Interview: Lars Jan on His Adaptation of Joan Didion’s ‘The White Album’

“I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full…”

There has never been a writer quite as poignant and iconic as Joan Didion; she is a legend in every right. Yet, despite her fame spanning decades and her immense collection of publications, she is someone whose work we rarely see adapted.


So when I heard artist and director Lars Jan was adapting the entirety of Didion’s essay “The White Album” for the stage, I couldn’t help but be excited. And I wasn’t let down. Jan’s is a truly breathtaking show that uniquely blends the way in which “The White Album” is a time capsule of 70s California, with the political discourse of the modern age. It was an incredible ode to Didion and one of her most beautiful works.


Image Via  Stephanie Berger.


Jan’s piece feels so relevant today and I can’t stress enough how incredibly poignant the experience was. The use of projections, music, movement and song created an deeply powerful experience. The show will take the stage again April 5th – 7th at CAP UCLA presented by the Center Theatre Group and if you have the chance you must check it out; this isn’t something you want to miss!


“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”


I was fortunate enough to speak with Jan about the journey that led to creating this adaptation.


Alex McKelley: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, I caught the show and just adored it; it was such a powerful experience. I’m a huge fan of Didion and seeing her work adapted to the stage was so exciting because that’s something we never really see done. Do you want to talk a little bit about the process of bringing such a prolific writer’s work to the stage?


Lars Jan: Yeah, I was concerned about that, I mean, I’m a Didion fan too but people hold her work so close and her work also never gets adapted in any way. I was sure there would be people who would definitely see through a lense of what they wanted and didn’t want to happen. But, the response has been really overwhelmingly engaged and positive and great. And we hit on every word. The essay is thirty-eight pages and we really made sure to include all of it.


AM: And that came across so well.  It really is a powerful essay. What was it that made you decide that this would be the one to bring to life?


LJ: Well, I read it in high school and there was something about Didion’s wit and kind of nihilistic streak that I think responded to an impressionable sixteen-year-old, and I was also interested in these other characters that she was covering but I didn’t really know that much about them; so she also inspired me to learn more about the period. And as I matured and became an artist myself I’ve just always been such a huge fan of her writing. Word-for-word, she just has the most beautiful sentence construction. One of the things I love about “The White Album” in particular is the really unique collage structure.


AM: I completely agree, the essay is written in such an interesting way by blending multiple stories from that time period together, and it really is such a time-capsule of that era. Would you draw a lot of similarities between the social and political climate of then and that of now?


LJ: You know, I definitely don’t think that history necessarily repeats itself, but there is that Mark Twain quote, “but it does rhyme.”  So, I do think there are a lot of rhymes right now. And I think you can really look at Black Lives Matter and connect that to the legacy of the Black Panthers; though they were different movements, the source of their struggle is inherently the same. Them, along with the student movements of the late sixties are very inspiring to me. I think we’ve had flare-ups of similar movements asking questions about the structure of society and you kind of see the genealogy there.


AM: Yeah, there really seems to be such a parallel between then and now, it’s almost eerie in a way.


LJ: Yeah, and it’s been fifty-years since that essay but anniversaries and those things, they’re just numbers. And I guess those numbers are helpful to induce you to take some stock about what has and has not changed; whether it’s a birthday or an anniversary or a historical event.


AM: Completely. I think that’s what makes seeing the piece now feel that much more important and powerful. Were there any parts of the essay that you found difficult to bring to life or that you weren’t exactly sure how to go about adapting? Anything you found challenging along the journey?


LJ: Yeah, there were lots of challenging thing but the biggest challenge was figuring out how to work with this inner audience. There are about twenty people onstage and their show actually starts before the theatre audience. And they’re able to look at the works that inspired this piece and look at the records of music from this period that are all in the room, along with Didion’s “to pack and wear” list. And, they do this sort of exercise together and watch the first portion of the essay with the rest of the audience. And they sort of, themselves, transform into this Jim Morrison dance party that then turns into a Black Panthers chant that eventually turns into the student protests until the police eject them out, and then they watch the rest of the performance. So, they really experience a different show but the two shows are woven together. So rehearsing that is impossible because you can only work with those people one time because, the experience only makes sense one time since they’re not really collaborators, they’re participating. They’re also just in a show that happens to be happening simultaneously that’s also participatory.


Image Via The New York Times


AM: What was it that inspired you to add this sort of inner-audience?


LJ: I was just thinking about 1960 and 2018 and, in some ways, 2068. I teach at California Institute of the Arts and I talk to a lot of kids in their teens and twenties about things in the sixties and the things that were coming up in “The White Album” and I just realized that there was very little fluency of specific characters and movements and the sort of historical precedent of young people getting organized in order to kind of push a very different agenda. And, I thought that fluency was important. I also realized that the characters in the essay that Didion’s writing about when she’s writing about them they’re almost all in their twenties. Everybody who she writes about in that essay is a kid, pretty much. And you just see how much radical potential energy is encapsulated in those people. It really is a willingness to fundamentally reconsider the direction that things are headed.


AM: Absolutely, that makes perfect sense. And that’s very much encapsulated in the essay and within the inner-audience, which is what makes the piece feel both so modern and historical and I really appreciated the opportunity to go see it. Thanks again for taking the time to talk!


LJ: Of course!



Image Via Experience Columbus



Featured Image Via BAM