Brian Doyle and the language of the stage

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 on Amazon and GoodReads 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.

“Mink River” author Brian Doyle. Photo courtesy Mary Miller Doyle.

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.

Jane Unger. Photo: Owen Carey

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.”

Converting the magic possible in fiction to the magic possible in theater and turning what doesn’t make logical sense into something believable on stage are just two of Platt and Unger’s worries as they wrestle with Doyle’s book—a process Unger compares to playing “three-dimensional chess.” Of equal concern is the prominence of Native American characters, culture and language in a white author’s novel, at a time when white exploitation of minority cultures has become an international issue.

The two main rivers, if you will, that run through the book are the storytelling traditions, cultural beliefs, and inherited language of the Irish and Salish peoples. With four grandparents born in Ireland and a childhood saturated in Irishness, Doyle stands on solid ground in his presentation of his own heritage, transported into an Oregon coastal environment that resembles the island his people came from. A meticulous researcher, he did his homework on the Salish people too. But however successful he might have been at conveying an authentic-seeming picture of Native Americans in a contemporary world, the fact remains that he wasn’t Salish. And for Unger and Platt, this is a problem.

“We have to connect with a Native American artist because Brian and Jane and I are not Native American and [Salish culture] is a huge part of the book,” says Platt. “There has to be some kind of representation that can authenticate it. The novel is our bible but it’s still our responsibility to make sure everything’s right.”

The solution they’ve chosen is to seek a third partner while still working on the script, someone from a Native American community, preferably a Salish tribe, who can assist them with both the adaptation and a potential production. This means helping assure accuracy in the language, legends and events presented in Doyle’s story; reaching out to Native American groups to support the project; and identifying Native American actors and other theater professionals who can make the production’s community as cross-cultural and mutually informative as the community depicted in the book.

Playwright Myra Platt.

Unger feels strongly that when and if the play is finally produced, it should be done in Portland, Doyle’s hometown. But while the local artistic directors she’s talked to have been enthusiastic about her project, none has been willing yet to take it on. Cost, no doubt, is a major barrier. The cast will be large and it might be difficult to find enough actors in the local community to fill all of the Native American roles, necessitating the importing and housing of actors from other areas. Even if these difficulties can be overcome, the project has a long way to go before it’s ready for staging.

First, there’s that script itself. “It doesn’t make sense as a play yet,” says Platt. “It’s sort of an edited version of the book—descriptive and super-long. That’s the way I work. I whittle away.” She and Unger, whose role at this point is to give Platt notes on each draft, have set a goal of having a second, shorter version finished by the end of July. At that point, they’ll look for an opportunity to put it through a two-week workshop somewhere, with actors reading the lines. To sharpen the story for the stage, Platt says, “I need to hear those voices.”

If all goes well in a workshop, a production could come within a year. Unger would love to see it included in the 2019-20 season for one of Portland’s larger companies: Portland Center Stage, perhaps, or Artists Repertory Theatre. What might eventually convince one of them to stage it is the number of ardent Doyle fans in the Portland area, many of whom would be new to theater—a chance for the company to expand its audience.

Doyle helped build that fan base by visiting any local book club that invited him, provided they gave him a single bottle of “good Oregon pinot” wine. Some clubs offered several bottles, in enthusiastic thanks to an author whose stated goal in crafting his novel was to embody “Oregonness.” At the height of the book’s popularity, says publisher Tom Booth, Doyle was attending a book club a week, helping to push the book’s sales over 65,000.

So why, beyond its language and stories and “Oregonness,” does Mink River inspire such passion in readers and theater veterans such as Platt and Unger who have no assurance they’ll reap a dime from their time and effort trying to stage it? The answer may be the passion Doyle felt for it himself over the 25 years it took him to write it.

Brian Doyle, spinner of tales. Photo courtesy Mary Miller Doyle.

It began as a short story, he said, the first fiction he ever published. His wife Mary remembers him giving her the first chapter in 1985 when they were first dating. It was called Billy Ten Speed then and he promised her he would finish it. But shortly thereafter, he started his prize-winning work as editor of Portland Magazine, the University of Portland’s alumni publication, and his writing time was restricted to mornings before work, lunch hours, and weekends. Most of the writing he did was on essays, the kind of writing he loved most and became best known for. But now and then he would set down snippets or scenes or riffs or dialogues for his novel, whenever the characters cried for attention.

When he had what he thought might be a book, he contacted Booth at OSU Press, who had published a nonfiction book of his already and received a regular stream of Doyle book ideas. When Doyle said this one was a novel, Booth told him the press hadn’t published fiction in over 40 years, but out of admiration and friendship he would look at it. He became the book’s first fan outside the Doyle household, convincing his board to approve its publication.

“The book always had angels,” Booth says. Shortly after it was published, the librarian in Lake Oswego, the Portland suburb where Doyle lived, made it his library’s Lake Oswego Reads selection. Then a bookseller in the San Francisco Bay Area started championing it, as did Portland’s Broadway Books. A few reviews appeared, but most of its sales came from word of mouth, one reader passing it passionately to another.

“For me, it’s like a piece of music,” Platt says. “It sometimes meanders like a river and it has some magic realism in it, yet it’s so down-to-earth and timeless.”

So how do you put that kind of feeling on stage?

Slowly, deliberately, carefully—just as the book was written.

“I have to swim in the author’s words,” Platt says. “I want to maintain the feeling that you are living with these people in this town. The sweet rhythm there in that world.”

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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.

 

 

 

 

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