Working in the Theatre: Adaptation

The process of working on an adaptation, at least for me, as a playwright, is not very different from working on an original work. There are benefits, in terms of the audience
experience, and there are also dangers. The benefit is, when you’re working on an
adaptation, that the audience comes in and they already have some attachment to those
characters, they already have some expectations. The drawback or the challenge is that they
also come in and they feel ownership of that. What I’m trying to do is create a piece
of theatre that says something new, that helps the novel help us understand our lives in a new way. Sense and Sensibility is about two sisters,
primarily, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and they have lost their father. And they have a younger sister and they have
a mother, and so it’s four women. And at this time in England, women cannot
inherit property, they cannot inherit and own their father’s property, and so their
father asks their step-brother to take care of them, to make sure they’re well taken
care of. And of course what happens is he dies, and
their awful sister-in-law makes sure that they get nothing. Kate Hamill and I have been talking about
roles that we would like to play out of literature, and stories that had great female parts that
were not adapted for the stage, and both Kate and I had an interest in this particular story. At the time, Kate had not written a full-length
play, I think she’d written maybe one or two short plays, and she declared that she
was gonna start writing it, and then wrote me a check that I was allowed to cash if she
didn’t produce a first draft, that was how it started. Kate has done an amazing job of telling the
story that Austen wrote in a way that, when you watch this play, when you’re doing this
play, it is the closest thing to the way I remember feeling reading this novel for the
first time. She made an adaptation that’s completely
its own thing. It is a play that is not trying to be the
novel, it’s not trying to be a movie version. It is a play. It doesn’t always completely adhere to what
Jane Austen’s writing or the way she’s writing it, and yet it still feels like her
voice and you get all of the story that you need from her book. [vocal exercises] I adapted Sense and Sensibility because I
had been working as an actor for some time, and I was constantly finding myself in these
rooms where myself and 400 other women who were all talented and qualifies were auditioning
for maybe one or two roles in male-based stories. You’re often playing an accessory to the
hero on his journey, the girlfriend, the prostitute, the wife, and there’s some wonderful roles
for wives and girlfriends and prostitutes, but I was very frustrated. So I realized that if I wanted more work for
women, if I wanted more classical work for women specifically, I was gonna have to do
it myself. Working as both an actor and a playwright
at the same time, it’s pretty easy for me to compartmentalize. When I’m writing the play, I hear a bunch
of different voices in my head, and one of them happens to be the part that I would play. And then when I’m in the room, I’m fairly
able to compartmentalize when I’m doing writing work and when I’m just being an
actor. [vocal exercises] It is pretty rare to have a play with a cast
this size in which so many of the characters are female, and they are not just somebody’s
girlfriend or somebody’s wife or “hot girl number three,” they’re all women
trying to move toward their own financial security, to find love, to find happiness. All these marriages are arranged, and it’s
very difficult to make your way in that world as a woman, and yet what’s beautiful about
the story, and Kate’s script brings this out I think really well, is that you really
get the male point of view as well, which is that they’re kind of trapped by their
situations as well, and it’s not a kind of society you can move freely about. And your own destiny is made for you. I really wanted to create work not only for
myself as an actress, but for other women, and it’s led to that which I’m very grateful
for. As a female artist I feel so much, the honor
and the responsibility of being a female artist when so many women for thousands of years
were not given that opportunity. Jane Austen published her novels anonymously,
because she in society was not supposed to be publishing her novels under her own name,
and to have a voice. Are we going to accept a status quo in which
women are constantly tertiary characters? Or are we going to be the front line of that
defense? And that’s very meaningful to me. [LAUGHTER] His rich wife, not a sympathetic creature,
moved into Noland Park the day after the funeral, without a word of notice to the new widow. My dear John… I talk to the audience afterwards, and they’re
all lovely, and I often get the feedback “well you don’t look like an adaptor,” which
begs the question, well, what does an adaptor look like? And the answer is, most of them are men. Men of course have a complete right to adapt
Jane Austen, but I felt like as a young woman particularly, and as a woman, I have something
to offer. [MUSIC] I was both a music composition major and an
English literature major in college, so I’ve always had this great love of the classics,
and I kind of stumbled my way into theatre, I didn’t think I was gonna be a theatre
maker when I was in college, or even right after that, it just kind of slowly seeped
into my life. So as I started writing things, it was like
a way for me to you know use my English literature kind of obsessions and dive back into these
classical texts that I loved studying so much back then. There’s all these incredible stories that
are just there, just stories that are in the world, and doing it I realized that musical
theatre was the perfect vessel for doing the thing that I want to do, which is storytelling
through music. The most interesting thing about reading old
texts, you know texts that were written a hundred years ago, 500 years ago, thousands
of years ago, is how little humans have changed. You know how in all of these classic texts
you see these characters doing things and thinking things and saying things that you
yourself said just yesterday, or you had friends who did those things as well. Most of my pieces, it’s never been me like
looking for things to do, it’s always been that somehow something just comes up in my
life, and so when I got to War and Peace in my life at that time it just, it just immediately
said, oh this will be a show one day. This one particular section of the book, this
70 page sliver, immediately sang out to me. There was just something about the writing
of it and the tight plotting of it, and I couldn’t believe that no one else had turned
it into a musical before. And what I loved about it the most was that
there were these two stories being told in parallel. There was the story of Natasha and Anatole’s
romantic kind of page-turning soap opera, but at the same time you have the story of
Pierre, who’s just going through this existential mid-life crisis. There’s this moment where Pierre sees this
comet in the night sky, and the comet is this very rich and ambiguous symbol. The comet could mean a reawakening, it could
mean like a spiritual transformation, but it could also mean the apocalypse, it could
mean death and destruction, and you know, comets over the years have been interpreted
in all these different ways, and it’s just this really beautiful moment of Pierre kind
of having this moment with the cosmos and with nature, that I find really profound. I just burst into tears the first time I read
that paragraph, and I think I pretty much cry every time I read that paragraph now,
so that particular moment with the comet had such a profound emotional reaction from me
that I needed to do something with it, and so I made a musical of it. [GREAT COMET – PROLOGUE] This is all in your program, you are at the
Opera. Gonna have to study up a little bit if you
wanna keep with the plot. ‘Cause it’s a complicated Russian novel,
everyone’s got nine different names. So look it up in your program, we appreciate
it thanks a lot. There is something both irreverent and worshipful,
about meeting these classical texts and putting them through a very contemporary lens. Dave and I both, you know we adore the novel,
and so when there’s this opening song, The Prologue, you know “this is all in your
program, you are at the Opera. Gonna have to study up a little bit if you
wanna keep with the plot,” it’s a commentary on how scary War and Peace is to read, and
how freaked out people are by the length of it. And then it’s also to say “we’re gonna
take care of you because this story is beautiful, so come with us on the journey,” in a way
that people might feel afraid to otherwise because they’re intimidated by what some
high school teacher told them about this great novel, which is so harmful because it puts
the writing far away, and it means you may not deserve access to it, which is of course
ridiculous. [GREAT COMET – NO ONE ELSE] First time I heard your voice, moonlight burst
into the room, and I saw your eyes, and I saw your smile, and the world opened wide. And the world was inside of me… The music makes War and Peace palatable, it
makes it approachable, and allows you to be working on the audience on many many different
levels at once. They are perceiving narratives, they’re
reading body language, because that’s what we’re built to do as humans. But when you lay music against it, they’re
being influenced both consciously and unconsciously by the rhythm of the song, by the orchestration. I mean, Dave does his own orchestrations which
is really quite extraordinary. And his musical tastes are so eclectic, so
you have this gorgeous like indie-folk song that Brittain Ashford, playing Sonya, sings
in Act II, next to an aria that sounds like it could be from a Rogers and Hammerstein
score, alongside really really thumping techno. For Great Comet, the first step was I just
took the 70 page sliver of the book and literally cut and pasted from the Internet, and turned
it into a Word document. And then it was really like a mammoth job
of editing, just like deleting paragraphs, deleting characters until I got it down to
a kind of manageable, you know, script size looking thing. And then it became a more microscopic process,
you know “okay well now this actual chapter, how do I turn this chapter into a song, what’s
the one line in this chapter that sings out to me and could become the chorus of a song.” Rachel (Chavkin) is my closest collaborator,
and she’s not just the director she also basically works as the dramaturg on the piece,
and so she always is giving incredible feedback on the script and incredible feedback, and
she’s just also very character-driven, I’m a little more plot, story, and music driven,
and she really hones in on the characters like “ah, this beat is missing in this character’s
arc.” I think any of my processes begins with some
sort of research, with this it was a lot of image research. I almost always go to the picture collection
at the New York Public Library, and will just sit in that room for hours. There’s something about kind of just opening
your reigns to the chaos of being in a room and trying to look for pictures of comets,
but then you think “well, maybe I’ll look at winter coats while I’m here, because
“coats” is near “comets.” [GREAT COMET – CHARMING] How she blushes, how she blushes, my pretty. Oh how she blushes, how she blushes, my pretty. One of the most amazing things about this
production that Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien have done in terms of transforming
a Broadway theatre into a completely immersive space. There’s no stage/audience division, at all. There’s audience members on stage and then
actors run out into the audience all the time. And that design choice was very driven by
Tolstoy, by the source text and wanting to sort of paint this picture of all humanity. But I think even in my wildest dreams I had
no idea that Mimi would succeed so smashingly in making that happen, and just transforming
this theatre into something that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. You see that with a bunch of creative minds
in a room, a play becomes its own thing off the page, it takes a little bit of the soul
of everyone in that room. You have a play on paper, and you can pretty much set it anywhere and do anything with it You have to show the audience from the beginning
what the rules of your storytelling will be, what the rules of that world will be. We could build our own sort of storytelling
world that would carry the world of Jane Austen. I wanted it to be quick-moving and fluid and
mercurial, and not feel like a costume museum piece. I really like to find things in the room. I think in order to break down some barriers
and find new ways of telling a story, or just harder and more satisfying ways of telling
a story, I think you have to build it in rehearsal, and then I always ask myself “is that hard
enough, is that really theatrical in a way that’s satisfying, can we do it better?”
and you maybe throw that version out and try another version. [MUSIC]
[LAUGHTER] Sounds pretty good, the downstage people we
got a little ahead with the arms over the head… We came into the first day of rehearsal in
2014, and Eric sort of said, like, it’s gonna be in an alleyway and stuff is gonna
be on wheels, and it’s gonna wheel in and out. And you know then all of sudden we’re gonna
be in the cottage. And we all kind of looked at him like I have
no idea what that means, because we’re in a rehearsal studio with no rolling furniture
at all. We had one desk chair that rolled, and everything
else was a folding chair or table. Because the scenes are moving so fast, I wanted
us to be able to let this play flow from scene to scene, and location to location, without
the text stopping. So we don’t stop the play to transition
to a new scene, the play and the text keeps moving and our locations catch up to us. For me I like to try to make up the rules
specifically anew each time, which can be a scary thing to do, because you sort of don’t
know where that’s gonna come out or if you’re gonna have something that anyone will like,
but I think you surprise yourself and surprise the audience in the end. [MUSIC] I think it surprises people how funny it is,
things are happening practically in their laps. I think they’re just having a lot of fun
so I keep hearing that people are coming back two and three times, and I think when you
start to get repeat business, you extend, because people come back and back and they
bring their friends. I’m looking forward to Kate moving her way
through, making her way through all of the Austen canons. She’s done a really beautiful Pride and
Prejudice adaptation that is just about ready to go, and I know that she’s got her eye
on a few others, so I think she’s, hopefully she’ll do them all. Kate and I have talked about our own version
of Frankenstein, there are some other things we’ve talked about, but you know there’s
just a lot of stuff on my list. I actually have a couple of productions coming
up, I adapted Vanity Fair, which is coming up off-Broadway at the Pearl Theatre Company
that Eric is also directing in March, and I’m also in that. And I have a Pride and Prejudice coming up
at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, which it looks like I will probably also be in. It’s very difficult for classical companies
to open those doors because so much of the classic work is men, especially Shakespeare. So I think it’s important to be open to
gender-swapping casting, and color-blind casting as well, so this is just the kind of thing
you’re seeing more and more of all the time, thank goodness, because there’s no reason
why anyone can’t play any of the roles. You know, I feel like if I watch a Shakespeare
play with all women, I don’t need to know why it’s all women, as long as they’re
all great and the play is done well, I get it. I feel like if we could get to that place
with more and more work, it would help a lot, because great plays don’t come along that
often, great new plays, I mean. So with War and Peace, it was just this 70
page sliver that kind of sang out to me, but with Moby Dick, it’s really the whole book. Formally, it’s just so very bizarre, like
there’s a story going on but then there’s all these other elements to it. There’s all these chapters that are just
about paintings of whales, and the anatomy of whales, and the different classifications
of whales. There’s different forms, like one chapter
is an encyclopedia, one chapter is a play, there’s soliloquies and monologues. And all this stuff is not essential to the
story of Ahab and Ishmael and the white whale at all, but it is what I feel like makes the
book such an incredible novel. I mean, the book is mad in the most wonderful
way, and so when making this Moby Dick adaptation, Dave really wanted to capture that. And we’re talking about sort of all different
facets of the production supporting that. So like an act where the audience, at least
part of the audience, climbs into whaling boats, and sings and learns sea shanties. And maybe there’s like a pre-show that involves
clam chowder and how to hear the sermon of Jonah, which is one of the first thing that
happens in the book is Ishmael goes to a church and hears the sermon of Jonah and the Whale. And how to give that to the audience as a
little experience that maybe is a satellite to the larger piece. [MOBY DICK SONG REHEARSAL] The first act is like a Broadway-style musical,
but the second act is more of a vaudeville-ian cabaret, and the third act is a jazz song
cycle, and I think the fourth act is probably like a very movement heavy ballet section,
I think? Still TBD. But the idea is definitely to kind of use
the form of Moby Dick and to tell the entire story, not just the plot, but include those
chapters on whaling and tell those parts through different styles of music. You know there’s the classic saying which
is that the movie’s never as good as the book. And I sometimes think that that’s – you
know, there are obviously cases where that’s not true – but I think those adaptations that
are profoundly successful are ones that deal with the thing of the thing, and don’t disregard
the form that the original was placed in, as much as also then the story that it told. [MOBY DICK SONG REHEARSAL]


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