Theater Interview: “The Kite Runner” — Adapting an Epic Story to the Stage
“There aren’t a lot of roles for Middle Eastern actors in the United States. And it does mean something to me to be able to create roles like this.”
The Kite Runner, adapted by Matthew Spangler from the novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini. Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue. Staged by The New Repertory Theatre in the Charles Mosesian at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through September 30.
By Tim Jackson
Drawing on Afghanistan culture and history, Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 best-selling novel The Kite Runner was praised by critics for its nuanced symbolism and visual clarity, as well as its deft exploration of such sprawling themes of loyalty, family, fate, and redemption. The New England premiere of Matthew Spangler’s stage adaptation of the book is currently being presented by The New Repertory Theatre. Buoyed by the astute direction Elaine Vaan Hogue, effective set design by Paul Tate dePoo III, and an energetic cast that pivots around a strong central performance by Nael Nacer, the company does justice to its literary source. I asked playwright Spangler why he wanted to create a stage version of a large and challenging book, and how he went about solving the obvious problems.
Arts Fuse: I know that both you and Khaled Hosseini, the author of novel, live or work in San Jose. Is that a connection for the two of you?
Matthew Spangler: We had face-to-face meetings, which initially made things easier. We have a mutual friend who put us in touch. We met at a Starbucks’s in 2005, and I laid out my initial ideas.
From the beginning, Khaled has been very generous and kind and supportive of this project. He read drafts of the script and weighed in. He was so trusting, and many of the changes he made to the material he would make in the book, if he were re-writing it today.
AF: What research did you do before the writing?
Spangler: I spent about nine months researching the play before I started writing it, which included reading and talking to people. The Bay Area is such a great place because there are so many folks that I could just sit down and have lunch with. Khaled’s father-in-law is retired and living in the Bay area. He and I would sit and talk, and I could ask him, “So I read this in the book and is that true?” He was a fantastic resource.
I suppose one of the reasons I like to do adaptations is rather than writing about what you know, you write about what you don’t know — you use the process of research and writing as a way of getting to know something new.
AF: And take yourself on a journey.
Spangler: Absolutely. My new play, for instance, is about two immigrants who come from Mexico to Los Angeles and is based on a book by TC Boyle called Tortilla Curtain.
AF: Had you seen the Marc Forster film of Kite Runner?
Spangler: All my initial work was begun before the film came out. At the time, I didn’t know there was going to be a movie. There is no connection between the play script and the film. I’ve seen it, but the film didn’t really influence anything that I wrote.
AF: There is a magical quality to the play that I didn’t actually experience in the film.
Spangler: That’s kind of you to say. Let me say from the start that I think the film is very good, it’s a serious attempt to represent the book, and there is nothing cynical about it. He’s a great director. They got the right actors for it. But what I find lacking in the film is that narrative voice. I think for Kite Runner, that’s where the magic is. A lot of the really powerful emotional moments come when you hear Amir tell you why something is significant or the thought that went through his head at that particular moment. The film just isn’t able to replicate the first person “let me tell you my story” viewpoint that the book and the play provide. I don’t think the solution would have been to have a voice over in the movie: it’s just the nature of the medium. From my perspective, a lot of the emotion generated by Kite Runner is because of Amir’s first-person story.
AF: It’s a very personal story, even though the novel is often very descriptive and visual.
Spangler: Absolutely. I think what the theater audience quickly understands is that this is a story of redemption. If Amir has a “macro objective” as an actor it would be “let me tell you the story and explain to you why I did this horrible, horrible thing and why you should forgive me for it.”
AF: The audience becomes his confessor.
Spangler: Yes and it’s indispensable in understanding what is happening on stage. Had Amir not run from that alley, had he not framed Hassan, he surely would’ve taken Ali and Hassan to the United States with him. Hassan is dead because of what Amir did. There can be no greater weight than that.
AF: I was looking at your biography and I see that you’ve adopted Joyce, Cheever, and Steinbeck for the stage. Can you talk about adapting Kite Runner?
Spangler: I didn’t always know how things were going to be solved, so some ideas came to my mind as I read, and with other problematic parts I knew we’d figure it out. And we have. This is the seventh production of the play. I directed the first production at San Jose State where I teach. We did it with the students for one of our Mainstage productions in 2007. That was really good for me as a writer because I could approach my own script as a director. I could see what was and what wasn’t working, where I should pare things down, and so forth. So that was a very important production. Coming back to your point about adaptation—I’ve done a lot of that. At San Jose State I teach courses in making non-dramatic material (letters, books, poems, interviews) and making them work on stage. I teach scripts such as The Laramie Project and Anna Devere Smith’s work. My PhD was about adaptations of James Joyce’s writings for the stage.
AF: What adaptations of non-fiction are most common for the stage? I’m thinking of plays like Execution of Justice, by Emily Mann about the Harvey Milk murder trial, or Daniel Berrigan’s Trial of the Catonsville Nine, drawn from court transcripts.
Spangler: Plays based on interviews are probably most common: The Exonerated and Aftermath by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, for instance. I did undergraduate work at Northwestern University where there are several professors who specialize in adaptation. Frank Galati was one of my teachers. He’s known for his adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, which won a Tony award in 1990. I also worked with director/adaptor Mary Zimmerman, whose interest often focuses on Greek myth. Paul Edwards, as well. These are three major professors who do adaptation work.
AF: Elaine Vaan Hogue’s staging at the New Rep is very effective. How varied is the staging from production to production?
Spangler: Elaine has thought of several things that I haven’t seen in other productions. But one thing that greatly influences each production is the set and sound design. The set conditions the way we watch the show, the way the actors respond to the environment, and how we respond to them. The different sets have been very influential in terms of changing the tone of the show. Some amplify the epic nature of the story, others reach for something more intimate.
AF: What role to you play when you visit a production?
Spangler: Until the script is published, you can change it. I made some text changes for this production. Once that script is in book form the tinkering ends. At this stage I enjoy honing the script and making it work with specific actors and stage designs. Sometimes you’ll come across a line that is extraneous. Perhaps other productions need that line. There are quite a few of those things. It’s nice to have the playwright in the room to be able to identify those things.
AF: Can you speak about the Pashtun–Hazara context of the story?
Spangler: Generally speaking in Afghan society the Pashtun are the ethnicity of power. The Taliban is mostly Pashtun. Now that’s not to say all Pashtun are Taliban. They also have a history of a secular cosmopolitanism: a lot of Afghan immigrants in the United States are also Pashtun, so it is a very diverse group. But generally speaking the Pashtun would be the community of power. And generally speaking the Hazara would be the community of less power, filling the role of servants, etc. But having said that, there are exceptions. There are Hazara who achieve great power in Afghan society. My comments are broad, but the play explores these class difference.
Of course there is also a religious divide. Pashtu for the most part are Sunni Muslim. Hazara are, for the most part, Shiite. Afghanistan has the most diverse and complicated society imaginatble because there are other ethnic groups who don’t figure prominently in the play, but play an important role in Afgan culture and politics: Tajiks, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen. They may not make much of an impression in Kite Runner but they do in Afghan history. Kite Runner is not an encyclopedic view of Afghan history, which is much more complicated. Kite Runner dramatizes one perspective.
AF: This is the context for powerful, universal themes of family and friendship, redemption, loyalty, history, and determinism.
Spangler: One thing that makes this play unique in contemporary American theater is that deals with so many themes. It’s almost Shakespearean in conflicts that it addresses. That’s unusual for theater today. I’m speaking generally, but today plays might focus on one theme—a father/son relationship, that sort of thing. But Kite Runner is about a father-son relationship as well the relationship between two best friends. Its also about global politics a love story, a journey of redemption, and an exploration of class conflict. The immigrant story is a big part of the narrative: how the son acclimates to America a lot quicker than the father, but how the father exerts pressures on the son.
AF: All this is brought together with some fairly complex and clever staging on an open set.
Spangler: This is a memory play. Everything we see on stage is not ‘reality’; it’s set in Amir’s memory. That allows us to strip away the extraneous, to eschew literal detail. What is represented are the important things that he remembers, that he will remember. So you could think of this stage as representing the images in Amir’s mind, not Afghanistan.
AF: Nael Nacer, who plays Amir, takes on quite a challenge with this role. He is a remarkable actor. But the entire cast is really committed to their roles. Has a play this ambitious been hard to cast?
Spangler: There aren’t a lot of roles for Middle Eastern actors in the United States. And it does mean something to me to be able to create roles like this. When we did the world premiere production, the actor who played Amir was an Iranian by heritage. He said to me, “I’ve never been cast as anything other than a terrorist or the best friend.” And he said this was his first opportunity to really play a lead role in a play. It’s true there are not of lot of roles in American theater for people of Middle Eastern heritage.
A few plays with Afghan subjects have been staged in the last 10 years or so: Blood and Gifts, by J. T. Rogers was done at Lincoln Center; The Tricycle Theatre did The Great Game; Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul predates Kite Runner. I am certainly not suggesting that Kite Runner is a better play than these scripts, but in those scripts Western stories are played out against an Afghan background. Kite Runner is rooted in Afghan cultural themes and conflicts. The book is Afghan-American, and there are some very specific Afghan rituals that have to be re-created, such as the wedding with its ceremony involving the Koran and so forth. The kite tournament is a very specific Afghan cultural event; there is the birthday party where everybody comes out and sings an Afghan song. So this is a unique play in the American context: almost all the characters are Afghan. There are very few Anglo characters. But despite that recognition of difference, audiences develop a real kinship with the characters and their journeys.