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Interview: Adapting 'A Curious Incident' brought out the best in playwright Simon Stephens

TAMPA — A boy with amazing gifts and social setbacks becomes obsessed with the murder of a neighbor's dog. He undertakes a Sherlock Holmes sort of investigation.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which opens Tuesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, has been acclaimed for its electrifying portrayal of an unusual mind. A novel by Mark Haddon, on which the play is based, had done the same.

Haddon structured the book as a diary of a Christopher Boone, a brilliant 15-year-old whose gifts help offset profound psychological barriers. He avoids eye contact and hates being touched but relates well with animals. The book is a numbered list of observations replete with graphs, charts and mathematical formulas.

British playwright Simon Stephens read the novel in 2004 and admired it. He met Haddon several years later through the Royal National Theatre Studio, a program by the National Theatre for works in progress, and the two writers struck up a friendship. Stephens learned Haddon had been a longtime fan of his plays, a discovery he called "very flattering." When producers approached Haddon a play, the author thought of Stephens.

"He didn't want to adapt the play himself, for the same reason a surgeon is not really allowed to operate on their own family," Stephens said. "He wanted somebody he thought would avoid any possible sentimentality in the play and find a toughness in it. My plays are normally kind of brutal, savage things, so I think he felt confident that I could bring that flint to the job."

Other successful stage adaptations of novels, such as Lord of the Flies or To Kill a Mockingbird, are narrated by characters who also happen to be children but are far more social than Christopher. How would Stephens bring a live audience into the mind of someone who says so little and is often abstract?

In the book, illustrations reveal Christopher's ability to look at the constellation Orion and see a dinosaur instead of a hunter or to detect similarities between the seats in a train compartment and a decorative pattern on its walls.

"When dealing with a mind as vivid as Christopher's, there is a huge amount of observation and a huge amount of feeling, and a huge amount of memory going on," Stephens said. "But a dramatist only deals with behavior."

He found part of the solution in having a talkative person narrate the first act. Siobahn, Christopher's para-professional mentor at school, reads passages of Christopher's diary aloud to set up the action. Crucial help also comes from the set by Bunny Christie and lighting design by Paule Constable, bringing his skill at abstraction to life. A third element by Frantic Assembly allowed dancers to express his thoughts.

"What I love about theater as an art form more than anything is, it's necessarily a collaboration," Stephens said. "So all of us brought our A-game to it. And we were marshalled and channeled and supported and provoked by Marianne Elliott, our director."

In 2015, the British director Elliott won a Tony for directing A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, one of five for the show. The play has been variously and incorrectly described as representing autism or Asperger's syndrome. Everyone associated with its production resists that characterization.

"What moves us about Christopher is not that his mind is exceptional and he lives in a way that is extraordinary," Stephens said. "It's the capacity to recognize ourselves in him in the end that moves us."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

. If you go

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The show runs Tuesday through Nov. 13 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. $31-$90. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.

Interview: Adapting 'A Curious Incident' brought out the best in playwright Simon Stephens 11/03/16 [Last modified: Thursday, November 3, 2016 7:45pm]
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