The late Oregon writer’s novel “Mink River” is a sinuous stream of words as music. Can its lush language be adapted for the theater?
Language, says Portland director Jane Unger to explain why she spent two years pursuing the stage rights to Brian Doyle’s loquacious and widely beloved Mink River, a summary-defying novel stuffed with plotlines, descriptions, lists and riffs on everything from the different types of Northwest wood to the nature and location of time.
Language, says Seattle playwright Myra Platt to explain why she agreed, on spec, to adapt a book that features a talking crow, a bear that rescues an injured boy, a seemingly inexhaustible cast of major and minor characters, and even a miscarried fetus riding a river to the sea.
Language, say reviewers […] to explain why a nonfiction writer’s first novel—an episodic, and at times essayistic, attempt to render in prose the moment-by-moment life of an entire coastal Oregon town—thrilled them more than other books.
Language, said Doyle himself in numerous interviews to explain what he loved most about writing essays and stories. “I sometimes think there is no writer as addicted to music and swing and rhythm and cadence in prose as me,” he once told Ruminate magazine. “I really do want to push prose as close to music as I can, and play with tone and timbre in my work, play with the sinuous riverine lewd amused pop and song of the American language.”
Language, it seems, is what Unger and Platt seek to put on stage—the kind of brilliant, distinctive, inventive, expansive language Doyle poured into twenty exuberant books, including four novels, before his death at 60 in 2017. Yet language might be the thing that defeats them.
How—they are forced to ask after crafting a first draft that stretches to 120 pages with too many scenes and too many characters—do you preserve a voice as unique as Doyle’s while fitting his manifold stories and sweeping vision within the confines of a stage or the attention span of a modern theater audience?
The question gives them pause, but it doesn’t cause them to panic. With over 80 years of theater experience between them, they have overcome larger obstacles before. And it is language, more than anything else, that has kept them excited about theater all those years. Language breathed into dialogue, image, scene and character; the word become flesh.
With little financial backing and no assurance there would be an audience for what she wanted to do, Unger founded and built Portland’s Profile Theatre, the only company on the West Coast to dedicate each season to a single playwright (the current season features two: Lisa Kron and Anna Deavere Smith). In addition to staging the works of writers such as Edward Albee, Terrence McNally, Neil Simon, and Constance Congdon, she brought many of her featured playwrights to town, giving local audiences a rare chance to meet and question the conjurers of their theatrical encounters.
Coming at theater from a different but equally distinctive angle, Platt is a founding co-artistic director (with Jane Jones) at Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre, one of the only companies in the United States focused exclusively on bringing books to the stage. Of the 125 books the theater has tackled over the past 30 years, Platt has adapted at least a dozen herself, including David James Duncan’s The Brothers K, which clocks in at 645 pages. Platt’s 2016 staged version was five hours and 45 minutes long, split into two three-act plays.
Watching Platt’s adaptation of his book, Duncan says, “was one of the highlights of my life. When it comes to adapting novels to the stage, I feel she’s the Doctor.” In fact, he had encouraged Platt to pursue the rights to Mink River—a book he calls “a grammar-shattering trance”—before Unger took on the task. Having been friends with Doyle for years and helped with the final editing of his book, Duncan envisioned sitting beside him in the front row at the premiere.
Sadly, that was not to be. After reading Mink River in a book club in 2014, Unger emailed Doyle about the rights and he responded immediately. She could have them for a quarter, he told her. A theater lover himself, he was thrilled at the thought of seeing his stories acted out. Actually securing those rights, however, was much harder. The film rights had already been sold and it took a while to determine whether the stage rights had been sold with them. The book’s publisher, Oregon State University Press, had never sold either kind of rights before and was deliberate about constructing a contract. And everything had to go through the slow grind of a university’s approval process. In the two years it took for the rights to be released, Doyle was diagnosed with brain cancer and, on the day the contract was signed, went in for surgery. Six months later, before a draft could even be written, he was dead.
“I remember him coming home and telling me over a glass of wine, ‘So this is pretty cool—they might make a play of Mink River!” Doyle’s widow, Mary Miller Doyle, recalls. “He dreamed of it being a play … even more than a movie. He loved the experience of live theater—how magical and elevating it is for a community and dreaming and belief in all that could not make logical sense.”
For the rest of the touching story of page to stage, read the full article at Oregon Artswatch.
Michael N. McGregor is the author of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, a Washington State Book Award finalist. His creative works and profiles of artists have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Tin House, Poetry, StoryQuarterly, Utne Reader, Poets & Writers, and The Seattle Review. He has written about theater for The Oregonian, Seattle Weekly and American Theatre and published a 2017 profile of Brian Doyle in Notre Dame Magazine.