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From book to stage
WordsAndPictures: "The Master Butchers Singing Club" at the Guthrie
If you go:
What: The Master Butchers Singing Club
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd St., Minneapolis
When: Opens Sept. 11 through Nov. 6, 2010
FFI: 1-877-44STAGE or www.guthrietheater.org

by Sun Yung Shin

Louise Erdrich is stepping into exciting new territory this fall. Her novel, "The Master Butchers Singing Club," will be staged at The Guthrie Theater, launching its 2010-2011 season. The 2003 novel by this Minnesota author and owner of the local, independent bookstore Birchbark Books, has been adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman ("'night, Mother") and is directed by Francesca Zambello.

Bookstore encounter
"It occurred by chance," Erdrich said, fondly recalling the serendipitous way in which this project came about. "Francesca was working at the Guthrie on 'Little House on the Prairie' [staged in 2008], living in the area and loved Birchbark Books. We started talking and Francesca said that she thought 'The Master Butchers Singing Club' would make a great play."

"I was attracted to the story for its wonderful epic nature and unique characters," said New York theater director Zambello. The novel is set in the fictional town of Argus, N.D., and focuses on the intertwined lives of German solider Fidelis Waldvogel, a WWI sniper fighter and butcher by trade, and his German wife, Eva, who had been engaged to be married to his best friend who was killed in the war; Delphine Watzka, a vaudeville performer, and her performance partner Cyprian Lazarre, who is Ojibwe.

The play has both large thematic ambitions and a more intimate mother-daughter story, according to Zambello. "In a big sense it is about America and the many strands of the past and various cultures that come together in the microcosm of Argus, N.D. On a more personal level it is one woman's unconventional love story, as well as her journey to find her mother."

Women's word, women's vision
"It has been a very female collaboration" said Erdrich about the women-centered nature of this project. "I knew of their work and I knew that they would know how to stage a book, how to create a real play, ... [it was wonderful] to find a writer who was fearless in doing that with a novel."

According to Erdrich, part of the successful collaboration was because of the lack of ego involved and the willingness to listen to each other, an ease and fluidity of communication. "Marsha and Francesca and I were on the same page," she said. "We wanted to see 'How good can we make this play?'" This is the first theatrical production of one of Erdrich's novels.

"Louise was our source material and inspiration," Zambello said of working with Erdrich. "Much of her language is in there, but it has become transformed into the play. Louise worked with us to free the novel in a sense and she sanctioned a number of changes and development."

Zambello has worked on many theatrical adaptations of novels and understands the challenge. "You have to always find the spirit of a novel and then figure how to theatricalize it. If you are slavish it will often feel inert, it has be feel alive. As a director you often return to the source material, but then it has to have a life of its own," she said.


Native voices
Erdrich talked about some significant changes to the cast of characters from book to stage, "It is very important to me because we are in Minneapolis, a very strong Native community, that this be reflected in the play. The book has almost all German characters-I have a great love of that side of my family and it reflected that part of my experience, part of my grandparents' world. My grandfather owned a small-town butcher shop where I got to work in and grow up in. However in this play," Erdrich said, "I wanted to talk more about Native and non-Native people and have more complexity on the stage."

Norman impressed Erdrich with her ability to transform this aspect of the story, "She took the initiative and wrote it in; she was pretty bold about the heritage of some of the characters. She's created a storytelling play and a very visual accomplishment."

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