The Eagle

The Art of Adapting David Auburn's Eagle

The task of designing the character of the eagle from the play The Adventures of Augie March was appealing to Manual Cinema because, in a lot of ways, it is an almost impossible task of adaptation. The eagle is a feature of a novel that was not originally intended to be put on stage. The actual mechanics of getting an eagle on stage, an eagle that the audience identifies with, and that contributes to the themes and motifs of the story, is a very tall order—and that challenge was attractive to us. Also, it is not like we are designing the animal puppet for Broadway’s King Kong: the eagle in David Auburn’s play is not there for pure spectacle. Rather, the eagle has a subtle, interesting way of interacting with Augie’s character, and the eagle shadows Augie’s journey in the story in deeply meaningful way. Auburn thoroughly digested the character of the eagle from the novel, and he deploys the eagle in his script in ways that work theatrically and metaphorically. So, in addition to bringing Bellow’s eagle to the stage, we knew we would be bringing Auburn’s eagle to life in the production. Taking on a design element that was both a practical challenge and that served as a salient metaphor in the play is exactly the kind of work we love to do.

We also knew that Auburn wrote not just one eagle, but a couple of different eagles, into his script. Auburn’s first eagle is the literal eagle, Caligula, a pet that Augie and Thea purchase and adopt. The second eagle in the play is a metaphorical eagle, one which serves as the internal narrative voice of Augie, and at times maybe even as the voice of destiny in the play. From the very beginning of the adaptation process we knew we had many eagles at hand, and therefore we needed different design approaches for each one.

Designing a Literal Eagle

For the literal eagle, our task essentially was to create a new cast member for the play. We needed to put a new character on stage who was not an actor, but rather a living, breathing puppet with a recognizable personality. Bellow imbued Caligula the Eagle with a specific identity and presence. We wanted to capture Caligula’s particular personality, but we also wanted to create the feeling that the actress playing Thea truly has brought a live animal on stage with her. When you are in the room with a live animal, the terms of engagement change and shift. We wanted to create a Caligula the Eagle puppet that would make an audience feel, as soon as the eagle puppet was brought on stage, that the energy in the room had completely transformed, and that maybe even the relationships between the characters on stage had transformed as well.

Designing a Metaphorical Eagle

For the metaphorical eagle, we used techniques of shadow puppetry, dance and choreography to create a tableau or stage picture—a living and breathing shadow—that is at once Caligula the Eagle while also being all the members of the ensemble, including Augie and Grandma Lausch. For this design gesture, our task was not to create a new cast member; rather, the assignment was to create the visual metaphor for the climax of the play. Auburn has written a succession of moments into this play in which the reality of a scene suddenly shifts, and the scene becomes something heightened, no longer a literal dramatic scene. These moments of shift occur when a character begins to speak the original narrative language from The Adventures of Augie March. These moments should feel like a welling up of self-knowledge, or of wisdom, coming from inside of Augie. And these heightened scenes are strung together throughout the play like pearls on a necklace, building toward this final scene, when an image of the eagle comes to Augie at his lowest point, and shares a conversation with him. For this climactic moment, the ensemble coalesces together and becomes one moving, shifting entity in the shape of an eagle. Together, they represent everything that Augie has experienced, all the people he has met, the full sum of what has happened to him throughout the play, and all the knowledge he has gained.

Staging the Eagle's Hunt for a Giant Iguana

There was another iteration of the eagle we needed to bring to realization. This iteration is contained in an elaborate and pivotal scene in Bellow’s novel that Auburn included in his adaptation, where Caligula the Eagle is taken out for his first iguana hunt in the mountains of Mexico. In this scene, Caligula is supposed to hunt and capture a giant iguana on his own. This was the most challenging scene to bring to life because it requires an expansion of time and space that is really difficult to achieve in the theatre. What we have done is to create a cinematic projection space on stage where the actors use a combination of their own bodies, shadow puppets and two-dimensional miniature objects to create a little film, a brief nature documentary, of Caligula the Eagle trying and ultimately failing to capture his first iguana.

In our short eagle film, the story that is told is a bit of a tragedy. For this mood and emotion to come through, it is necessary for us to be in Caligula the Eagle’s point of view and, at the same time, to occupy the point of view of Augie and Thea, who are desperately hoping that all this goes well. There definitely is an element of suspense and drama involved, but also, by virtue of the media that we are using, there also is a dreamlike and hallucinatory quality to this interlude. Caligula’s failure to capture the iguana is really a turning point in Augie’s journey in the play. It is a moment in the play where we drop a big curtain across the stage to hold the shadow projections, and the audience will see imagery unlike anything they have seen up to that point in the play. So, this is a really heightened moment of theatrically and we want to put the audience in a completely new space.

—Drew Dir, Manual Cinema