Article first published as Ryan Dunlavey on Action Philosophers Play Adaptation on Technorati.
Action Philosophers, the comic book series by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, has been adapted for the theater by award-winning playwright Crystal Skillman (who happens to also be Van Lente’s spouse). The play has been acclaimed for capturing the flavor of the comics series’ comedic exploration of several world philosophers. Action Philosophers is currently in a limited run through October 16 (Thursday & Friday at 8 pm, Saturday & Sunday at 7 pm) at the Brick Theater (in cooperation with Impetuous Theater Group). Dunlavey recently took the time to share his thoughts with me via email on the comic series’ successful transition to the theater.
When you and Fred first developed Action Philosophers, did you ever envision it being adapted for theater?
Never. I arrogantly believed that it was completely unadaptable to other mediums and it would exclusively live and die on the comic book page, but Crystal Skillman, director John Hurley and the actors have done a fantastic job of proving me wrong!
Interestingly enough (maybe only to me) Action Philosophers originally came about when I asked Crystal to collaborate on a comic with me, but then Fred got to me first!
What was it like the first time you saw characters you draw and scenes you created be performed in the theater?
Easily the most surreal experience of my life, but also really exciting! Plato was the most shocking being much more of a caricature of the real-life Plato than the other philosophers that are featured in the play. He’s become our trademark character for the series so seeing him come to life was really, really cool. It’s both a big honor and very humbling to see goofy things that I may have just doodled in a few minutes thoughtfully brought to three-dimensional life by talented people.
Is it awkward or does it make you proud to see the stories in theater form?
Both! I sat through the first performance with my arms folded but with a big grin on my face the whole time. And the audience liked it! As an artist I very rarely get direct feedback like that, and it was a thrill.
How much did Crystal Skillman consult you while she was adapting the story?
Crystal solicited my input from the very beginning but I told her I preferred to not be involved and wanted to let her and John and the actors do their own thing. After the first run-through I offered a few informal suggestions on the staging and backdrops (which John was already planning to do as it turns out), but that was it.
In terms of the characters, who do you think have flourished the most in a theater setting?
Ayn Rand had such a dramatic personal story and I think comes across better in performance than it did in the comic – She’s a real-live super villain that you actually feel sorry for. Bodhidharma and Plato have done great too, thanks in no small part to the hyper-charged performances of Neimah Djourabchi and C.L. Weatherstone, respectively. They both sell those characters better than anyone. My son LOVED Joe Mathers as Karl Marx – mostly because of the fighting, and Joe’s experience as a fight choreographer really made it work. The all-philosopher brawl at the end and the surprise guest philosopher (I won’t spoil it for you) was amazing – it wasn’t something we did in the comic and it was far and away my favorite part of the play.
Now that you have seen the play adaptation, are there narrative elements you want to borrow and utilize in your next comic?
Nope, they’re totally different mediums and have a very different set of storytelling challenges. As director John Hurley astutely pointed out, in comics events are contained in their panels but theatre is fluid – actors and scenery have to move in and out of the stage. I’ve been drawing comics for so long that I have a hard time picturing any of my ideas occurring outside of panel borders. Plus, I’m a terrible actor. Comics 4 Life!
In general, why do you think your and Fred Van Lente work together so effectively as a creative team?
We’re both insufferable wise-asses. We were friends long before we ever did a comic together – the comfort level we both had with each other and our own confidence in our own abilities definitely helped. We rarely second-guess ourselves or each other and it’s very difficult for either of us to bullshit the other.
What’s on the creative horizon for you?
I just wrapped up the art on the final issue of Comic Book Comics – the 100% true story of the American comic book industry. The last issue talks about the rise of graphic novels, Japanese comics (focusing on Tezuka), the ups-and-downs of the direct market and digital comics. In stores any day now and yes, there will be a collected edition not long after that. I’m neck-deep into the art production of The Dirt Candy Cookbook, another non-fiction comic project I’m doing with chef Amanda Cohen, owner/head chef of Dirt Candy, an award-winning gourmet vegetable restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side. It’s part memoir, part cook book, part food theory – Amanda’s been in the trenches since the start of the whole foodie fad and has some amazing behind-the-scene stories of the cutthroat NYC restaurant culture, and we’re telling it all with comics! It’s fun stuff. We also use comics in the recipes to explain and demonstrate cooking techniques. It’s 200 pages! That comes out next summer from Clarkson/Potter – I’m really excited about it! Lastly I’m writing and drawing a fiction comic for a new publisher that I’m very excited about – anyone who liked the MODOK one-shot I did for Marvel will dig this too. Sorry I can’t tell more, it’s being announced at New York Comic Con. And there’s sure to be more stuff from me and Fred very soon, count on it!