Oct. 19 2011 12:00 AM

Writer-director James Houska works with ‘Conspiracy’ author Loring Mandel to turn an award-winning HBO movie into Riverwalk’s world premiere stage drama

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    James Houska never expected to direct the first staged
    adaptation of an acclaimed HBO film about the Holocaust: He just
    thought it might be a good script for someone else.


    “I had intended on (directing) something eventually in
    Lansing, but I didn’t want to be the one that single-handedly destroyed
    Riverwalk Theatre,” Houska says, with a self-deprecating smile.


    What began as Houska’s personal quest to find an elusive
    script eventually became a year-long collaboration with distinguished
    New York writer Loring Mandel, culminating in Thursday’s world premiere
    of “Conspiracy” at Riverwalk Theatre. 


    Based on a lone surviving document, “Conspiracy”
    dramatically reconstructs the 1942 Wannsee Conference, a meeting of 15
    high-ranking Nazis who discussed the practical implementation of the
    Final Solution. By the meeting’s end, the Wannsee Protocol transformed
    previously nuanced goals of Jewish eradication into a deliberately
    systematic policy of genocide. 


    The film version — starring Kenneth Branagh as
    Schutzstaffel-General Reinhard Heydrich, Stanley Tucci as Adolf
    Eichmann and Colin Firth as Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart — peers behind the
    protocol’s suspiciously euphemistic wording and its sadistic intentions
    to the social dynamics within the meeting itself. Participants
    manipulate others into compliance through careful coercion and blunt
    threats, creating a powerfully relevant parable about groupthink.


    The film went on to garner several awards, including
    Emmys for Mandel’s screenplay and Branagh’s lead performance, a British
    Academy of Film and Television Arts Award, a Golden Globe for Tucci as
    best supporting actor and a Peabody Award. 


    Although Riverwalk has produced several world premieres
    over the years, “Conspiracy” is the most high-profile yet, according to
    Riverwalk President Tom Ferris. Mandel, who has written extensively for
    radio, stage, television and film since the early 1950s, will attend
    Thursday’s performance and conduct a talkback after the show. During
    his six-day stay in the Lansing area, Mandel will also speak to theater
    and history classes at Michigan State University and conduct a lecture
    at Cooley Law School. “Conspiracy” is Riverwalk’s 2011 Stages of the
    Law play, a series of local productions with legal themes that are
    underwritten by Cooley.


    Despite numerous accolades and positive critical
    reception, an official screenplay of “Conspiracy” was never published.
    After almost a decade of failed Internet searches, Houska made a final
    effort two years ago to find a copy. Hearing nothing from HBO directly,
    Houska searched for the most accessible member of the crew: the
    screenwriter himself. Mandel’s Web bio conveniently contained a link to
    contact him through Facebook, which Houska did.


    Houska says he complimented Mandel on the script and
    asked if he had still had the rights, but never anticipated to hear
    back. But the tech-savvy Mandel responded via e-mail that his
    representative would be calling Houska shortly. What happened next went
    beyond Houska’s wildest fantasies. 




    From phone to script


    Houska acquired a copy of the script from Mandel’s New
    York representative. After seeking guidance and approval from Riverwalk
    founder Bill Helder and later Ferris, Houska made contact with Mandel
    directly to discuss the script’s adaptation to the Riverwalk stage. 


    According to Mandel, the idea of adapting “Conspiracy” to
    the stage did not come to him until filming began. The film’s director,
    Frank Pierson, told Mandel about the Wannsee Protocol and asked him to
    write the script. Mandel agreed, but says he initially viewed the story
    as an unlikely prospect for television.


    “Fifteen people sitting around a table does not
    automatically tell you this is a surefire television show,” Mandel said
    in a phone interview. By the time he finished writing, he felt it was
    an important story to tell and natural for the stage. 


    In addition to providing names, faces and more complex
    motivations behind Nazi, Mandel calls “Conspiracy” perhaps the only
    Holocaust story that “evoked anger” instead of pity or sorrow. Mandel’s
    extensive research into the lives of the participants allowed him to
    write dialogue through their characters.


    Although lines like “We have a storage problem” are
    shockingly cold, Mandel says the real challenge in writing was
    imagining real justifications. “You had to start out with the
    presumption that nobody looks in the mirror in the morning and says.
    ‘I’m a bad person,’” Mandel said. “And yet what they did was kind of
    horrendous, but they didn’t all do it for the same reason.”


    At one point before Houska approached
    him, Mandel says film and stage director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,”
    “Revolutionary Road”) purchased an option on the material to produce as
    a play. But before the partially adapted script could advance into
    production, Mendes accepted a lucrative directing contract overseas,
    putting Mandel’s hopes on hold.


    “I didn’t want the play just to languish there,” said Mandel, who asked Mendes to release the rights back to him. 




    From script to stage


    When Houska auditioned the cast, Mandel was present, too
    — via Skype. Throughout the rehearsal process, Mandel and the entire
    cast communicated continuously through a Facebook forum. It is not
    unusual for premiere rehearsals to involve the playwrights, but given
    the value of Mandel’s time and his physical distance from Michigan, his
    accessibility from the production’s inception made a particular impact
    on both Houska and his cast. 


    Actor Michael Hays, who plays Heydrich, seems especially touched.


    “He’s just so gracious,” Hays said. “When you ask him a question on Facebook, he gets back to you immediately.”


    Considering the subject of the play, the cast members had
    to perform their own independent research on their characters —
    research that Houska says took each of them on a dark journey of
    discovery. 


    For Hays, this meant appreciating the strategic genius of
    a sociopath. “I’ve never done research on anybody that was so
    power-hungry: This guy was so driven,” says Hays, who remarked that
    previously playing Vice President Dick Cheney in Peppermint Creek
    Theatre Co.’s “Stuff Happens” helped prepare him for this role. 


    Through the process of structurally adapting the script
    to stage, Houska consciously worried that Mandel might refuse to allow
    changes to his script that were necessary for Riverwalk. Adding an
    intermission to preserve cast and audience stamina meant potentially
    disrupting the play’s momentum. Also, space limitations meant squeezing
    the action in a two-room house down to one room. To Houska’s relief,
    Mandel approved the adjustments deferring to Houska and Ferris’s
    knowledge of the Riverwalk’s stage and audience.


    Mandel compares the screen to stage adaptation process
    to arranging music: “It’s like the difference between writing a
    symphony and writing chamber music. You’ve got much more severe
    restrictions placed upon you, but on the other hand, if you succeed
    within those restrictions, it’s a better piece of art.” 


    Although Cooley underwrites the cost of
    the production itself, additional costs — including travel and lodging
    for Mandel and renting historically accurate costumes from England
    —totaled $5,000. According to Ferris, generous contributions from
    individual donors and local organizations helped Riverwalk to meet
    their funding goals.


    Although Ferris is proud of the Riverwalk’s premiere, he
    dismisses the notion that “Conspiracy” might be a thematic stretch for
    the community theater.


    “We try here at Riverwalk to really
    cover the wide breath of things,” he said. “The fact that I’m producing
    ‘Conspiracy’ and at the same time just started directing ‘The
    Surprising Story of the Three Little Pigs,’ I think that’s just a
    showcase of what we do here at Riverwalk. We’ve committed to bringing
    theater to the community and engaging the community in theater, and
    this is just another way of doing that.” 


    For his part, Houska says once the
    project germinated and began to grow, he felt a deep responsibility to
    see it through as a director. “I had researched it so much and had all
    these ideas about what I’d like to see,” he said. “To hand it over to
    somebody else, if they were to go off in another direction with it, it
    started to bother me. It just feels like handing over a child after a
    certain point. Even though I’m not a good parent, I’m trying my best.”