Intersection for the Arts and Campo Santo are currently presenting Everything Has Been Arranged, a play based on Denis Johnson's story "Small Boys' Unit" from Seek, the 2002 non-fiction collection. Part of Intersection's Grounded? project, the play follows a narrator, attempting to track down Liberian president, Charles Taylor, during that country's civil war, who encounters a cadre of very young boys trained to fight. I sat down with Campo Santo co-founder Sean San Jose to talk about the challenge of adapting Johnson's story for the stage.
JP: How did the adaptation of this particular story come about?
SSJ: Well I was working on a play many years ago with Denis, and he sent me this story. I think it originally appeared in Harpers (in 2002), right before Seek came out. It was such a gut punch reading the thing and, like any good writing, you saw it all so vividly.
This project really came about through our executive director, Deborah Cullinan, envisioning a big festival that both Intersection and Southern Exposure would be a part of, doing work that is a little more immediate, a little more responsive and a little more compressed. Saying, "What happens if you use different muscles and you turn something out much more quickly?" It can make the work more experimental in terms of its presentation and also gives it a built-in urgency if only because it's shorter.
JP: How does this play relate to the rest of the Grounded? project?
SSJ: It's been totally bananas, the gallery night (the Grounded? juried exhibition), was like 2 or 3 times the number of people we get in the theater, and that much more the level of energy. There's something ultimately thrilling about having 60 artists and all the people that they bring and all the ideas THAT brings. I think that was the general idea of the festival. So it leads you to say, "What would be a great way to grab onto something quickly?" And one of the things we like to do in the theater is peel the piece away to just the words, the audience and the acting. That's where the story came back to me.
JP: How long have Denis and Campo Santo been working together?
Sadly, we can note the time because his book Tree of Smoke came out and it says "nine years since his last novel." (Laughs) The editor likes to point that out. That's when Denis started working in theater. But this is one of those places where you see a convergence of things because "Small Boys Unit" is him visiting Liberia in the midst of the civil war. And Tree of Smoke just came out, which is in general about the Vietnam War, so it's sort of a collision of the pathology and psychic effect of what war in a country does to your spirit.
JP: How did Intersection begin working with Denis in the first place?
SSJ: We did a couple of stories from Jesus' Son in 1999 with a group called Word for Word, which is how we became acquainted. He had heard his words read by other people before, but to see it sort of lived in, embodied, and really up close was really fun for him. This was right before they had started filming the movie version of Jesus' Son. So I think seeing the performance and then having the experience of the book being made into a movie, it was more exciting for him to see every one of his words being done as opposed to it being cut apart and adapted, like a movie is.
JP: Leaving aside your adaptation of Jesus' Son before Denis was a writer-in-residence, is this the first work of his you've done that he didn't write for the stage?
SSJ: The collection thing we did a year or so ago was almost like a primer version of this -- and that was called Haze. That was really about putting four first-person things together in one piece. But this is definitely the first time we've taken a whole non-theatrical work of his and said let's do this. And that also comes from knowing him well enough to say, "Can we try this?" Besides his stuff, he's seen other work here, so there's a trust that we won't completely fuck up his point.
JP: What was Denis' level of involvement in the adaptation of the story?
We've been working on Des Moines for two or three years. And we had talked a little about this piece at that time, but not a lot. It was the greatest research, I mean he was the guy who went to Liberia. What was interesting about talking to him was that he kind of describes it in life the way he describes it in the play. After having seen Des Moines, which was more about human interaction, Denis was ready to go back into a verse piece. And having physically been here for his last play, we were able to work with him a lot more.
But Denis is going to come and see this one. And as synchronicity would have it, he hadn't done any journalism in years, and right when we were doing Des Moines, a magazine called him to go to Kurdistan. He just finished working on that, and I said, "Now you have to see this thing."
JP: What can those who have already read the story expect?
SSJ: There are just four actors in it, Michael Cheng, Paul Santiago, Robert Hampton and Ryan Peters, all actors we've worked with before. It was really fun, because in the story, it's a guy who goes to the Ivory Coast then travels into Liberia and the whole thing is that he's going from place to place to place trying to track down then-President Charles Taylor. And so there are literally hundreds of characters in the story. That's what I mean about the Grounded? festival format, what's going to be the most doable way, but also the most compressed way to get the story across? I can get to the essence more directly by paring it away, as opposed to trying to recreate.
JP: What's coming up next for Campo Santo?
SSJ: We're not only going to work with non-theatrical pieces, but one of the really exciting things that we're just trying to wrap our heads around is working with Juno Diaz on his new book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wilde. We're also doing a new play with music by Octavio Solis.
And what we're rehearsing downstairs (for next week) is a novel by Vendela Vida, so right now we have these two parallel tracks with the same notion of taking these non-theatrical works and finding out how that narrative voice lives on stage, which is, in a way, more liberating than dealing with play structure. The Denis Johnson story, it's not like it's a travelogue, it's in the psyche of the person, similar to Vendela Vida's story. Finding a way to put that as directly as possible on stage is exciting, unexpected, and, for me, it's emotionally more revealing.
Everything Has Been Arranged runs from Thursday, December 6th to Saturday, December 8th at Intersection for the Arts. The run is currently sold out, but tickets sometimes become available at the door a half-hour before the 8pm showtime. For the rest of Campo Santo's upcoming plays, visit their website (at theintersection.org).