Emily White is one of the six writers participating in the inaugural year of our Nationwide Voices programme. This is a blog post with her thoughts and reflections on the third Nationwide Voices session, around the topic of adaptation, that she experienced back in September… Enjoy!
So first a bit about me and how I came to be a part of the program.
I originally trained as an actress at RADA many moons ago, and after many years treading the boards, I packed it in and discovered my love of writing as a mature student doing an MA in Theatre Writing, Directing and Performance at York Uni. After my graduation ceremony I skived off my call centre job for four days and wrote the first half hour of Pavilion. The play is set in my hometown in Wales and takes place over one night in a local pavilion where the Friday night disco takes place. It’s a play about austerity but it’s also a big Welsh night out full of larger than life characters: a play about a specific place but with broader national themes at its heart.
After several drafts and some good feedback, I staged a rehearsed reading at RADA for an invited audience. Tamara Harvey the Artistic Director of Theatr Clwyd came to the reading, and over a year later I received a phone call out of the blue to say that she would like to produce the play. I was over the moon to say the least. We went into rehearsals in 2019 with Tamara directing and the show was a big success for the theatre, but it didn’t get the opportunity to be seen by audiences outside of Wales. So, when ETT got in touch with Tamara about nominating a writer to be part of the Nationwide Voices program she gave me another exciting, out of the blue phone call and I got to be over the moon all over again!
The sessions all take place over Zoom which takes a little getting used to. Full disclosure: I don’t anger easily except in two scenarios; watching the news and working out how to use new technology. I am a person that routinely shouts at technological inanimate objects. My partner often finds me incandescent with rage at my poor laptop. Usually it’s the internet I should really be angry at and my laptop is entirely innocent of all charges. However, I am happy to report that Zoom is far superior to Skype (which sends me into a state of apoplexy whenever I try and use it) and the sessions have all run smoothly... so far.
Each session starts with a masterclass by the incredibly insightful and talented Chris Bush, and then moves on to incorporate a guest speaker to focus on a particular aspect of playwriting. This week Chris was talking to us about adaptation and the guest speaker was the lovely Chinonyerem Odimba, who now has several successful adaptations under her belt.
When you’re a new writer just starting out in the world of theatre, the thought of writing an adaptation of another writer’s work can appear daunting. Especially a famous, admired writer that the audience is going to be very familiar with already. And yet this is often what emerging playwrights are asked to do by theatres that view staging their original writing as being too risky. For this reason, Chris advised us, it is always a good idea to go into theatre meetings with an adaptation pitch up your sleeve along with your original ideas.
These adaptations can take the form of new translations/modernisations of existing plays that are originally written in another language (Chekhov, Ionesco, Ibsen, Euripides etc.), or adaptations of books or films for the stage. In the previous session we had all been set the homework of thinking of a play we would like to adapt and then pitched them to the group. Everyone approaches pitching differently but my take–away from this exercise was that you should know your material well and be able to answer these three questions:
- Why is this a good version to be doing now?
- Why am I the person to do it?
- Why my version instead of one of the other versions already out there?
Chino then logged in and spoke about her experiences with adaptations and the different approaches she took. For example, when adapting Oliver Twist, she updated the story to the modern day and wrote a completely new story and dialogue, and only kept the shape of the original and the main characters. For The Prince and the Pauper, she kept the story and the language in its original time period and made it into a musical, heightening/fore fronting certain elements to say what she wanted to say. For both she had a definite idea of who her audience was – The Prince and the Pauper was a Christmas show and Twist was a school tour.
She was nervous the first time she was approached to write an adaptation so gave some helpful tips on the practical considerations once you’ve got the gig and your first thought is ‘HELP! Where do I begin?’
Chino starts off by reading the book three times and figuring out what the writer is trying to say to the reader and the world, and then plans what she wants to keep and what she’s going to let go. She makes the big decisions about where she’s taking the story, what characters are staying etc. and makes notes on each chapter, breaking the story down into manageable units. She does her homework on that period of history even if she’s going to update the story. Basically: plan, plan, plan. Also knowing what audience your adaptation is aimed at is important, as that places certain restrictions on the writing.
Another useful exercise she suggested was to think about what would happen if you told the story through another character’s eyes? If each key character became the protagonist, how would that change the story?
Her final word of warning: be careful what stories you choose to adapt. The source material should resonate with you as a writer so that you can bring your politics to the adaptation. Writers bring themselves to whatever they write; if you can’t bring yourself and your voice to the adaptation, then maybe it’s not a good fit.
All in all, I came out of the session feeling more confident that I could take on an adaptation and knowing how I would set about it. Hopefully I’ll get another one of those out of the blue phone calls sometime soon! In the meantime, I look forward to our next session and seeing everyone’s big smiley faces looking back at me from my laptop. It’s not the same as sitting in a room together, having a good old chin wag before the session and a ‘getting to know you’ pint afterwards, but it will have to do for now. Good old Zoom…god I barely recognise myself…