A Confederacy of Dunces is one of my favorite books of all time. Full stop. When I heard that Tom Key, Executive Artistic Director of Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit, had written a stage adaptation of the book, I was beside myself with anticipation. A few years ago I wrote about Mr. Key: ”If you’re not from Atlanta, there is a simple way to tell if a play here is going to be any good – check to see if Tom Key has anything to do with it. If so, your odds are pretty good.” That assessment still stands. Tom Key is a pillar of the Atlanta arts community, and I couldn’t be happier that he agreed to field a few questions from the likes of us.
Tom Key (left) and Director Richard Garner (right) – Photo James Christerson
Baby Got Books interview with Tom Key, author of the Theatrical Outfit’s stage adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces
Baby Got Books: Can you tell how us how the idea to adapt A Confederacy Of Dunces came about?
Tom Key: When I first read it in the early 80s I knew it would make a great stage adaptation because the character of Ignatius is as profound a creation as Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and the dialogue tells the story for a stage audience as effectively and with as much hilarity as the most classic Theater farces.
BGB: How did your team go about adapting the novel into something that would work on the stage?
TK: I was able to attain the rights to adapt the novel and to produce it this fall here in Atlanta at Theatrical Outfit. The next step was to hire the right director, design team for set, lights, costumes, sound and props, and then, to cast the right company of actors. I chose Richard Garner, Artistic Director of Georgia Shakespeare Festival, because Toole’s novel is as complex as Shakespeare, and I knew Richard could take that kind of an epic script and create Theatrical combustion. We had a series of production meetings discussing the design elements, particularly the set, designed by Sarah Ward who is from New Orleans, and how it all had to evoke 1964 New Orleans while at the same time allowing the actors to go from scene to scene in an instant. Casting was done in about two days auditioning close to 70 actors. We knew we had assembled a comic “Who’s Who” of Atlanta, and we also knew that Aaron Munoz, a classically trained actor and Improv comedian, is perfect, and I mean, perfect for the role of Ignatius J. Reilly. Once casting was completed everyone’s energy went up a notch because there’s a lot of confidence and excitement created when you know who exactly is going to be incarnating these incredibly funny and insane characters, and know they are going to be doing it so well. After I heard the actors read the script the first time, and with the help of our Dramaturge, Michael Evenden of Emory, I completed another draft of the script. Then after I saw it all the way through with all the staging completed I did another draft and now we’re literally in technical rehearsals putting all the elements together for our opening next week.
BGB: New Orleans accents are unique and have been notoriously botched on screen. How will your adaption tackle this problem?
TK: It was very important to us to get the authenticity of those dialects. So, we hired a dialect coach, Kathleen McManus, from New Orleans, and to our great advantage, she has also been cast in the role of Mrs. Reilly. All of our actors are incredibly gifted at dialect and it certainly adds to the fun. Toole wrote a lot of the dialect in the novel and I adhered to that as I extracted his dialogue for the script. With some characters there are clues by their names whether or not they might have, for example, an Italian (Battaglia) or Spanish (Gonzales) influence in their speech and our actors have certainly taken that and run with it.
BGB: Various attempts to adapt A Confederacy of Dunces to the screen have failed. However, there have been a few well received adaptations for the stage. Is there something about the novel that lends itself better to the stage than the screen?
TK: I don’t believe one medium is superior to the other, but I do think there are certain advantages and limitations that both have, and in the case of A Confederacy of Dunces, I think the Theatre has two advantages. One is some readers have found Ignatius so offensive that they can’t finish or really get the book. So, I think meeting him in person onstage gives someone the maximum advantage to not just encounter this bombastic personality but to begin to understand him, empathize with him and eventually root for him. In our day to day life, we have a much better chance of understanding someone different than ourselves if we can be with that person face to face, and I think this is an advantage for grasping such an iconic kind of literary character as Ignatius. Second is that the Theatre tells the story in language whereas the dominant story telling element in Film is image. A film version I’m sure would be hilarious and can, unlike the Theatre, show the audience a real setting. But a screenplay simply could not contain as much of this rich dialogue and narration as a Theatre version. Obviously adapting a 400 page novel I have to leave out a lot! But, a screenwriter on this story would really have to delete much more of Toole’s writing for a movie. I imagine it could be tempting to settle for the visual comedy inherent in this story for the film, but I think it would be a real mistake if the audience just laughed at Ignatius as a sight gag. To me, what is crucial in dramatizing this story, is to make sure the audience comes to care, and to care deeply what happens to him. Whether he is ultimately received with violence or with compassion is, on one level, the larger drama of the human condition.
Aaron Munoz is Ignatius J. Reilly
BGB: Several of the other characters are about as politically incorrect as they could possibly be. Do you have any worries about portraying, say, Burma Jones, in a city with a history of racial discord?
TK: No, on the contrary, because Toole has created such complete characterizations, I think one of the virtues of sharing this story in a group experience will be that it will help to build bridges of understanding through laughter. What’s offensive is when a character is presented to an audience as a stereotype, a reduction or a one note representation of a category. That’s an insult. It honors our diversity for an author as observant as Toole to render our humanity with the complexity it deserves. In my experience, I have seen political correctness segregate us out of fear into fractions rather than to unite us in community. Common courtesy is what is needed in all successful relations. It’s interesting to me that the people in this story who are fundamentally courteous of Ignatius, or at least tolerant, end up well, whereas those who try and negate him, attack him or in someway get rid of him do not fare well.
BGB: What can you tell us about the cast you have lined up?
TK: I will just say that I am a firm believer in the Theatre wisdom, “There’s no such things as small parts, only small actors”. I’m very proud of the fact over the years that Theatrical Outfit has developed a reputation for hiring excellent actors in all roles. We are a professional theater company associated with the union Actors’ Equity Association. If every single cast person is strong than the production will add up to being greater than the sum total of its parts, and I can assure you that is certainly happening with this production. After I saw the first run through I was exhausted that night from all the laughing I had done. Their dialect work, their skill with physical comedy, their skill for characterization, their capacity to work as an ensemble and, in some cases, their ability to portray a dazzling variety of characters within this one play, are talents on a world class level. I couldn’t be prouder of the talent pool here in Atlanta.
Be sure to check out the short clip about the play at the Theatrical Outfit’s web page.
Performances of A Confederacy of Dunces
August 11 – September 5, 2010
Wednesday – Saturday at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 2:30 pm
Saturday Matinee on August 21 at 2:30 pm