From page to stage

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011

The reaction to adaptations of literature to film is usually something along the lines of, “It wasn’t as good as the book.” Juneau residents might be given a chance to rethink that with Perseverance Theatre’s new play, “The Blue Bear,” opening this week.

Based on the poignant memoir by Juneau author Lynn Schooler, “The Blue Bear” tells the tale of the writer’s friendship with photographer Michio Hoshino, and their joint quest to find and capture an image of the elusive glacier bear.

It was adapted for the stage by playwright and Lynn’s sister, Luan Schooler. Both Schoolers discussed the process of transforming the book to the stage last week, kicking off Sound+Motion, the University of Alaska’s (UAS) Arts at Egan Series.

Moderator and seasoned screenwriter Dave Hunsaker — known for among many projects his adaptation “Yup’ik Antigone” — said that the synthesis between the page and stage or screen involves a complete reformation of the basic character of the source material.

“Basically what we’re trying to do is talk about is the process of turning an apple into an orange,” he said. “Theatre and the written word are quite different things.”

“The Blue Bear” has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and Lynn has received several offers for film options, which he turned down, concerned with what may be produced as a result of selling the movie rights.

“But then when I was approached about having Perseverance do it, it seemed like an appropriate thing to do for the community,” Lynn said. “And then I managed to browbeat my sister into actually doing it.”

Turning “The Blue Bear” was fraught with meaning for her on multiple levels, Luan said.

“Not only because it is my brother’s book, but it’s also at my home theatre in what I consider my home town,” she said.

Actor Ryan Conarro will be stepping into the role of Lynn Schooler — according to Lynn, a “better looking” version of himself — and Takahiro Yamamoto is playing into the part of Michio.

Since the inception of the play, Lynn has often been asked if it is odd to see oneself portrayed theatrically, but he says “The Blue Bear” is essentially about the changes that took place in his life as a result of the events of the story.

“The person sitting here now doesn’t have many of the same cells of the person that the story is actually about,” he said. “It wasn’t a strange or embarrassing or nervous-making experience to see that. It’s almost energizing to see it coming back to life in this way.”

Michio Hoshino was killed by a brown bear while out in the field in Russia in 1996. Lynn appreciates the way the tragedy is handled in the stage play.

“They had the guts to just make it a one sentence line, just one line, and it works very well,” he said. “To avoid that temptation to sensationalize for the sake of, you know, more colorful storytelling, I’m very grateful they did that.”

Michio’s widow, Naoko Hoshino, will be traveling from Japan to Juneau to watch the performance.

“I’m actually really nervous about her seeing the play,” Lynn said, “but I think she’ll be pleased with it.”

Luan said that the adaptation process involved a delicate balance between theatrical tension, the true story, and honoring the memory of the real people whose lives are being dramatically represented.

“I don’t think you can take someone else’s life, especially a living person — and especially your brother — and treat their life willy-nilly,” she said. “It adds another layer because of Michio, in presenting someone’s death on stage and knowing [Naoko] is coming to the production … you have to really try to approach that with a lot of integrity to the original facts. It would be easy to go, ‘It would be more dramatic if we did this.’”

The ultimate goal is to be as truthful as you can, faithful to the original material, but also realize that you are creating a different animal, Luan said.

“[Lynn] wrote a giraffe, and we’re making a monkey,” she said. “The book is quite introspective, it has a lot of fabulous natural history sections in it, there’s internal journeys … There’s this character Michio who is wonderful but has no apparent conflicts … Although it’s rich material, it’s really not an obvious play.”

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