For this month’s The Wright Stuff, Sara Dabney Tisdale caught up with director/playwright Derek Goldman in the midst of his commute between Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, where his production of A Streetcar Named Desire opens April 13, and Theater J, where he was in the final stages of rehearsing his adaptation of Falling Out of Time, playing now through April 17. Their conversation centered on the Theater J premiere of a play that Goldman’s says is “filled with tenderness and beauty and human connection.”
You’re simultaneously rehearsing Falling Out of Time at Theater J and A Streetcar Named Desire at Everyman Theatre. From a sheer scheduling perspective, how, exactly, does that work? And from an artistic perspective, how do you balance the classic with the contemporary?
The first answer is: Yes I am. It’s actually working really well. It could only happen this way because I’m on sabbatical this semester from Georgetown, so that was the first ingredient in the equation that made it even conceivable. It took a little bit of finessing. I’m working on two really extraordinarily rewarding projects. They’re very different projects, but it’s sort of nice to have the other one to go to. They both feel filled with beautiful poetic language that stretches the muscles of your actors and your whole team. They both feel urgently about things that I care about personally and politically. You’re catching me on a high. I’ve got this commute in between [rehearsals at the two theaters]—it’s a little bit of an in-between space to think and have conversations with designers.
Falling Out of Time is based on the novel of the same name by Israeli writer David Grossman that was translated from Hebrew to English by Jessica Cohen. How have you approached the adaptation process? What’s the balance between honoring both the original and the translation?
We’ve been in touch with David Grossman in a wonderful way. I had a great Skype with him early on, and then he had a wonderful Skype with the cast. There’s been a lot of trust and room to explore. And the translation is really good. It’s got its own attention to music, pulse, rhythm, quality. It’s a piece a lot about walking, both as an action and a metaphor—what it is to move forward when you’re stuck in a place, whether you’re a writer trying to write your experience or a grieving parent. Basically, this has been about the benefit of getting a really great English translation and really building on that.
What’s most striking to you about the script?
The novel is written already in the form of a play. It’s filled with rich, poetic language. Really, the job has been about finding the stage event for our telling—working with designers and the ensemble and thinking a lot about the Theater J space. For the piece to be fully realized, it has to be experienced as kind of a communal ritual. The Theater J space is challenging—it’s not something that automatically lends itself to that. We had the opportunity to workshop it in a reading at the Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage; from there it’s just kind of been chiseling and looking for the actions and events in every scene. The changes we’re making feel quite surgical. They’re not radical, but they’re important. It’s the kind of piece where one little shift, because it’s so beautifully calibrated, has ripples.
Your last production at Theater J was Our Class, a harrowing ensemble piece about the World War II massacre of a Jewish shtetl in Poland. Do you find any parallels between that project and Falling Out of Time?
There are certainly parallels: the ensemble-based nature of the pieces and the way they’re about a community, a village, a group of people who experience something ultimately together in a powerful communal way. And they both have some of the same theatrical kinds of influences. Falling Out of Time feels influenced by Our Town, particularly the third act of Our Town, where the dead and the living commingle. And there’s a chronicler figure that functions sort of like the stage manager in Our Town. Our Class, in its own way, was influenced by Dead Class, the great Polish play. They’re manifesting as very spare, evocative theatrical worlds that put the human beings and the story and the actors out front. The surprise for people about Falling Out of Time is that while it begins with something that we think of as kind of unspeakable or unthinkable, it’s not depressing at all to work on. I’m very convinced and determined that it’s not going to be depressing to watch, either. It’s filled with tenderness and beauty and human connection. We’re moving through the heart of issues around us and into something really quite sacred and quite communal.
How do you see Falling Out of Time contributing to new work in D.C.?
We’ve been making this joke in rehearsal: It certainly isn’t going to remind anyone of anything else. It’s really its own theatrical experience, and we’re bringing it into the world in a totally new way. There’s a beautiful risk and a beautiful invitation involved in premiering it and trusting a community and an audience. It’s a new work for a theater that’s rooted in a lot of things that feel very ancient. It feels like it has echoes of the oldest stories we tell and the biggest issues we deal with. Not every new play has bones like that.
Tell me about having audience members sit on the stage.
Right from the beginning I knew that’s what I wanted to try to make happen. It’s a type of alley staging that’s really fully environmental. The audience doesn’t have to participate, but the invitation that it offers puts us on that journey together.