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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The White Album Comes Alive

By Nicole Serratore

Photo: Lars Jan

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

With that succinct opening sentence in her essay, The White Album, Joan Didion probes the identity of the artist, the act of writing, and our compulsion towards narrative. But is her storytelling an artistic venture or a cry for help—or both?

The essay involves 15 vignettes in which Didion flits between her own breakdown and hospitalization, her relationship to the Charles Manson trial, a recording session with The Doors, the shooting of Huey P. Newton, and the San Francisco State College strikes.

Didion gives voice not only to herself as a writer but to a distinct place and time—America from 1966 to 1971, when the country was wracked with division. As a journalist, she was on the front lines. In her words, “I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” Her unsteadiness then reflected America’s.

For artist Lars Jan, The White Album remains “one of the great pieces of literature of our time” and one that begged for theatricalization. “It is a very personal monologue. She uses a tremendous amount of theatrical and cinematic language to describe her experience in the world—in terms of being a character, needing to hear cues, and feeling like she needed a script but she had lost it,” notes Jan. She analyzes her own off-kilter performance of her life.

Didion gave permission for this venture and Jan’s broad-spectrum artistic background, which is fitting for this adaptation from page-to-stage. Jan’s work with his performance lab Early Morning Opera moves between visual and performing arts. He has straddled the personal and political as well. Jan’s The Institute of Memory was a multimedia performance that used photographs, reenactments, and surveillance records to search for truth in his late father’s past. With Holoscenes, a durational installation on climate change, he placed performers in a massive aquarium which rapidly filled with water, leaving them to manage tasks under a deluge. Jan has always worked from his own writing, but Didion’s essay has followed him for 20 years. The chance to engage with it was too tantalizing.

Photo: Lars Jan

It also allows Jan to collaborate on-stage with his partner in life for the first time. Actor Mia Barron will perform the text of the essay (save quotations). Typically, Barron works in new play development and Jan in visual and performance art. But with “the quality of the text, and Joan Didion, this is where our two paths have naturally crossed,” he says.

In her essay, Didion explores some of the battles over race and economic justice in the 1960s. But on stage Jan delves the legacy of those events for movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and what “contemporary America has to learn from the movements of the late 60s.”

Moreover, Didion’s depth of analysis varies on these potent issues. Fifty years later, this gives Jan an opportunity to scrutinize the material anew. “I’m interested in not only what she covered and how she covered it, but also what she missed,” Jan says.

To look at those gaps and resonances, Jan is creating a dynamic performance space which he hopes will incite conversation and collision between 1968 and 2018. To do this, the main audience for the show (Nov 28 to Dec 1) will sit in the BAM Harvey Theater, but another smaller audience composed of local students, artists, and activists will be in a windowed, sound-proof box on stage. Within that box, Jan intends to “take the late 60s and distill it into a party.” That young activist audience will bring its own perspective to the events of the past.

As the essay works on two levels, so too will the theater piece. “She’s trying to tell the story of the country and of the time, and she’s also telling the story of herself,” Jan suggests. Didion zooms in and out in her writing, so the show moves between the “internal and macroscopic.” With Didion’s instability will come spatial flux on-stage with the two audiences, Barron, and the box.

Fifty years on, we will experience this expressive and intimate voice that Jan will put “into body, flesh, and blood in space.”

Nicole Serratore is is a freelance theater journalist and critic in New York City.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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