Did you drift off to sleep last month thinking of how you’d spend your Powerball millions? What’d you come up with? The Edge’s Malibu mansion? Twitter dot com? The next Wu-Tang album? A night with Ted Danson? That’s cute. Roy Cockrum, a former monk, won a $249 million Powerball jackpot in 2014, and has been redistributing his newfound wealth by funding plays: “The Glory of the World” in in Louisville and New York; Tracy Letts’ “Mary Page Harlowe” at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago; and a five-hour, three-intermission adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, which starts its five-week run this weekend.
Two weeks ago, I spoke to Robert Falls and Seth Bockley, who adapted and directed the play, about the production’s history, how they got involved with Cockrum, and the difficulty of translating a five-part, nine-hundred-page novel into a stage production.
Who first wanted to do this adaptation, and why?
Robert Falls: I didn’t know anything about Bolaño until 2005 or 2006. I was in Barcelona, and was struck by these posters: A desert, a field, pink crosses, and just the numbers 2-6-6-6. They were all over the place. I don’t speak Spanish, and I asked a friend what was going on, and he explained it was the publication of the paperback of 2666, which had already been a huge success in Spain and throughout Europe when it was originally published. He told me about the book, even more about Bolaño, who was in the last years of his life. I found it an extraordinary story. When I finally read it, something about it struck me as quite theatrical. Even the fact that it’s in five parts seems to imply an epic quality that could be done in, let’s say, an hour an act. I worked on it, on and off for a couple of years, then I sort of said, “Well, I should get serious about it. But I need a collaborator, someone who knows more about adaptation than I do.”
This track seems throughout as if it is building up to a moment of intensity, and that at any second something different and jarring will happen to change everything, but actually you sit there listening in anticipation and all of a sudden it’s over. There’s no grand resolution: Things stay pretty much the way they are and then they’re done. I’m not saying it’s a metaphor for life, but I don’t think if I did say it was a metaphor for life anyone could accuse me of being completely off-base. Anyway, enjoy. Or don’t. It doesn’t matter either way. It’s gonna happen and then it’s going to end, whether you enjoy or not.
★★★ A sanitation crew with shovels was hacking apart a snowbank in the roadway on Broadway. The sidewalk was clean and dry. The gutter puddles were small enough and avoidable enough for sneakers. Between the blizzard and the clinging warmth before it, the ordinary non-waterproof cold-weather boots still hadn’t come down off the shelf. The place where the ceiling of the downtown Times Square N/R platform drips was dripping. The snow put a fresh dampness on the breeze. Brilliant white high clouds drifted north, as lowering golden sunlight covered the living-room wall and flashed on windows miles away.
Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo’s beautifully shot short film, Afronauts, tells an alternative history of the nineteen sixties Zambian space program, the brainchild of Edward Makuka Nkoloso. A World War II veteran and school teacher, Nkoloso founded the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy and conscripted twelve astronauts into the country’s race to the moon, including Matha Mwambwa, a seventeen-year-old girl who eventually become the program’s lead cadet. Released in 2014, Bodomo is currently working on adapting Afronauts into a full-length feature, and we talked a couple of times over the last few months about her experiences as an African filmmaker in America, gender, migration, science fiction, and the narrative space between history and myth.
How would you describe yourself and what you do? What attracted you to filmmaking?
Who am I? I’m just a person that’s learning a lot or changing a lot right now. I’m going through a really transformative moment. Like earlier on, I really felt like I had a lot to explain. I wanted to explain to a wider audience—to everybody who misunderstood me let’s say. And now I’m learning that I would like to be in dialogue with people who are asking me to express rather than explain myself.
How did you get into sci-fi? Who are your influences?
I’m a long-time sci-fi fan who is really into Octavia Butler and Phillip K. Dick and has seen every version of Blade Runner that exists. I became obsessed with films in which the world and production design tell the story, adding multiple layers of subtext to the plot/dialogue. When I heard the Afronauts story, it felt like one that was inherently cinematic: It had to be shown rather than told.
It’s impossible to talk about modern zoos without talking about modern environmental crises—global warming, habitat loss, extinction—but zoos are also these kind of strange, liminal spaces that connect people and cities with wildlife, as David Grazian, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, explains in his latest book, American Zoo. Zoos, in essence, are a physical manifestation of the way that people have tried to separate themselves from the wild—which of course reveal how our very concept of “nature” is a social construct.
Grazian lives in New York City, so I met him Think Coffee, a coffee shop rife with undergrads in one of their daytime natural habitats, to talk about wild animals and concrete jungles and zoo weddings.
What was your research method when you went into a zoo?
The two zoos where I did the bulk of my observations, I signed on as a volunteer. I got to know people pretty well; I told them that I was a college professor and I was interested in learning about zoos. Over time I got to spend four years at two different zoos, cleaning animal enclosures, preparing animal diets, learning how to handle zoo animals and display them to the public.
Did people know you were writing a book?
They knew that I was doing research. Obviously, when you’re in the middle of research, you don’t know what it’s going to turn into and you don’t know if you’re going to have enough for a book until the whole thing is over. So you can’t really approach people on the first day and say you’re writing a book.
Before this, you were doing research on the late-night blues scene. How did you make the transition?
In 2006 my son was born, so it was no longer all that feasible or desirable for me to go out to cocktail lounges until four in the morning. But I did find myself going to the zoo every weekend, taking my son, as any parent would. So I found myself in this space and was struck by all of the interesting similarities between zoos and nightlife establishments and not just the fact that they’re both places where you can observe strange mating habits in public. They’re places where authenticity is culturally performed for an audience. They’re places that people invest with meaning.
Nothing gets better. If you’re lucky, things don’t get much worse. Do you feel lucky? Me neither. Anyway, whatever kind of day you’re going to have, this song will at least not make it much worse. There’s something to be said for that in this time of things not getting better. Enjoy.
★★★ Stretching out from the northwestern corner of the glass tower’s low-rise terrace, a curving bay of newly bare paving tiles had reduced the untouched snowpack to an isthmus. Ever-larger serrations in the coastline followed the pattern of the row of planter boxes. Down on the cross street, an uncollected trash bag had slid down the back side of the snowbank, narrowing the already narrow sidewalk even more, just at the point where a squished dog turd lay. The rubber-bottomed boots were a little too hot indoors. An airplane cut an uncanny reverse contrail through a thin sheet of cloud. Then the sheets broke up and clumped into little high thin segments, blowing north, even as low fluffy shreds of cloud blew south below them, the whole sky going retrograde. Before day’s end, it had all settled into an ordinary and orderly flock of cumulus.
I have always believed what this generation needed was a “Sleep Walk” of its own, and now, thanks to the folks from Ratatat, it has one. Enjoy.
“Oh, say you’re pleased,” cried Nibs.
“Lovely, darling house,” Wendy said, and they were the very words they had hoped she would say.
“And we are your children,” cried the twins.
Then all went on their knees, and holding out their arms cried, “O Wendy lady, be our mother.”
“Ought I?” Wendy said, all shining. “Of course, it’s frightfully fascinating, but you see I am only a little girl. I have no real experience.”
Peter and Wendy (J.M. Barrie, 1911)
To me it seems like a good name for this song would be “Morning in the Imperial City on Mars.” Like, can’t you see the dawn breaking over the gleaming, futuristic capital and all of its industrious, green-hued citizens waking up and standing out on their balconies in their flowing white robes singing their song of the sunrise or whatever? No? You have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about and that’s not at all what you get from this song, plus you think I’m kind of an idiot? That’s okay too. Just so long as you give it a listen. Anything Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith does is aces in my book. But maybe this is more your speed. Either way, enjoy.