Most Broadway theaters don’t serve popcorn. More’s the pity. They don’t offer nifty reclining seats. They don’t show previews of plays to come. But a trip to the theater can increasingly resemble a night at the movies. Whereas Hollywood used to pillage the stage for film ideas, those roles have since been reversed. Recent Broadway years have seen adaptations of, among others, The Graduate, The Celebration, The Full Monty, various Disney cartoons, two Mel Brooks films, and two by John Waters. (We still hold out hope for a Pink Flamingos musical.) This fad won’t end soon—the next several months will greet the Broadway openings of To Be or Not to Be, Billy Elliot the Musical, and Shrek the Musical.
Off and Off-Off Broadway, many avant-garde theatermakers have preciously incorporated film and video into their work—the Wooster Group, the Builders Association, Big Art Group, Richard Foreman, and the denizens of 3LD among them—with greater or less success. And a few artists like John Jesurun have attempted to apply the techniques of film—the close-up, the quick cut, the fade—to the stage. But this fall will see two notable plays based deliberately on films: Radiohole’s Anger/Nation—which draws on the work of cult filmmaker Kenneth Anger—begins performances this week at the Kitchen, while Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of John Cassavetes’s Opening Night will play at BAM in December. (A third play, derived from Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, would have just finished its run had MGM not sent its director a cease-and-desist letter prior to the premiere.)
Radiohole, a sybaritic company known for its gloriously untidy performances, was attracted (in the words of member Eric Dyer) to “the spirit of decadence in Anger’s films . . . his figures are all elevated, heightened, exalted—they are gods and goddesses.” Their piece contrasts this decadence with the severity of temperance crusader Carrie A. Nation. While Radiohole looks to Anger for thematic inspiration and aesthetic insight, Van Hove will use the whole of Cassavetes’s screenplay. The director describes his fascination with Cassavetes as “a love story that started when I was very young,” fueled by Cassavetes’s “merciless but tender” attitude toward his characters. Van Hove felt that Opening Night—the story of a Broadway actress undergoing a psychic breakdown—gave him the material “to make theater about theater . . . in a very profound and sincere way.”
Adapting films to the stage requires more than selecting an alluring auteur. Technically, theater has nothing on film: It can never replicate montage, artful camera angles, CGI effects, etc. Theater directors compensate for this lack in various ways. Van Hove, for example, has commissioned a single set that cleverly conflates stage, backstage, and hotel room. Tellingly, both productions make use of film and video, live in the case of Opening Night, prerecorded in Anger/Nation. The Radiohole show uses video shot by So Yong Kim, Brad Rust Gray, and Iver Findlay that, says Dyer, allows them to do all sorts of “nifty things.” Van Hove has a less playful approach. He says that the filmed close-ups he projects onto the back wall “enhance the live experience the way a mask in Greek tragedy did in ancient times.”
But while film can conjure a sense of intimacy, theater is intimate, allowing actors and audience to share the same room. Van Hove says that with “actors live onstage, there is unity of time and space, which creates a very direct and physical energy.” Radiohole performer Maggie Hoffman puts it rather more bluntly: “We stink, and we are wet to the touch, and we are in your face in a way film can never be.”