From novel to stage play.
-- Adena Potok
When playwright-director Aaron Posner asked me to join as artistic consultant to
him on the adaptation to the stage of the novel My Name Is Asher Lev, I
greeted the invitation eagerly --- and with not a little trepidation. The
co-adaptor with Aaron on the adaptation of The Chosen from 1998 to 1999 was the
book’s author, Chaim Potok. While the two had talked of adapting Asher Lev to
the stage, with Chaim’s death in 2002 that was no longer an option. Shortly
afterward Aaron discussed with me his interest in picking up on this project. We
both agreed to table further plans for the time being. In the Spring of 2007. we
picked up the interest, and that summer moved it forward with a workshop at Play
Penn followed by a staged reading at The Arden in the Fall. Aaron did further
rewrites, I read, his dramaturg read. We picked up on these beginnings and set
to work.in the summer of 2008.
True, as the author’s wife, I had been Chaim Potok’s “first reader” and editor
throughout his writing career. But that was not the same as owning his
sensibility. Both Posner and I were exquisitely aware of the differences, and
both of us were ready to take the plunge. We respected each other’s
competencies, and trusted the loyalty we brought to the written work. Of course,
Aaron brought a track-record of a successful prior adaptation and play
direction. But, he knew of my literary sensibility and of my close collaboration
with Chaim in his works of fiction. He was looking for a literary sensibility
combined with historical and cultural sophistication to be integrated into the
fabric of the work, both written and then crafted into the mounting of the play.
Eventually this would translate into coaching of nuance and accent, in speech
and costume. What I brought to the table was insight that Posner apparently
trusted --- sufficiently to embark with me as artistic consultant to the play.
And so we began.
(l-r): Karl Miller as Asher and Adam Heller as Man in
Arden Theatre Company's production of My Name Is Asher Lev. Photo by Mark
After many re-readings of the novel and several face-to-face meetings thanks to
the internet, we were able to “talk” with each other through various drafts.
In the late Fall of 2008, we met with the cast and crews whom Aaron had brought
on board, and prepared to craft the written play. (The term playwright connotes
crafting, or working with a script to bring it to life on the stage.) Crucial to
this creative process were several other craftsmen: the dramaturg, Michele Volansky, assistant
director – Adrienne Mackey, music and lighting directors –-- James Sugg and Thom
Weaver, scenic designer --– Dan Conway, costume --- Alison Roberts. Pulling it
all together were the stage manager – Alec Ferrell assisted by an ever-ready and
sophisticated apprentice --– Katherine Fritz --- from the Arden Theatre. At one
point, I suggested her wearing a pedometer, to clock her mileage.
Those gifts brought to the project were evident from the start, as was the
dedication. The cast deserves a book all to themselves. Karl Miller (Asher),
Adam Heller (Arye Lev, Jacob Kahn, Rebbe, Uncle Yitzhok) Gabra Zackman (Rivka
Lev, Anna Schaeffer, model). It was they who were going to bring to life the
characters and the story originally put into the world of literature by Chaim
Potok. It was they who were going to bring onto the stage the adapted play. It
was the crews who were going to light and design the stage and create the
musical pulse on which the play would present to audiences. And it was the
director who was going to mold all of that into a dynamic unity of dramatic
presence. -- with exquisite attention to the arc of the play and every aspect of
its coming to life.
As they creatively adapted and moved within and against the material, the play
rose from the pages and took life form. It was reminiscent --- to me, at least
--- of the bones called forth from the Valley that the
prophet Ezekiel addressed millennia ago. Here, too, they took on flesh and
This was the best of learning experiences. The atmosphere was open, casual and
serious, respectful and daring, intimate and reserved. Personal anecdotes
floated with texts and anecdotes from Jewish history and thought, refracted by
nuances of difference among various Jewish communities. We looked at and
listened to costumes and song, variations in music and dress and belief,
commonalities of loyalty, variations of accent, and history, history, history.
The cast, crew, director and dramaturg listened, read, asked, and incorporated
the qualities that allowed for deeply felt and incredibly understood conflicts
The playwright/director and the cast, aided by the crew, brought to vivid life
the worlds that Chaim Potok had originally created in the pages of the novel
My Name Is Asher Lev. Their presentation of loyalties to deeply held
honorable values --- good values --- in essential conflict emerged with passion
and pain and an almost impossible respect.
I daresay the author would be warmed, and delighted.
Asher Lev is playing at the Arden Theater Company through March 15, 2009. Visit
the Arden Theater
website for tickets or more information.
Adena Potok is the
Israel editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice. She was the wife of
Chaim Potok, and was Artistic Consultant to Aaron Posner on his adaptation of Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev.
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