Toolkit Series 2- Introduction by Dramaturg Suzanne Bell
The Bruntwood Prize exists to support anyone who wants to write for the stage. This website- www.writeaplay.co.uk- is full of free workshops and advice from…
It is important that we bring compassion and understanding to the situation we find ourselves in. This continues to be a tremendously difficult time for theatre and the artists who make it. If we are going to recover from the experiences of the past 12 months, we are going to need playwrights. That is a remarkable endeavour and a huge responsibility – something for which we all have the utmost respect and admiration at the Bruntwood Prize. That is why we are always striving to find ways to support playwrights and encourage people to have the courage to write.
Whether you have been able to be creative or not, we want to try and find ways to support you to continue to be engaged with the craft of writing for performance, engaging with an audience, telling stories and taking people on journeys. We truly hope that this series of on-line workshops – will inspire and support you to be creative and to find new possibilities for your work to be realised.
This week- poet and playwright and theatre artist Amanda Dalton on adaptation for the stage. Amanda’ playwriting began in radio and she writes regularly for BBC Radio 3 and 4 – including a number of original dramas and adaptations
Have you ever thought about creating a new play from an existing text? Ever read something – a novel, memoir, essay, or whatever – and thought, “blimey, I could imagine that working on stage or as a radio play?” Ever fancied having a go at turning your favourite old black and white movie into a piece for theatre?” I hope what follows might encourage you to bear in mind the creative possibilities and opportunities that adaptation and dramatisation can provide. and encourage you to not be scared of it. Go on – give it a try.
1. Perhaps the first question to ask ourselves is ‘why do I want to create drama from this source material?’ A brilliant book doesn’t necessarily make for a brilliant play. What do you think an adaptation will add to the original, or how do you believe it can change the audience’s reading of this text? What makes you want to put this on stage?
When I read the novel Nothing by Janne Teller, I immediately knew I badly wanted to make it as an ensemble piece of theatre with the Royal Exchange’s Young Company. Why? I was electrified by the story, by the novel’s uncompromising willingness to tackle morally complex, troubling, existential themes and emotion and, most of all, I knew it would speak to young people – I knew they would ‘get it’. I had never read anything like it and wasn’t surprised to learn it had been banned in every school and library in Teller’s native Denmark and, simultaneously, won one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world! Importantly, I also believed it was innately theatrical. It dealt in metaphor. It was not naturalistic. It was theatre. And I could visualise it onstage – as an ensemble piece of physical theatre in which, nevertheless, the story and characters were strong.
2. If adaptation is a kind of translation, what language are you translating into? Do you know what ‘kind’ of drama you want to create from this source material? Is it a ‘traditional’ playscript? A physical performance piece? Is it for theatre? Or screen? Or radio? Although these forms of writing have much in common with eachother – they’re more than ‘platforms’ for the same piece of work. In some ways radically different from one another, you need to know what medium you are writing for and to consider how the medium and the form fit the content.
I write for theatre and for radio. (I also write poetry but that’s not so relevant here). If I come across a text or other source material I want to dramatise, the first thing I often think is – “is it theatre or radio”? Sometimes it’s neither and I think “this will make a great film or tv series one day.” Sometimes I can see that it could make a theatre piece or a radio drama – they’re not mutually exclusive – but I hope I recognise that if I were to write for either medium, I’d be setting out to do very different things. It’s perhaps not always obvious which way to go. I’ve adapted two early twentieth century silent movies for radio – both for BBC Radio 3. They were The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu. Silent film on radio sounds like a bad joke, but I think they both worked and they were two of the most exciting projects I’ve ever done for radio. Radio – sometimes wrongly regarded as a rather ‘tame’ medium – allows for some truly radical experimentation and exciting collaborative work with sound. In Caligari, for example, I wrote the role of Cesare the somnambulist to be entirely sung (by the counter-tenor Robin Blaze) and the possibilities of moving seamlessly across time and space, in and out of characters’ heads, and immersing the listener in a thrilling sound world, allowed me to create dramas that would never have worked on stage.
3. When do you “throw away” the original text?
I think this partly depends on what kind of dramatisation you’re writing but casting aside the source material of your play is always essential at some point in the writing process. For me, knowing the ‘original’ inside out is an important first step. I need to get inside it and for it to get inside me. Somehow, I think I believe that this allows me to keep its spirit in what I write, however far I travel from it. But then – chuck it away. If you don’t, I think there’s always a danger you’ll write something so faithful to, even in awe of, the original that your drama will never grow its own wings and fly. In the end, you are writing a play – with all the challenges and excitement of writing any play – and it needs to work as just that; you need to make it your own.
4. Sometimes it might look easier to dramatise an existing text than to make up your own. Assuming you’ve got a good storyline and some characters, surely, you might think, half the work is done for me? Well, yes and no. I don’t want to be hypocritical here – I wrote my first adaptation for theatre before I’d written an original theatre play. It was of David Almond’s Secret Heart and, as I sweated my way through the process, I learnt SO much about how to write a play – largely through experiencing as a writer the stark, critical differences between drama and prose fiction. I’m glad of that project, but I’d say I learned the hard way and wouldn’t recommend anybody seeing adaptation as an ‘easy’ way into playwriting.
5. Some novels are unadaptable.
That’s a provocation. I don’t actually entirely agree with it, though I certainly think some novels would be unlikely to work as stage plays. They might work as springboards for a piece ‘inspired by..’ or ‘a riposte to..’ but that’s not quite the same thing. What I do feel is that it’s crazy to embark on trying to write a version or dramatisation or adaptation of an existing text without first working out how you’re going to tackle it, and also without having solved a few problems ahead of rushing to your laptop. If, for example, the original is written as a stream of consciousness interior monologue, or is virtually without a plot, or characters, or if its omniscient narrator’s lengthy descriptions of cities across the world are critical to the book’s meaning…. the playwright has some challenges, some things to work out, and may decide to adopt a radical approach to the task at hand or to look elsewhere for a text to adapt for the stage.
6. Love your source material! I always say to aspiring playwrights that, in order to get under the skin of their characters, they must kind of love them all, even the ones who do bad things. How else can we understand them and thereby write them? And we’re not in the business of judging. I feel the same about the texts we might adapt. You’re going to be living with that book for a long time and if you think nothing of it, you’ll struggle to make anything from it – other than possibly a rather sneery, snarky, twisted little thing. OK, you might want to critique it, argue with it, it might do things you thoroughly disapprove of…that’s fine – challenge it but don’t hate it or choose it in order to annihilate it. That’s just mean.
Ok – so what follows are four exercises with 4 more pointers, tips and provocations embedded in them – some things to have a go at – in the spirit of experiment and playfulness –
7. Find or recall a familiar fairy tale – one with a simple storyline eg Goldilocks and the 3 Bears. Or, even simpler, take a nursery rhyme that has a story, such as Jack and Jill. Try this:
Exercise 1: Prose story to drama.
Can you turn this fairy tale/nursery rhyme into a drama using no more than 40 lines in total? Have a go and see what questions and challenges this throws up. Ps you’re not allowed a narrator.
This apparently simple – banal, even? – exercise reveals many of the key things to think about when adapting a text. The original is probably narrated, uses descriptive prose, probably doesn’t give a voice to the characters, and is likely to be written in the past tense. As you dramatise it you’re swapping narration for dialogue, thinking about the world of the play and how this might be realised without words, and writing in the present tense – drama always unfolds in the ‘now.’
8. Adaptation can often be a reimagining or reframing of a text in order to make it say something new, to shift perspectives or to comment on the text itself. One of the most inspiring pieces of theatre I have seen in recent years was a boldly imaginative re-working of Jane Austen’s Persuasion as conceived by Jeff James with James Yeatman (this was at the Royal Exchange). The original text was both honoured and completely refreshed and, as a lover of this novel, I relished how the play managed to simultaneously give me completely new readings, retain the spirit of Austen and be so utterly theatrical an experience that it was hard to believe it had sprung from another form.
Exercise 2: Reframing and/or Shifting Points of View
Sticking with your fairy tale or nursery rhyme – think about whose story this is – whose point of view it is told from. An omniscient narrator? One of the characters? If, for example, you know the second verse of Jack and Jill, you’ll see it’s Jack’s story rather than Jill’s as poor Jill is left lying at the bottom of the hill while Jack is in bed getting treated for his head injury! Think also about what would happen if you gave the story a different time frame, or location, or rewrote it as a very 21st century tale. Try writing an opening scene for your chosen fairy tale or nursery rhyme, this time from a different perspective, or with a new ‘frame’. What if, for example, Goldilocks became the story of the baby bear? Or if Jill had her phone with her when she fell?
9. If you’re dramatising a text, it might feel logical to start on page one… but that’s often not the place to begin – especially if this is a novel that opens with a descriptive, scene setting passage, as so many do. From the outset, think of this source text as a drama, that speaks to now. Before you start working on structure you will have already considered WHY you want to do this and WHY you think you can make something from it that can work as a contemporary performance piece. Then think about HOW!
Exercise 3: “ a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order..”
It was the film director Jean Luc Godard who said this, then Tim Burton nicked it and said it too… ! If you’re doing this exercise without a particular dramatisation in mind, you can still have some fun and make really useful discoveries by experimenting with writing an opening scene that is taken from a different part of an original text. Does your drama actually start 10 pages in after the lengthy description of the weather or a character’s misery? Would it make sense to start at the end and then show the audience what leads up to that moment? Is this actually going to be a dramatisation that explores and charts the journey of just one character from this story, and if so might it start 100 pages in?? And so on…. Or are you writing an opening that doesn’t appear in any way, shape or form in the original text, but is somehow connected to it? So many questions.
You might by now have had enough of your chosen fairy tale of nursery rhyme. For these next two exercises, you’ll need a copy of a novel or narrative short story that you know well. It might be a story from your childhood – it doesn’t need to be complicated – or a favourite from recent times.
Have a go at writing an opening scene that works as the beginning of a play, but is not taken from the beginning of your source material.
10. It goes without saying that drama is a visual medium. (I’d even say radio drama is a visual medium – albeit in a different way). It’s also the case that most dramatisations or adaptations are from texts that use words alone to collide with the imagination of the reader in order to conjure the imaginative world of the narrative. I’d say that thinking visually, and remembering that drama is essentially a collaborative medium (long before the audience or even the actors become involved), are two of the most important things to hang onto when you’re working from an existing text. That novelist might have made their book entirely alone, in their freezing garret, and not shown their manuscript to a soul before their publisher saw it. We dramatists are part of a team, creative collaborators, and the words we write are far from the whole story….
Try this exercise
Exercise 4: Words, words, words,,,
Using your fairy story/nursery rhyme or your chosen novel/short story either (a) write a scene which uses no words but is essential to the action, or (b) revisit what you wrote for one of the previous exercises and try replacing some of the dialogue with visual or sound cues. What might we see or hear that is neither dialogue nor narration but that moves the drama forward?
To end: along with Persuasion, I think my favourite adaptation of recent years is Rash Dash’s Three Sisters. You might say it’s hardly an adaptation at all, though it faithfully draws on Chekhov’s play throughout whilst also having great fun with it and making some pretty serious points along the way, especially regarding gender politics. It asks many of the big questions that Chekhov’s original asks but completely reframes them by having them asked by young women in the 21st century. It’s incredibly witty, gloriously visual, filled with music, and utterly theatrical. In her Guardian review of the production, Lyn Gardner wrote about the show’s ‘attitude’ to a classic text – for me her words hold equally true for any kind of adaptation:
“.. but this show doesn’t despise Chekhov….Instead it understands that each generation must take what they need from a play and that it must speak not to the past but to the millions of Olgas, Irinas and Mashas of today. Otherwise, why bother?
Amanda is a poet and playwright, tutor, theatre artist and consultant. She is currently a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, Associate Artist at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and a Visiting Teaching Fellow (Script and Poetry) at MMU’s Writing School. In Amanda’s words;
‘I have two poetry collections with Bloodaxe, How To Disappear and Stray, and much of my playwriting also reflects my work as a poet. My poetry has won awards and prizes in major competitions including the National Poetry Competition and I’ve been selected as one of the UK’s top 20 “Next Generation Poets”.
My playwriting began in radio and I continue to write regularly for BBC Radio 3 and 4 – original writing includes a number of original dramas and adaptations, some of which reflect my particular interest in theatre made for (and often with) young people and communities, and in work which crosses art forms, often happening outside conventional theatre space.
For most of my career I’ve also worked in the worlds of Education and Creative Engagement. After thirteen years as an English and Drama teacher and Deputy Head in comprehensive schools in Leicestershire, I left the formal education sector to be a Centre Director for the Arvon Foundation before becoming a senior leader at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, working for 18 years in the field of creative learning. During this time I devised, developed and curated a portfolio of distinctive projects and partnerships bringing together exciting professional artists, non-arts organisations, arts industry colleagues and communities. Throughout this work I’ve continued to work as a freelance playwright and poet, and a ‘hands on’ facilitator, mentor and teacher, working for organisations including the Arvon Foundation, the BBC, GM schools, a range of community settings supporting vulnerable adults and young people, and with the Universities of Manchester, Bolton, Salford and MMU, teaching aspects of playwriting to undergraduates and postgraduate students and teachers.
In 2017 I left my full-time position at the Royal Exchange in order to explore a range of collaborative and solo writing projects and to develop my freelance career.’