In the decades since The White Album was published, Didion has written many groundbreaking films, essays, and memoirs (The Year of Magical Thinking was adapted into a play in 2007). A nominee for a Pulitzer and a National Book Critic Circles award, and the winner of a National Book Award, she also had the honour of being the inaugural author in The Paris Review’s Art of Nonfiction interview series. My own copies of her books have been underlined, highlighted, and dog-eared — now I was hearing her words echo through the cavernous hall of New York’s BAM Harvey Theatre.

Joan Didion mingles with a crowd of hippies in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 1967 while researching her article Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Joan Didion mingles with a crowd of hippies in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967 while researching her article Slouching Towards Bethlehem.Credit:Ted Streshinsky/Corbis/Getty

I had arrived on the set of Lars Jan’s production of The White Album, which will be staged as part of the Sydney Festival in January, during a period of frantic minor adjustments. Early Morning Opera’s adaptation of Didion’s essay would premiere at the BAM Next Wave Festival in 24 hours and the company had started rehearsals in the Brooklyn space only that morning. A white telephone required for a surreptitious drug call had gone missing, the lighting during one sequence wasn’t quite psychedelic/psychotic enough, and the keyboard was failing to groan in the correct manner. Actors stretched in a corner while techs circled in the wings; the atmosphere cycled from excitement to tension to boredom and back again.

Jan stopped the action and called from the back of the house to Mia Barron, the voice of Joan Didion’s narrator (and, at that time, also Jan’s partner). The moment needed tweaking, a beat added or subtracted. Like a ghost, Barron’s Didion wandered through the empty space of an antiseptic box made of metal and sound-dampening glass that occupied the centre of the stage. It looked like a trailer designed by [modernist architect] Philip Johnson, sparsely furnished with a mid-century wooden desk, a typewriter, records and a few books.

Jan explained that the box would be filled with a party of semi-coached audience members, who would experience their own “happening” during the performance. This play within a play was meant to recall the house on Franklin Avenue where much of the essay’s action occurs: drug-fuelled parties and Easter lunches, a trippy conversation about death auras with a babysitter, and a strange encounter with a thief who pretends to be a deliveryman.

“Chicken delight?” he offers feebly before running out the door. Throughout the show, there would be Super 8 footage from the protests Didion describes, musical performances, and a dance party — all happening against the backdrop of Barron’s narration. The cast refer to the people inside this fishbowl as the “inner audience”.

Actor Sharon Tate who was murdered by the Manson Family, a crime that's a backdrop to The White Album.

Actor Sharon Tate who was murdered by the Manson Family, a crime that’s a backdrop to The White Album.Credit:Michael Ochs Archives

Jan, who wore a red-and-white beanie and mismatched canvas loafers, greeted me onstage and introduced me to Barron. Since founding Early Morning Opera in 2004, Jan has written and directed “genre-bending performance” pieces that stretch the limits of theatre and visual spectacle, performing at venues such as the Whitney Museum and the Sundance Film Festival.

Much of his work deals with social or political themes, but this piece was Jan’s first adaptation (and the first time he and Barron had collaborated on a project, “to save money on hotel rooms”). They were eager to get it right.

Adapting a work of such intentional ambiguity, however, presents challenges. The essay is fragmented and explicitly resists the easy formulas and structures of conventional narrative. It races through emotional registers and attempts to encapsulate an entire era in Didion’s life, flitting restlessly from scene to scene. The White Album doesn’t lend itself to dramatisation.

“I think one of the most inspiring aspects of working with the material is it’s an incredible piece of collage,” said Jan. Rather than literally re-enacting scenes, a small chorus rotates through the other speaking parts, with Barron’s Didion “surfing in a visual and energetic landscape”. Jan wanted to heighten this sense of chaos and juxtaposition through a layering of media.

“It’s not a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum where there’s somebody playing Huey Newton, or any of the characters in the essay,” Jan added.

"It's an incredible piece of collage". Lars Jan on Joan Didion's White Album.

“It’s an incredible piece of collage”. Lars Jan on Joan Didion’s White Album.Credit:Reed Hutchinson

Barron came to the material from a much more traditional theatre background, having for many years written and performed on and off Broadway. “I’m much more a performer rooted in psychology and language, and that’s my pull to enter a world,” Barron explained.

Though Didion has come to saturate contemporary culture — her image appears on everything from merchandise at the Strand to Céline ad campaigns — Barron’s goal is to get past the aura and find the occasionally aloof writer’s emotional core. “I have a deep interest, appetite and compulsion to live inside her thoughts and bring this language to life,” Barron said.

The primary challenge of adapting The White Album, however, has been not the text itself but getting permission to use it. For years, Jan and Barron had unsuccessfully tried to reach Didion: emails, through agents and friends, even sending typewritten letters on LP sleeves from the Beatles’ White Album. Through a mutual friend, the couple met Griffin Dunne, Didion’s nephew, who in 2017 released a documentary about her life, The Center Will Not Hold.

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“Because our staging is in no way traditional … I think one of the selling points in our pitch to her was: We’re going to perform every word,” said Jan.

“It sounded really interesting, so I told Joan,” Dunne explained, calling from a room at the Chateau Marmont. Dunne feels the play brings out the way history rhymes with the present. Though many of the protests, murders, parties  and trials in the essay took place 50 years ago, the issues that sparked them have smouldered on: structural inequality, drug addiction, racism, police brutality, random acts of violence — a general feeling that we are watching the end of the world.

“Maybe people are finding comfort in reading about a time that was just as f—ed up as these times are,” said Dunne.

Joan Didion, her writer husband John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo Dunne at home in Malibu in 1976.

Joan Didion, her writer husband John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo Dunne at home in Malibu in 1976.Credit:The LIFE Images Collection

As the cast broke for dinner, I followed Jan outside. We walked through Fort Greene (where he used to live before he and Barron moved to Los Angeles), discussing the day’s rehearsal and the work that still had to be done that evening. Jan tried to shield his cigarette against the November wind while answering my questions about the timing of the show and how the issues Didion raised in her essay still animate contemporary life in America.

Black Panthers activist Huey Newton and his wife Gwen arrive at Alameda County Court in 1978.

Black Panthers activist Huey Newton and his wife Gwen arrive at Alameda County Court in 1978.Credit:Leo Cohen/Getty

“One of the questions that I want the piece to ask is: What is our trajectory? And how do we see ourselves headed toward 2068?” he said. “I think anniversaries are interesting because they give us the moment to reflect on the past, on what’s changed and what hasn’t changed.”

Would he have handled the material in the same way if he were staging The White Album on the essay’s 40th anniversary to coincide with Obama’s election?

“If we’d done it 10 years ago, I probably would have been missing a big story,” he replied. “The divides and resistance to systemic change were actually still foundationally there in the country, and because of the promise of the moment, I would have just missed it.”

A young man carrying a duffel bag interrupted Jan to ask whether he’d be willing to trade a smoke for a tallboy of beer. “You can drink it later,” the man suggested.

Jan declined, but extended a cigarette from his pack.

“Thanks, man,” the man with the duffel bag replied, flashing a peace sign. It felt like a moment out of another time, something Didion herself might have witnessed in Berkeley or San Francisco or Los Angeles decades ago.

Joan Didion hung out with The Doors at their recording sessions.

Joan Didion hung out with The Doors at their recording sessions.Credit:Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“I first read The White Album when I was 16,” Jan said. “I was excited about her connection with the counterculture. She was in the Doors’ recording session! She was meeting the Black Panthers!  I was into that nihilistic, almost cruel remove that characterises Didion’s writing … She tends to cast a withering gaze in all directions.”

But in intervening decades, Jan’s impressions of the text have changed.

“As I’ve grown older, though, really the very famous first sentence, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ has taken on more complex shades,” he said. “I went through feeling like ‘I am an artist, and I can create meaning, and that’s a source of power, to a version that’s more akin to, We create delusions to get by.’ And I find myself constantly pivoting between those two.”

Daniel Penny writes about art and culture at The New Yorker, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He teaches writing and visual culture at Parsons School of Design.  This article first appeared in The Paris Review Daily (www.theparisreview.org).

Lars Jan’s Early Morning Opera will present The White Album at the Sydney Festival from January 8 and 12.

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