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Winesburg, Ohio — Eric Rosen Talks About His New Adaptataion

Two seasons ago, Steppenwolf's Arts Exchange Program presented a critically acclaimed, new musical adaptation of Sherwood Anderson's classic novel, Winesburg, Ohio. About Face Theatre Company and Steppenwolf developed the piece further into a full–length musical to be presented this summer in the Upstairs Theatre. Backstage asked adapter and About Face Artistic Director Eric Rosen to talk about the new version of Winesburg and how it made it back onto the Steppenwolf stage. When my collaborators and I worked on the first production of Winesburg for Arts Exchange, our task was to find a narrative arc that was tight enough to tell the story in an hour and fifteen minutes. We were inspired by the experience of making something that was beautifully concise, but we felt like we were really holding back on about 80% of what Anderson had written. So the new Winesburg is a more complete accounting of Anderson's epic scope and breadth in recreating the life of a small American town. The first incarnation was a real crowd pleaser, which was a surprise to me. The most gratifying responses we received were from people who are very intimate with the novel, who said that the convention of relating the interior life of the characters through song was extremely satisfying. The residents of Winesburg present very placid, even cold exteriors, and the music allows us to access an entirely different world in their inner lives. Song allows a kind of hyper–expressive warmth and accessibility that balances out some of the weightier ideas of the piece. We wanted to pull music out of the folk style that we imagined Anderson would have heard in his childhood. The memory of a music that evokes the memory of Winesburg, as it were. So we were looking for impressions of early 20th century folk style, rather than ethnographically correct folk music. Because it's so American, so steeped in the land and the people, it feels like you're remembering something, like a dream of the olden days. The thing I love best in the new material is a piece called Loneliness, about Enoch Robinson. The novel Winesburg, Ohio follows George Willard, a young man who is coming of age in this small town and who wants to escape to become an artist. He's sort of Anderson's alter ego. Well, the Enoch Robinson story is a mirror of that main story, about a young boy who escapes Winesburg and goes to New York. But he leaves before he's ready, and his lack of maturity, his essential childlike quality causes him to go insane. It's a cautionary tale about creativity and what might happen if George leaves Winesburg too early. This process is certainly not the conventional way that a musical comes together, but that is due to the fact that we collaborators are not conventional in our roles. But that has been the beauty of this entire process; we certainly didn't expect to write a full–length musical based on Winesburg, Ohio until we put it in front of an audience for the first time. That was the kind of revelation that happens very rarely in creative life, and when it does, you go along wherever it takes you. Committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and playwrights, Steppenwolf Theater Company's mission is to advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships, and contributing new works to the national canon. The company, formed in 1976 by a collective of actors, is dedicated to perpetuating an ethic of mutual respect and the development of artists through on–going group work. Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of thirtyfour artists whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting, filmmaking, and textual adaptation.