In one version of events, after his first Fringe visit last year, playwright David Kantounas might have paid heed to the resounding cry of “Never again!” echoing throughout August from the mattress-strewn, artist-crammed flats of Edinburgh.
Instead, the 27-year-old finds himself in a predictably crowded living room catching his breath after another round of exhaustingly technical rehearsals and speedy get-ins. Kantounas’ Everything Else Happened, created with co-director Adam Lenson and produced by Dream Epic, is an adaptation of four short stories by the renowned American author, Jonathan Safran Foer, whose distinctive work so often plays with the idea of the many alternative eventualities implicit in daily life.
The stories Rhoda, Here We Aren’t So Quickly, A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease and If the Aging Magician Should Begin to Believe were published individually between 2001 and 2010, and soon had one eager reader thinking about a stage adaptation. “I have a longstanding relationship with Foer’s work,” Kantounas tells me. “I first read Everything is Illuminated [Foer’s award-winning debut novel] ten years ago, and I have read all of his work since. Eight or nine years ago I read A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease and it struck me as being built for performance – it jumps off the page.”
In this short story, Foer invents a new method of punctuating the breaks and gaps in speech, while describing conversations with family members. Kantounas explains: “The conversation Foer was having went silent, but he finds a way of recording the texture of that silence.” And so it is that “pedal points”, “unxclamation points” and “the insistent question mark” all feature as symbols in Foer’s text, describing the pregnant pauses and deliberate, pointed silences which punctuate his exchanges. These devices are representative of Foer’s playful approach to storytelling, which often extends beyond the written word.
Translating such tropes from page to stage presented Kantounas and Lenson with: “the most fun and challenging aspect of the production. Foer’s writing is ‘3D’ – he includes pictures, drawings, diagrams, different type faces, flick books. So it is exciting to make it 3D in a play. Foer bends the rules of logic: things happen that are magic and super-real.” Staging the stories has therefore required a resourceful and playful approach from the production team: “We’ve got animation, projection, a PowerPoint presentation and a live score, designed for the production, which adds another tonal quality. In the final story [If the Aging Magician Should Begin to Believe] there are 20 characters, created by 20 different voices coming from different areas of the stage. We have used stagecraft to conjure his very particular world of the page.” The result, Kantounas hopes, is an immersive and captivating experience of the stories. “In reading the text, you are imagining the scene. In seeing the play staged, you get to experience it all in real time.”
In bringing each of the stories to life on stage, Kantounas has needed to adapt his approach as a writer, with some stories requiring more of an editorial presence than others. “Here We Aren’t So Quickly is a series of non-sequitur statements from a male perspective, and I have written the female side of the story so it’s a dialogue rather than a monologue. So this one has had more input from me than the others. It’s about finding the case in which the story exists: alive and active.” The production’s title is a quotation taken from this story, Kantounas explains, ‘because it is apt for all four stories: they are presented as very much four separate short pieces, but thematically Foer covers the same ground in all of them. He sees things via his family, his Jewish heritage, and there is this idea that what we are doing now is just one version in the infinite versions that could happen. There are naturally thematic overlaps, and the same characters pop up in each of the stories.”
While Kantounas has had several plays produced in London and New York (The Family, Grief), and Edinburgh (last year’s Gutter Junky at Assembly), this is the first time that he has tried his hand at adapting another writer’s work for the stage. So how has he fared? “It’s been an interesting and enjoyable challenge. My biggest concern was that Foer writes with such a specific voice – there is no one who writes with a voice quite like it. So I wanted to present his voice properly – give up my own, in a way, to show the stories. But I’m such a fan of the work, it’s easy, enjoyable, to give over to it. Foer’s work strikes a chord with me.”
Another interesting dynamic to staging the play has been the hybrid roles of both Kantounas and Lenson. Both are co-directors of the show, and Lenson (who trained on the NT Studio Director’s Course and whose directing credits include Ordinary Days at the Trafalgar Studios) also appears in the show in the role of the author himself. The way this came about – the initial reason for the pair’s collaboration on this piece – is itself worthy of a short story. “In the first instance, it was because Adam looks just like Jonathan Safran Foer.” Kantounas convinced his friend to act in a staging of one of the stories as he first turned his attention to the task of adapting them for the theatre over a year ago. The casting was a clear success. “He was brilliant. Adam has exactly the neurotic, Jewish, thorough qualities of Foer.” The duo began working together on developing the production and when it came to casting for Edinburgh, the role seemed already to belong to Lenson.
Completing the cast are highly accomplished actors Patti Love (National Theatre, Royal Court, Out of Joint), Simon Scardifield (Propeller, Blind Summit, RSC), and Harry Ditson (BBC, West End, RSC). With such a strong company and a rich starting point in Foer’s captivating text, Dream Epic surely have a winning formula on their hands. However, for Kantounas the appeal of Edinburgh remains the opportunity it provides for testing out new work, for which the outcome is naturally unknown.
“I’m an Edinburgh purist really,” Kantounas says. “I think it’s a place we can try stuff out. For a show that we’re not quite sure what it will be or where it will land, Edinburgh is the place to try it. There are open, excited audiences ready to experience new work, and I think it’s a good platform for this piece in particular. It’s a great way for us to find ourselves – to pitch our show amongst all the others out there and see where we fit in. It’s a thrilling place to be.”
Everything Else Happened is at Assembly Roxy at 1pm daily until 27 August. For more information or to book tickets, visit www.edfringe.com.
Image credit: Dream Epic