As Marianne Elliott, the creative mind behind the The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, began to explain her approach to adapting the beloved 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, playwright Simon Stephens joined the phone call. "Marianne!" he yelled. (He was about 15 minutes late.)
"Simon, are you late? Surely not!" she joked.
"Oh, f*ck off!"
The two have been friends for years — "f*cking years," Stephens clarified — and were cut from the same cloth, so to speak. Stephens and Elliott grew up within three or four streets of one another in Greater Manchester, a northern area in England. It was last year that they realized not only were they from the same area, but they took the same bus to school each morning. "Therefore, the closeness in our mentality, I think, and attitude is very particular," said Elliott.
Stephens (also the godfather to Elliott's daughter) agreed. "I think the north is a place born out of both defiance and humanity, and I think that speaks in Marianne's work… [There's] the spirit of always having a little bit of a defiance to establishment," he said. "Even given how established we might be in our manifestation now, I think that spirit of 'Defiance Against the Establishment' comes out of the north, and I think it is rich in our work."
Stephens and Elliott certainly defy the norm in the critically hailed new play The Curious Incident, which bowed in London prior to its Broadway premiere last month. The two tell the story of a socially awkward teenager and mathematical savant, Christopher John Francis Boone, who must get to the bottom of the death of his neighbor's dog.
They set the story in what Elliott calls a "magic box." The production lacks moving set pieces and extravagant scene changes; rather, it transforms the Ethel Barrymore Theatre into the grid paper of Christopher's mind. When Christopher maps things out by drawing on the grid with chalk, it simultaneously appears on the theatre's back wall. His thoughts are brought to life in the blink of an eye.
"If the stage is his brain, and it's his workings-out — he describes in the book that his brain is a machine — then I felt like it should be a machine that Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg would be very, very proud of: a really brilliant, sick machine, but when it breaks down, it's like computer spam," explained Elliott. "We tried to explore all the moments when he was feeling things — again, [he] couldn't really articulate them — and try and express that somehow in the staging."
After 100 others approached novelist Haddon for the rights to adapt "Curious Incident" for the stage, he finally gave over the project — not to any who had applied, but instead to his friend, playwright Stephens. As Stephens began to transform the piece for the stage, it became apparent that Elliott was the right person to guide Christopher on his journey.
"What Marianne has as an artist is two remarkable qualities in synthesis," said Stephens. "One is a quite astonishing imagination — an astonishing theatrical imagination. There's as much creativity and daring [qualities] in Marianne's work as with any director that I've worked with, but at the same time, there's a profound democracy to her work."
Stephens did not want to compromise the heart at the center of The Curious Incident — he wanted to allow audiences of all kind to enter Christopher's mind, and he didn't want the piece to falter by trying too hard to make a "statement" or define children on the autism spectrum.
"In terms of the writing, I wasn't interested in that in the least," said Stephens, referring to where Christopher fits on the autism spectrum. (Although it's not clearly stated in the novel or the stage work, it has been suggested the character of Christopher has Asperger's syndrome.)
He continued, "I actually think if we concerned ourselves too much with his condition, there would have been the danger that we were making a statement — that we were describing and defining what autism or what Asperger's is. That would have alienated those people because autism and Asperger's are experienced differently by every single individual who experiences it, so I think people would have said, 'That isn't what happens to my son' or 'That's not what my mom's like' or 'That's not what I'm like.' I think because we invested in Christopher as an individual, they were able to recognize themselves in him and his world of his story. The responses we've had have just been astonishing to me — mentally moving."
Christopher John Francis Boone is unlike other boys his age. His mind races a mile a minute. He observes and notices every detail — even the overwhelming amount that passes him by outside of a train car's window — and has trouble articulating himself.
"When I read it," said Elliott, "I realized that he was totally in control of his story. If he wanted to be somewhere in two seconds flat, he was there in two seconds flat. If it no longer interested him to carry on that scene, and he wanted to go back in time two years, he went back in time two years, and it took no time to do it. So from that, I thought we should be in the round [in the original West End production]. We should have the audience all the way around him. It should be very, very fluid staging; there should be no time for a set to be wheeled on and off. And then, from that, I realized that actually — we're talking about the original production — nothing should be located in the same place. Even though he often goes back to school, I never staged it in the same part of the stage, so that you were always given a sense of slight illogic at times, but actually you had to jump into his imagination and go with it — even though you had nothing realistic or naturalistic to help you with it. At other times, it could be incredibly confusing and bewildering — for example, when he's in the train station and when he's on the train [to London]. There's no logic to where he stands on the stage, and that became something that built and built and built, and we decided eventually — it took a long time, and this came from [set and costume designer] Bunny [Christie], really — that the play, the setting of it, should be his brain. We should be looking at the workings-out of his brain.
"Bunny and I must have spent weeks with bits of card, bits of paper, drawing things, arguing, discussing, throwing things, and eventually, we came out with this 'magic box.' Then we started going through [discussions of], 'Well, what could the magic box do?' Once we got through that, we probably then had discussions about, 'Well, how can we show how he loves numbers?' or 'How could we show this computer spam breaking down?' … Eventually, what we did was we storyboarded it all. We took a photograph of every single scene in the model box with all the figures in it, standing exactly how we would stage it, so it was all prepped before we went into rehearsal."
Because of the intricacies of Incident, the rehearsal room was an exploratory process led by Elliott. Although she, herself, could not describe the vibe of the room, Stephens explained how Curious was created.
"The first thing, which I would say defines it really explicitly, is that it's a room which is full of fun and play and exploration," said Stephens. "In order to create, and in order to be daring and to be exploratory, you need to know that failure is not a bad thing, but a tremendously instructive thing, and it needs to be attacked with a sense of joy. She creates this room where everybody — actors, designers, sound designer, the movement designers — can try things, and that allows Marianne the space to try herself and to play herself and to explore. It's exceptional, I have to say — the Marianne Elliott rehearsal room — because it's so free. But at the same time, it's a place where people go to work, and it's controlled by a director who has immaculate taste and very, very, very high standards." He joked that he's the only one who could show up late, and Elliott admitted that she allows it.
Before they hung up the phone, she added, "I'm very attracted to doing things that engage all the senses. I've been to enough really boring theatre pieces in my life, and I also have been to things which are seminal and [that] I will remember to my dying day more than I'll remember things that actually happened to me. So I know the power that theatre has. The ambition is always very, very great. Sometimes you fail quite hugely, but the ambition to do something, which is arresting and epic and affecting, is always… What's the point otherwise, really?"
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)