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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Joe Tantalo, Director of 'Deliverance,' First-Ever Stage Adaptation of James Dickey's Novel

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Aug 08, 2014 01:59 PM EDT

Deliverance. Just the word conjures unforgettable images, sounds, and music from the classic 1972 John Boorman film, adapted from James Dickey's novel about four men on a weekend canoe trip in the backwoods of Georgia and their deadly encounter with mountain men.

Now the first stage adaptation is coming to 59E59 Theaters in a production marking Godlight Theatre Company's 20th season.

Director Joe Tantalo spoke to us about the challenges of creating the first stage adaptation of this iconic story, scheduled to run Off-Broadway October 10 - November 9.

Classicalite: How did the stage adaptation come about, and how did you get involved as director?

Joe Tantalo: I picked up the novel again, about three years ago, gave it a fresh read and thought that there was a really powerful stage play there. As soon as I felt confident that I could bring the novel to life, I pursued the rights with the James Dickey estate, always with the understanding that I'd direct.

CL: Do you know, or can you speculate, as to why a stage adaptation was never done before?

JT: I may have made it sound easier than it actually was in securing the stage rights to Deliverance. It wasn't!

Over the course of two years or so, I had some really thoughtful conversations with the representatives of the James Dickey estate on my vision for a theatricalized version of the novel. That is to say, we talked about how we could achieve an authentic balance of Dickey's story with a theatricality that would seem fresh and exciting.

The representatives were, rightfully so, very protective of this property and once told me that many people had come looking for the stage rights to Deliverance, and it was always a quick "no."

Ultimately, they felt confident that our interest was in making Deliverance a work of theatre, not a composite of the film.

CL: The novel Deliverance is a classic of 20th century American literature, but surely far more people have seen the movie than read the book. Did/does the film cast a shadow over the theatrical vision of Sean Tyler, the adapter, or you, the director? And how do you present anew a story that's already familiar to audiences as a screen drama?

JT: From the very beginning, I always maintained that a stage version of Deliverance had to be a work of imagination – a work of theatre. The film works as its own medium, and while it will (most) likely be what people remember of Deliverance, that's OK.

Right out of the gate, the film offers a familiarity with the material to people who may not have read the novel. The stage play, on the other hand, will feel familiar and new all at once. That's exciting to me because the one universal question I've received from many people has been: "How in the world are you going to stage Deliverance?" They can't wrap their heads around the idea!

CL: A related question: What was Tyler's process for creating the play? Did he work from the novel and ignore the movie?

JT: Sean Tyler had generated some spec pages for adaptation so that I could pitch the estate that he was our guy for the job. Once he passed that test, Sean and I talked at length about finding the theatricality of the story, while balancing authenticity of Dickey's voice. What we're left with is a script that is taut, spare, theatrical (in the best sense) and wholly authentic to the novel. I think it's tremendously exciting.

Sean worked exclusively from the novel, nothing is based on or taken from the film.

CL: How do you meet the challenge of presenting an outdoor, spread-out story like this on a relatively small Off-Broadway stage?

JT: By stripping it all away.

Adapting literature to the stage takes courage. It is an act of risk and reverence to excavate the dense world of language, imagery and ideas from a novel hundreds of pages long and transport its many characters and landscapes to the stage.

The density of the novel can never, truly, be translated to the stage. We give the audience a blank canvas which our actors and designers use to create the world of the novel. With this approach we're not dependent on realism and can present a world of imagination and wonder. The world we create, the natural environment that our characters are absorbed into, must be boundless so that our audience can create their own idea of what the forest or the river might be. Why limit the experience with literal storytelling?

CL: What has the casting process been like?

JT: The casting process has been interesting. For a couple of the roles, I've had two actors from the ensemble, Gregory Konow and Nick Paglino, in mind from the start. My ideas for the other roles have evolved with time as we've had small readings and discussions over the work.

It's tricky, because you need to keep the performances authentic and grounded but also resist the temptation of casting an actor that may become a stereotype of the world. It's not about that. Making judgments about these characters too soon would derail the experience for the audience.

All that said, I'm feeling confident about the acting company.

CL: Will the production have music?

JT: The production will have original music by Bryce Hodgson and Danny Blackburn. Here's a fun fact: the piece of music that everyone is so familiar with from the film, "Dueling Banjos," is not in the stage play! It doesn't exist in the novel. In the novel, the character Drew plays a piece of music called "Wildwood Flower" with the albino boy. I like that. It's another example of how the stage play differs from the film and finds balance, as its own thing.

CL: Why do you think this story has remained so compelling over the decades?

JT: Because it's a story of survival under grueling circumstances that really makes us question the better parts of our nature.

CL: What do you want or expect audiences to take away from the production?

JT: I hope that our audiences will experience something new in this version of Deliverance -- that it not only rekindles their love for Dickey's novel, but also raise some serious discussion about the idea of morality. I want the audience to come away asking: Who was the enemy? What was the enemy?

CL: Tell us a little about the history of Godlight Theatre Company.

JT: On August 4, 1994, Godlight Theatre Company started in a church basement. Today, now 20 years later, it's a Drama Desk Award winning company with a body of work that has included adaptations of Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, John Ball, George Orwell, Will Elliott, Jim Carroll, Anthony Burgess, and now James Dickey. I'm filled with a lot of pride when I think back over these 20 years of all the wonderful and talented people who have contributed towards making the work matter.

CL: If there's anything else you'd like readers to know about the first stage adaptation of Deliverance, feel free to expound on it here!

JT: I don't want to give away too much, but I think our audience is in for a real immersive and visceral ride. We'll all be deep in the Georgia woods, and experience together the true fear of having to survive in the unknown.

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Deliverance runs October 10 - November 9, kicking off 59E59's fall 2014 season.

DELIVERANCE Fundraising Campaign from Joe Tantalo on Vimeo.

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TagsDeliverance, James Dickey, Off-Broadway, Godlight Theatre Company, Joe Tantalo