The Staging of City of Light
By Anthony Chase

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The Buffalo State Psychiatric Building, designed by R. R. Richardson, is an important setting for City of Light.
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis.
How do you tell, in the space of a couple of hours, a story that was originally layered in page after page after page? A novel can indulge numerous subplots, secondary characters and lavish descriptions, but the stage is space in which every story must be told in a few broad strokes.

Lauren Belfer’s popular novel, City of Light, covers a wide range of locations and a wide expanse of time. Set in Buffalo, 1901, the book tells the story of Louisa Barrett, headmistress of a school based on Belfer’s alma mater, the Buffalo Seminary. This plot unfolds against the backdrop of the behind-the-scenes preparations for the Pan-American Exposition, and the intrigues surrounding the rise of Niagara Falls as a source for hydroelectric power.

Studio Arena Theatre will open its 2001-2002 season with a stage adaptation of City of Light.

To accomplish the alchemy necessary for this transformation, Studio Arena artistic director Gavin Cameron-Webb has assembled a team compatible with the task. Playwright Anthony Clarvoe has previous literary adaptations to his credit, including a stage version of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s expansive novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Designer William Barclay also has a proven track record with epic, multi-location productions.

Playwright Clarvoe met Cameron-Webb through his “significant other,” actress Kate Heasley, who will play Louisa Barrett at Studio Arena. “He gave me Lauren’s novel, and I immediately began to visualize it for the stage. Then Lauren came to see my play, Show and Tell—and she liked Kate.”

Things were clicking along.
For her part, Lauren Belfer had never imagined City of Light on stage.

“The idea never even crossed my mind,” she insists, “until one day in December, 1999, when I was doing a holiday book signing at Barnes & Noble on Niagara Falls Boulevard. Ken Neufeld, the executive director of the Studio Arena stood on line for about two hours just to give me his card—the Studio Arena was hoping, he explained, to do an adaptation, and would I be interested? Of course! I replied. Things developed from there.”

Clarvoe was encouraged by the fact that a books-on-tape version of City of Light had been done, making significant and extensive cuts from the book. “Lauren had to sign off on those,” he said. “So I knew she was sensitive to the requirements of adaptation.”

With the cuts, the audio version was about six hours long. The playwright was emboldened to ask the novelist if he could do what was necessary to condense the piece further. Belfer was enormously cooperative.

“We knew we couldn’t do the whole thing,” explains Clarvoe. “We needed to find what was central and important. We need to tell a single story.”

The books-on-tape version omitted most subplots entirely, including one featuring African American rights activist, Mary Talbert. Clarvoe knew that the Studio Arena audience would not only know the novel well, but that Buffalonians could be offended if certain liberties were taken. “I’ve taken more liberties with Dostoevsky than I have with City of Light,” Clarvoe says.

Talbert would go back in.
“We had to invent a new subplot for Mary Talbert,” explains Clarvoe “In the book, the Mary Talbert plot diverts the action down to the grain elevators and creates a parallel. In the play, every avenue must lead to the story of hydroelectric power.”

The audio version of the play could indulge six hours to tell the story, and could also depend upon its audience’s visual imagination. Studio Arena, by contrast, in addition to containing City of Light in less than three hours must also decide how to handle numerous locations.

“I am very concerned that the play move with ease,” says designer William Barclay. “It is a big epic with lots of settings and grand locations. We could easily do this as television a mini-series, but we’re not. Everything must be contained in one evening of theater.”

He thought about making the scenes literal, but discarded any such notion quickly.

“At the theater, it can be fun to watch that first scene change when a turntable revolves, but it grows tiresome after a while, when you see the same change happen again and again and again. I was looking for a language for the scene changes.

“Buffalo has a great collection of Victorian and turn of the 20th century architecture. I envisioned recognizable reverences, a piece of a door, that kind of thing. The equivalent of the Penn Station clock in Ragtime, but the more we got into it, the more unnecessary that seemed. A fireplace doesn’t really hold a lot of weight; it’s not about that.”

With locations like the Buffalo Seminary; the Buffalo Club; the Pan-American Exposition, and Goat Island to represent, everything boiled down to one question for Barclay:

“What is the common link between everything?”

His answer came simply and swiftly.

It is about light.
“Light is an incredibly important character in the play!” exclaims Barclay. “The changes that happen in the play are pushed forward by this changing technology. We go from gaslight, to private electric light, to public electric light. We go from electric light being stylish and wondrous to electric light being taken for granted.

“We thought of every kind of artificial light for the play,” he continues. “Footlights, gas light, street lights, the lights of the Pan-American Exposition. The set will feature a permanent unit of staircases and catwalks. I’m using a 1905 map of Buffalo, and sliding panels. At one point these may part to reveal the Pan-American Exposition illuminated, but that is not yet certain. Other than that, lighting fixtures will fly in and out, and furniture will come on and off to suggest locations. We are looking at using about fifteen different lighting fixtures.”

Brought down to its most basic element, City of Light becomes City of Lighting Fixtures.

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Buffalo Seminary is another City of Light locale.
Photo by Jessica Kourkounis
Lauren Belfer could not be more delighted.

“Of all the theaters in Buffalo, I was especially pleased that Studio Arena opted to do the adaptation of City of Light. The Studio Arena is the theater I grew up with in Buffalo. I can still remember their magnificent early productions —Oh What a Lovely War, A Man for all Seasons, Antigone, The Importance of Being Earnest, among others. When I was a teenager, the walls of my bedroom were covered with Studio Arena posters. The Studio Arena also gave me my first professional rejection, when I auditioned in 1966 to sing “Silent Night” in The Man who Came to Dinner. I didn’t even get asked to a ‘call back!’ But this helped to harden me for future rejections—the first short story I ever had published was rejected forty-two times before it found an editor who loved it.

“Watching the play move forward has been a wonderful treat for me. When we began talking about the play City of Light, Gavin and I had lunch together several times, and we discovered that we shared the same vision for the play. When we began, I knew next to nothing about the theatrical process, and watching Gavin at work over the past months has been an education for me. I have been astonished and thrilled to see the terrifically gifted actors “become” my characters, truly bringing to life the world of Buffalo in 1901. For me, Kate Heasley “is” Louisa Barrett, and nowadays, when I think of Louisa, I see Kate in my mind. I have now seen two workshop readings of the play, and I have become more and more excited. Anthony Clarvoe, the playwright, has transformed my novel into an extraordinary piece of theater, suspenseful, gripping, and intensely dramatic.”

City of Light will be performed at Studio Arena Theater September 4-October 14 .

Anthony Chase is the Theater editor for Artvoice. His articles have appeared in numerous theater publications, and his comments about theater can be heard Friday mornings on WBFO.


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