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Cornell University

The Department of Performing and Media Arts

Page to Stage: Dramatizing The Life Before Us

Sunday 8/19, 3:30 PM, Kiplinger Theater, Center for the Performing Arts
Rehearsal Photos
Event video

In the Kiplinger Theatre of the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, members of the Department of Performing and Media Arts bring characters from Romain Gary’s novel to theatrical life through the selection and adaptation of dialogue and narration from The Life Before Us.  This session will explore the adaptation process and how directors, writers and actors bring a novel to the stage or screen.Our team includes Professor Bruce Levitt, who will serve as our stage director; Assistant Professor Austin Bunn, our writer/adaptor; and Visiting Senior Lecturer Carolyn Goelzer, actor.  Additionally, Aoise Stratford, a graduate student in our department, will contribute as a dramaturg and discussion facilitator.  Our hope is to include one or two students to participate as actors in our presentation as well.

The Team

Bruce Levitt (director) has been a Professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts (formerly the Department of Theatre, Film, and Dance) at Cornell University since l986.  He served as Chair of the Department from l986 to l995 during which time he oversaw the final phases of construction of the Schwartz Center. Previous to assuming the Chair of the Department at Cornell Dr. Levitt headed the MFA program in Acting at the University of Iowa and served as program coordinator of the MFA program in Directing at Columbia University.


Professor Levitt has had a distinguished career as a freelance director in New York and regionally, and has been involved with the development of dozens of new plays in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Recent credits include Cornell productions of The Cherry Orchard, The Glass Menagerie, Strider, A Lie of the Mind, Equus, The Three Sisters, Cocoanuts, and the American premier of David Edgar’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  He recently directed Aoise Stratford’s The Unfortunates at the Morgan Opera House in Aurora and a reading of Greg Fletcher’s play, Uploaded, for Summer Readings in New York City.  From 1995 to 2001, Levitt was the Producing Artistic Director of The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in Kansas City, where he directed productions of Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Macbeth, King Lear, and Measure for Measure, which won the 1999 Kansas City Drama Desk Award for best direction.  His critically acclaimed production of The Puppetmaster of Lodz ran off-Broadway in late 2007 and early 2008. Levitt has served as the Faculty Chair of the Cornell Council for the Arts.  His is the Founding Artistic Director of MIRTH, A THEATRE COMPANY, a New York based theatre group focusing on nurturing the work of former students and artistic associates.  He is currently filming a documentary about the Phoenix Players Theatre Group, an inmate generated theatre organization at Auburn Correctional Facility for which he is a facilitator.


Carolyn Goelzer (actor) was a Minneapolis-based theater artist for 25 years, performing roles in most Twin Cities theaters (the Guthrie, Jungle Theater, Children’s Theatre, etc.) and on stages in Kansas City, Milwaukee, Chicago, New York and L.A.  She received a NY Innovative Theater Award for Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role for her portrayal of Clytemnestra in Theodora Skipitares’ Iphigenia at LaMama ETC in NYC.  Carolyn’s original interdisciplinary performance works (The Plant Society, Vicarious Thrills, Peas) have been commissioned and presented at the Walker Art Center, Intermedia Arts, and numerous other venues.  She is a Minnesota State Arts Board Individual Artist Grantee, and a three-time recipient of the McKnight Fellowship (in Playwriting; Interdisciplinary Arts; and Theater Arts). Carolyn received her MFA from the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting at The George Washington University, and currently serves on the faculty at Cornell University’s Department of Theatre, Film and Dance, where she has recently appeared in The Cherry Orchard, and a reading of Madeleine George’s Seven Wooly Mammoths Wander New England. She also teaches acting at Auburn Men’s Correctional Facility through the Cornell Prison Education Program.


Austin Bunn (writer) has had his plays produced or developed at The Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, The Orchard Project, Playwrights’ Center, The Lark, and elsewhere. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Best American Science and Nature Writing, The Pushcart Prize Anthology and elsewhere. He has two M.F.A.s from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (Fiction) and Playwrights’ Workshop. He was a Michener/Copernicus Fellow and held the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville. His play Rust developed with the Working Group Theatre, was funded by a Creation Fund Grant from the National Performance Network grant and excerpted in the New York Times Magazine. He is the co-author, with producer Christine Vachon, of the best-seller A Killer Life: How An Independent Film Producer Survives Deals and Disasters Far From Hollywood. His screenplay, Kill Your Darlings, written with the director John Krokidas, is in post-production. He has recently joined the department of Performance and Media Arts at Cornell where he teaches dramatic writing and screenwriting.


Aoise Stratford (dramaturg) is a playwright and a graduate student in the department of Performance and Media Arts. Her studies focus on contemporary plays by women and the Gothic. As a playwright, she has had her work produced or developed at the American Globe Theatre, Centenary Stage, Manhattan Theatre Source, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Independent Actors Theatre, City Theatre Florida, and elsewhere. Her plays have also been produced in Australia, Canada, England and Europe. She is the recipient of several awards and her most recent play, The Unfortunates, won the Susan Glaspell Award from Centenary Stage and the Gloria Ann Peter Playwriting Award. Her plays have been published by JAC Press and Smith and Kraus. She has taught playwriting at Cornell and elsewhere, and regularly acts as a dramaturg for new work in development at The Last Frontier Theatre Conference. Stratford serves as the Ithaca/Syracuse Regional Rep for the Dramatists Guild of America.


The Script

The following is an excerpt of the script in progress for the Theatre, Film and Dance Department’s adaptation of scenes from The Life Before Us. This section of the script is working with the first two pages of the chapter that begins on page 121. If you compare the two, you’ll notice some differences. Script for actors has to do more than just say what happened, it has to provide opportunities for actors to show us in the moment. Playwrights typically have to use fewer words than novelists, so things have to be condensed, omitted, reworked, and reshaped with economy, immediacy, and visibility in mind. Here are some questions to consider:

  1. What did the playwright bring in from elsewhere in the novel? Why might adaptation conflate moments or events into a single scene or sequence?
  2. What dialogue or language is identical? What is it about how the characters speak or think that is preserved?
  3. What is left out? Why?
  4. When you read the script, do you imagine the visible world differently? How do the two forms differently create the physical world of the story?

LIGHTS UP on a tattered armchair, facing away from the audience. In it we can just make out silhouette of MADAME ROSA, one arm splayed out to the side. She is asleep. In a kimono. Her hair in curlers. She will not be leaving this chair anytime soon.
On stage with her, haloed objects: a suitcase, a dog bone, an umbrella that could be a person (ARTHUR). To the side, two standing microphones.
An empty spotlight downstage. This is where YOUNG MOMO speaks to us as ADULT MOMO.
MOMO creeps up to Madame Rosa with a hand mirror. He is both fascinated and terrified. He might have a death on his hands. He holds the mirror in front of her face.
An awful moment.
Then, an exhale: condensation on the mirror.
He sighs, a burden lifted.
Madame Rosa takes a huge gasp of air and awakens. She is terrified, gripping the armrests.

(out to us)
The doorbell rang. And that’s when the catastrophe happened.

(without rising from her chair, scared witless, whispering)
Who is it?
MOMO moves into the spotlight.

I opened the door, and what do I see but a little guy even sadder than most. He was pale and he sweated a lot and breathed fast with his hand on his heart — there’s nothing worse than the heart for climbing stairs. Madame Rosa told us she’d die on those stairs one day and all us kids would start crying because that’s what you do when somebody dies.

Momo, is it the Germans??

A single glance told me that something was going to blow sky-high and fall back on me from all sides. He asked for Madame Rosa. He handed me a scrap of paper…
(he removes a filthy scrap of paper from his pocket)
Received from Monsieur Kadir Youssef, five hundred francs in advance for little


of Moslem condition.”

(whispered, even more frantic)
Momo rushes to Madame Rosa’s side. Madame Rosa rotates in her chair. Garish make-up: rouge and more rouge.

It’s a guy with an ugly mug.

It takes more than a pimp to scare me.

Who does what?

A piece of theatre in performance is often the work of many, many people coming together to collaborate and create. From selling tickets in the box office, to doing makeup or hanging lights there are lots of jobs that contribute to the show you see. But who does what?

Madam Rosa Inspiration PaintingDesigners, actors, dramaturgs, directors and writers all work with visual images in the process of preparing a peformance. For actors, images can be an evocative way to being thinking about character. As well as offering clues to a physicality that the actor might work with on stage, they can convey mood and attitude, and can offer a rich sense of emotional connection and interiority that an actor can then work with when preparing the role. This painting of woman is one of several images actor Carolyn Goelzer is working with for Madam Rosa. Some of these images will ultimately become part of the presentation itself.

“A theatre director has responsibility for the overall practical and creative interpretation of a dramatic script, taking into account the budgetary and physical constraints of production while working with an entire production team of actors, designers, technicians and producers.  The goal is to create a production with artistic vision that engages with the audience. The process of “directing” a play often starts a year or more before the actual performances with research and various discussions with the production “team.” If the play is a new play or an adaptation of a work, the director may also collaborate with the playwright, often over an extended period of time that may encompass the writing or adaptation of the work. Some directors are also writers, designers and performers and may write, devise, design and act in their own work.” – Bruce Levitt, director.

“A technical director’s job is to coordinate and oversee all technical aspects of preparing for performances on the stage.  Responsibilities include – engineering and overseeing construction of scenery & props, coordinating installation and preparation of scenery, lighting and sound, and supervising maintenance of the theater’s tools, equipment and systems (construction, painting, lighting, sound, stage rigging, etc)” – Dan Hall, technical director.

“As a playwright/adapter, my job is to listen to the rhythms and personality of the source material and reproduce them. To translate then remove myself from the translation. To hunt for vividness and choice and scene. To provide an evocative blueprint for the actors and director and production folks. To cobble together related material but make it not look so totally cobbled together. The best part? It doesn’t feel like a job.” – Austin Bunn, writer.

“An actor communicates a character within a given dramatic situation to an audience through the use of speech, body language and movement.  This usually involves interpreting a writer’s text in service to the vision and instruction of a stage director, in collaboration with other actors in a playing ensemble.” – Carolyn Goelzer, actor.

“A dramaturg’s job varies a lot depending on the theatre and the production. As a dramaturg, some of the things I typically do include working with the playwright to develop and revise the script, assisting the director in rehearsal when questions about the script arise, providing all members of the collaboration with relevant historical and cultural context from research, and developing programs and educational materials. Staff dramaturgs in big theatres often work with the Artistic Director (whose job it is to oversee the creation of an entire season) or the Literary Manager (whose job it is to read and recommend scripts under consideration for production) as well as working on individual shows. I particularly love working as a dramaturg on new scripts, such as this adaptation, because I get to be involved in so many aspects of birthing a new story.” – Aoise Stratford, dramaturg.

“Scenery serves several functions in a play by providing factual information about the who, what, where and when of a play, by creating mood and atmosphere, and by articulating a play’s themes and ideas with imagery. The Scene Designer’s responsibilities include honoring the intention of the playwright, supporting the natural power of the actor, engaging the imagination of the audience, and embracing the creativity of all collaborators in the process. A scene designer aims to create a design that works suggestively, poetically and evocatively to connect with the audience and contribute to their experience of the whole production.” – Kent Goetz, scene designer.

“A sound designer utilizes music, both edited from existing sources and composed, with sound effects, to help craft the world of the play, as visioned by the director. In musical theatre, we add amplified sound support for both the musicians and the actor/singers. The role that the sound design plays varies. Sounds can be subtle, and can offer realistic atmosphere, or an “out front” stylistic commentary on the direction of the script” – Warren Cross, sound designer.

“In the professional theatre world, the Production Manager is typically in charge of hiring and supervising all production personnel, establishing and enforcing budgets, creating schedules that allow work to be accomplished in time for opening night, and helping designers and shop staffs to overcome any hurdles that may hamper their progress. Production Management requires skill in both organization and diplomacy. As the Director of Performances and Events for the Department of Performing and Media Arts, my job is a little different. The theatres and studios in the Schwartz Center are where students put into practice skills learned in the classroom through theatrical, dance and media presentations. I oversee the selection of these presentations and events and lead the teams of directors, designers, and technicians in bringing them to fruition. I especially enjoy figuring out ways to organize and communicate complex information.” – Pam Lillard, Director of Performance and Events

“As a costume designer, I help to tell the story of all of the characters in a play through carefully chosen clothing (clothes are loaded with meaning!) and grooming effects. In forming the vision for each character I rely on information I gather from the author in the text, and collaborations with the director (fulfilling their unique artistic vision for the piece) and the actors (whose character development in rehearsal weaves together the design imagery with their embodiment of the role). What I love about my job is that as a costume designer I get to immerse myself, through research, in various eras, places and cultures, and I also interpret it all with an over-arching artistic style that is seen in my sketches and in the actual finished costumes on the stage that are created by talented craftspeople (another essential collaboration). The costume designs support the actors in their telling of the author’s story, and enhance the emotional and intellectual impact of the play” — Sarah Bernstein, costume designer.

 The Department of Performing and Media Arts