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Melanie Yeats on Page to Stage: The Craft of Adaptation with Vincent Murphy

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Both Melanie Yeats and Kathleen Flaherty attended the PuSh Festival workshop Page to Stage: The Craft of Adaptation with Vincent Murphy in late January 2017. Lead by Vincent Murphy and based on his book by the same title, participants explore the six building blocks fundamental to uncovering the play latent in a work of fiction or other genres, including poems, autobiographies, essays and newspaper articles. Murphy offers what he has learned and taught about adaptation-specific strategies for theme, dialogue, character, imagery, storyline, and action. Belinda Bruce and Kathleen Flaherty asked Melanie to share her thoughts on the workshop.

B: Can you give us a short description of the content?

M: It was a two-day workshop where we went over what are called the “Building Blocks” from Vincent Murphy’s book that he wrote on adaptation, specifically adapting from literature to theatre. He did talk about adapting other forms, like going from comics or many other forms, but this was specifically about literature to theatre, including short stories and works of fiction. He’s developed a pretty straightforward process that uses six different building blocks, so we went through each of them, working through specific pieces of literature that he and other members of the ensemble brought in. It was fun.

B: What attracted you to this workshop?

M: As a mid-career artist without a writing practice I am looking for opportunities to expand my ability to develop work. I’m not a playwright, although I work with lovely playwrights of which there are lots in this city. I want to have more autonomy so that I can create work, and I thought that adaptation might be a way into that. I discovered through the workshop that many of my favourite shows have been adaptations. I remember years ago I saw a show that toured from England, originally a Fringe show, that was an adaptation of a history of Boadecia, [an] ancient English queen.

K: Foursight [Theatre].

M: Great show, right? It was called Boadicea, the Red Bellied Queen. It was amazing. And then shows like Onegin, which was so fantastic. There have been so many great shows that were adaptations.

B: How does it fit into your practice?

M: Adaptation as a formal practice is new for me. So I hope it will fit into my practice, especially by giving me the tools that Vinny supplied us with: how to begin to approach adapting work. It’s one thing to have an idea of a show that I admire and that really sparks an interest in me as an artist and it’s another thing to go, okay, what’s next? how do you start? what are the things you need to bring that practice into the studio? That’s what I think this gave me.

B: What was your overall reaction to the process?

M: Because [Vincent] has based practically his entire career on adapting works, and specifically as an adaptor/director, I give him credit for having some expertise in this. I have to say when I first read the book, I thought that it didn’t seem as interesting and exciting as it was when we were in the room. Because he’s a very charismatic teacher and a very charismatic person, full of all sorts of interesting stories, I think I started to understand how his techniques really related to my understanding of theatre building, from a directorial perspective. So, not just from a playwright perspective, but from really building a show. He’s really focused on how to translate things that really spark your interest in a work of literature, into something that will spark action on the stage. He looks at, “okay you love a piece of literature and you love it for a lot of different reasons, and we all know that theatre is a form that requires action, whatever that means, it can be in a traditional narrative sense, or it can be really non-narrative, really wackadoodle, but it still has to be action, it still has to spark action in the real time space of a theatre.”

B: What idea or exercise had the biggest impact for you?

M: He had us do this a few times: really pay attention to a reading of the original text. We looked at some pieces of prose, and he had us just sit there and listen to it being read and note what sparked interest in us, what jumped out at us. What images, what feelings. And he really encouraged us – even if it’s something really personal to us, it doesn’t have to be what you think is important – but what images it brings up in your mind. It could be something deeply personal, something that has to do with just you and your life. By doing that, he was allowing for us to create adaptations that are really personal. And I think some great adaptations really are personal, they don’t necessarily logically come out of the original source material, they come out of the source material and the adaptor. So that was really fun.

B: Did any of the process surprise you?

M: That surprised me. And also, he pushed us to get really specific about stuff. It was a great exercise and surprisingly difficult, but I can see how it would be very helpful in moving forward. The specificity around, like he would say, “Can you state the storyline of something in a really simple way?” Like, ‘this is the story about a man in search of a pet’ (laughs).

B: Like a screenplay logline.

M: Exactly. Can you find something really simple like that? And it was surprisingly difficult, even in pieces of text that were super evocative and had lots of interesting images and strong characters and seemed to really do something. And very subjective. What was cool was seeing the different groups – we broke down into groups working on the same piece of text – come up with really different stories for the same piece of text. And that was kind of the reason that you don’t just use a computer algorithm to adapt a piece of theatre. Because it’s not translation… even translation is subjective. You’re adapting it for whatever form of theatre you are interested in as an artist. So, if you are interested in immersive physical non-text-based theatre, you are going to create something like the show Sleep No More from sources like Macbeth and Hitchcock, and if you’re interested in musical theatre you’ll do something like Onegin.

B: How universally applicable do you think this process is?

M: I think it has really broad application. You could absolutely use these building blocks for adaptation in a lot of different kinds of works. It’s just about how you use language and how you choose to express the final output of what you’re creating, if you’re creating a piece of choreography, or if you’re creating a screenplay. I honestly think you could take these building blocks and apply them to a piece of non-fiction writing [and] to something from visual art, if you wanted to adapt a piece of visual art into theatre. Because the building blocks are simple and clear. They’re not always easy to identify in the work. Find something that’s compelling to you, that’s a basic step, and something that you can find a thematic throughline in, so what is this thing essentially about, for me? I think you can do that with a lot of different forms of source material. Then, select elements of it that you want to use as a template. Identify either characters or relationships in it – and that can be really broad. Then choose a stageable image as a touchstone for the piece. That very much appeals to me because you have to have a director’s eye, at least in your mind’s eye, and I think most playwrights do have a kind of mind’s eye. And then [go] back to stating the story line. This is the story of…I dunno…a lizard in search of meaning. The last building block is to craft playable actions…give the people who are eventually going to stage [it] action that’s playable. You’re not giving them a state of being, you’re giving them something that they can actually work on.

B: Do you have anything else to say?

K: Aren’t there other steps in the book?

M: He talks about balancing the other steps. Depending on the nature of the piece you’re working on, you might give more attention to one building block over another. So your piece might be primarily character-focused or primarily central-image focused. I wouldn’t say Waiting for Godot is primarily a character-focused piece, so if your adaptation is in that realm, it’s not going to be super character-focused. He talked about how you choose to weight different blocks depending on the nature of the final piece. And something that I found really interesting was, he put us into groups of adaptor/playwright and, I would say, dramaturg. I worked with one other person. He brought in a piece of narrative that he is looking to adapt into a piece of theatre. I was sort of the dramaturg in that group. And what was interesting was that Vinny had a lot of the discussions start with the impressions of the dramaturg. So, whereas our instinct would be to have the person who is doing the adapting say, “Okay, here’s what I’m trying to work on, this is what I’m going for, this is what I see in this.” We would read through it once and he would [ask] the dramaturg, “Okay, what do you see in that? What do you hear in that?” I think that was really useful for the person that I was working with, to hear what my impressions were. I think it helped him to get to the meat of what he was looking for. It was very dramaturgy forward! (laughs). And it was really fun to work with artists whom I haven’t worked with before. Most of the people in the room were not primarily playwrights – there were a couple accomplished playwrights but most of the people in the room came from backgrounds that were all across the spectrum – we had composers, performers, directors, and people mid-career, seasoned professionals and also emerging artists. It was a good group.