Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Adaptation Process

I was contacted today by a newspaper reporter who was doing an article about adaptations. I think the article is in conjunction with the opening of Something Wicked This Way Comes at UVU’s Noorda Theatre this weekend, which is an adaptation of the book by Ray Bradbury. The reason I was contacted was Katie Farmer referred her to me as I had just done the adaptation on Tom Sawyer.

So, that got me thinking about the adaptation process. I am no expert, but I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts on the process for my weekly assignment.

Read the Source Material. This seems obvious, but a good deal of research goes into an adaptation. I usually read the book straight through the first time and then read it at least once or twice more taking copious notes. I like to get a paperback so I can write all over the book itself. Then I expand my research into the author, looking at his/her life, what else they wrote, what they have to say about the work and any historical research needed.

Analyze the Work. This is where Katie’s classes have come in so handy. I use her model to define the major characters and what role functions they play in the story. I identify the kind (drama, tragedy, comedy or satire) and any sub-categories by looking at who wins and loses in the story. I look for plot patterns and other identifying plot features. It is very important to fully understand the work before playing with it. When adapting there are a lot of things you can change and play with, but one should keep the foundational structure the same or you have fractured the story and most likely you’re adaptation will be rejected. For example, to have Injun Joe reform in the end changes his role function. I can change other things about him. I personally was uncomfortable with the racial slurs aimed at him in the book. I didn’t feel that I could change his name, as it is so iconic, but I took out all the “half-breed” comments. Instead, he was a murdurin’ lowlife or some other such name.

The next step is to decide what is the most important thing about the story or its theme. This can be different for each person, but as you will be the author of your adaptation, this is your chance to pull out what you think is important. This doesn’t mean you hit your audience over the head with your chosen theme, but it does color your choices. Adaptation is all about making choices. You most likely are working with source material that is much longer than your finished play will be. Choosing your theme gives your work focus. Every scene you choose to include should serve that focus and other scenes, no matter how much we like them, will have to fall to the wayside.

Once I have clearly defined the focus and direction of the piece, I try to map out the scenes from beginning to end. I make sure that the important elements of inciting incident, dramatic question, turning point, rising action, climax and denouement are all still there. Don’t be too tied to the sequence of events as played out in the book. As long as you don’t change foundation parts of the story, you can change a lot of stuff and will need to if it is going to work in a new medium. At this point I often have to make choices based on my cast and where the show is going to be performed. Is it a show that will travel to schools? They I have to keep the cast and presentation small. Is it being mounted in a large theatre? Is it a community production that wants a cast of thousands? These are all elements that need to be considered. Then I get writing, usually moving from beginning to end till I get the whole story down.

The last stage is rewriting. I like to look at the piece as a whole, and then shape and trim it. I like to see what’s working and where it feels like it’s dragging. At this point and at any point in the process it’s very helpful to read it out loud, have it critiqued by others, have actors read through it. Feedback can be hard to come by and hard to take, but it is an essential part of the process. Try to create a coaching situation where you can workshop your work with others.

Adaptations can be full of pitfalls and problems since you are tied in many ways to your original source material at least on some level, but they can be a lot of fun and an excellent writing challenge.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wendy Goes on the War Path

I've just been cast as Leonata (a female version of Leanoto) in Much Ado About Nothing at UVU. Our version is set in the Mexican revolution in 1913. We are Zapatistas, fighting for our lands and freedom. I will look very much like the woman in the old photo above. Don't miss it! I can pretty much guarantee you it will be the only time you'll get to see me as a pistol-packin' mama!

Dec 3-12, 2009 at the Noorda Theatre http://

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Labyrinth of Meaning

We are studying tragedy in my Script and Text Analysis class, and it was recommended that we watch an excellent example of a dark tragedy: Pan’s Labyrinth. It has all the earmarks of a dark tragedy; it is a serious work, is vast, epic and heroic, it deals with big issues, is beautiful in its writing and execution, it aroused emotions of pity and fear, was cathartic, had a noble protagonist, was relentlessly honest, had a Savior figure that is a sacrificial lamb (quite literally in this case,) deals with spiritual or elevated concerns, has a noble protagonist that is not always understood and has a tragic flaw (in this case, Ofilia escapes her world through a belief in magic,) the tragic hero dies and as in the case of a dark tragedy (not so in regular tragedies) the system was taken down and pretty much everyone dies except the safe character (Mercedes.) Mercedes is also the footprint who will raise the new innocent baby in a more humane manner. This rather long list comes from the research of my Analysis professor, Katie Farmer.

Beyond it being an excellent, picture-perfect example of dark tragedy, what really caught my fancy about this film are the layers of meaning and mythological symbols. I admit it; I’m a little fanatical about myth and folktales. I’m not sure I even understand why, but it has something to do with the power imbedded in the stories, especially stories that were handed down for centuries by word of mouth – for these are the ones countless numbers of people felt were important enough to keep passing down. Think about it – it’s pretty remarkable. I think it boils down their universal truths and I’m sure for every story that was passed down, a hundred less-worthy ones fell by the wayside. The writing in Pan’s Labyrinth is very mythological in style and scope, and like all good dark tragedies, it is beautiful and epic as well.

So, onto Pan’s Labyrinth’s symbolic meaning…. A labyrinth itself is highly symbolic. It represents a spiritual journey to the core and the cycles, twists and turns that all journeys take. It can also represent birth and rebirth and the transition from one world to another – which strongly reflects the movie. The labyrinth can also represent the four cardinal directions and the crossroads that form between them. Crossroads is a reoccurring idea in the movie. All the meanings of a labyrinth cannot be easily detected for a labyrinth is a holder of secrets, but it can also mean a inner, upper spiraling of knowledge or awareness (as in Piaget’s cognitive theory.) As related to the movie, it could be the moving away from the violent, twisted-masculine world of Vidal to the more humane and altruistic world of Mercedes, the doctor and Ofilia.

Our protagonist, Ofilia, has a highly symbolic name as well. She mirrors Shakespeare’s character from another famous dark tragedy, Hamlet. Both are innocents overcome by trauma and perhaps going mad, although their losing touch with an unbearable reality could be seen as a sane choice.

And that touches on one of the main themes: People dealing with trauma and the choices it drives them to. Looking at the movie and its symbols through the eyes of Carl Jung can be very helpful in understanding the mythological references and how they apply to the traumatized psyche of Ofilia. In Jungian theory, all portions of the story, the good, the bad and the ugly all refer to parts of our own psyche. So everything that Ofilia encounters in the mythic realm, is just her mind trying to work through her intense trauma. Jungian analyst, Donald Kalsched, said, “When human resources are unavailable, archetypal resources will present themselves.” That is exactly what is happening to Ofilia in this movie.

Ofilia is at a crossroads in her life. She is being uprooted to a new and very dangerous world and her mother is ill and ineffectual. Her position is very precarious. At her crossroads, she hears the classic Campbell’s “The Call” and she crosses “The Threshold.” At this point, she meets a fawn who gives her a book, called The Crossroads. Its blank pages can then be filled in by her subconscious to explore the knowledge she needs to learn to continue on her journey – her journey to face “The Shadow.” At this point in her journey, her reality is split into two: the ordinary realm and the mythic realm. The fawn is of the mythical world and is of earth, magic and ancient knowledge. This is in great contrast to the ordinary world which is disconnected from nature, the soul and basic humanity. The Fascists symbolize this ordered, highly clean world. The Rebels, in another contrast are of the woods – somewhere in between, but more aligned with the mythic world. Both the mother and Mercedes tell Ofilia that there is no magic or they no longer believe in it. This also shows the tendency to get disconnected from our souls/subconscious as we grow up.

It is interesting that to complete her first task, Ofilia has to take off her brand new dress (a great symbol the Vidal’s world,) and enter the filthy, muddy inner bowels of the old tree. She is covered in earthiness by the time she is done. In the belly of the tree, she has to face her fears. She tells the giant toad who she is and that she is not afraid. Both of these simple statements hold great power in facing up to life’s challenges. As she faces up to what she fears, she is awarded the key to self-knowledge, freedom and life (the tree regenerates due to her efforts.)

Her second task is much harder and more disturbing. The child-eating monster could represent Ofilia’s own appetites and passions. When she indulges in the two grapes, she awakens her monster – the appetite within. It is interesting that as the monster’s eyes are in its hands, it cannot see while it is indulging its appetite. How true for all of us. Ofilia barely escapes as the monster is eating and perhaps her experience is one of finding the balance between repressing our passions and indulging in them.

Her last task is all about obedience, which I think is really linked to the theme about keeping our humanity through our own journey. The doctor states it well, when he walked away from Vidal and said, “I cannot obey just like that, just because you tell me to – that is only for men like you to do.” He is right, but he pays for his courageous humanity with a bullet in his back. Leading up to the third task, the fawn mirrors this by telling Ofilia that he requires absolute obedience. Up to this point Ofilia has been walking the tightrope of obedience. As she enters the mythical world, she begins to disobey her mother inadvertently, by doing things her mother would never approve of: going out into the woods by herself, getting covered with mud and continuing to be involved in magical thinking. She is also inadvertently disobeying her new step-father by not divulging what she knows about Mercedes’ rebel activities. She also starts to think for herself. For example, in the second task, she follows her intuition instead of following the fairies and opens the right door. This is a trial and error process, for the next time she thinks for herself by disobeying the fairies by eating the grapes she almost gets killed and her actions costs the life of two fairies. At the climax, she is again at a crossroads. She desperately wants out of her reality, but to gain access to the magic world and to obey the fawn is to take the life of her new baby brother. She, like the doctor, refuses and pays for it with her life. But as she lay dying, she comes to realize that by giving up all, she has gained all – she has retained her humanity.

I have never thought of the issue of obedience as connected to humanity, but after viewing this movie, I can see that they are strongly linked. The choice between obedience and disobedience can be tricky and dangerous on many levels. We have to carefully choose where and to what we align our obedience. In the end, it should be a matter of humanity.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Character Study - Cor

I am writing a play for my New Play Workshop class. It is a piece for Young Audiences called The Storytelling Stone. The protagonist, is named Cor. I have read through the chapter in my playwrighting book on Character and have decided to write some thoughts on Cor, covering some of the ideas in the chapter.

Cor is 13 years old. He lives in the distant past in a foreign land besieged by war. The land is thought to be the birthright of two different tribes, who have fought over it for centuries. Cor belongs to the Pastio tribe, farmers and sheepherders, who have lived in the area for three generations. Recently, the Nava tribe invaded and Cor’s family – father, mother, sisters and grandmother were killed. Cor was brought from his family’s land into the village to serve as a slave for a prominent Nava family.

Haley Joel Osment dressed very much as I envision Cor

First Dimension
Cor stutters and is hesitant to talk.
Cor is fearful and traumatized.
Cor is loyal, especially to the Storytelling Stone.
Cor wants his freedom, but has nowhere to go.

Second Dimension
Cor is mistrustful of and angry with the Nava, but also grew up with stories from his Grandmother that gives him a broader view of the “enemy” than most others around him.
Deep down inside, Cor has much wisdom to share.
Cor has an inner core of strength instilled by his family.
Cor’s integrity to his promises made to the Stone will push him to courageous actions.
Cor wants desperately for people to stop and see each other’s stories, and for each person to be respected and valued regardless of tribal affiliation.

Third Dimension
Cor feels so alone that he is willing to reach out to a boy (Lux) who has treated him with utter contempt.
Cor is so powerless that he latches immediately unto the idea of being a Stone Reader – it gives him a sense of purpose and divine calling – an anchor in an unstable and cruel world.
Cor’s integrity to the Stone becomes his driving force and he pushes past fear to take a courageous stand.
His integrity and loyalty to the Stone translates into loyalty to Lux.

Cor’s stutter is a clear individualization that sets him apart from the other characters. He is also one of the only meek and open characters (besides Fabula,) although many of the other character gain an increase of openness and centeredness after coming in contact with Cor.

Basing Characters on Real People
I had not originally based Cor on anyone, but if I had to chose someone, Haley Joel Osment from Sixth Sense comes to mind. His haunted eyes, his hesitancy and pain could very much be of the same color as Cor.

Character Arc
Cor has a dramatic character arc in which he finds his voice. Situations are such that he increasingly has to step forward, past fear, and claim his destiny. A narrative device also hints at greater things to come at the end of the play.

Character Catalyst
The Storytelling Stone and some of the events beyond Cor’s control are catalysts in the story, but his motivations as expressed above are what truly drive his actions.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A New Adaptation

Last week, a friend of mine from Park City, called. I used to work with Dana at the Egyptian Theatre there. She used to be the Artistic Director of the theatre. She called to say that the theatre has asked her to direct the Christmas show this year and she was wondering if I could write an original adaptation of the A Christmas Carol. Over ten years ago, we did a version of A Christmas Carol together. She was the director and I was the musical director. It’s hard to find a good version, so we found the best we could and doctored it up. It was a musical and we didn’t end up using half the song because they were pretty lame. Anyway, the best part of our production was the caroling quartet. I found authentic arrangements from the time period of traditional carols and we had the quartet sing as they changed all the scenery. The audience loved the quartet. So based on that, we decided to throw out all the other music this time around and further develop the idea of the quartet being central to the show. If Dana can cast it with singers who can act well, the quartet will also play multiple roles.

The fun part of writing a script for a specific production is that you can tailor fit it perfectly to your needs. That’s how the Tom Sawyer adaptation arose. We were asked to tour a production of Tom Sawyer and we knew we couldn’t travel with more than five people. There were no scripts in existence that had those parameters, so I got to write it and once it was cast, I put specific things in for the specific actors that we had. For instance, our Becky Thatcher is a wonderful singer, so I put in a short hymn for her to sing during the funeral scene.

So now I’ve spent the last week writing the first draft of Christmas Carol (and getting far too little sleep) and am now waiting for further direction from the designers and the director and waiting to see who gets cast and then I’ll start the rewrites. Meanwhile, I’ll keep going over it, cleaning it up and trying to add in some humor It’s a very fun process – not quite like writing an original story – but very good experience none the less.