"Written By-Adapted From-" Adaptation and the Voice of the Playwright

By Eason, Laura | TriQuarterly, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

"Written By-Adapted From-" Adaptation and the Voice of the Playwright


Eason, Laura, TriQuarterly


Building a House of Your Own

Imagine you have just inherited a gigantic mansion. It was built more than a century ago with the most luxurious materials of the time. It is a unique place full of character, beauty, charm, and inspiration. The kitchen needs work and the upstairs layout is a little awkward, but, all in all, there is a great deal to love.

Now, say your newly acquired mansion has to be removed from its current location. The only land belonging to you is a little plot down by the stream where the mansion will never fit. So, you decide to save what you can by building a new, smaller house using salvaged materials from the mansion. To make a plan, you ask, "How much do I want the new house to look like the old? What do I want to keep? What do I want to let go of? What new materials will I need? How can I preserve what I love about the mansion but still make the new house distinctly my own?"

This metaphor for adaptation is imperfect (maybe it should be turning the house into an airplane to more clearly underline the difficulty of turning a novel into a play?) but it will suffice.

The metaphor is helpful, first, because it gets at a general assumption about adaptation; that as an adapter, you merely edit the original text down to something playable in two or so hours in the theater. In my experience, good adaptation always involves some degree of invention in at least one, if not all, of the elements--story, plot, character, dialogue, setting, description, and conception of the piece for a three-dimensional theatrical space. Good adaptation, although clearly connected and deeply indebted to the original text, should be able to stand alone from the source material, and in an ideal world, its story and intentions would be taken on its own terms.

Secondly, most people understand that it isn't any easier to build a house with salvaged materials than it is to build something totally new. However, many people think that an adaptation is easier to write than an original play. As the author of eight full-length original plays and eight full-length adaptations, I state emphatically that writing an adaptation is at least as difficult as writing an original script.

Finally, there is the notion that adaptors lack a voice, the thing we are told we are looking to find as a playwright, because with adaptation you are often trying to match the voice of the author of the source material. So, the question seems to linger, "what kind of writer are you if your voice can be subsumed?" The truth is adaptation is a constant conversation between the voice of the playwright and the voice of the author of the work being adapted as the playwright decides what "materials" to keep, how to use them and what of his or her own voice to add to the construction. The ways in which an adaptor chooses to mirror or not to mirror the voice of the source material is a major choice of the adaptation process and one that should be viewed as a choice. And in situations where a seamlessness of voice is desired, I would challenge anyone to prove that convincingly capturing the voice of, say, Charles Dickens, Dorothy Parker, or Don DeLillo does not require great skill.

Finding the Big Idea

My adaptation work has been a combination of commissions that were brought to me and projects I have found on my own. Whatever way I come to a project, I first read the text a couple of times. From that reading and rereading, the story that I want to tell begins to emerge. This may seem surprising, but it is usually the case that the story you choose to tell as an adaptor is somewhat different than the story told in the source material. For example, I chose to adapt the Jules Verne classic Around the World in Eighty Days for Lookingglass Theatre in 2008, but the story I wanted to tell as an adaptor included new and different story elements.

This might be viewed as radical, but it is essential to good adaptation. Novels have a different structure than plays and typically tackle many themes and include a multitude of characters and ideas, more than a stage play can comfortably accommodate in an evening of theater. …

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