It wasn’t until 1990 that the world really started noticing the paradox of Frank Galati’s life. It was in the spring of that year that Galati picked up twin Tony awards for his gritty adaptation and starkly effective staging of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The previous year he’d received an Oscar nomination for his wry, intelligent screen adaptation of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. Not a bad track record for someone’s first outings in Hollywood and on Broadway. So, the opinionmakers wondered, who was this bi-coastal dynamo?
With his ample frame and bushy white beard (the impression he gives is of a kind of cherubic Ernest Hemingway), Galati turned out to be just a gentle-spirited college professor at Northwestern University in the sleepy Chicago suburb of Evanston. Well, not “just” a professor: While Galati has spent his entire adult life in the groves of academe, he has somehow found time to adapt and direct strikingly original works for the two leading theatre companies in Northwestern’s neighborhood, the Goodman Theatre Company (where he’s an associate director) and Steppenwolf Theatre Company (where he’s an ensemble member), as well as script films, stage operas and, from time to time, do a choice bit of acting as well. Whew!
But Galati’s theatrical success and his passion for teaching both spring from the same source: his intense love of literature. And it’s his skillful adaptation and staging of literary works in a wide range of styles that have made him such a powerful force in the American theatre.
What’s the key to Galati’s success at literary adaption, an undertaking that’s produced so many disasters in the hands of lesser talents? “The play is in the novel, it’s just hidden,” he explains. “I’m not just talking about dialogue. A novel is always oscillating between different tempi of showing and telling. ‘Description’ slows down the tempo while ‘summary’ speeds it up, and scenes play in normal time. Thus, the fun of fiction is the constantly changing rhythm and the amplitude of the canvas—the large panorama, the multiple stories.
“If one is to be lucky in the task of adaptation, first find a novel that has a real play in it,” Galati advises, “for it’s not so much the skill of the adapter as the skill of the novelist that creates success.” A case in point, of course, is The Grapes of Wrath.
It was after viewing the fledgling Steppenwolf ensemble’s lean and passionate staging of Of Mice and Men that Galati let them in on his idea of adapting The Grapes of Wrath. Galati’s old Elm Grove High School drama coach, Ralph Lane, had first introduced him to the group some years before. Lane, who was teaching at the time at Illinois State University, invited Galati down to critique a show that included future Steppenwolfites John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf and Gary Sinise, and when the “kids,” as Galati described them, set up camp in Highland Park, the die was cast. The kids took Galati out to dinner, seeking his advice; in short order, they asked him to join the ensemble.
Galati remembers the excited glow in Sinise’s face when they brainstormed the theatrical possibilities of Steinbeck’s epic, and Sinise’s unrelenting determination to secure the rights for the adaption from the reclusive Mrs. Steinbeck. The novel itself alternates between event-filled chapters about the literal and spiritual journey of the uprooted Joad family, and chapters that paint indelible word pictures of the physical and emotional terrain—the Dust Bowl landscapes, the wretched Hoovervilles—through which they pass. By incorporating this shifting rhythm, Galati was able to capture on stage some of that large panorama and varying tempi that he loves in literature.
But the danger in adaptation, Galati goes on to explain, lies in how to handle the issue of narration. The narrator of a work of fiction is, he says, “a boring guy” who speaks to us most often in the past tense; the story, for him, has already been completed. But stage characters need to live looking forward into the future, where the narrator already is. The characters live in the world of “what if,” the “virtual present,” as Galati describes it, and they can’t know the outcome that the novel’s narrator already knows. Part of the reason Galati feels Grapes of Wrath adapted so well was that the narrator never enters the mind of the characters—never says, “Tom thought, if only I could get to the river.”
And, picking up on Steinbeck’s technique, Galati allowed his stage narrator to capture the novel’s compelling shifts in narrative style, at one moment biblical, at another folksy. He accomplished this, in part, by artfully turning the narrator into a chorus of voices, a panoply of shifting sensibilities.
But what about a book that’s all narrative? Galati’s most recent adaptation, of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, posed some unique challenges (see sidebar). “It’s almost a chorale of narrative energy,” Galati observes, describing the classic 1930 novel whose occasion is the death and funeral of Addie Bundren, a Mississippi redneck farmer’s wife. “Each character tells his or her own version of events, so that underneath these narratives is the real novel—though it never makes a claim on the reader’s attention, because there is no ‘neutral observer.'” Most vexing for Galati was that “we never know what the occasion of speech is,” and Addie even speaks from the grave!
The production, which ran June 28 to Aug. 13 at Steppenwolf, elicited inevitable comparisons with Grapes of Wrath—the Joads and the Bundrens are, after all, both poor rural families who endure the hardships of Depression-era journeys to a “promised land,” where the promise turns out to be empty. There’s an essential difference, though, which Galati explicated in a recent Stagebill interview: “Everything that happened to [the Joads] happened in a modality of real grandeur, of spiritual depth, human courage, fortitude: They were characters of great humor and endurance and generosity. Au contraire with the Bundrens. These are people who are sort of twisted and contorted by their various needs. But there is a kind of hard, self-preserving energy in each of them which makes Faulkner’s story almost a mock epic, because the characters do not have the stature of real tragic characters. They’re actually comic characters.”
As I Lay Dying divided the Chicago critics. “Heaven help audience members who have not read the book,” worried Tribune chief critic Richard Christiansen, but Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times was more optimistic about Galati’s accomplishment: “He has brilliantly orchestrated Faulkner’s ripe, hallucinatory, darkly comic and gorgeously twisted language,” she wrote, into “a work of startling, subversive power.”
I first encountered Galati as a young and talented actor performing another adaptation of his own design. The year was 1966, the vehicle was Vladimir Nabokov’s wild literary fantasy Pale Fire, and the occasion was Galati’s graduate recital for his master’s degree in the Oral Interpretation (now Performance Studies) Department at Northwestern. In his solo rendering of Nabokov’s book, supposedly the final work of a minor poet, John Shade, Galati portrayed Charles Kinbote, a mad academic who has “edited” Shade’s 999-line opus, adding wildly extravagant commentary. It was an unforgettably funny hour of academic satire as Galati’s Kinbote “explained” the poem and took questions from the audience, all of which he answered with verbatim sections he’d memorized from Nabokov’s book.
In the intervening three decades, Galati has often returned to Pale Fire, using it as a measure of himself as the years pass. “Every time I went back to it, it would tell me where I was,” Galati discovered. “The piece was the same, but I had changed. At first as an actor I was funny and fast, but I never exposed myself, never let myself really open up. I was always covered up. But as the years passed, something happened. There were a lot of scary things about Kinbote that I grew more willing to confront—a level of emotional depth or intensity—as I tried to honestly deal with the themes of sexuality, madness, art and death, the big things, in the book.”
At the time, Galati was one of an eclectic group of future directors at Northwestern. Violin-major-to-turn-actor-to-turn-director Mark Lamos (now artistic director of Hartford Stage Company) was there, as was Libby Appel (now artistic director of Indiana Repertory Theatre), Carole Rothman (now artistic director of New York’s Second Stage), Dennis Zacek (now artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater) and myself. Except for Galati, we were all in the theatre department, where pitched battles were being fought over such diverse and divisive issues as the kind of training we were receiving and the Vietnam War. Over in the “interp” department, things were quieter, and Galati speaks warmly of his old academic mentors. In fact, asking him to name the people who have influenced him most will elicit a long litany of dedicated teachers, starting in grade school and stretching through high school and college—small wonder, then, that Galati never felt impelled to leave the educational environment.
Born 51 years ago and raised in the northern Chicago suburbs, he did most of his undergraduate and graduate work at the same university that is still his academic home. Why, especially with his recent high-visibility success, does he continue to teach? “I love it—I just love it. The time in the classroom, the time working with the kids, it’s privileged, it’s charmed.” And many of his successful projects, Galati points out, began as workshop productions with his students.
Because of his typical suburban upbringing, Galati calls himself an “unhyphenated American.” He says that from his family life (his dad trained and showed dogs) to his earliest years in school, “incidents and situations necessarily led me into the arts and literature.” A pivotal event in that process owes itself, again, to a teacher, this one a third-grade teacher named, aptly enough, Miss Scholy. She took her class on a field trip to the august Art Institute of Chicago. It was young Frank’s first visit there.
“First there were the imposing steps to the building and the immense marble space. As we entered the lobby with its odd winter smells, Miss Scholy told us that we’d be seeing pictures and statues of men and women without clothes, but we were not to giggle. A prohibition, then, was involved with this new world. Something forbidden. It conjured up the same feelings as in church, all very grown-up, serious and important. Near the entrance was a sculptural group of nude figures, and I was overcome by the beauty of the human body. Yet—and here’s the magic of art—they were imitations of the human form in colorless cold marble.” (The sculpture is actually Lorado Taft’s Solitude of the Soul from 1914, ironically described by the artist as reflecting “the eternally present fact that however closely we may be thrown together by circumstances, we are unknown to each other.”)
“Later, we went to the cafeteria, a dark gray place, full of smoke. There I was, sitting in front of my bologna sandwich, seeing beautiful young adults, free and involved with each other, talking, touching, hugging. It was as powerful an image of sensuality as the statue. Then, across from me, I saw an art student with a deformed arm, a stub of an arm really. And as I sipped milk from my little carton, he began to open his and, at that moment so overfull of feeling, so charged, I became ill.”
The powerful effect of that childhood day’s paradoxes echo through much of Galati’s work as an artist. There’s the paradox of eliciting sensual humanity out of unfeeling form; of the novel’s often backward-looking structure and drama’s need to probe into the future; of the seeming impossibility and utter necessity of human connection.
Equally paradoxical is Galati’s international success and the quiet life he leads in the ‘burbs north of Chicago with his partner of 25 years, the choreographer Peter Amster (they met at Northwestern, naturally). “Peter was the one who first introduced me to the world of opera—he was much more sophisticated about such things than I was. Through the years, we’ve been lucky enough to collaborate on several occasions, and although collaboration with your partner can get pretty complicated, with us it’s always been smooth and joyous.” One of their early collaborations was on the Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thomson opera The Mother of Us All—at which point Galati discovered in Stein’s brilliant wordplay and her innovative structures a profoundly kindred spirit.
Galati has repeatedly returned to Stein territory over the years, first with another Stein/Thomson opera, the droll Four Saints in Three Acts, then with an highly acclaimed adaptation of her prose, She Always Said, Pablo, at the Goodman in 1987. At the center of this visually extravagant pastiche of Stein’s texts and images from the work of her long-time friend Picasso—designer Mary Griswold dubbed it “Gertie’s vaudeville”—Galati placed wheelchair-using actor Susan Nussbaum as Stein herself. While tongue-cluckers could complain about the anachronism of an electric wheelchair conveying Stein around, one would be hard pressed to imagine a pithier performance than Nussbaum’s, or a better command of Stein’s complicated prose.
Galati’s most recent foray into Stein, last season’s Gertrude Stein: Each One as She May at the Goodman, was an adaptation of an early African-American love story called Melanctha from Stein’s volume Three Lives. The creation of the piece offers an interesting object lesson not only in Galati’s skillful technique as an adapter, but in how to bring work of a racial character of the past to life in our racially charged present.
Originally, Galati had thought of creating another collage like She Always Said, Pablo, but that struck him as “retro.” He reread Three Lives and found in Melanctha a rich melange of voices that intrigued him. “I thought it burned with its unique setting and emotionally rich details. At the same time, it raised the complicated issue of a white woman writing in 1905 about African-American life.”
Stein, who had worked in the black community as a midwife during her days as a medical student at Johns Hopkins, called her chronicle of the life, loves and death of a black woman “a composition of a prolonged present.” A comment of Richard Wright’s sums up the results: “As I read it my ears were opened for the first time to the magic of the spoken word. I began to hear the speech of my grandmother, who spoke a deep, pure Negro dialect and with whom I had lived for many years. All of my life I had been only half hearing, but Miss Stein’s struggling words made the speech of the people around me vivid.”
Indeed, reading the piece creates the sensation of Stein’s discovery of her character’s unique voice: “Yes I certainly do love you Jeff!” Melanctha says to her lover Jefferson:
Yes Jeff sure, but not the way you are now ever thinking. I love you more and more seems to me Jeff always, and I certainly do trust you more and more always to me when I know you. I do love you Jeff, sure yes, but not the kind of way of loving you are ever thinking it now Jeff with me. I ain’t got certainly no hot passion any more now in me. You certainly have killed all that kind of feeling now Jeff in me.
At the same time, phrases like “Rose had the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the black people” bring to mind the worst images of America’s tragic history of racial stereotyping. Galati decided to proceed with the adaption, but to send an early draft to black actors from whom he would solicit reactions. Key support for the project came from Chicago-based actor Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who had worked with Galati on two other occasions (including Grapes of Wrath), and who eventually appeared in the chamber piece for four actors (playing Melanctha, Jefferson and two narrators) and two musicians (Reginald Robinson and Miriam Strum, performing their own shimmering ragtime compositions).
“Surely we would have much to discuss” is the way Galati described his attitude before rehearsals began.
Thus, in Each One as She May, Galati was able to move the discussion of race forward by looking back 90 years, fashioning a work that required all involved to speak honestly to issues that have become harder and harder to address candidly. In doing so, he captured both the central dramatic conflict of the novel and that special voice that is Gertrude Stein.
Now Galati will be exploring more of his own voice. Among the busy professor’s upcoming projects is a six-month residency at Indiana Repertory Theatre (supported by a National Theatre Artist Residency grant from Theatre Communications Group, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts), where fellow Northwestern alum Libby Appel will be bringing him in to create a piece of his own devising about local culture—a culture that recognizes Indianapolis’s historic role as “a nexus of right-wing politics and Klan activity.” “No adaptation,” Galati confirms. “My voice.”
He’s turning his attention as well to the classic medieval morality play Everyman, which he’ll direct at the Goodman Theatre, and two challenging adaptations for the silver screen: scripts for Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven and Sara Gilbert’s Summer Gloves. But whether his creativity is taking him east, west or south, rest assured that once again this fall, no matter what his fame, you’ll find Professor Galati crossing the Northwestern campus on his way to another class.
John Dillon, the former artistic director of Milwaukee Repertory Theater, is a freelance director living in Seattle.
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