The name Daniel Handler may not be recognizable to many theatregoers, and even though he’s a best-selling author, it may not even be recognizable to many readers. His popular book series for children, A Series of Unfortunate Events, was written under the name Lemony Snicket—not a pen name in the usual sense, but the name of the fictional character narrating the books. While Handler’s prolific output has ranged from a novel about love to a children’s Hanukkah book to a photography collaboration, he now finds himself in unfamiliar territory with his first play.
Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit, slated for its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre Oct. 5-Nov. 19, directed by the theatre’s artistic director, Tony Taccone, has Handler’s signature subversive humor as it depicts the death of a parent and the subsequent chaos. It also explores storytelling, positing that one reason we are drawn to fiction is that we like to fit our lives into narrative frameworks.
“Stories can haunt us,” Handler said during a phone call this past summer while workshopping the play at Berkeley Rep. “We want narratives to be comforting more than we want them to be true.”
Handler didn’t set out to write a play, he explained. He began writing after his father died (“a little bit every day so as not to go crazy”), but he didn’t know what form the piece was taking.
“I was not up for hard work. I didn’t know what I was doing, and that was liberating. It was a raw and unfounded thing.” Still, the unknown rattled him: “I’m used to knowing at least partially what I think I’m doing. And then I went, ‘Uh oh, this is a play.’”
This discovery came from understanding the piece’s structure. “It moved between scenes rather quickly,” Handler explained. “And I wanted that to be jarring and funny as scenes bumped up against each other.” He found that effect difficult to achieve with prose and thought perhaps that the story was a screenplay, but he soon realized it didn’t flow like one.
Having never written a play, he did some research. Playwrights Joe Tracz and Joshua Conkel, who had worked with Handler on adapting A Series of Unfortunate Events for Netflix, suggested playwrights to read. He said he also read a lot of Annie Baker and Caryl Churchill.
After Handler finished a draft, he gave it to Taccone. He and Taccone met in 2010 when Berkeley Rep produced The Composer Is Dead, an adaptation of Handler’s book by the theatre company Phantom Limb, with music by Nathaniel Stookey, which used both puppets and live actors. It was a natural connection: Handler lives in the San Francisco area and Taccone had been following his career for many years, even reading Handler’s books to his children. When read Handler’s play, he wrote Handler back and asked if they could meet to discuss it.
“I thought it was kind of him to take me to lunch to tell me I should not write plays,” Handler quipped. But Taccone had good news: He was interested in producing the play, with time to develop it in Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor residency program in the summer leading up to the production. Taccone said he immediately appreciated the play’s “wicked comic sensibility,” and how it veered from a hysterical opening scene into unexpected territory.
The play emerged from an incident after Handler’s father died. When a rabbi came to talk to him, Handler appreciated how well she handled the emotional weight of the situation. But being a writer, he started to imagine a different scenario: What would have happened if the rabbi had been horrible? Then he realized that on his calendar he had written “rabbit” instead of “rabbi,” and a rabbit character emerged from that silly error.
Rabbits, of course, make regular appearances in both literature and drama. But Handler’s rabbit character would be different. “Much like A Series of Unfortunate Events rebelled against cheerful children’s books, this play rebels against things in theatre that I don’t like,” Handler said. One thing he doesn’t care for: people pretending to be animals onstage.
But as he continued writing, he decided to face his fear head-on by making the rabbit a character. In fact, creating something he disliked so much was a way of dealing with his central resistance.
“I dreaded that I was writing a play,” Handler explained. “So much of theatre is so terrible—not a higher percentage than any other form, but bad theatre is so immediate that you feel it more. If a book is bad, you put it down. If it’s bad theatre, you’re stuck there.” That’s why, he said, his play “opens with someone wearing a rabbit mask. I thought maybe that would shelter me.”
Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor summer residency lab began in 2012 as a place to incubate new work. The process includes focusing on the text of the piece, or the equivalent of text if it is not text-based, with a read-through to understand what script problems need to be addressed. Writing time is built into the residency so that writers can work on their scripts and return later to hear them again with performers.
Handler and Taccone used the Ground Floor process to address issues of clarity and how the play dispenses information. They also focused on making the characters “stage-worthy,” as Taccone called it, creating characters through behavior. “Some techniques he uses in his books had to be either changed, or the balance of different tools had to be shifted,” Taccone said. “He’s such a wordsmith. Every so often cleverness eclipsed the characters.”
Still, Taccone said he knew from the moment he read the piece that it was meant for the stage; it was just a matter of maintaining its theatricality.
“With a book, you can wander,” he said. “You can get lost. You can’t get lost onstage, not for a second. You have to really hold our attention in a different kind of way or plays just collapse in on themselves really fast.”
Handler had never had so much time to develop a script. At Netflix, for instance, he got one table read per episode. At Ground Floor, he and Taccone had multiple opportunities to hear changes with the actors, which proved invaluable.
“Things that you think work in your head don’t work when you hear them out loud, and things that you don’t think are going to work are like gangbusters,” Taccone said. “It’s the ancient mystery of the theatre.”
Even as he prepared his play for production, Handler spent his summer finishing a book for adults as well as another Snicket book. This blend is very much part of his identity. While the marketing for Imaginary Comforts doesn’t fail to use the name Lemony Snicket, Handler is quick to point out that Imaginary Comforts is not a play for children. He is fine, however, with using his more famous children’s brand to promote his adult work.
“I’m happy if it helps get people in the tent,” he said. “I never thought I would get that much attention as a writer, so I never complain about the quality of attention that I get.”
What unites his writing for adults or for children, in novel or play form, is his wit and singular outlook. Said Taccone, “He has the ability to trust an audience. That’s huge.”