New Forms or Nothing?

Shirley here. 

We gathered this Sunday, July 12 for our penultimate “Artistic Director’s Roundtable Discussion”, titled: “New Forms”: Adapting the Classics. The title of the talk came from a well-known line of Treplev’s from THE SEAGULL: “We need new forms of expression. We need new forms, and if we can’t have them we had better have nothing.” Of course in our version the line, and that specific cry for a more avant-garde theater, has changed to meet the circumstances of the world we’ve created. Which seemed a perfect launching point for this discussion…

Joining us on the panel were:
Joe Banno, Former Artistic Director of Source Theater, Freelance Director
Jacqueline Lawton, playwright and dramaturg
Jason Loewith, playwright and adapter, Executive Director of the National New Play Network
Ari Roth, Artistic Director of Theater J, adapter of THE SEAGULL ON 16TH STREET

First though–two quick definitions of “adaptation”:
Literary Adaptation: Literary adaptation is the adapting of a literary source (e.g., a novel, short story, poem) to another genre or medium, such as a film, a stage play, or even a video game. It can also involve adapting the same literary work in the same genre or medium, just for different purposes, e.g., to work with a smaller cast, in a smaller venue (or on the road), or for a different demographic group.

Adaptation: The process whereby an organism becomes better suited to its habitat. Also, the term adaptation may refer to a characteristic which is especially important for an organism’s survival.

The second one–the biological definition–interested me. What happens if we substitute the word “play” for the word “organism”?

But back to the panel. With introductions out of the way we started with the question, “What about a piece of original source material inspires a writer to want to adapt it?”

While all the panelists spoke about the need for a meaningful connection to the original work being the first step to a successful adaptation, Jacqueline articulated this point well when she explained that she is attracted to material that continues to ask important questions today–material that cries out to be re-visited in our time. Often, an adaptation seeks to examine an aspect of a story that may have been short-shrifted in the original: Jacqueline spoke of an adaptation of OEDIPUS REX she wrote that gave a stronger voice and increased examination to the plight of Jocasta; a character who remains almost a side note in the original. Similarly, in our early blog conversations about adaptations I wrote about a version of ANTIGONE which finally gave voice to Creon’s wife, often a completely silent character. After years of under-representation; it’s fantastic to hear these women given a voice at last.

Jason spoke about a (sort of) similar quest with his adaptation of Elmer Rice’s THE ADDING MACHINE–in taking a play that was originally all about style and ideas (often considered the first American Expressionist play) and making it more personal. One of the goals of his adaption was to closely examine the lead character’s personal journey–making it less about politics and more about the humanity; why does he do what he does?

Our panelist Joe Banno–a director well-known for his innovative and contemporized versions of Shakespeare–spoke of the metaphorical dialogue that goes on between an adapter and their original source; he relates to this as a director of classical work who is willing and wanting to bring updated twists to the text (though he made sure to be clear that he is equally supportive of more traditional productions). When asked about a production of HAMLET that he directed several years ago at the Folger Shakespeare Library in which four different actors played the titular role, he explained that no one actor embodied each and every facet of Hamlet, and that each of the actors he cast embodied one specific part of him. His intention was to illuminate the text by having Hamlet—literally—speak to the different, conflicting sides of himself.

It seems to me that if there is one consistency between these varied goals of adaptation–a further, deeper illumination of the text is the lynch pin, and oh, how many different ways that can happen!

When asked about the responsibility of the adapter—Jason aptly stated that his responsibility was more to the audience when approaching this work, again, looking at which questions and ideas remain relevant to them?

And when speaking about our own SEAGULL ON 16TH STREET – we re-visited this idea of its meta-theatricality: our play about making a play becomes a play about a play about making a play.

One gentlemen observed: “You guys are all too close to this world—I just want to see a good play with good acting and staging.” Of course–this statement only made us want to talk about it some more–so yes, why do we talk about these things? Much of this links to our own concerns as theater artists and creators of ever being trapped by a didactic commitment to an original work (and I don’t mean when we’re dealing with a new play, or an adaptation in which the orginal writer is involved–that is is some ways a whole other, still fascinating, examination). In a town that can be very traditional in its desires, and a theater community that does a lot of classics (but less and less frequently super-traditional takes) it is hard for us not to talk about this.

And as always–we thank you all for joing the conversation. Our final Sunday discussion is next week, Treplev’s Vision—And Ours. A Jewish Theater’s Mission . We’d love to have you there.