Adapting from Page to Stage: The Flexibility of Stories- by Tenikah Beveney

Adaptation and the form of theatre have been around since the days of ancient Greece. It is a fluid and ever-changing process which allows art to be transformed into any medium. 

Growing up, I always had a fascination with the theatre, but no knowledge of adaptation. Either I would read the book and not watch the film or vice versa. The only theatre adaptations I had seen were pantomimes like Cinderella, and whilst I loved going to see them, I never really reflected upon the fact that they were adaptations. However, during my undergraduate degree in Theatre and Performance Studies, I learnt that adaptation is a great way to explore different roles within the theatre. Most of my experience in theatre has come from outside of the classroom. The university’s theatre societies had so many opportunities that I found myself involved in something or other every term within my three years. Adaptation was a huge part of my experience of theatre at university. Practically every show I worked on was an adaptation of a literary text, and I thought it only apt to explore what it has taught me thus far, before embarking on a creative career in the industry.

Shows I Produced

The first show I took part in was called Daughters of England, an adaptation of Virgina Woolf’s short story A Society, which was written by fellow student Katie Stockton. It was about ‘a group of women, during the outbreak of the First World War, who get together to investigate why men are the so-called “superior sex” when they are capable of writing such awful literature.’ I loved being involved in the show from behind the scenes. It was fascinating to see all the characters come to life in rehearsals and Katie did a brilliant job of creating her own characters and scenes from such a short literary text. There were fleshed out scenes from minor characters in the original text and Katie brought more humour to the story than the original story.

I also produced another of Katie’s adaptations, The Televangelist, which was based on Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Katie again put her own spin on the classic by adapting the supply teacher role to that of a struggling actor turned televangelist, now supply teacher. The themes stayed true to the original, but the context, characters and plot were adapted from England in the early 1980’s, to America in the 1990’s. Working on this show taught me that you could take an original piece of work and change the context and even some of the characters but the essential themes and message behind the play can still be conveyed just as effectively.

The Show I Directed

Out of the Woodwork (OOTW) was the third play that I worked on with Katie but this time she asked me to be her director. I was incredibly nervous. I had never directed anything before and didn’t know if I entirely trusted myself to do a good job but I’m so happy and grateful that I took on the challenge. Based on Charlotte Perkins’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, which is a ‘story of a woman trapped in a seemingly harmless room by her husband. Then the wallpaper starts to come to life, exploring themes of madness, loneliness and isolation.’ OOTW was my favourite project to date. I hadn’t read the original story before the project but as soon as I read it, I was in love.

Katie’s adaptation gave the story more depth and brought the characters to life. She infused the theme of ‘madness’ through-out the play and in turn developed four characters or ‘roles’ as Jane. What originally was a single character, evolved into four distinctive versions of Jane. This is one of the reasons why the script was truly fantastic. When it came to auditions, we were both of one mind as to what we wanted each character to be like and represent. It was such an interesting experience to see a character develop from one on a page, to multi-layered then to three dimensional. It added so much complexity to the original story and made Jane as a character more exciting. When I asked Katie how she came up with the idea of having four Janes, she said: ‘I had a problem with the original story being one person’s occasional dialogue with their partner. I wanted to open up that dynamic. I’ve always enjoyed writing ensemble pieces – they allow for inter-character exploration. I wanted to give them all a distinctive primal emotion, almost like a deadly sin that they represented. One was love, one was mischief, one was judgement and one was fear.’ I personally feel these elements gave Jane more agency, depth and complexity, creating a stronger voice than the original. 

Blocking out the play was exhilarating. I wanted to do the original story and Katie’s work justice. My main focus was delving into the original story’s theme of ‘madness’, by creating an immersive production, where the audience sat within the performance space, which was all-white room, bringing a clinical sense to the theme. The four Janes were ever present in the scene with the addition of physical theatre which brought unity to the four Janes. They were constantly swirling around main Jane, like the thoughts that dance at the back of your mind. Some scenes were quite poetic in Katie’s script and I replicated this in movement sequences which helped to add to the theme. Katie gave me complete control over the performance and her having faith in me, helped me to have that faith and trust in myself.

Seeing the production come to life on the performance evening was electric. We managed to lift the story and characters off of the page and bring them literally to life. There was so much energy in the room, and it felt like not only the wallpaper was alive (as in the original story) but something in the air as well. The actors did an outstanding job and we were both so incredibly proud of the commitment they brought to their roles. It was a small cast at five, but it felt like a cast of ten because of the amount of presence each of them had on stage. 

The whole experience of turning something from a fiction text, especially a short story, and developing it into something so immediate and present was exhilarating and it was useful (as a director and as a writer), to have the original text to refer back to. There have been other adaptations of The Yellow Wallpaper, both audio, visual and for the stage, but I made a point of not looking at them during the process so that I could develop my own version of it. The fact that it has been done so many times just proves that it is an excellent story to tell and that there are many different ways of telling it.

My Own Adaptations

I decided I loved the story so much that I wrote my own adaptation into another play a couple of months later, set in a modern-day context. I took the idea of there being a somewhat difficult relationship between husband and wife, the theme of mental health or ‘madness’ and feminist undertones to write Brok3n. It became about female unity; female empowerment and generational love between women, looking at the themes of oppression and the subordination of women in marriage in a contemporary context. It follows the story of Naomi, a married woman who has recently come to terms with her sexuality. Her husband, a sexist, self-obsessed tyrant decides that her situation is due to a midlife crisis and onset of mental health problems. He refuses to come to terms with the revelation and lashes out, physically and verbally abusing her, eventually entrapping her within the house. What started off as an offshoot from the original text, became something completely different, exploring a range of contemporary issues, including domestic violence (which is in no way apparent in the original text). The same themes of loneliness, mental health, confinement and isolation are still there, but with a contemporary spin. This was my first full length play and it also got me my first 1st of my undergraduate degree. It made me believe in my skills as a writer and I wouldn’t be doing my masters in creative writing now, if I hadn’t directed Katie’s adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper.

In my final year I wrote an adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is also a Star. I took a completely different approach with this than Brok3n and decided to stay close to the original text. I took the path that many page to film adaptations use, by using the original words in the text and simply shaping it into a new form. The story is about two teenagers who fall in love over the course of a day. Natasha is desperate to find a way to get her deportation reversed and Daniel is on the way to a college interview. Despite the looming deportation, Natasha’s reservations about love and their contrasting cultural backgrounds, they develop intense feelings for each other. I was reading the book over the summer from 2nd year to 3rd and I fell in love with the book so much that I started dreaming of what it would look like in a more physical form. I decided to go for it and adapt it to the stage, but it was a momentous task.

Up until then I had only worked with short story adaptations. A novel adaptation is a whole other ball game. Trying to condense the whole novel into an acceptable play length (low-budget student theatre is usually around an hour), was tiring. Every event seemed essential to the plot and I wanted to do the story justice. Eventually I got it into a script, but it was just over two hours long. I have to admit I ended up being one of those dictator writers who feels the need to put in so much stage directions, it probably read more like an instruction manual (luckily I’ve cured that now by writing a play that has no stage directions or characters inspired by Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis). I just had so many ideas about lighting, music, movement and most importantly how to adapt those scenes which can only really happen in a novel or on screen, to the stage.

It was amazing and nerve-wracking watching your work come to life. The first performance was amazing, and I was so pleased with all the work the director and the cast did on the show. The second show was clouded by my friend howling with laughter at the back. He is into comedy, not romance, and hated all the cheeseyness. I was pretty annoyed that he could not just sit there and be respectful. But that experience alone taught me that it is great being able to put your work on but having it slightly removed from yourself. Adaptation where you stay incredibly close to the original text and so is not completely your own writing, story and characters, is a perfect way to ‘test the waters’ and get something you’ve written (or produced/ directed) out. I was annoyed at my friend, but I definitely would have taken it more to heart if I had put more of my own spin on it or if it was an original idea and writing baby that I had slaved away for months on like Brok3n or my Kane inspired play (Six Feet Under).

I have learnt so much from putting on stage adaptations of fiction works just within three years. It has given me the confidence to put on my own plays whether that be writing or directing and has given me a vast amount of opportunities. In the future, I want to take Six Feet Under to the Edinburgh Fringe. I never would have had the confidence to do it if I didn’t have this initial experience of putting on a production of my work, but having it slightly removed from myself by being so close to the original. Learning how to adapt texts for me has been like having swimming lessons, before jumping into the deep end of a pool.

Enjoyed this blog or thinking of writing your own adaptation? I caught up with Katie recently and told her I was going to write this piece. Within our conversation I asked her a few questions on her experience of adaptation and the answers are posted below:

Q. What was it about The Yellow Wallpaper that spoke to you? Why did you choose to do an adaptation of it?

A.  The archetypal image of things emerging from walls is what originally drew me to the piece. That idea of from nothing, something. I’d always been scared of wolves I’d imagined living in the walls as a kid. The challenge of getting a sane character to that place of utter mental degradation where she believes there is a lady in the wall felt like a suitable challenge for my writing. The piece was also set in one space – the bedroom, which I thought could be ideal for a director to turn into a stage-playground for the characters.

Q. How did you find adapting a short story into the form of a longer play?

A. I did not find it too challenging, because the story has so much internal monologue that could be adapted. The main parts I wanted to extend were the exploration of her relationship with her husband, so I focused on developing his character more, and giving them more moments together.

Q. During the writing process, how did you decide what parts to keep, take out and expand on from the original text?

A. I plotted out each scene originally, making distinct goals of what would be achieved by each scene or ‘movement.’ I then decided what needed to be included to move the action towards that scene goal. Lines that sung to me from the original text were kept, and my own lines were there to push the narrative to where it needed to be within an hour.

Q. What are the benefits and drawbacks of adaptation, and would you do it again?

A. The positives are having this treasure chest to play around with. There is less pressure around plot structure because it is there for you, as well as character moments. You get to pick and choose what you like best. Anyone who has written a fanfiction I’m sure gets the same feeling. Being close and creating with a text you love is a joyful experience. The negatives are to do with picking a well-loved text and having to accept that an audience has preconceptions about it that may not line up with your own.

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