An interview with Karen Tarjan

Note: This is a guest posting from Clare O’Connor, production dramaturg and assistant director for our fall MainStage production of The Killer Angels.

Continuing her 20-year involvement with Lifeline Theatre, Karen Tarjan is the adaptor of The Killer Angels. She is a founding member of the Beau Jest Moving Theatre of Boston, and Seanachai Theatre in Chicago. She’s also an Artistic Associate of Wildclaw Theatre and has served as Movement Director/Choreographer there.

Q: How did you begin adapting plays? What was your first adaptation?

A: My first adaptation was The Overcoat, the short story by Nikolai Gogol. I read and re-read the story over the course of several years and I had a bunch of ideas rattling around in my head. Finally, I decided to put them down on paper. Once I started, the whole thing came racing out and I finished in about a week. I showed it to Ann Boyd, a director/choreographer friend and she was interested in directing it. The show had a lot of puppets and opportunities for creative staging. I also showed it to Lifeline ensemble member James Sie, another director who likes to incorporate movement sequences into his plays. He brought it to the ensemble and they chose to produce it and hired Ann to direct it! I was lucky to have a smooth first at-bat.

Q: How did you come to adapt The Killer Angels?

A: I had read the book a few years before Lifeline asked director Ned Mochel what he wanted his next project to be. He selected The Killer Angels and asked me to do the adaptation. We had collaborated previously on my co-adaptation (with James Sie) of The Two Towers and my script for The Return of the King. A sprawling epic like The Killer Angels didn’t seem daunting after we had tackled Middle Earth and it was a logical next step for us. We used nine actors the same way we did for the The Lord of the Rings books and several of the Tolkien guys came along for the ride to Gettysburg.

Killer Angels 2004
The Killer Angels, Lifeline Theatre, 2004

Q: Clearly a tremendous amount of research was involved in this project. Were you a history/Civil War buff before you began?

A: No, but my father had encyclopedic knowledge of The Battle of Gettysburg so maybe it was in my genes. Dad was thrilled when I was hired to adapt Mr. Shaara’s novel even though by that time he said he was “Gettysburged out.” He gave me several books for research, along with copies of the Gettysburg movie and Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary.

Q: Lifeline first staged your adaptation of The Killer Angels in 2004. What’s the process of returning to the script been like? What were the most significant changes that you made to the script?

A: In September of 2012 I went to Albuquerque to see Mother Road Theatre’s production of this adaptation. The director, Julia Thudium, had given all the narrative lines to the Troubadour character. (The previous editions had several actors taking on narration duties.) I really liked the way that worked and decided to rewrite the script even before Lifeline proposed a remount. The Troubadour (played by Matt Fletcher in this production) now has about 11 different functions, but he really ties all the elements of the show together. He can be a listener, an observer, and a guide for the audience. He sings and plays guitar, too! I also worked closely with director Matt Miller and you, Clare, on improving a scene that’s been problematic in other iterations. Now it works. Thanks, Matt! Other than that, there’s been a lot of tightening, trimming and tidying.

It’s been very rewarding to return to the script. It’s a challenging piece, to be sure, and I’m extremely grateful for all the dedication that has gone into making this whole thing sing. It’s fun to see how the new actors and the director interpret certain lines and scenes – in ways I never thought of.

The Killer Angels, Lifeline Theatre, 2013

Q: You’ve been involved with Lifeline for 20 years! What have your other roles been?

A: I was an actor in three shows, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Overcoat, and served as Movement Director for The Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Fellowship of the Ring.

Q: What’s your next project?

A: I haven’t been inspired to adapt for a while, but who knows? Maybe this production has sparked a renewed interest in putting pen to paper…

Karen Tarjan