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


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

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.”