Playwright and director Aaron Posner came to theater first as a reader.
“I loved stories,” said Posner, who was born in Madison and raised in Eugene, Oregon. “I wanted to live in the stories, and I found a way to do that.”
A look at his artistic output — reinterpretations of Shakespeare and Chekhov, adaptations of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “My Name is Asher Lev,” a new take on Vonnegut — and the influence of the classics is clear.
“Life Sucks,” inspired by Chekhov, opens Thursday in Overture Center’s Playhouse. It’s the final play in Forward Theater’s 10th anniversary season and the second of three Chekhov-inspired plays Posner had premiere between 2013 and 2017.
“Stupid F-ing Bird” (locally at University Theatre in 2016) was based on “The Seagull.” “No Sisters” was inspired by “Three Sisters.” “Life Sucks” is his “Uncle Vanya” play, with the a similar disillusioned title character, the pompous professor and his “trophy” wife, a quiet young woman in love with a doctor who doesn’t notice her, and all the rest.
Looking back to find stories, Posner said, is nothing new.
“There’s a famous adapter of literature you may have heard of named Shakespeare,” said Posner, who’s currently at work on a new play inspired by Sophocles. “All he did was go backwards and steal history, steal other people’s plays and short stories. It’s a long and glorious tradition of artists joyfully stealing from each other.”
Posner spoke to the Cap Times from Washington, D.C., where his new play “JQA,” about John Quincy Adams, opened in previews on March 1 at Arena Stage. He’ll be in Madison this weekend for a free public chat, set for 1 p.m. Saturday, March 30, in the Playhouse, 201 State St.
The language in your plays is very specific and sometimes profane. Why is that language important to the tone of the show and your type of humor?
I suppose if I was really a better writer maybe I wouldn’t swear so much! It’s the way I think people speak, it’s what I hear in the world particularly when people are in extremis. Every day in a Shakespeare play is THE day of your life, one or two or three days that will completely change your life. If you’re looking at characters in extreme situations, in a contemporary world, even people who don’t swear often swear.
I was told last night there’s 12 f---s in "JQA" which I thought was quite mild, that in a historical thing about the founding fathers there’s only 12 f---s in there.
When I wrote “Stupid F-ing Bird” the title was the first thing that I wrote. Having that be the title it gave me permission to do anything I wanted in the play because I thought, well, no one can complain about this. If you go see a play with this title and don't like it that's on you.
That is me elbowing room. I’m interested in creating plays I want to see, plays that speak to me and are hard and complicated and psychological and true and messy. That world includes profanity. I claim the space here to say the truth as I see it, or talk about things that are important to me, and if that’s not something you’re interested in this is probably not the play for you.
The characters in “Life Sucks” stay in character but they also talk directly to the audience. Why?
I was never very interested in the fourth wall. I believe that we all know that we’re at a play. You walk in, you buy a ticket, you sit in a theater seat, you don’t think, “Oh, look who just happened to wander onto the stage I’ll see what they’re doing for a while.”
We in the audience have bought into the fiction, so actors pretending that they don’t know they’re there isn’t terribly interesting to me.
I like to leave room for directors and actors to find their own dynamic. The way the relationship was in the audience in Chicago with Lookingglass was radically different than the way I had done it when I directed the original production. I’m always excited to see how each production finds its own integrity.
Do you think it helps or distracts from your plays when they’re constantly compared to the source material?
Theater people know Chekhov and there is sometimes a belief that non-theater people know Chekhov the way they know Shakespeare. But I don’t think most people watching my plays are watching with a constant filter of the Chekhov. For theater people that do know there’s an added pleasure in bouncing between the two. It’s just like with a movie if you know the original source material, if both things are good and each one has integrity to itself.
I don’t think of your Chekov-inspired plays as adaptations. Do you?
Adaptations can be everything from virtually the original to radically not the original. Whatever you call it, I am not serving Chekhov. I am not trying to bring Chekhov forward to a new audience. I am writing an original variation that has to do with me and the world today and my understanding of the world.
How do you work with those original texts in making the work?
I like taking Chekhov, which is so subtextual, and making that covert subtext overt and putting it on the surface, which then creates new subtext underneath it. So people trying to say exactly the truth, that most of us only say to each other late at night after our third beer, or while laying on a park bench someplace. How do I create the circumstances so that I can get to the real stuff, the nitty gritty, the under stuff? That’s what really interests me.
In plays, you have to create the context of people stuck in the elevator or the terrible breakup of a relationship. What I’ve done is say oh, I don’t have to find an excuse, I can have people walk out and say, “This is called ‘the things I want’” or “This is what I hate about you.” I can create theatrical games to do that.
Chekhov was looking for the real pain and complexity underneath but he was doing it by only painting what was on the surface. He was writing the tips of the iceberg. I’m trying to more often write what’s under the surface because that’s what interests me, that’s what I wonder about most days, all day.
The thing Vanya says he wants in “Life Sucks” (“to be loved by everybody, all the time, no matter what”) feels both universal and impossible. What role does hope play in your plays?
I always incline towards hope. Painting bleak pictures and asking us to live in bleakness, people do it, I don’t find it terribly interesting. Yes, the name of the play is “Life Sucks,” but the question is, does it really? And how can we make it not? I don’t believe life sucks all the time. I believe life sucks some of the time. I live in hope and hope the play points towards hope. That is my intention and my inclination.