Writing Excuses 9.52: From the Page to the Stage
Key Points: To adapt a book to the stage, start by identifying what is important, plot, character, character development, theme, motives. What are the iconic elements? Look at what is playable, what can be read on a stage. Go through, scene by scene, and look at what’s important, what characters are introduced, what information is revealed. Think about using audience address (narrative) to compress. Know the size of the theater and the budget. Pay attention to scene changes! If you can, get a troupe of actors to read it. Simplify stage directions, and depend on the director.
[Mary] Season nine. Episode 52.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, from the page to the stage.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And Brandon’s missing. And he’s missing because we have two special guests this week, Allison Hill and C. Austin Hill who, I have been led to understand, are doing an adaptation of a Dan Wells book.
[Dan] That’s correct.
[Mary] Who’s Dan Wells?
[Howard] Oh, that was behind Dan [at the end].
[Dan] We never say the last name, huh.
[Mary] Oh. You!
[Dan] Yes. This is actually my sister and her husband. They live in Tennessee. She owns… Or not owns, but runs a children’s theater. He is a theater professor. As one of her projects, she has taken my vampire comedy A Night of Blacker Darkness and we’re converting that, adapting it as a stage play. We thought, “This is too perfect. Let’s do an episode about stage adaptation.”
[Howard] I love it. Okay. So from a structural standpoint, just for the discussion, I want to start with the theory of this. The title of the episode, from the page to the stage, that’s an actual thing that theater people say.
[Chris] That’s right.
[Howard] What is the theory behind this? What are your guiding principles? What are you… Where do you start? I mean besides starting with a great book.
[Chris] You start with the page, and you end with the stage.
[Allison] Yeah, that’s generally what you do.
[Allison] The first thing you have… Like you say, you have to start with a great book. A Night of Blacker Darkness, when you read it, everyone says, “Oh. This has to go on the stage.” So it was a no-brainer. But the first thing that you have to do is, a book, as you may have noticed, is very, very long, and plays are not. So you have to cut it down. You have to look at what is important in the book. Not just plot wise, but character wise, character development wise…
[Allison] Theme. Motives. All of these things that have to go from the book to the stage. Also you have to look at what is playable on stage. That reads well in a book, but does not read on stage.
[Dan] There’s a painful…
[Howard] Mary made this big nodding gesture when you said what is playable on the stage. Is there a story?
[Mary] Oh, there are so many stories. But one of the things that I was also thinking as she was… The nodding gesture was actually the sentence prior to that, which was when you were going through the elements that the audience expects to see. So when you are doing an adaptation, one of the things that you want is for the audience to come out of the theater feeling like they have seen the book. So frequently when you’re doing children’s theater or puppetry or adult theater, you’re doing an adaptation because you’re trying to play off the popularity. Honestly.
[Dan] That’s not a concern with my books.
[Mary] Not always. You’ve got a following.
[Allison] Considerably more so in my town, thank you very much.
[Mary] But often that’s the case. So when they come to see the show, they need to leave the theater feeling like they have actually seen… Like they came to see Pinocchio, they need to feel like they have actually seen Pinocchio. So part of what you’re doing is you’re identifying the iconic elements of the thing. Which includes the tone, the characters, and things like that. But that doesn’t… Depending on the type of adaptation, that doesn’t always mean that you have to do a direct linear translation on the stage. Frequently a direct linear translation on the stage will fail badly.
[Howard] Train wreck. Chris?
[Chris] The brilliant theater writer and theorist, Peter Brook, in his book The Empty Space talks at great length about adaptation. He talks about changes in form. He talks about when you take something that’s in one artistic form and you make it into another artistic form, like a book to a play, or a book to a film, or any other sort of adaptation, there are necessary changes in form that have to take place. But keeping the structural integrity or the story integrity or the character integrity or hopefully some variation of all of these things is what’s going to help your audience feel that sense of fullness when they leave the theater after seeing this adaptation.
[Mary] Yeah. One of the…
[Howard] So let me… Oh, go ahead.
[Mary] Well, one of the things that theater can do that has an enormous [toll?] in writing is scenery. We spend a lot of time as writers describing stuff. So you have to control the order of presentation, whereas the theater, the audience is going to be looking at the whole stage. So while there is still a cost for theater, the cost comes at a different place and in different ways, for the visuals than it does for the visuals in written…
[Howard] As we’ve talked about this translation process, specifically with regard to A Night of Blacker Darkness, are there pieces that jump out at you that you were excited to translate and are there pieces that you threw out?
[Dan] Okay. So there’s a great story involved here, and I’m glad Brandon’s not on this podcast, because it will break his little heart.
[Allison] Oh, yes.
[Dan] Most of the people who read the book, you ask them what their favorite part was and they will say the fact discussion.
[Allison] It’s my favorite part.
[Dan] It is…
[Chris] It’s my favorite part.
[Dan] It’s great. It does not work. This is why it’s so important to identify, like Mary said, the iconic elements that make this story something.
[Howard] You say it does not work. On the stage?
[Dan] It does not work on stage. It works great in the book…
[Dan] But on stage (a) the form is so much shorter. You are there for an hour, an hour and a half. You don’t need the plot recapped halfway through, which is part of the purpose of the fact discussion. Another reason is it just simply doesn’t read… When you’re reading along, you have the freedom… Part of the purpose is that it is intentionally confusing. That’s what makes it kind of funny, is that… They’re referring to 19 or 20 different things purely by number. You kind of lose track, and the reader is encouraged to either flip back and try to figure out, “Wait, which was fact five again?” That doesn’t play on a stage because you don’t have that freedom to flip back and forth.
[Howard] Okay. Having seen the Blue Man group show, it occurs to me that the way Blue Man group would handle something like that is with actual numbers and sign cards being carried around on the stage…
[Chris] Yes, they would. Yes, they would.
[Howard] But that is not the play that you guys are making.
[Allison] If we were doing that sort of a play, I would 100% stick that in and do it with numbers and sign cards, because I’m all about that kind of theater. It just doesn’t work in this play.
[Chris] This stage adaptation is going to be somewhat more akin to realism, really.
[Allison] As much as a play about vampires…
[Chris] As much as a play about vampires could be about realism.
[Howard] Which is why you started with this book.
[Chris] We wanted to do realism. We thought, “Vampires are good.”
[Allison] Yeah. Absolutely.
[Dan] So what we had to do then, once Allison pointed that out to me, and I’m like, “But I like that part.” There are so many darlings that have to be murdered in the process of doing this adaptation.
[Allison] About vampires.
[Dan] We had to look at that scene and say, “Well, what’s really important about it?” It’s not the really funny, confusing conversation. It’s the one key decision that they make. So we just have to make that in a different way that’s shorter and plays [inaudible]
[Howard] So on the subject of murdering darlings, our book of the week this week is A Night of Blacker Darkness. Dan? You want to pitch this to us so that they can hear it before the darlings are all dead?
[Dan] A Night of Blacker Darkness is a book that I self published a few years ago. You can find it on Audible. You can find Kindle versions and stuff. But it is a historical vampire farce, set in 1817 in England, about a man who is trying to steal an inheritance. He is a banker committing bank fraud. He gets caught. Then he realizes that his scheme is still in motion, but he has to escape. So he escapes from prison in the classical way. He pretends to be dead. Gets hauled out in a coffin. When he gets out of the coffin at the graveyard, somebody sees him and assumes he’s a vampire. So he then spends the rest of the book running away from the police, the vampire hunter, the actual vampires, and trying as hard as he can to commit this crime with the help of John Keats and Mary Shelley.
[Howard] Outstanding. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. The Night of Black… [blibbity-blah] Night of Blacker Darkness by Dan Wells, read by Sean Barrett. You can start a trial membership and have that read to you for free.
[Howard] Okay. How do you go about this? We’ve talked a little bit about theory. What are your… What’s in your toolbox? When you need to take something like this and bring it on the stage, you’ve already made some decisions about ditching the fact scene, what the theme is. What are your tools for making this work?
[Allison] There’s a lot of tools. You have… Like you just have to go through, scene by scene. First of all, you have to put it into scenes. Then you have to go through scene by scene what’s important, what characters are introduced, what information do we learn. There’s a lot of things. Something that I toyed with with Night of Blacker Darkness, what can be condensed into an audience address?
[Allison] Narrative. Thank you. Which is something that we do a lot in the children’s theater. When you take for instance Cinderella, which is an hour and a half children’s movie, and you take it down into a half an hour long children’s play, nearly the entire thing is done in narrative.
[Chris] [inaudible — you can cover an awful lot in narrative?]
[Howard] One of your characters is a narrator who is…
[Allison] You can cover a whole lot. Oh, yeah. Most of them are narrators. You can cover vast amounts of plot in narration.
[Mary] If I can jump in here and translate that for our listeners who are usually writing prose, what she’s talking about is that there are times in theater… Most of the time, you’re doing showing in theater. When you bring in a narrator, you switch to telling. So when we say show, don’t tell. This is a prime example of where you can use telling or narration to compress things.
[Howard] [inaudible — William Tell is dead?]
[Mary] Yes. You do that in places where you need to convey information and move the plot along.
[Allison] Very quickly.
[Mary] So that you can get to the part that is actually fun to see.
[Allison] So where Frederick, for instance, the main character, instead of showing him going from the prison to the graveyard and going through that whole process, he could just say, “And now I’m in the coffin and I’m going here and doing this.” We can just go there very, very quickly. I toyed with that, but there’s so much in the latter half of the book that we want to see and we don’t want to be told that it just… It doesn’t work very well for this book. I don’t think it’s going to work.
[Mary] I’m going… If I may jump in on one other thing very quickly. One of the other things that this is useful for also is of things… Is one step that we did not talk about in the adaptation is knowing the size of the theater and your budget.
[Chris] That’s right.
[Mary] Because in… On a Broadway stage with unlimited budget, you would have absolutely been able to show the going from the grave… Going from the jail to the graveyard. Because you could have had hydraulics and 50 gajillion stagehands. In a smaller theater for children where you only have half an hour, you cannot afford either the time or the resources. With writing…
[Chris] Even at a small college, where we’ve got… Where we’ll be doing this production… I have some resources. I don’t have the resources of large Research I universities. So we’ve got lights and we’ve got curtains and we have a stage. I don’t have a fly system to fly things in and out and I don’t have hydraulics to lift things up and down and I don’t have a trapdoor to drop things out of sight.
[Mary] Oh, trapdoor.
[Dan] So this has been a big concern as Allison and I go through the script back and forth and we listen to the readings and we think, “Well, how are we going to make this scene change work?” That is actually a big part of which scenes we use in which scenes we don’t use.
[Chris] Because we don’t have a fly system.
[Howard] Okay. So that’s… I was going to say a can of worms, but I’m not can-of-wormings this for another episode. Dan… They’re involving you in this process?
[Howard] You get to play along?
[Dan] I do. Officially, Allison and I are collaborating on this project.
[Howard] So how… What is the big difference for you?
[Dan] Well, from my perspective, it allows us to cheat a little bit more. If I were adapting like Harry Potter for the stage, for example, I would feel more obligated to present it as the author wrote it. Since… Given that I am the author and I can adapt it anyway that I want, Allison and I have made some pretty big decisions.
[Dan] Like, let’s remove this location from the story altogether.
[Howard] You have the luxury to say, “This is actually what I meant.”
[Dan] Or, this is how I’m going to convey this now. Rather than moving back and forth between London and Bath, we’re going to set the entire thing in London because that makes our scene transitions easier and that allows us to put in more story and less connective tissues.
[Mary] Although you do actually do that even when you don’t have access to the author.
[Chris] A bit.
[Dan] Which is true. I just feel less guilty about doing it.
[Allison] We probably would.
[Chris] You asked earlier about the tools available in doing this adaptation. One of the best tools available to us, because I’m the head of a theater program at a small college with a beginning acting class is I have a troupe of actors. The cardinal rule of theater, the fundamental truth is that theater was never meant to be read, it was always meant to be heard. To be able to sit down with a troupe of actors…
[Allison] Well, you have me.
[Chris] [inaudible…] And doing a reading of this script, with Dan on Skype, we were able to let Dan and Allison both hear…
[Howard] Because Shakespeare used Skype.
[Allison] Yeah. He totally did.
[Chris] You bet he did.
[Allison] Yeah. I heard… FaceTime. Yeah.
[Chris] He spent all of his time at Stratford, really.
[Mary] His original name was actually Skypespeare.
[Chris] You didn’t know that? Yeah, Skypespeare. But we were able to allow… I was able to allow Dan and Allison to focus on listening to these words and to this play by providing them with the troupe of actors.
[Mary] There’s also a saying that if an actor… If it is possible for a line to be misinterpreted, the actor will find it.
[Allison] Oh, yes. And Regency English lines read in the Tennessee accent. That was
[Dan] Listening to these kind of deep Southern accents reading this…
[Chris] That was funny.
[Dan] Oh, it’s been fantastic, but as Chris points out…
[Mary] It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune… Sorry.
[Dan] It’s been a great boon to the process.
[Allison] Frederick, are you really a vampire?
[Allison] How can you be a vampire, Frederick?
[Chris] Sometimes [garbled]
[Mary] Bless his heart. No, he don’t have a heart. He’s a vampire.
[Allison] I’m writing a book about Frankenstein.
[Mary] Oh, no.
[Chris] Oh, dear.
[Scrambled… Several people talking]
[Mary] Sorry. I’m making fun of my own people.
[Howard] As we’re doing these… Hopefully bad imitations of these actors. Confession. When I read Night of Blacker Darkness, it didn’t strike for me the way it struck for a lot of people. I didn’t find it funny enough. Part of that… Well, hang on! Part of that is that the way I voiced the dialogue and the jokes and the things in my head was very different from the way Dan was voicing it. So when you say an actor… If there’s a wrong way to read it, an actor will find it. If there was a wrong way to read this book, I probably found a lot of them. When you have actors reading these lines… Okay, I guess this is a directorial question, how do you in the script direct them so that the emphasis is on the right syllable and so on and so forth, so that the jokes hit?
[Chris] Part of that becomes my job. Once the script is done, I’ll be directing the production of this that we hope to do in the fall. Part of that then becomes my job. I need to understand authorial intent. I need to understand what the playwrights meant to do.
[Allison] Well, and part of… Before it even gets there is simplifying the stage directions. Because he’s done really great in the books, the… Is descriptions, I have to simplify that into the stage directions so instead of his like Percy screams… I don’t even know what you wrote, but it goes on for a paragraph of Percy’s scream, and I’m just like, “Percy screams.”
[Chris] But we’re able to take… Through clarity on their part and through understanding both the texts… I need to understand their performance text. I also, part of my responsibility as director, is to understand Dan’s original story.
[Howard] Good luck.
[Chris] I need to know where it came from. I need to understand the original from whence the adaptation was made. Then I need to understand the performance text. Then I need to understand my actors well enough to know how to get them to that end goal. Because if I leave it in their hands, just like if they left it in my hands. By ourselves, I mean. Something’s bound to go wrong. But through collaboration and through… I very much want Dan and Allison both involved in every facet of this production up until the day we open, to the extent that they can be.
[Dan] What he’s talking about, very quick, before we end… That’s one of the great benefits of having the cast be able to read this and be able to listen to it. Allison and I have been doing our best to try and discern, “Okay, that line didn’t work.” Is it because they read it wrong? Or is it because that line just doesn’t work? That’s helped us kind of pare it down to what it needs to be, the core essence of the show in an hour and a half on stage.
[Chris] What was very good news was that even the first time these actors help these words in their hands and the first time they opened their mouths and out of their mouths these words came…
[Allison] They were laughing so hard.
[Chris] They were laughing at times hard enough that we had to stop and we couldn’t continue.
[Howard] Oh, that’s always a good sign.
[Chris] Which is a very good sign. To me, as a director, as the sort of decision-maker on programming this play, that was how I knew that this was going to go forward. I didn’t need to see a final draft before I can commit to this project moving forward with my company at my little college.
[Chris] Because I know that it’s funny enough in the first draft of the adaptation that I could put it straight to the stage.
[Howard] Okay. We are out of time. I want to ask a yes/no can-of-worms question for Dan. Has this experience of adaptation informed in your writing in ways that’s going to change the way you write books in the future?
[Dan] Not yet.
[Mary] I’ll say yes, because I’ve done this, and yes it has.
[Howard] Outstanding. Dan is… You have our writing prompt?
[Dan] I do have the writing prompt. The core idea for this story, for Blacker Darkness, when I started writing it years ago, was let’s take vampires and depict them as having all of the weaknesses and none of the strengths of a traditional vampire. The story kind of grew out of that. So that’s your writing prompt. Pick a monster and then write a story in which that monster has all of the weaknesses traditionally associated with it, but none of the strengths that make it powerful.
[Howard] You are out of excuses. Now go write.