“The Stories We Tell Are A Currency for Meaning and Living” | The White Album Comes to the Mershon Stage
No one is creating more interesting, moving, experimental theatre work in the present moment than Los Angeles-based artist Lars Jan. I saw his cavalcade of raw emotion, intellectual rigor, and dazzling spectacle, The Institute of Memory, at The Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival in 2016, and it was the most heard-of piece through the theatre, in the streets, and in bars. I talked about it months after with former Wex employees who were also at that show.
Columbus is lucky enough to welcome Lars Jan and his company Early Morning Opera, with a groundbreaking adaptation of Joan Didion’s seminal essay The White Album, to the Wexner Center on Nov. 16 and 17, before its appearance at co-sponsor Brooklyn Academy of Music [BAM] in late November. I spoke with Jan in August as the company was in Columbus rehearsing and working through tech on The White Album.
Joan Didion is one of the finest chroniclers and foremost voices of the American experience for the last 60 years, but The White Album is only the second adaptation of her work for the stage.
“This is the first work I’ve done with a primary text,” Jan said. “It was a miracle; it took almost 10 years to get the rights to the text. The first [adaptation], The Year of Magical Thinking, she adapted [herself].”
“Mia Barron, actress, mostly known for theatre in New York, who also is my partner — this is our first collaboration, aside from our six-year-old daughter,” Jan continued, talking about other firsts for his work. “[Mia] was my first collaborator. I knew to pull this off I needed to work with her. She’s a wonderful actress who specializes in ‘New American drama,’ in New York at places like Playwrights Horizons and Lincoln Center. I’m more in an experimental theatre vein, more like [gestures around] the Wexner Center or BAM. The brilliance of the writing of the essay is this beautiful overlap for us. It’s an intricate concept, it’s extremely visual, but it has this meaty character and text at the center. “
On what drew him to this essay, which led Martin Amis to call Didion, “[The] poet of the Great Californian Emptiness,” Jan said, “I never really left the essay; it’s the thing I read the most in my life. It’s not only a brilliant piece of writing, but it’s transformed for me as I’ve aged. I think she’s incredibly articulate and vulnerable about what it means to be an artist and try to make sense of an incomprehensible world. That’s pretty much a timeless struggle. And she’s pretty transparent about her internal crises related to that crisis.”
We commiserated over the impact of the essay’s iconic opening line.
“I read it when I was 16, and that borderline-existential nihilism resonated strongly with a feeling I had in my late teens but which was also tinged with a naïveté,” said Jan. “[Opening line] ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ seemed to be a call to arms about what creativity means and what storytelling means. The power to attempt, even if you fail, to make sense of what’s happening around you. And the stories we tell are a currency for meaning and living.“
Jan delved deeper into the ways this essay transformed with age: “As I’ve gotten older that hasn’t ceased to be true but another dimension to that sentence emerged for me: we create elaborate delusions to get by. We still ‘tell stories’ — you come up with whatever version of reality you need to: to not pay attention, to not do something, to not behave. That sentence is beautifully double-edged, and its complexity has matured for me over time. I love great writing, where you can return to something over time, and that’s certainly true for [Didion.]”
In adapting The White Album, Jan tried to tackle a noticeable demographic shift and mirror the gap between generations that suffuses the original work in a visual and visceral way.
“One of the big things I’m thinking about is 2018 to the late 60s: a 50-year gap,” he said. “There’s a generational chasm, a big chasm of history, but there’s also a lot of historical resonance. What it means to a bunch of 20-year-olds is different than what it means to me, who’s 40, and much more so the people who lived through it who are the usual demographic of people who see theatre. We’re trying to deal with that sort of generational gap quite literally in the show as these two groups of audiences, ultimately, encounter one another.”
Jan spoke about the intricate staging playing out behind us in an unformed way and the benefit of institutions like the Wex.
“This is the first time we’ve mocked up the scale of what we’re building,” he said. “The set’s being fabricated in Los Angeles right now, and we’ll have it in Los Angeles for rehearsals. It’s been amazing to have an opportunity to work at full scale here. Usually, we can’t do the real thing; this is the first time we’ve had an opportunity to do that. It has a downstage plexiglass wall and is somewhat sound-sealed.”
Inside that structure, Jan said, “There’s this other audience which is experiencing the show with in-ear monitors, and they don’t, primarily, hear the text of The White Album. They’re experiencing the piece in a way that interlocks with The White Album text and is influenced by The White Album text, but they don’t hear Mia’s voice. It starts with an exercise on stage, and an exhibition, sort of audio guide-style, then it transforms into a party inside the house. We have the other actors working on the project and then another 25 people: the inner audience. We [worked] with local institutions to find those people and they get free tickets. [We looked] for students and young people, artists, and activists.”
I was fascinated by Jan’s process in choosing collaborators/building his company.
“One of the virtues of the company is that we’re always incorporating a tremendous amount of new collaborators,” he said. “Some of that has to do with things we see out in the world that are really exciting, art-related, or that relate to research we have to do; we end up encountering people who maybe don’t consider themselves artists but are interested in engaging in a creative way with their topic and end up doing things they didn’t imagine they might do.”
The White Album features at least one face Wexner patrons know, Andrew Schneider from January’s riveting Youarenowhere.
“This particular project has the most ‘new blood’ in it of any project I’ve done since 2010. Andrew [Schneider] first worked with me on The Institute of Memory,” Jan said. “Started working on little pieces of technology and ended up becoming an actor in the piece. I’m a big fan of his work, and this is our second collaboration.”
There’s also a Columbus connection as The White Album incorporates Sharon Udoh, known to local audiences for her musical project Counterfeit Madison. She’s doing music and some acting, which she’s never done before, and she’ll be touring with the project.
“My projects always take a while, and they tend to evolve,” Jan said. “[For example, my earlier piece] Holocenes now involves a London-based performer and two Toronto-based performers. I love that the creative team grows and expands relating to where we have a residency or where we perform the show. It’s really inspiring.“
The White Album took a winding path to production from its initial impulse. Jan called it “A story of persistence.”
“Joe Melillo at BAM saw and liked [The Institute of Memory at Under the Radar]. One of the happiest moments in my professional career was being brought into his office,” said Jan. “He said, ‘I want you to do something here. If you could do anything, what would it be?’ I’ve very rarely been asked that question, and I said ‘The White Album. I can’t get the rights, can you help me?’
“That started the wheels turning,” Jan continued. “I had a conversation with Diane Rodriguez from Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, one of the main co-sponsors with BAM. They were interested and had a relationship with her representatives on other projects. They got responses and said there was interest, but they didn’t really get a green light. Mia and I typed a letter on an old machine, bought a first edition copy of The White Album and used the sleeve as our envelope and mailed it to [Joan Didion], no response.
“Mia realized she lightly knew Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne. She reached out to him, and he said, ‘I love your work, and this sounds really cool. I’ll tell her the next time I see her.’ That afternoon, we heard back from her representatives with a green light. I think he actually went over to her house and said, ‘This sounds cool,’ and she went, ‘Great.’ She has a really tight control on what happens with her intellectual property.”
The White Album promises to be a highlight of the fall arts season. You will not see anything else like it. This weekend, you get a chance to support the Wexner Center’s dedication to giving artists tools and space to help bring projects of this scale to life. You also get to see something before most of the rest of the world.
The White Album has two performances at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 and 17 at Mershon Auditorium. For tickets and more info, please visit wexarts.org/performing-arts/lars-jan-early-morning-opera.