Saturday, 8 February 2014

Adaptation - learning from the experts. By Keren David.

Three jealous girls plot against lottery winner Lia
How do you go about adapting a book for the stage? This is something I’ve been working on for the last 18 months, adapting my teenage book Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery into a musical, along with the very talented people from Perfect Pitch, a company formed to support new musicals, funded by the Arts Council. 
Last month I had an excellent chance to get some tips from other writers, when the National Theatre held a panel event about adapting children’s books for the stage. They talked about the process of adaptation, illustrated by extracts from the books and then the same scene translated onto the stage. It was fascinating and, for me, exceptionally useful.
Carl Miller talked about adapting Emil and the Detectives, the classic 1920s German book.  He wanted a stage large enough for many child performers, because he saw the book as being about ‘the agency of children’ in a world of powerful adults. With that in mind the National cast its net widely when looking for child performers, including many who would not usually have considered auditioning -  a life-changing experience for them. He was also aware that often these child actors would be all alone on the stage, holding the attention of a large audience -  a daunting prospect for anyone. 
In every scene he asked himself what was the challenge for Emil, what was the shift within the scene that needed to be dramatized. Often he changed dialogue to action -  in the scene we saw, characters talking about fighting in the book were actually fighting on stage. Above all Carl Miller was aware of giving a sense of Emil’s world, of the fear and danger of authority. Setting it in Weimar Germany (previous adaptations had up-dated contemporary settings) gave the children’s struggle against uncaring adults an added sinister and poignant edge.
Lia reflects on winning £8 million.

Helen Edmundson adapted both Swallow and Amazons and Coram Boy for the National. I was particularly interested in Swallows and Amazons because, it is a musical, and like me Helen Edmundson was writing the ‘book’ or script and not the music or lyrics. She talked about the purpose of songs, how she believed  they need to move the plot forward while also picking up tone and emotion. Most useful to me was her description of the collaborative process, how she’d sit and talk about the plot with the lyricist/composer, go away and write the entire scene in dialogue, then hand it back for him to unstitch the dialogue and tell some of it in a song. Just hearing this has changed the way I work on my musical, helping me relax about the to-and-fro in which dialogue gets swallowed up into songs. 
She also suggested that children’s books, especially for younger children, sometimes tend to reassure and defuse danger, whereas on stage you need to increase jeopardy. Adapting Coram Boy’s darkest scenes, where babies are being buried alive, there was much discussion about how much to show, how to stage it, how much horror children could take. In some ways the scene on stage was less shocking then the book, as ghostly women embodying trees softened the grim realism of the book.
The National Theatre billed the play as being for 12 plus, but knew there would be a wider age range in the audience. Helen Edmundson thought about which characters children would engage with, and left the more shocking actions to other characters, but thought it was important to allow children to be shocked  as long as justice was seen to be done and delivered.
Samuel Adamson worked on The Light Princess with  the musician Tori Amos, who had the idea of adapting a story by George MacDonald for the stage. Their first job was to decide the form the staging would take; a musical, but one in which the essential textures and structure were classical. An operetta is the nearest description that fits the finished product.
With a short story the writer has more scope to extend a moment or an idea, to abandon the original plot and develop the themes -  in this case different responses to grief, the idea of depression/gravity pulling someone down or lightness of spirit/escapism making them float. A song can move plot forward, or extend a moment or emotion over a few minutes.Just one word can turn a fable into magical realism. 
In the break I talked to Helen Edmundson about one of the things that I've found hardest, adapting the plot of a book to fit the structure of a musical. It's quite a rigid structure too - you need to lead up to a big ending to Act 1, start with a big number at the beginning of Act 2, then build up again to a grand climax at the end of Act 2 with maybe a little wrapping up to do at the end. And don't forget your themes too -  just one or two is enough, she says, which means I need to downplay about three. The most essential thing is to have a clear message to implant in your audience's mind at the end.  
The pictures in this post are from a production of Lia's Guide put on by the talented students of the Musical Theatre Academy last June. For me it was like having my first draft read aloud to an audience of strangers and friends, but luckily the songs are great and the students very talented. We learned a lot from that production and the one before it at the University of Carlisle (which was more like having my scrappy notes for a first draft read out loud to an audience) and ever since we've been reflecting on structure, tone, what we like and what we hate.

 We have a week of workshops with actors and musicians coming up next week, trying out new bits of script and songs, working on the plot, weaving something new out of the story of Lia and her £8million jackpot. After that we'll have more writing, more workshops and, one day, a show. I'm learning so much about a new way of writing. I hope this is just the first act. 


Sue Purkiss said...

Sounds really interesting and also really complicated, Keren. Good luck!

Justin Elvins said...

Sounds like something I would want to see. Keep working hard and you'll get there. The Best Underrated Books