Following the death of author Ursula Le Guin, professor Natsu Onoda Power of Georgetown’s theater and performance studies program examines the author’s 1971 novel, “The Lathe of Heaven,” which Power adapted into a play.
Artfully directed and adapted, “The Lathe of Heaven” resonates with an analysis of race, gender and the profound difficulty of living in an unkind and turbulent world. In particular, the play joins a conversation about women in theater and society as part of this year’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, a collaboration between the Washington, D.C. region’s professional theater companies that features special events, panels and workshops.
The Hoya sat down for an interview with Power to discuss her insights about the play’s themes of fate, identity and hope in the face of impending doom.
“Lathe of Heaven” centers around a man, George Orr, who wakes up one day to discover that his dreams alter reality. What inspired you to adapt this novel into a play?
It actually wasn’t my choice. It was given to me by Richard Henrich, the artistic director of Spooky Action [a Washington, D.C. theatre company], and he sent me an email one day saying, ‘I really love this novel. I’ve adapted it into a production; the production wasn’t successful. Would you like to take a stab?’ So I said sure.
What were the main elements of the novel that you wanted to capture on stage?
The world in which reality is being pulled from under us at every turn. And not having control over it. It is a story about someone who has the ability to transform the world but has no control over it. I thought that it was kind of a great allegory for us.
Every day — I really shouldn’t say this, but you can — we watch on the news unbelievable things, like our worst nightmares have come to reality in some ways. Like in any time of history, like you can’t believe the world is changing in such a way. And, living at that moment, what can we do? Or what can we not do? So that was a story about that — adapting this 1971 novel for our context.
What measures did you take to ensure that author Ursula Le Guin’s voice was heard?
I like verbatim adaptations. A lot of the text in the production is pulled directly from the novel, so I don’t make a description into dialogue. We have a student ensemble who speak in third person and narrate the text. We added some text to the novel. Obviously we had to omit a lot, but we also added some that contextualized her world in our world. Because things that are written in the novel that are from a 1971 perspective might sound unfamiliar to us, and we have a chorus that’s commenting on the writing as well.
Your cast consists of both D.C. veterans and Georgetown student actors. How do the actors’ varying experiences translate to their performances and interpretation of the show?
It’s been a really fun process for me. It’s been a great rehearsal process to collaborate together. I think the professional actors bring things that students don’t yet have, but they will in the future, like age. After trying to portray a 55-year-old, we have an actor that age, who naturally slots into that role. So everybody is kind of playing a version of themselves. It’s a very different mode of performance.
When “Lathe of Heaven” was written, it took place in the “future” of 2002. What does your future world look like, and what elements of the show portray this world?
That’s kind of a central idea of our production, too. We are distinctly telling the story about a future from the past. So it is a ’70s version of 2002. We didn’t want to set it in 2002 real time. We set it in imaginary 2002, which is imagined from the 1970s. People are wearing ’70s-inspired costume; the aesthetic is ’70s. We play lots of ’70s music. We do the hustle.
This play is part of a D.C. Women’s Voices Theater Festival, celebrating some of the nation’s innovative and talented playwrights. What does it mean to you to be a part of it?
I am really proud and happy to be a part of it. It’s really interesting because people ask questions like, “Why is it valuable for women to be part of theater?” which is kind of a weird question because we are half the population. What would theater do otherwise?
But this is an important festival because it calls our attention to the fact that women’s voices have been systematically silenced in the theater. Shouldn’t all theater be women’s theater festival? Of course. It should always be all voices festival. But by naming it a women’s voices festival really makes a lay person realize, “Oh, theaters that I have been seeing are not like women’s voices festival. We should have this to compensate.”
And it’s also a celebration of different kinds of women’s voices. Women of all backgrounds, identities and people are not specifically writing about feminist politics. These just happen to be women writing in theater.
The relationship between George and Heather is beautiful but complex. What is there to learn from Heather as a character? How do their relationship and the themes of the show intersect with the mission of the D.C. Women’s Voices Theater Festival?
The character of Heather comes up partly from that historical moment. You know, the ’60s. The way she talks about her identity, which is so racially driven, and it’s so strongly based on her identity as a mixed-race woman but appearing as a black woman, and she talks about it a lot.
At the moment of George and Heather falling in love, they have this conversation. She talks about her family, her upbringing, her parents, her father being black, her mother being white. She says something like “Oh I think my father really loved my mother but hated her for being white. My mother really loved father except she loved him being black more than she actually loved him.” So it’s complicated. She ends that speech by saying, “But what does that make me? I don’t even know what color I am.”
And George turns to her and says, and this is really interesting in the current context, “You are brown. The color of the earth.”
We have a bit of a taken-aback reaction to that speech in 2017, but to know that that was a romantic thing to say in the future imagined through 1971 is interesting. I talked a lot about it in rehearsal room. One of the actors said, this Heather character, she just mentions these things: “My father was on welfare in Albina, Portland. He was black. Blah, blah, blah.” In 2017, we write a whole play about it, but in the 1971 version of 2002, they just mention it. It is just never touched again.
That was a way in which we thought about the shift in time. Their relationship really made us, me and the cast, think about how we talk about relationships and racial identities. How they have changed and not changed since the time of Le Guin’s novel.
The novel grapples with our desire to control destiny. Is this a question that your adaptation sought to grapple with, and, if so, how does it approach it?
That’s a big theme. That’s the conclusion of the novel. I’m hoping that it resonates strongly with Georgetown students who like to, for better or worse, plan their future in a linear fashion. Georgetown students are very ambitious — they like to control their future and get frustrated when it cannot be controlled.
There’s a quote in the novel; it’s a quote from somebody else. It says, “To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment.” So letting things be, letting things be the way it is without an attempt to control is an accomplishment in itself, and it takes discipline. And it takes a special kind of person to do it. The novel celebrates it, and that could be a lesson to all of us, I think. Especially myself, sitting in tech, stressing about every minute detail.
In a statement you said that “The book is deeply resonant now, when all of our nightmares are becoming reality, every day.” Can you elaborate on this statement?
So much has happened since Richard Henrich gave me the book. He gave me the book in 2015, I want to say. The leadership of this country has shifted greatly, which for some people is a nightmare.
And, also, there have been natural disasters. I just remember coming to campus the day after the election, and I could not continue with the class. It was a traumatic time. I think we all have personal feelings and it just seemed like the apocalypse. It was like, the world has ended.