In the last 30 years, Aaron Posner has directed countless plays and written many of his own. Born in Wisconsin and raised in Oregon, Posner held firmly to his culturally Jewish background, exploring the complexities of life from all sides—a trait common to the Jewish community, he thinks. With the onslaught of success following his breakout play Stupid Fucking Bird, loosely adapted from Anton Chekov’s The Seagull, Posner continues to write and direct with a focus on adaptations. Moment speaks with Posner his life as a playwright, director and a Jew as well as his production of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass performing from June 14 to July 9 in Theatre J at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center.
Would you ever write, direct and act in one of your own shows?
I stepped into a role in a production of The Chosen, the Chaim Potok novel I adapted in the late 1990s. We did the premier at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia, and Theatre J did a production in about 1999 or 2000. That was the first time one of my plays had been produced other than in the theatre I had worked for. It was a new beginning for me. When I directed The Chosen at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2005, one of the actors had to leave and I ended up taking over the role within the week. That was a play I directed, adapted and acted in. But I don’t think of myself as an actor. I’ve acted, I know how to act and I teach acting, but I am not an actor.
You said in an interview with DC Metro Theatre Arts that for you, adapting plays is an extension of directing. Do you find adaptation or directing more inspiring?
The creation of a new play, whether it be from literature or wholesale, is an artistic creation in a way that directing is not. In Broken Glass, we are rethinking the way it is being staged and presented, which on some level is some slight adaptation, but we are doing the play. The play exists. Directing is a craft. It’s like being an expert cabinetmaker or a chef. There is artistry involved, but it is mostly a skilled-based activity, which I find very enjoyable and very satisfying. It is essentially different from sitting down and creating a new piece of theatre from your imagination. I enjoy them both very much and am lucky to be able to do both of them in tandem.
Are you writing any new adaptations now?
Yes. I am engaged in figuring out the last of the four Chekov plays, The Cherry Orchard. I’m writing a play about John Quincy Adams for a commission at Arena Stage. I’m writing a musical adaptation of the first Jeeves, the story of the butler by P.G. Woodhouse. I have an adaptation of a Christmas Carol in the can that I would like to get produced someplace. At the Kennedy Center this fall we are doing a production of a new musical called Me, Jane: The Dreams and Adventures of Jane Goodall about Jane Goodall.
Do you prefer to use literature as your launch pad for adaptations, or to create entirely new plays from imagination?
The John Quincy Adams play is the first play I’ve written not based on a piece of previous literature. It’s based on a historical figure, loosely. I’m very engaged in re-imagination, by taking great stories that are already in the world and looking at them through my own personal lens. I entered the theatre as a reader, and as someone interested in stories and the powers of the stories. That is endlessly fascinating to me. What’s interesting about a play like Broken Glass is that it was written at a particular time, the Holocaust, but with the core issues of the play surrounding a woman’s relationship and physical illness in relation to the society around her. This feels particularly timely in a way that it might not have a year ago.
Broken Glass is both a play about the onslaught of the Holocaust and the destruction of the marriage between the characters Sylvia and Philip. Both as a Jew and a dramatic playwright, what does this story mean to you?
The play is about connection and disconnection. The way we live in relation to each other in a marriage, in a community and in the world. It is a complicated diagram. It’s a play that will speak very differently to different people depending on where they are in their lives. Depending on how you relate to it, where you are in life when you enter into it—that will create very different reactions to the play. The current environment is having profound effects on the lives and psyches of people who are trying to figure out who they are within this community, and within this country. That’s a lot of what this play is about. And while it is enjoyable to work on, it’s not always an easy play to be around.
Have you chosen to direct Broken Glass with obvious illusions to current events?
Directing is an imperfect and inexact art or craft. Every day you are crafting the nuances and complexities of characters with the actors, and everything that is going on in the world is in our minds, and in our conversations. But you won’t see or hear anything and go, ‘Oh, see how relevant that is.’ This is a smart audience; people will draw the lines. If they want to leave it in the time of the play, that is available to them. If they want to make those connections, that is available to them.
Do you think that, with the rise of anti-Semitism today in the U.S., there is an urgency to put on this play?
No. The play is not so much about external anti-Semitism as it is about internal anti-Semitism, or the complicated feelings about being Jewish that are always timely for Jews, and for anyone representing any marginalized group. The term “worthwhile” I’ve taken from Chaim Potok. He would speak about things in terms of their being “worthwhile,” and not just for mere entertainment. I think this is a worthwhile play, a serious play. It’s not always easy to be around, but it is absolutely worth the difficulty in a way that some serious things are not. I think it is highly worth doing, and has been made more resonant by what is going on in the world today.
As a playwright, you adapt and revamp classic dramas by diving into subtext and exploring what isn’t being said by the characters of the classic, and then speaking the unspoken through your own characters. Do you think that at all parallels Miller’s style in Broken Glass?
I do, actually. That’s part of the reason I enjoyed the play very much. No matter how much subtext you speak, there is always more. We don’t know everything we think or feel, and underneath all of it, there is always more. Chekov writes very much on the surface. Miller tends to go between the surface and say his thesis—he’s very Jewish that way. I think I’m very Jewish in the fact that I can’t shut up about what I feel and think. That’s where Miller and I share a sensibility. I think some playwrights use their own plays to explore the problems and complexities within their own world. I do that, and it’s pretty clear from Arthur Miller’s plays that he is exploring his own life and relationships very deeply. Maybe it is a core Jewish value to examine things from multiple perspectives, I think that is what the characters in this play are doing. That’s what Arthur Miller did and that’s what I do.
Do you think that the texts you’ve chosen to engage have created a personal Jewish community for you?
I do. I have encountered my own Judaism through art. First with Fiddler on the Roof, which I asked my parents to go to over and over. I was maybe six or seven. And I read a lot of Jewish literature. My primary Jewish community has been through my artistic community.
Do you direct or write with a Jewish audience in mind?
I write and direct with an imaginary, engaged audience in mind. Chaim Potok took great pride in the fact that his very Jewish novels were translated into dozens of different languages and were built to transcend any lines and create deep connections far beyond the Jewish community. I feel the same way. I’m not particularly interested in serving any one community. I’m much more interested in crossing boundaries.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.