Stuart Bousel talks about how adaptation is an often undervalued skill in the theater industry.
For almost a year now I have been working on a stage adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s memoir, Rat Girl, which is a project that began when I read the book and knew I wanted to turn it into a stage play. There were a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is my own love for the music of Kristin Hersh, but it fundamentally came down to believing that Kristin’s story was one that could be serviced greatly by live performance, centered as it was on a live performance art, and that the things which I connected to were the kind of things other audience members would connect to. I found her portrayal of herself and the people in her life charming and believable, and I liked that she openly stated at numerous points throughout the book that while everything “had happened”, she was not an entirely reliable narrator, especially considering she was suffering from undiagnosed bi-polarity for about half of the book, and undergoing treatment for said mental condition for the remainder.
As a playwright rather notoriously known for plays that employ a lot of first-person, direct-address narrative from somewhat questionable narrators, and a penchant for alt-culture music and lifestyles, the book and I just seemed like a natural fit. Luckily, I was able to convince Kristin and her management to give me a chance to prove myself, even if only for a single production. Equitably lucky, the Exit Theatre, where I have been putting up work since 2005, was willing to take on producing the show and before I had so much as typed out a title page I had an opening date, a production schedule, a budget, half my cast, and a little less than a year to write a show. Now, most people would probably consider this a win and it was, but it also meant I now had to put my money where my mouth was, in a situation where people I greatly admired were watching and would be holding me accountable for the results, and a clock was ticking the whole time.
“Piece of cake,” a friend tells me when I express joy at the commission, and fear at being able to pull it off in time, “I mean, it’s basically already written for you anyway, right?”
“Oh, you know what I mean,” he brushes me off, and the troubling thing is, I do know what he means.
Cut to many months later, I’ve finished a first draft of the script and we’ve had a reading and everything, and I’m sitting down with the producer and the director and we’re tossing around billing for the press releases and posters which are now only a month away from coming out. Obviously we want Kristin’s name as prominent as possible, because the show is being produced as part of a women-centric performance festival, and oh yeah- she’s famous, and a new play needs all the cachet it can get. Still, I’m a little alarmed (and kind of hurt) when the proposed title is, “Rat Girl, by Kristin Hersh, adapted for the stage by Stuart Bousel.” I mean, sure she wrote the book (and lived the life the book is based on), but I’m the guy who spent the last six months of his life reading it three times and trying to turn a charming, smart, but at times barely coherent, kind of rambling diary, into a dramatically paced story with a beginning, middle, and end, not to mention playable characters and discernible themes. In other words, I’m the guy who wrote the play, which is what we’re talking about here- not the book- and while of course the play wouldn’t exist without the book, it’s important to point out that the play (at least in this form) wouldn’t exist without me.
Because Kristin is both alive and in communication with me, the billing debate is easily ended by sending her an email with a couple of options and, to my relief, she goes for my proposed “Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, adapted for the stage by Stuart Bousel”, but before we get there, my producer, bless her, says in passing, “Well, it seems that all we’re doing is adapting the book anyway,” which, I know, isn’t meant to come off as, “you’re not doing all that much here anyway,” but it kind of does. With no disrespect to my producer (who is lovely), it often seems to me that in the minds of most people who don’t write plays (or films), there is a real big difference between an adaptation and an original work, and of course there is, but that difference is often construed to be that original work reflects a greater, more substantial, more creative, and thus more worthy effort on the part of the writer than an adaptation does. I’m here to tell you, as an author with an accomplished resume of both original works and adaptations, that this is simply not true.
Rat Girl is my sixth straight up adaptation, though you could argue at least three of my other plays are adaptations of famous myth cycles (the Trojan War, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Jason and the Argonauts), and I technically adapted an HP Lovecraft story (“The Thing on the Doorstep”) into a screenplay in college, though the less we talk about that the better. I’ve adapted a collection of short stories by Peter S. Beagle (“Giant Bones”), a play by Jean Genet (“The Balcony”), a novella by H.P. Lovecraft (“The Dunwich Horror”), three plays by Shakespeare (“Henry IV part 1 and 2, Henry V”), and two more works I kind of can’t talk about because I signed contracts saying I’d never admit to the work (ghost writing is a probably a blog worthy of itself). I’ve written in the past about my adaptation process (you can read about it, in regards to my Shakespeare adaptation, “The Boar’s Head”, on this very blog), but the adaptation process for RAT GIRL has been especially interesting since it’s technically based not only on previously written work, but actual historical events and people.
That said, Kristin’s book is not a straight-forward historical account of what happened, but a collage of 1) her diary from the time, 2) song lyrics spanning her entire career up to the present and 3) memories and anectdotes of events that occur both before and after the principal time line of the book, not to mention 4) told from the perspective of someone who is admittedly (and diagnostically) even more unreliable than the average human being (and most human beings, unless gifted with photographic memories and impeccable honesty, are at least somewhat unreliable narrators). Needless to say, this makes an adaptation a daunting task in and of itself as one attempts to create a story an audience can follow, but Rat Girl is further complicated by two more things, neither of which are a given in every adaptation, but further illustrate my general point that adaptors (particularly of memoirs) have their work cut out for them.
The first complication is that the book is written first-person, entirely from Kristin’s perspective, which means NONE OF THE CHARACTERS EXCEPT HER ARE GIVEN A FIRST PERSON PERSPECTIVE, and while we get more than 300 pages of Kristin’s thoughts and views and ideas, all we get about the other people is what she tells us about them, and what hints we can glean from their dialogue (which to Kristin’s credit, she has an excellent ear for dialogue). When you’re reading the book, this isn’t something that really bothers you, but transferred to a dramatic form, you become quickly aware (as we all did in the first reading) that everyone in the story but Kristin has very little in regards to internal reflection or interior monologue, and thus, despite some fun details or moments, comes across flatter than we tend to prefer characters to be in modern American theater. Especially since a massive chunk of Kristin’s internal monologue, describing these folks to us, hits the cutting room floor because this isn’t a one woman show, even if Kristin is the leading role, and having her talk about the other people completely defeats the point of including them as actual characters in the play. Bottom line, solving this problem required me to dramatize relayed situations where characters could actively demonstrate who they were rather than passively be described, and that in turn often entailed expanding or adjusting their dialogue from the book, or in some cases collapsing the actions and traits of several smaller characters into more prominent, important ones in an effort to provide more dimensionality.
The second complication to Rat Girl’s adaptation process was that while many things happen over the course of Kristin’s story, and there are many dramatic moments (including the decision, at one point, to attempt suicide by slitting her wrists), the book, being based on life, mimics life’s amazing ability to evade dramatic structure because of that whole thing where dramas have an arc and a point, while life is essentially a series of vaguely connected events that frequently only have relevancy to one another because we retrospectively see them that way. This is perhaps even more apparent in Rat Girl because the central conflict in the book is really Kristin vs. herself, engaged as she is in a battle to keep her fragmenting mind and personality together as she first becomes a rock star, and then a young mother. Though her band’s almost-too-easy-to-be-true rise to prominence in the indie rock scene and the course of her pregnancy provide a throughline to the events of the book, the “two steps forward, one to three steps back” nature of coping with a mental health crisis results in a series of twists and turns that are interesting to read about, but dramatically feel like a series of confusing anti-climaxes, particularly post suicide attempt. The major aspect of Kristin’s story that appealed to me and I wanted to bring to the stage was her struggle to learn to live with a mental health condition that can never be truly cured, but that struggle is fundamentally internal, and dramatic structure requires progress and action. Or to coin a cliché: in the book Kristin tells us what she goes through, but in the play we have to show, not tell, the story, and this meant cutting and re-arranging a long, meandering road of small but distinct events into a shorter sequence of more impactful events that moved in a definitive and climactic direction. Which also meant, once again, generating some material of my own, including crafting whole scenes based on a handful of lines in the book, or sometimes just an implication. This made me nervous as all get out, but the alternative would have been either a story full of holes, or an actor playing Kristin, standing center stage, telling us everything, and thus essentially just reading the book to us.
It all this comes down to this: it is hard to adapt a story from one medium to another, and as much as I get why people might think it’s easy because “you’re not telling a story from scratch”, the truth is, you still kind of are, because the way we tell a story in prose is vastly different from the way we tell one on the stage and you, as the adaptor, have to come up with your approach and make it work- even if you do opt to include a bunch of direct address monologues (which, by the way, only really work outside of Greek theatre when a character is describing their feelings and thoughts- not the events and people of the play). It’s arguably even harder to adapt something because it’s often exactly what works or appeals about the pre-existing material that complicates your attempts to turn a narrative form into a performative one. This will be exceptionally irritating if, like me, you really love the material because of the way it was written, because style is almost impossible to preserve from one medium to another. Also, if you’re really into the subplots, or little details of characters, it’s going to be a heartbreaking process as early and late drafts will both be about cutting, cutting, and more cutting, usually of the stuff you loved the most. Sadly, the backstory and exposition that give great books scope frequently become overwhelming when brought to the stage in all but the most subtextual fashion, and every book ever written is going to contain more details than you can put on stage within the confines of a running time that audiences can actually endure.
A good adaptor has to be so much more than just a good writer. They have to be an editor and a conceptualist, a researcher and a puzzle solver, a plot and character surgeon- and assassin. They are tasked with having to capture the spirit and substance of the original material while simultaneously boiling it away down to the bones, picking it apart even as they are putting it together. It’s a juggling act, very different from the pure generation process of creating original work, but in no way inferior, for in that conversion of one voice by another there is the potential to strike a chord otherwise impossible. If adaptation and original work have anything in common, it’s the potential to fail is equitably present, but when the adaptor fails they fail not only themselves but also the source material and that material’s generator. Then again, greater stakes often make for better drama, both on and off the stage… and the page.
Stuart Bousel is a co-Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, and a prolific writer, director, producer and actor in the Bay Area. His website, http://www.horrorunspeakable.com will tell you all about it. His adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s RAT GIRL opens at the Exit Theatre on May 3rd. You can find out more about Kristin’s music at http://www.throwingmuses.com