The Art of Adaptation
In the last year, I've had two opportunities to practice the art of adaptation. They were my first tries, and I learned a lot as I went along. The first thing I learned was that any adaptation is a sort of marriage of two minds -- and like any marriage, though it can be extremely rewarding, it ain't easy.
The first adaptation project came to me through a playwriting colleague. A book publisher was looking to add multi-media content to its offerings. A first attempt had been successful for them, so they decided to branch out -- asking four dramatic writers to create new fictional stories for the screen, using the books of four of their non-fiction writers as a starting point. Each thirty-minute film would ideally showcase the ideas of each of their writers, but be compelling stories on their own -- and able to stand together or apart, depending on how the publisher chose to market them.
I was getting ready to leave Los Angeles when this opportunity came my way. I'd received a playwriting fellowship at Princeton University that was taking me to the other side of the world -- well, to New Jersey, anyway -- to work on my new play for the 2010-2011 academic year. I'd already decided to quit my sensible day job at the end of May, in order to give myself a real-live summer vacation back on the family farm, in between. I liked the director when I met him, the project sounded like an interesting challenge, the money they were offering would pay for my moving expenses... and so I signed on. I now had a project for my summer vacation! Here's how it went:
- I read the source material.
- I thought about the source material.
- I came up with half a dozen possible story scenarios, and then discussed them with the director and lead writer.
- For the three favorites, I came up with rough outlines.
- With the director, we chose one scenario to be my project.
- After discussions with the director and head writers, I refined the outline, changing some key features to make sure it fulfilled the needs of the over-all project.
- Upon turning in the refined outline, I was paid the first of two installments for my work on the project.
- I left for Oregon -- and began to write the script.
- There was angst and wrestling with the source material and some tearing out of hair. But doesn't all writing feel this way sometimes? There were also moments when it was fun and fantastic. I liked the characters I'd created.
- I turned in my first draft.
- I took an hour's worth of notes on the first draft over the phone, scribbling as fast as I could.
- I struggled to figure out the notes, and how to implement them.
- I turned in the second draft.
- I took another hour's worth of notes on the second draft. But I'd clearly been writing in the right direction, despite that seeming evidence to the contrary.
- I struggled to figure out the notes and implement them.
- I turned in my final draft. (We were contracted for three.)
- I was paid the final check for my work.
I'm very glad I did the project. It gave me the chance to work with a bunch of smart, creative, hard-working people on a type of project I'd never worked on before. I was paid -- well -- for my work. I was proud of my finished script, even if it was a different kind of pride than I have in a creation all my own. I used some skills from my graduate program at USC that I hadn't had a chance to before -- outlining the screen story with Frank Tarloff, and screenwriting classes with Ben Masselink and Jason Squire. And I got a hint of what writing for television must be like -- something that I'm interested in, like a lot of playwrights these days.
Last week, the director sent me a promo for the film. It's done, it's in the can, they're almost done editing it.
It looks gorgeous.
I hope it's good!
I'm glad I did it.
As a general rule, I’ve found that any time someone offers me the opportunity to work really hard at something I love -- I should say yes. Which brings me to the second adaptation project I said yes to this year.
Not long after finishing my summer vacation and film adaptation project and moving east, I received an e-mail from Tony Adams, artistic director of Halcyon Theater in Chicago. He’d produced my play "Heads" in his Alcyone Festival of works by women a couple years before. And he and his associate artistic director (and wife) Jenn Adams had decided to do something extra crazy and bold for the 2011 Alcyone Festival. They were asking five women playwrights with whom they had worked before to either adapt, riff upon, or otherwise engage with the work of a woman playwright from 1870 or earlier.
I said yes.
I also said I didn't really know the work of any women playwrights from 1870 or earlier. (They weren't deterred by this -- it rather proved their point, that there was a canon there, ripe for retrieving.)
Tony suggested I give Hrosvitha a try. She was the earliest of the women playwrights whose work survives to this day. She was a Tenth Century Benedictine canoness who lived in an abbey at Gandersheim in Saxony (now Germany) and wrote odd little comic plays and serious poems about the early Christian women martyrs.
I still don't know why Tony suggested her to me. But as I read her work, and read about her, something pinged inside me.
It's hard to say what. Maybe it's that I was raised Catholic. Maybe it's that I remember reading books about the early Christian martyrs as a child (along with every other book I could get my hands on) that intrigued and disturbed me. Maybe it's that I have struggled with issues of faith and philosophy and spirituality as an adult. Or maybe it's that the notion of martyrdom seems so much more overwhelmingly complicated to me now than it did when I was a child. It's not that I don't think there aren't things worth dying for (terrified as I am of mortality). It’s that the practical application of so-called martyrdom seldom lives up to my expectations, and seems to frequently take a lot of innocent people with it.
So I ended up writing a play about 9/11.
Hrosvitha is known as (in fact, she called herself) the "strong voice" of Gandersheim. So I called my play "Strong Voice." Halcyon promised to produce it in their Chicago theater if I wrote it, so I set the story in Chicago. Halcyon's mission includes producing plays that reflect the beautiful diversity of their city, so I made my heroes an African-American woman and a Latino man -- two Chicago police detectives who are investigating the disappearance of a nun and the desecration of a mosque in the wake of 9/11.
I've always liked detective stories, since the first Sherlock Holmes stories I devoured when I was in elementary school. And what I ended up with was definitely a detective story. But it was also the story of a bunch of people re-evaluating what they believe in the wake of events that challenged everything they knew to be true.
Hrosvitha herself became a character in the play, literalizing my own struggles to come to terms with her and her work. And in some ways, it became a play about storytelling. How we tell our own story, how we frame our lives and beliefs in words, and who will have the strongest voice in the most difficult times.
It hasn't been an easy play to write. And even though it's playing now in Chicago, I'm not sure I'm done wrestling with it.
The process was helped along, though, by input from others. Much of my work as a writer is done alone in my room, muttering under my breath in all my characters' voices in a strange, solitary, noisy literary schizophrenia. But I love getting feedback. I value being part of a writing workshop. I want my course corrected when I veer and to be called on any and all bullshit, sentiment and overwriting I might allow to creep in. Encouragement doesn't hurt either.
I received good support and feedback on pieces, parts and drafts of this project from the folks in my playwriting workshop at Passage Theater in Trenton, fellow playwright Jami Brandli (who kindly gave me notes on an ugly early draft), and my smart and capable director Margo Gray. All mistakes remaining are, of course, my own.
Margo was casting the play before I'd figured out its ending. The play changed drastically during rehearsals, as I refined the characters and figured out what the play was about. (Because that's never something I know going in -- always something I figure out as I go along.) Everything about the play happened very fast, in play terms.
When I sat out in the audience on June 12, watching the first performance, I wondered at it all. Me, a dead Benedictine woman, and a bunch of blank pieces of paper. Add research and work and time. Temper with creative criticism and infuse with the talents of director, committed actors and a theater company that stands behind its promise to produce new work. And you have a play.
Both of these projects were the broadest sort of adaptations. I'd like to try my hand at a closer adaptation, perhaps of a young adult novel. I'd also like to write a spec television script -- mucking about with someone else's characters for a bit.
I'm busy working on some original plays now -- entirely in my own head again, for better and for worse. But I haven't seen the last of adaptation. It's a challenge I'd like to take on again.
Working hard at something you love is always good.