Before Associate Artistic Director Tyler Dobrowsky began rehearsals for Trinity Rep’s production of A Tale of Two Cities, adapted by resident acting company member Brian McEleney, he talked to Brian to find out more about Brian’s interest in the Charles Dickens classic and how he approached adapting the novel to the stage.

Tyler Dobrowsky: What made you want to work on A Tale of Two Cities in particular? 

Brian McEleney: I was looking to work on a piece that I felt would resonate in our particular moment in history. There is so much division and so much political tumult in our country and in the world in general, that I thought Dickens’ novel might have something to say to us now. I’ve always loved this novel. The writing is passionate and poetic; the characters are full of life and specificity, and the overall impression you get from reading it is what it feels like to be caught up in the force of history, of not knowing what will happen next or how it’s all going to turn out. The confusion, the anxiety, the partisan hatreds, the danger — it’s all in there.

TD: Your adaptation is remarkably fleet and fast-paced, especially for such a dense story, and it also feels of a piece with Trinity Rep’s historically actor-driven aesthetic… what was the process like turning such a classic text into a piece of theater? 

A BRILLIANT STORYTELLER: Last season Brian McEleney gave a tour-de-force one man performance as the Poet in An Iliad, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaption of Homer’s The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles. Photo by Mark Turek.

BM: I’ve never really written a play before, so this project seemed foolhardy and over-ambitious. But as I thought about it I reflected that I’ve been in over 25 versions of a very successful Dickens adaptation. [Former Artistic Director] Adrian Hall’s “fleet and fastpaced version” of A Christmas Carol was my model… and my inspiration to take this on. And I was also encouraged by the knowledge that all of Adrian’s adaptations for Trinity Rep were done for this company of actors, in this particular aesthetic. I knew that I would have a group of collaborators who would understand my vision for how this production could come to fruition. A lot of it isn’t on the page; it depends on vigorous acting, lively music, and inventive direction to make it come to life.

TD: You produced this at the Bread Loaf School of English two summers ago. What did you learn from that?

BM: I learned that it worked, for starters. There’s virtually nothing in this piece that doesn’t come from Dickens. I trusted the genius of his storytelling and the poetic power of his writing, and tried to not get in the way. I was encouraged to find that non-realistic staging let the audience use its imagination to create the world of the play. And I learned that music is a tremendously important element of this piece; it lifts the language into the higher realm of emotion and poeticism that Dickens’ writing demands, and lends an air of contemporary immediacy to the production.

TD: You are also playing Doctor Manette in this production — which are you looking forward to most, working as the writer/adaptor or working as an actor in the play? 

BM: I’m thrilled to be doing both! This is one of the wonderful things about being a member of the Trinity Rep acting company: you get opportunities that you would never have in other institutions! The challenge of rewriting and editing during the process while at the same time playing a complex dramatic character like Doctor Manette seems really exciting… and daunting! There are very few models for the process we’re about to enter, and — who knows? — it might turn out to be a disaster, and we’ll all wish I was only doing one job at a time. But it may turn out to be wonderful; it will certainly be a great adventure. At the very least, I know I can count on your direction and support, as well as the support of all my colleagues in the acting company and on the design team.

TD: Anything else you want us to know about the show? 

BM: I certainly want to assure people that they won’t need to be familiar with the novel to appreciate the production. And also that it won’t be a dusty museum piece. I was constantly thinking about our contemporary world as I wrote this adaptation, and tried to make that come through in the writing. I hope it will!