Barbara Field, a 'queen of adaptations' and champion of playwrights, dies at 87

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Rohan Preston, Star Tribune
·3 min read
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Playwright Barbara Field's stage adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" was seen by millions during its 35-year run at the Guthrie Theater, introducing many to the power of theater with a transformative ghost story.

But her most enduring legacy might be less dramatic. While she was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in 1971, Field and a clutch of other students acted on the advice of theater professor Charles Nolte and created the Playwrights' Center, which has helped generations of writers from August Wilson and Lee Blessing to Melanie Marnich and Christina Ham find their voice.

Field died from complications of a stroke Sunday at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, according to friends and family. She was six days shy of her 88th birthday.

"Barbara was a brilliant writer, mentor and advocate for playwrights," said Jeremy Cohen, producing artistic director of the Playwrights' Center. "She was committed to the art of storytelling but also to this community."

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., the second of two children of clothing salesman Harry Field and onetime actor Esther Field, she studied English at the University of Pennsylvania. She moved to the Twin Cities in 1963, the same year the Guthrie opened, with husband Lewis Nasanow, a physicist who had taken a faculty job at the University of Minnesota.

"It was fortuitous and exciting for her to be here at the start of the Guthrie because it inspired her," daughter Mia Nasanow said.

Her parents divorced and "my mom basically raised my brother and I as a single mom."

Field first worked at the Children's Theatre, where she adapted the fairy tale "The Little Match Girl" and wrote the libretto and the book for a musical version of "Johnny Tremain." She continued writing in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, and subsequently fell in with a group of collaborators that included director Stephen Kanee, scenic designer Jack Barkla, lighting designer Duane Schuler, costume designer Jack Edwards and composer Hiram Titus.

That's the group that worked with her on "Carol" at the Guthrie, where artistic director Michael Langham hired her in 1974 to be the theater's dramaturge and resident playwright. She held that position until 1981.

Rabidly curious, she brought provocative, sometimes obscure texts to the Guthrie, including translations of Nikolai Gogol's "Marriage," Mikhail Bulgakov's "Monsieur de Moliere" and "Pantalgleize" by avant-garde Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode.

Aside from "Christmas Carol," her adaptations for the Guthrie include Alexandre Dumas' "Camille" and "Playing With Fire," inspired by Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." That work was revived in the 2018-19 season.

She also wrote the book and libretto for "Rosina," which was composed by Titus and produced by the Minnesota Opera.

A yen for classics"Barbara was the queen of adaptations," said lawyer-turned-playwright David Goldstein, who met Field as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota when she was a graduate student. "She had this yen for classics and a sense of humor, which showed up in her writing and in how she lived."

For the past 25 years, Field and friend Ruth Weiner have been collaborating on a mystery novel. Weiner, a retired professor at Carleton College, commissioned an adaptation of "The House of Seven Gables" and also worked on other plays. The two traveled together in the British Isles, visiting Langham in London.

"Barb was irreverent and very smart about theater, not at all pious or observant," Weiner said. "Her opinions were always fresh, and sometimes outrageous."

Besides her daughter Mia, a retired therapist in St. Paul, she is survived by son Jimmy Harry, a Golden Globe-winning songwriter in Los Angeles, and several grandchildren.

A memorial will be held at a later date. In the meantime, the Playwrights' Center is honoring her with a virtual memory page.

"Most people know Barbara from her classic adaptations for the Guthrie stage, but for me she was simply the purest and most generous spirit I ever met in the world of theatre," Blessing said. "She believed deeply in its transformative power. … It transformed her."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

Twitter: @rohanpreston