In the last month or so, I have been thoroughly immersed in adapting a series of Grace Paley's stories for the stage from The Collected Stories of Grace Paley. the play, Acts of Faith, will be a world premier in San Diego in March 2009, produced by our non-profit company, Laterthanever Productions.
Adaptation of a literary work for the stage is a major challenge. Theatre critic Charles Isherwood contended last week in the NYT that he couldn't "think of a single page-to-stage transfer that...came close to equaling--even approximating--the achievement of the book." He continued, "more often than not these efforts came across as dehydrated-and-reconstituted Readers' Digest versions of literature." Ouch! Of course, he was talking about adaptations of novels, I've discovered that adaptations of stories, too, can risk losing the "distinctive authorial voice and imaginative scope" found in the print versions themselves.
The key challenge is to create a dramatic arc about what, in literature, as Isherwood notes, is often characters reflection on experience, rather than the experience itself. And this challenge is there not only for the playwright, but also for the playgoer, when we move from page to stage.
Isherwood: "Reading is an inward, intimate experience...the images and experiences [books] evoke are brought into being in the mind of the reader...Books happen inside us, theater happens to us...The theater is a collaboration between audience and writer, but it is a communal one, mediated by directors, designers, and actors."
What it boils down to, for Isherwood, is how to not sacrifice thought to narrative.
Something critical for me to keep in mind as I try to take Grace Paley's ruminative, and frequently interior-monologue rich, prose onto the stage.
The first draft had entirely too much character-addresses-audience, a too facile device I had relied on to solve this problem of dramatizing thought. Partly because I was taken by the comic force of Paley's distinctive voice, I had not yet figured out how to find another way to link the experiences of the characters in the stories into a narrative. I didn't want an entirely linear narrative. But I needed a narrative. And all this has been compounded by the fact that the stories I chose are not actually linked, although some characters--including the central one, Faith-- and themes appear in all the stories I selected.
In what is now my fourth revision, I am moving toward solution--partly, a narrator/character to explain what is happening, and partly more elaborate dialogue rather than too much interior monologue turned outward by force.
Stay tuned for news about the final product!