In this new occasional feature, we shine a spotlight on someone in the arts and culture world. Theater-maker Elise Thoron talks about adapting the Junot Díaz novel and passing as Estonian so she could study theater in the Soviet Union.
In 1984, before the Berlin Wall came crashing down, a young Slavic-languages scholar from Manhattan named Elise Thoron went to Leningrad and fell in with the theater students.
That was against the rules — and dangerous.
Arts students in the USSR, she said, were definitely not supposed to fraternize with Americans. But Thoron wanted to attend their classes. Her Russian accent, the students decided, sounded slightly Estonian, so that became her Cold War art-agent cover: a slightly fish-out-of-water student from the city of Tallinn.
The experience ignited her devotion to cross-cultural work. She directed her own Russian adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” in Moscow in the mid-1990s (it ran for nine years), worked with an African-American actor and Japanese Noh masters to make a play about washi paper and (brace yourself for this daisy chain of cultural associations) recently adapted a 125-page Yiddish poem from 1931, written by a Jewish Hungarian refugee in the Caribbean, about a Taíno rebel who fled Hispaniola to fight Spanish conquistadors in Cuba.
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The resulting opera, “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” is set in a Cuban nightclub and ran in Havana last year.
Thoron also adapted and directed a one-person version of Junot Díaz’s sprawlingly cross-cultural novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” opening April 21 at Book-It Repertory Theatre and starring Dominican actor Elvis Nolasco.
“Wao” is a hell of a novel, framed around a chubby “ghettonerd” (Oscar) and a Dominican tough guy (Yunior) who takes him on as a machismo-improvement project to appease a woman he loves — Oscar’s sister. But “Wao” slip-and-slides through time and space: fractured immigrant families in New Jersey, the brutality of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, liberal-arts campus life, Caribbean curses and counter-spells, “The Lord of the Rings,” science fiction and much more.
We caught up with Thoron hours before she flew out of New York to visit her partner’s family in Rome.
You’ve made a ton of cross-cultural work — where did you grow up, and what was your first cultural milieu like?
I grew up in Yorkville, in Manhattan. At the time, it was a very German neighborhood. I had two wonderful surrogate parents, who were German, in addition to my own parents. My father was of French origin — he was a diplomat and spoke beautiful French — and my mother was Welsh, but that all seemed normal to me as a child.
What was your first major cross-cultural experience?
My father was posted in Egypt — I was 8 or 9 and would visit him in Cairo. There was a war going on, our house was surrounded by sandbags, and the streetlights and car lights were all painted blue. Then we’d go into the countryside where donkeys were pulling water out of the well. I’d get lost in the bazaar. It was a really different environment and I loved it.
What was your first dramatic cross-cultural moment as an adult?
Directing my own Russian adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” in 1990s Moscow. I was 33, inexperienced, got in way over my head and didn’t think I’d survive it — especially because as a woman, you’re not supposed to direct. It stretched every little muscle in my brain and body.
At one point, the actors went on strike. And that transitional period in no-longer-USSR was grim — there wasn’t much to eat, life was hard, but you felt this burgeoning of capitalism. In retrospect, “The Great Gatsby” was a good choice, a cautionary tale for the time. But we overcame our difficulties and finally had a wonderful experience.
“Wao” is an ambitious novel, and you obviously couldn’t include everything — what was most painful to cut?
Losing some of the female stories. I’ve always wanted to do a companion piece about Lola (Oscar’s sister and Yunior’s love interest). But the way the novel is written, all its fabulous corners relate. One reason we took it on is because it wasn’t being taught in New York high schools — people say it’s too complicated, too explicit. This is our bridge to introducing the book to them, through school productions.
The novel is partly about cultural expectations (men are supposed to be macho and aggressive, women have to navigate the whole virgin/whore thing), and the consequences when “ghettonerds” like Oscar deviate from the “rules.”
Yes! That’s exactly it, to have both the nerd (Oscar) and the bully (Yunior) in the same body — Elvis can be very handsome, macho, Dominicano, and then becomes Oscar. You get into deep conversation about bullying and how Oscar becomes the courageous, heroic, exemplary one who steps out of his comfort zone — becomes truly himself.
There’s a beautiful passage in the novel when Oscar says: “Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.” Yunior says: “But your yourself sucks!” Oscar replies: “It is, lamentably, all I have.”
You’re obviously erudite. Do you have any guilty-pleasure reading? Like, if you’re alone at an airport, would you secretly reach for a People magazine?
I like to read everything under the sun, but I’m not a big absorber of that kind of stuff. I wish I could say otherwise! Poetry is the most relaxing for my mind. I’m writing a piece about Veronica Franco, a 16th-century Italian courtesan and poet. So I’ve been reading some of her poems before going to bed.
“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz, adapted by Elise Thoron. April 19-May 6; Book-It Repertory Theatre at Center Theatre, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $15-$50, 206-216-0833, book-it.org.