a practice I try to honor, as I find it a fruitful one.

Here then is a snippet of dialogue between me the Director, Rob the Writer, and Maren the Dramaturg about some of the characters of NEVERWHERE.  I've edited the conversation a tad, and tagged Rob's responses in blue and Maren's in red. I hope you enjoy this discussion and that it sparks some thoughts of your own.  Better to know a fan feels adamantly about something before budget and design is beyond adjustment!


The tunneling in London didn't really begin until the early 19th century, so London Below is a mythical place that had some other existence before it moved into the sewers and tube and shunt tunnels. Some ideas?

I think London Below's origins far pre-date the modern tunneling as we know it. When traveling into the Labyrinth, Richard refers to construction by giants, kings of mythical ancient London, Gog and Magog, door with hinges taller than a man. And we must remember that London Below is not precisely *literally* under the city Above. There are passages of travel describing (one of my favorite passages): "They walked through daylight and night, through gaslit streets, and sodium-lit streets, and streets lit with burning rushes and links." Even the roofs that Old Bailey loves so much are somehow part of what is known as London Below. Thinking too literally of London Below being made of *just* sewers and tunnels steals much of the magic of the realm, somehow. It doesn't allow for LB to be "built of lost fragments of London Above: alleys and roads and corridors and sewers that had fallen through the cracks over the millenia". One of the reasons why (in my opinion) the BBC miniseries fails to capture the magic of Gaiman's London Below is that it's all so very literal... LITERALLY sewers and underground tunnels and stuff. I think we have the opportunity with clever design, theatrical design, to encompass so much more, to SUGGEST so much more, and *if we're lucky* open the audience's imagination to so much more than cameras in abandoned sewers could ever allow us to imagine.

I love getting to be part of this conversation. I was actually thinking about how tricky the shift from novel to play is on so many levels. Gaiman gets to evoke and describe, he does not have to create sets or say lines in the same way that a director or an actor has to make choices (granted this is muddied by the BBC production and his involvement there) but so much of the casual references like gog and magog can be casually thrown in and yet the actor who had to be that or say that has to understand something about the world for him/herself even if there is still something ambiguous for the audience.

Early early early London below and Gog and Magog this makes the references very early since Gog is in the Bible and in the bible it seems to be referring to something old. There are also multiple Gogs in the Bible but I suspect the one referred to since it is paired with Magog places it in Revelation where they are (I think) demons or spirits that are part of an attack against God which fits with Islington. There is also a Gog referred to in Ezekiel but both books are visions and intensely tied to prophesy so they are fairly opaque when you read them

Here is a link to Biblical references from a concordance. I am sure there is more digging I can do on that one. I'll have to see if there are pre-christian references to Gog and Magog or similar names anywhere.

I love the idea of Neverwhere sort of slipping side by side our world overlapping and existing without our knowledge (it is a little like the worlds in Philip Pullman occupying the same space at the same time in a different dimension though not so literal). I have been sort of fixating on the title. Neverwhere. The people who exist in London Below call it London Below. Interestingly they are aware of London Above they simply don't pay it much mind I suppose in the same way we think about the homeless. But neverwhere is everywhere, it is clearly under other cities as well. Neverwhere evokes neverland. Never as though something not only is not but had never been (which is what happens to Richard when people fail to notice him) and where. Where is a question word not a place name or even a place pronoun. It is slippery just like the realm we are entering. (Note: from the unreliable Wikipedia:
According to the legendary Historia Regum Britanniae, of Geoffrey of Monmouth, London was founded by Brutus of Troy after he defeated the incumbent giants Gog and Magog and was known as Caer Troia, Troia Nova (Latin for New Troy), which, according to a pseudo-etymology, was corrupted to Trinovantum. Trinovantes were the Iron Age tribe who inhabited the area prior to the Romans. Geoffrey provides prehistoric London with a rich array of legendary kings, such as King Lud ( see also Lludd, from Welsh Mythology ) who, he claims, renamed the town CaerLudein, from which London was derived, and was buried at Ludgate.)

The Sewer Folk and the Rat Speakers could be more contemporary. One of the things the tube was meant to do was to relocate the masses of destitute poor living in the city's alleys but housing for them never came to fruition. So some Rat Speakers may be Victorian. During the Blitzkrieg, Londoners sought refuge in the Tube and even formed small communities (as we do). So some of these folk may have a 40's feel to them.  Then there's Anesthesia, poor girl, who may have come from the 60's or 70's or 80's. 

Rat speakers- there is a certain lost boys quality to the rat speakers isn't there? (not to force too much of a neverland comparison) They slip through the cracks and become rat speakers which would fit with the more contemporary feel but perhaps date back as much as the turn of the century. I'll have to look into stories with talking rats. I can't think of any but their might be.

There is also that sort of history of traders/gypsies/vagrants travelling up and down rivers that feels like it might be tied to the sewer folk or the rat speakers since essentially the river became the sewer for London as rivers often do for big cities so that they weren't always sewer people or perhaps sewer people supplant river people in this world.

I've been picking my own brain about our Marquis De Carabas. He's a mysterious figure and one we could make any combination of choices about. Something I'm turned onto right now is that he was a Roman soldier in Londinium at the very beginnings of the city. Gaiman describes his dark black face and I've cast a caucasian actor in the role, but I wonder what a thousand years of bartering immortality for your soul will do to a guy. I also caught at the London Transport Museum that early public transportation were men rowing single skiffs in the Thames before it became too disgusting to get close to. They would sing on the river side about their comfortable, cheap and quick transportation and often, when he had you out in the middle of the river, shiv you and take your wallet and dump you overboard. Sounds like early Marquis to me. I also heard a story during my tour of the Tower of London about a Bishop imprisoned in the tower who had enough money to have a number of casks of wine delivered to him, which he used to host a big party for the tower guards.  When the guards passed out, he used the ropes binding the casks together to fashion a 30 foot long rope he usede to climb out the window and escape. Again, very Marquis De Carabas to me. 

I want to quickly point out that Gaiman describes de Carabas's face just as "extremely dark," not specifically as "black." It may seem a irrelevant distinction, but it's something that's stuck with me. It's a wording compellingly vague enough to allow the creators of that graphic novel to make the (interesting, I'll give them) choice to have his face just be featureless inky nothingness. (Well, with lips... shudder) One can probably assume, given the casting of the miniseries, that, yes, Gaiman envisioned a black man, but that's not exactly what he *wrote*. I think you're very much on the right track to start thinking about his face as being cast in a darkness of the soul more than a literal "color black"-osity.

De Carabas is interesting as a name. In the Perrault version of Puss in Boots the cat makes his master who is a millers son the fictional name of the Marquis De Carabas

Here it is in translation and I'll need to go back and look but I think Bruno Bettleheim talks about the Moral ambiguity of the characters in Puss in Boots which might be interesting. Perrault himself was 17th C so that might give some time insight into De Carabas and whether or not his title is one he has found it convenient to assume.

The name was also used as a title for a novel by Sabatini who wrote Scaramouche and Captain Blood

I haven't read it but the Amazon description places it during the French revolution and includes bloody death so that could also be important for the Marquis.

I also didn't find Carabas on any Maps so it seems to be a made up principality but I can look a bit more.

I believe Gaiman has acknowledged that the Marquis de Carabas as a name was taken from Puss in Boots.

It would make sense that Gaiman had acknowledged the Puss in Boots bit  - he's too clever not to be drawing on all kinds of things.

I'm keen on the marquis being almost in a way older than some of the older LB peeps. They all seem to share a form of immortality that makes the aging process slower or that at some point in their lives they became immune to the effects of time. Being raised from the dead is a different matter and maybe one that has been employed by them a time or two before but strikes me as a rare and dangerous and special magic. I make a distinction then between "being little affected by time" and "regeneration". Make some sort of sense?

The Earl suffers from onset of dementia. Old Bailey seems rather spry - physically quite strong and agile and mentally a bit softened by age but generally with it. Marquis de Carabas is dark - makes me think of Dorian Grey. Croup and Vandemar seem none the worse for wear for their age, aside from maybe an encroaching obsolescence, Hunter too for that matter. Hammersmith seems demi-god like.

Yeah, I've long been interested in the "rules" of aging in LB. Don't quite understand them myself, but it feels (to me, at least) like aging is more a function of the mind (strength or lack of will) than of time. And it may be a function of when/how they were born into or fell into London Below.

Yes, to me, the marquis and C&V are some of the oldest folks we meet, regardless of their appearance. Maybe even Hunter. And that they're all older than Old Bailey, for sure (he seems, to me, frozen at the age he fell into LB), and the Earl.  (Note: Rob, if you could explain this notion about Old Bailey stuck-ed-ness in time in the comments section, I'd be grateful to hear it.)

I like your thoughts Rob on the age issue. It is interesting because I always felt Door in spite of appearing young was older or at least had experienced time differently. Perhaps it is because she feels so self-possessed in contrast to Richard who is in a world he doesn't understand.

C&V I have always wondered exactly what they are since they are not human and have been around a very long time. The names are interesting too. Croup I suppose there is the children's respiratory illness of the same name. Vandemar feels vaguely dutch like Vander mar. I think vander is from the and then it would be a province or location but mar feels like the english mar and marring things would fit and I couldn't find any Dutch meanings for mar on line. I love the pairing too. There is something about pairs like this menacing and complimentary to each other.

Hunter feels very ancient- Artemis like but also like those prechristian green men.

The earl is interesting in that he is just the Earl no further patronymic implying perhaps that he is old enough or important enough to just need the one name.

I still need to think more about Old Bailey. I suppose Old indicates he is old. I suppose it is appropriate that that is the British criminal court. It seems to date to about the 1580s but was burned and rebuilt (the building that is). I will think more about the character as I reread.

I remember thinking it was interesting in the TV adaptation that the Marquis de Carabas was killed in a way that had him visually looking like that Davinci illustration of man (sort of on a wheel). I suppose it allowed them to avoid the crucifixion appearance which is heavily laden with symbolism and put him more in that rakish humanist world though I agree he feels older than the Renaissance.

Hammersmith has me recalling something from a linguistics class about ancient place names in a place like England (or elsewhere) how they often referred to some feature of geography or important person so Oxford was a place where oxen could ford the river. Cambridge was Cam's bridge.

Hammer smith feels like the ancient smithy that he is but there are such great mythological smiths like Hephaestus but surely there are Celtic and Norse smiths as well.

Something else in my craw is that the aristocracy of London Below would have come down and stayed down around the Victorian era, so gentry like the Porticos could be of that era. Yet the Earl is definitely from the Medieval age. Hrm. I dunno. Definitely they are archetypal characters and all and one shouldn't think too hard about they all fit. But design wise and storytelling wise I want to have some assurance that I get the background of these people.

I agree that the Earl wants a highly Medieval feel. There were "Earls" in England from as far back as 1020 or so, so there's lots of time leeway there.

It's interesting that you see the Portico clan as Victorian. I always envision them as Renaissance-era. Like Portico was a contemporary (friend?) of Leonardo da Vinci. An inventor not decades before his time, but *centuries*. Mid-millennium steampunk, almost.

I felt the Earl as Medieval and I confess I also felt that the Portico's felt Renaissance especially in their sort of grand humanism but Victorian gives you different scope for the sorts of technology in their world. I felt their home had astrolabes and Galileo thermometers and sextants all those hints of our earliest and most beautiful technologies. Also because Portico is an Italian name and the Renaissance started in Italy perhaps I made the assumption.

And on and on it goes! Really.  I met with our costumer, Elizabeth Wislar,  to chat about preliminary stuff before a sketch is even drawn and she wondered aloud if Croup and Vandemar were Cerberus missing their third head. In a brief car ride Rob and I bantered about Richard being awarded the title Warrior and why this title is given to him, why is he not the next Hunter - perhaps because he kills the Beast of London to save his friends. de Carabas seems rather confident about the blood ritual Hunter asks Richard to perform, how does he know what will happen? Are there other Warriors or is Richard THE Warrior, like Hunter was Hunter?

Then Elizabeth sent me this YouTube clip, which I can't stop watching.  It has a wonderful sense of movement and the collage-like artwork is both creepy and beautiful.

After seeing that, Maren pointed out that there is an exhibit at the Art Institute right now on Victorian collage art that we plan to go see.

This is a really fun part of the process, gathering information and geeking about the material a bit and percolating, simmering, fermenting on it all.