The road from novel to stage for Faulkner's book

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 23, 2011

Dr. Janice Moore Fuller
Writer-in-Residence, Catawba College
SALISBURY — In William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” the journey of the Bundren family to bury their mother Addie is long and arduous. The journey that Catawba faculty, students and alumni have taken to be able to bring the novel to Hedrick Theatre from Sept. 27 through Oct. 1 has also been a protracted, though exhilarating one.
About four years ago, Catawba theater arts professor Dr. Beth Homan expressed an interest in directing the adaptation of Faulkner’s novel that I had been considering embarking on for a number of years. After many long conferences between Beth and me about the themes and angle of vision our adaptation would embrace, I started writing the play in earnest. In 2008, during two week-long residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a month-long residency at the Obras Centre in Portugal, I began wrestling with the text of the novel, trying to sort out which scenes and passages would be essential to the stage play, which characters I might eliminate or consolidate, and what structure the play might take.
I returned to Beth, a professionally acclaimed director, with several very rough versions of the script, and our collaboration in discovering what would make sense on the stage began. She arranged several campus readings of the play, calling on faculty, students and alumni. In August 2009, she and I were awarded a joint two-week residency at the Ragdale Centre, a nonprofit, internationally acclaimed artists’ community near Chicago. Day after day, we struggled with reordering the script, making decisions about how parts of the script might be staged, and making those painful cuts of Faulkner’s text that were necessary for the script to succeed on stage. At the end of the residency, four Catawba theater alumni who were working in professional theater in Chicago joined us at Ragdale for a reading of a portion of the play for the international group of artists at the center.
In the fall of 2010, Beth held auditions for the play. The students she selected then enrolled in her Collaborative Aesthetics and Ensemble Techniques course in the spring of 2011 to learn to become members of a working ensemble performance company. In early January, just as the course was beginning, 13 members of the ensemble and I traveled with Beth to New York City. While in the city, we participated in a three-day intensive workshop led by Andy Paris, founding member of the New York-based Tectonic Theatre Project. Founded in 1991 by premiere American playwright and director Moisés Kaufman, Tectonic is best known for its groundbreaking plays, “The Laramie Project,” “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” and most recently the Tony Award-winning “33 Variations.” In the past six months, the ensemble has used the techniques we learned at the workshop to develop the production of the play.
Why have I wanted to transport the troubled members of the Bundren family to the stage? For one thing, I admire how the novel shows the mind of each Bundren turning itself inside out, struggling to understand the world in his or her own exceptional but distorted way. Faulkner also fascinates me in his complex, non-linear treatment of time. Perhaps I value most the way Faulkner treats with such tenderness and affection the Bundrens — a poor Mississippi family so dysfunctional and ragged that we’d swerve if we met them on the road.
I first read “As I Lay Dying” when I was 21 and in graduate school. I remember thinking it was the most difficult book I had ever read but also the most brilliant. In my career at Catawba College, I have taught the novel more than a dozen times. Every time I have reread it, I have “understood” it more but always in an incomplete way. That is one of the great joys of the novel for me. It will never give up all of its wonders and secrets. The biggest challenge then in adapting “As I Lay Dying” has been to make the play clear enough in its story that audience members will continue to give it their attention while not sacrificing the complexity and slippage of meaning that Faulkner offers his readers.
As Beth and I have created the stage play, we have always had two audiences in mind — the newcomers to “As I Lay Dying” (who won’t have the luxury of leafing back through the novel to piece a narrative together) and the Faulkner devotees and scholars who will watch for any sign of desecration of their “sacred” text. Along the way, I have sometimes fought for keeping “what Faulkner said.” But in the end, like Beth, I am most committed to converting new readers to Faulkner so that they, too, can begin to experience the joys and mysteries of his astounding words.