Interview with The Things They Carried playwright Jim Stowell

An informal Q&A between Jeff Kamin and playwright Jim Stowell (The Things They Carried):

1. How did you decide what to edit/cut?

To start with I thought about how to change the book into a play. A play needs people talking and cannot live very long in the narrative voice. A play needs something happening and someone going through changes. A play needs characters you can care about. Otherwise who cares what happens to them?

I came up with what I considered six must have stories.
The Things They Carried
On the Rainy River
The Man I Killed
In the Field
Field trip
The Lives of the Dead

I ended up cutting all but one small part of The Lives of the Dead. I replaced it with Spin. I felt at that point in the play where Spin is placed the audience need a break. I knew what was coming next was going to be tough.

But, there were writing-script problems with Lives of the Dead as well. It is the kind of story that only worked at the end of the script. Through a long process–a couple of years–I came to feel this story was telling the auidence what to feel. That is a bad thing. I felt the story was, as we say in theater, pointing. I love this story. But what is best for the play? That is my basic question about evrything.

The remaining five stories are all what I call, “Timcentric.” The play is about Tim. I knew I wanted to focus on Tim. These five stories take up almost all the time I have as a playwright. I get at most 120 minutes. That is the outer limits of audience time. This play is 104 minutes and a few seconds. 52 minutes and some seconds per act.

So I have say, 105 minutes total to tell the story. Right away you know the vast majority of the book is not going to be in the play.

The five stories have movement. Young Tim before the war. Tim new to the war. Tim kills a man. His best friend  dies and he belives it is his fault. He returns to the scene and performs a ceremony. And the ceremony works. It is after the ceremony Tim says that he has resurfaced after two decades. And Tim says, “No. All that’s finished.”

2. Did you have contact with Tim O’Brien about it?

I did not. This November I met him in Chicago where he was receiving a major award. We had a short talk. Mostly I pitched the script while trying to look like I was not pitching my script. He took a copy and read it. He emailed me and said he liked it and now his job was to stand on the sideline and cheer me on. Writing books and plays two different things he said.

He is completly hands off. But we are in contact through email. I sent him notice of the opening and he got right back to me wishing me luck.

3. What would you cite as a major difference in your adaptation from the book?

The detail. All the other stories. These other stories give great depth and context to what is happening to/with Tim. But, simply no time. So, that is a very big difference.

In theater you/audience get the book in one go. Reading the book if something is getting a little too strong for you, you can put down the book. Not in a play. And a play has the human voice. The human voice is huge difference.

4. Is your Tim character meant to be a writer telling fictional stories in the play or is it just a fictional play and not about a book?

It’s more like he is Tim the writer going over a near final draft of his book.

I write by talking out loud. I edit out loud and write it down. I act out everything so this way of telling mixed with writing is natural for me. But I did not start with this in mind. In the script there is a break at the end of each story for a total of six breaks with a lights and music change. In fact, the script reads at those points–[Pause. Tim moves. Music.]–Nothng about writing. It was a last minute idea. I have no idea how Tim O’Brien writes.

5.  What have you carried and did you release anything writing the adaptation? 

What did I release? A lot. I have written 24 play. Counting TTTC I have written twelve one-man plays. I wrote and performed eleven of them. This is the first time I have not acted the role. I gave that up. I have written and directed twelve full cast plays and I directed eleven of them. So, I have always–by always I mean close to 50 years of doing live theater–I have always either written and directed or written and performed. This time I gave up both of those roles in the same play and was only the writer.

6. Can you speak to the story truth vs happening truth idea?

Story truth truer than happening truth. That describes my writing. That describes theater. Story truth is truer than happening truth in the theater. Years ago, before I had ever read Tim’s book, I used to teach a workshop and tell the story from a play about a trip I took to Brazil. Then I told the story of what happened.
Over the years when people would ask me if the stories I told in my one-man plays were true I would ask, “Did you beleive it?”

As a young actor one day a scary director yelled at me, “Oh for Christ sake stop Acting” I didn’t know what to do. I was onstage rehearsing a play. I thought I was suppose to be acting. But now I had to stop. So, I kind of turned to glop. Within seconds the director yelled, “Oh for Christ sake, ACT!” I thought my brain was going to explode. Within a year I knew just what the director meant. So, the apparent illogical, backwards thinking of saying, “Story truth can be truer than real, happening truth” makes clear sense to me.

Tim says, “…You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.”

Usually the stuff you invent/imagine is part of an idea the writer has about why they are telling this story. Some idea, something, that is driving/pushing the writer. The “inventing” part is also part instinct and part surprise to the writer. As a writer you often know where you are going but have no idea where you are.

7.  What did you learn adapting The Things They Carried for the stage?

I learned a lot about writing from Tim O’Brien. I learned a skill for my work. How to adapt a book for the stage. This part of the learning is very important to me.  I love writing. Learning from Tim has been a joyful process. Theater is my work and my life. I love theater so learning a new skill is also a joyful process. Difficult, yes. This story and this script means spending hundreds of hours with the guys in the book. I had to see all the images in the book many, many times. I had to go through the emotions in the book. To the best of my abilities. But that is a part of my work.

Working on a story like this one is truly a journey into the soul of man. So, it follows that it becomes a journey into my soul. Working on a story like this one is why I keep doing theater.

Thanks for coming to the play. And please thank everyone who came from me.

The Things They Carried was our March 2014 pick for Books & Bars to coincide with the debut play which runs at The History Theatre through April 6.

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