Novelist Michael Ondaatje and theatre director Daniel Brooks are sitting at a beat-up wooden table with a pack of cards and a bottle between them. They look like the hardened characters of a black-and-white movie or a post-Impressionist painting, regulars in a western saloon or a bistro in Provence.
Either would be appropriate: Brooks is currently adapting Ondaatje's Divisadero for the stage, and the 2007 novel is set partly in the gambling parlours of California and Nevada, and partly in a village in south-central France.
In reality, the two are sitting in a Toronto rehearsal hall with props from the stage version of Divisadero, which opens at Theatre Passe Muraille on Tuesday (Feb. 8). Brooks is not actually dealing a hand or nursing a drink but trying to recall a line from Samuel Beckett's notoriously enigmatic Happy Days. Winnie, who spends that play buried up to her chest in earth, unable to move, is recounting the reaction of an imagined passerby: What's the idea? he says - stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground ... What's it meant to mean?
The line was a wink to the audience, Brooks explains, an acknowledgment of their confusion. Has Ondaatje penned him a "What the ...?" line for the challenge of Divisadero, the performance, he asks.
Ondaatje, meanwhile, is pondering whether Brooks's tight theatrical discipline, the rigour that has won him a reputation as one of Canada's leading stage directors, can bring a Beckett-like sparseness to a story as sweeping as that of his novel.
The very notion of a staged Divisadero might be befuddling. The novel takes place on two continents; the action occurs at various points over the last century; and the last third of the book recounts the life of a (fictional) French poet whose only link to the other characters is as an object of study.
Mainly, the book is about three people who grew up as siblings on a farm in Northern California: Anna; her adopted sister, Claire; and farmhand Coop, the orphaned son of murdered neighbours. As teenagers, Anna and Coop become lovers, and when her father violently separates them, she runs away while Claire rescues the bloodied Coop. He also flees, eventually training as a card shark in Nevada. Anna winds up in France, studying the poet and living in his house.
As its title suggests, Divisadero is a story about divisions, which are beautifully evoked but not overcome, and the idea of staging this dreamy novel actually began with music, the songs of alt-country performer Justin Rutledge.
"When I finished the book, I always imagined it as having a public voice in some way, so it wasn't a book read mentally, but heard as well," Ondaatje recalls, although the writer whose 1992 Booker-winning novel The English Patient was turned into an Oscar-winning movie says he can't imagine Divisadero as a film. "I heard Justin Rutledge at an event, and just the way he was playing and singing, I thought: Coop - who was a very silent character in the book. He could be Coop, and Coop could be represented musically."
So Ondaatje approached Rutledge. He also talked about his desire to work with Brooks to Maggie Huculak, the actor who plays Anna, and who from the beginning was a driving force behind the project. It turned out Brooks had been hoping to one day team up with Ondaatje.
Says Brooks, the director of Necessary Angel theatre company, which is producing Devisadero, "I always really wanted to work together. I tend to be increasingly interested in the people I am working with more than the projects themselves. I read the novel but we didn't have any ideas as to where we were going. … Michael and I discovered we both work in a similar way: We don't have a result in front of us. We are playing in the petri dish and seeing what the chemistry is, seeing slowly and surely what the material is."
The experimental process they describe sounds both intuitive and highly collaborative, with Ondaatje penning text for the performance as needed rather than writing a stage adaptation beforehand. "There are spats of dialogue, but it is not a conventional play," Brooks says. "It is not structured in scenes that take place in a certain place and a certain time and then it's over and we move the furniture. I happily embrace the prose he has given me."
Indeed, any idea of mounting a sequential narrative that replicated the book was jettisoned early in the process with practical realities often dictating parameters. When Brooks and Ondaatje first came together with actors for three days of reading, they certainly did not have time to get through the whole book: They jettisoned France but kept California. And there were the artistic personalities to consider: Huculak is a mature woman, not a teenager, and so the present had to be Anna's later life; Rutledge is a singer, not an actor, so Coop's story had to be told in other ways.
Tom McCamus took the role of the veteran gambler Mancini, a very minor character in the book but now a mouthpiece for monologues about gambling that help piece together Coop's story. Magician David Ben came into rehearsals to teach McCamus how to handle the cards. His explanations of transitions - how you get in and out of a card game - became part of Ondaatje's text.
Inevitably, this process involved decisions about meaning. A novelist can leave the reader to gently reflect on why Anna never attempts to find Claire or Coop, but for Huculak to speak in Anna's voice, she and Brooks have to decide on the character's motivations. Similarly, a reader can skip back and reread passages; the theatregoer is given only one chance to grasp the action.
"In a book, there's a gradual awareness of what is happening. You are collecting these crustaceans," Ondaatje says. Not so onstage. "…Going through rehearsal, you are just so conscious, the way Daniel and the actor will work on a scene, that they know what is happening. So we know it. It is immediate."
As a result, Ondaatje feels he knows the book better now than when he wrote it. "Daniel's awareness of the book is so encyclopedic and so intricate, a phrase I wrote, maybe casually, I can say, 'Oh my God, there is something else there which I hadn't noticed,' " he says. "It's more than a translation. It's a kind of clarity, and to see that has been wonderful for me."
Brooks, meanwhile, says he wants to capture both the atmosphere of the novel and what he calls, for want of a better word, its "wisdom." In contrast to the lush, almost filmic imagery of the book, he wants to do that with images built very simply by actors' bodies in space, and with dramatic force created simply by the sound of a guitar or the tone of a voice.
"Daniel is very classical," Ondaatje remarks. "It's like having five stones and just working with those five stones: three mikes, trusting everything to the voice, minimal action."
The idea of merging this minimalism with the sweep of the novel is what excites Ondaatje about the project. "It's no longer Divisadero the book. It's Divisadero a stage performance. [But]it's not a play. It's some mongrel."
And yes, he answers Brooks, he has written a version of Beckett's "What the …?" line. Mancini recounts the hard events of Coop's life - Coop has sheltered with Anna's family since his parents' murder when he was four, but then is violently separated from them by the very man who took him in. "What's that do to a guy?" Mancini wonders, before he shrugs off the thought and takes a chug on his drink.
On that one, the audience will just have to decide for itself what it all means.