Sunday, April 11, 2010

On Adapting a Novel

A fan of The Last Unicorn who hadn't seen the Promethean production but is a huge fan of the novel wrote me recently- one thing they asked about is what my approach was in adapting it and if I had any advice or pointers for them. I just sent him a pretty lengthy response that I think others might find useful as well, so I'm sharing it here:

"Adapting a novel is a pretty complicated task. The most important first step is to make sure you have permission from the right person to do the adaptation. I know people who have had their productions shut down or even been threatened with legal action because they didn't get the appropriate permission in advance. I can offer additional suggestions on how to go about doing that in another email if you like, but I think the main thing you were asking is about the 'how' of doing the adaptation itself. At the risk of being obvious, here are some basic suggestions- first of all, it helps if you're really enthusiastic about the material- you're going to have to spend a lot of time thinking about and 'living with' this book, so don't choose works that don't really speak to you at all. Also, you should become extremely familiar with the novel. Even if you think you already know it, read it again. Then read it a second time, and take notes- even mark in the book, if you're okay with marking up the copy you have. Make notes of the sections you think are especially important- the scenes that you think are the best, or that are the most important as far as what the book it 'about' to you. While you're going through, some ideas might start popping in to your head- you might start being able to really clearly picture a scene as it would unfold on stage, or an idea as to a really cool way to stage or symbolize something you already know you won't be able to show literally on stage. Also, some sections might stand out to you as "oh, I definitely want to cut this part" for whatever reason. Don't commit yourself to cutting those parts, but definitely make note of it. Once you feel confident that you're very familiar with the novel and have a good idea of what parts work for you and are important to you, it's time to begin actually creating the first draft of the script.
There are two basic ways to create the first draft of the script- the first way is to script the scenes you like best and can see most clearly in your head, no matter where they fall in the play. Then once you have those scenes created, you slowly flesh it out, linking up the scenes until you have the full script. The other way is to just start at the beginning and work your way through the book page by page. I've found that a combination of the two works best- some days you'll be in the mood to plow through the pages in order, and some days you'll want to treat yourself to working on your favorite parts. The key is to be really disciplined- set aside a certain period of time each day (or each week, if you're really busy) to write. Even if you're not feeling really inspired that day, that's okay- there might be parts of the novel that you already know you want to keep verbatim, and days you're feeling less enthusiastic are good days to just type those verbatim scenes in to the script. Set a schedule for yourself and a deadline to finish your first draft- otherwise what you thought would only take a few months can stretch out into a years-long project.
Sometimes it can help to flesh out your adaptation if you write it with specific actors or a specific theatre company and space in mind- as long as you're at peace with the fact that those actors and that space may not be what you wind up getting, it can help fuel your creativity- if you're having to invent dialogue and/or scenes that get glossed over or omitted in the source material, being able to picture the actual actors that would deliver the lines can help fuel your creativity. Also, knowing in advance some of the logistical limitations you'll be facing gives you a structure that can stimulate your imagination. Some of the ideas for the adaptation of "The Last Unicorn" that I'm proudest of came from knowing we were only going to have a limited budget and only so many people that could fit into our venue's dressing room.
In general I'm a big fan of using what I call Performance Art touches in my pieces, as they were taught to me either in class with Paul Edwards, or by viewing pieces by the likes of Mary Zimmerman and Frank Galati. That includes not being shy about narration or direct address to the audience (while still being as economical about it as possible; it's easy to kill the audience's enthusiasm with too much narration), not being afraid to use dance and movement to forward the action of the story, and employing simple symbols for complex or impossible-to-literally-stage moments. For example, using the white rose to symbolize the unicorn's horn.
Once you have a first draft, go through it again before you show it to anyone. You'll be surprised how many typos and other things that don't entirely make sense make it into a first draft. Then, get together a bunch of your actor friends and do a private reading of it. Don't read any parts yourself- not even the stage directions! Instead, listen carefully and take lots of notes- hearing the lines spoken out loud will make it a lot clearer to you what's working and what isn't. Also get their feedback- you're not going to agree with all of it- and you should never feel compelled to follow anyone's advice on changes to your script- but the suggestions you get will reveal to you how others are reacting to the piece- what *they* think it's about, and what parts work for them best, or confuse them. Some of that feedback will make good sense to you, or at least enough sense that you'll want to try it out. Then do rewrites!
Sometimes it can help once you've done a rewrite to just set the script aside (say for a few weeks or even months) before returning to it. That can help freshen your perspective on it, and a few more ideas may occur to you, or you may catch some things you want to fix that you hadn't noticed before. Also, sometimes your friends can get tired of rereading the script too often if you don't space out the readings a bit.
In general, don't be afraid to take chances. It's a lot of work, but there are few things as satisfying as sitting in the audience and feeling the people around you responding to a script you adapted. I hope some of this helps you, and good luck!"

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