Playwright’s Adaptations

Playwright’s adaptations find friend in the Playhouse


Wednesday, May 23, 2001

By Rebecca Redshaw

Howard Burman has more hats than Imelda Marcos had shoes. He lives in Southern California but in the past two years, he has been one of the most produced playwrights in Pittsburgh, thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse of Point Park College.

Last year, its professional arm, the Playhouse Rep Company, staged Burman’s adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel, “On the Beach,” and his translation of Botho Strauss’ “Ithaka.” This year, the students of the Playhouse Conservatory Company performed his original musical about Amelia Earhart, “Bird of Quintain.” And currently, Playhouse Rep is staging “The Third Lie,” Burman’s adaptation of Hungarian Agota Kristof’s trilogy of autobiographical novels (runs through June 3).

Writing is Burman’s first love, and in addition to scripting plays and musicals, he is working on his third novel. “I look forward to writing,” he notes. “I try to write a thousand words a day. I don’t always make it but it’s always my goal.”

Considering the other hats he dons throughout his workday, this is a feat. Burman also is the chief academic officer for the Department of Theatre Arts at California State University, Long Beach. More than 200 theater majors, graduate as well as undergraduate, fall under his domain.

In addition, he is the artistic producing director of the California Repertory Company, the professional company he co-founded in 1989 with Ronald Allan-Lindblom, since 1999 the artistic producing director of the Pittsburgh Playhouse. The relationship between the Long Beach theater program and Cal Rep is like what Lindblom has created at the Playhouse. And last year, Lindblom took his Pittsburgh production of “Ithaka” to Cal Rep.

Lindblom says, “I was Howard’s associate artistic director for 10 years. He is a wonderful writer and excellent at adapting novels.”

Burman says he doesn’t really have a preference between original works or adaptations. “If there’s a text that I find that excites me, then I go there. I’ve been more successful, frankly, doing adaptations than I have my own scripts.”

Burman lectures internationally on the arts, and his directing and producing credits fill multiple pages on his resume. Since 1982 he has seen staged more than 20 plays he has either written or adapted. His best-known work to date, “An O. Henry Christmas,” is produced annually by companies worldwide.

His passion for Kristof’s trilogy (“The Notebook,” “The Third Lie” and “The Proof”) took root through happenstance. It was given to him by a makeup artist before Burman boarded a flight to Europe. Instead of relegating it to the stack of books on his nightstand, he committed to reading a couple of chapters — and never put it down.

Knowing Kristof lived in a small town in Switzerland, Burman took the initiative to telephone her when he was in Europe. It turned out she didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak French, so he made arrangements to meet her a few weeks later with a translator.

“We spent the entire day with her,” Burman remembers. “She lives in an old, and may I say not the best, section of town. We went up to her apartment and it’s very spare.” There was one wall of books — all translations of her novels.

“Kristof is her novel. She writes in a certain style and when you talk to her, you hear the same florid pace. Reading her books, you’re hard pressed to find adverbs and adjectives. She doesn’t embellish anything.”

Burman thinks her trilogy is one of the 20th century’s great novels. “It probably took a year to adapt,” he said. To start, he planned to call it “The Notebook,” but “The Third Lie” won out: “It starts as a very linear piece and then begins to fragment. What you think is true may not be true, and it gets more convoluted as it goes along, so it took a long time to figure out what I was going to do with it.”

His script allows plenty of latitude for interpretation. The production at Long Beach is highly theatrical and conventional in style, whereas the Playhouse Rep production, directed by John Amplas, utilizes prerecorded and live, interactive video intermixed with the action on stage.

Burman recently received a grant for his next and possibly most difficult project, based on the famous conductors Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan. It will consist of two interlocking pieces with two directors, one German and one American, and will be presented in both languages with music throughout.

In its infant stages of development, Burman is excited about its possibilities. “The time frames of their lives is parallel, but one was a Jewish homosexual and one was a Nazi heterosexual. One sold out in a political sense and the other refused to do that. I’m not exactly sure what the story is yet. I’m reading biographies and looking for how to attack the play.”