Israeli novelist David Grossman received international acclaim for his book To the End of the Land, published in English in 2010. The novel received attention for its literary merits and for a more somber reason: The book followed a woman trying to avoid news of her son’s death in the Israeli army; in real life, Grossman’s son was killed in battle during the 2006 Lebanon War, just as Grossman was finishing the novel. Grossman’s next book, Falling Out of Time, was a genre-defying work that dealt with parental grief over the loss of a child. “You did well to remind me: we are here and he is there, and a timeless border stands between us,” one character says to another. Now, Washington DC’s Theater J is mounting a stage production of Falling Out of Time, adapted and directed by Derek Goldman. We talked with Goldman about the challenges of adapting Grossman’s book for the stage, the role of the audience in the production and more.
How did the project get started? What made you interested in adapting David Grossman’s book?
It was a book that folks at Theater J had some interest in, so that led me to look back at it in a more specific way in terms of imagining it for the stage. I fell in love with it as a difficult, unique, singular piece of writing. It combines aspects of several playwrights like Euripides, Samuel Beckett, Thornton Wilder, but also feels very much like its own unique work with its own unique theatrical vocabulary.
Has Grossman been involved with the adaptation process?
We’ve had great correspondence, including a lengthy Skype session, which I went into thinking we’d have a good professional artistic conversation about the book and the adaptation and the challenges of it theatrically, but it quickly became a really rich personal conversation about his own history losing his son and how that informed the writing and the characters. I have a long background of working on material connected to grief and loss, so it was a very moving conversation. We really bonded. It’s a book written from a very tender personal place of loss. It’s very much about the unthinkable and unspeakable: When you lose a child, how do you move forward and go on? Who are you in that next space of unthinkable grief? It’s a piece that lives in the inner contours of someone’s deep, dark, hurt psyche, and so to have that more personal connection to him and his support on the project has been really meaningful.
He hasn’t seen it yet, but we’ve spoken in a fair amount of detail about the approach to it and he’s been very supportive. There have been a few versions in other countries, so he has some track record with some versions that have taken pretty extensive liberties. There was a version in Israel that received some acclaim, and a version in Berlin—those were both differently abstracted, and I think in some ways the version we’re creating is more faithful to the language and what he wrote. I think we have a shared sense of the power of the musicality and the language of the piece. You really trust the language on the page and find the poetry and the music of that, so pretty early on it felt like we were speaking the same language. That seemed to buy a lot of goodwill and collaborative trust.
What goes into the process of adapting a book for the stage?
It’s different with every project. The thing about this one is that Grossman’s already done a lot of the work for you in the sense that it’s kind of imagined as a drama: Lines are assigned and it’s written as a type of play even though it’s been marketed and presented as a novel. There’s still quite a bit to do to translate that to the reality of a staged event. Some of that is just cutting it and finding what I would call the shape of the theatrical event. Because the material is so emotionally hard, the challenge—or the opportunity—is to create a welcoming communal space. It’s a play that has almost a participatory ritual; it won’t work if the audience feels like, “The play’s going on over there and I’m here watching it.” They have to be invited in to a space where something is really shared and exchanged between the audience and the performers. So a lot of the adaptation process has involved a lot of interaction with our design team and thinking about the space of Theater J. We’ve had to re-imagine ways to make that room—which is very much that the audience sits over there and the play happens over here—work for this story, in which a man starts walking in concentric circles around the village and begins with a chorus of other people walking toward the end of the earth. So we’ve put some audience seating onstage. In a way, because of the nature of the material, the writing process—more than with most projects—has been about questions about the room how to make this experience as generous, as warm, as immediate as it can be for an audience coming into a sacred, special space to receive this story.
Falling Out of Time runs at Theater J from March 17 to April 17.