Many thanks to Seattle Rep Literary Manager and Dramaturg Paul Adolphsen for so expertly leading the October 24 panel on our work to adapt John Okada’s No-No Boy for the theater. This was the second in the series of panels I’ve been curating for the Seattle Public Library on the occasion of the John Okada Centennial.
To open the discussion with the audience, Paul shared these thoughts on the challenges and opportunities of adapting a novel to the stage, primarily those of navigating the differences between literature and theater:
- Time: Theater has a set amount of time to tell the story. Aristotle wrote about the unities of time, place, and action. The events in many plays happen in real time. And even if a play’s story covers hundreds of years, we only have a few hours to tell that story. A novel’s relationship to time is different. A reader can pick up the book and delve into the story at their leisure.
- Place: Theater happens here and now, in the interaction between an audience and performers. We are limited to what the material world can provide in terms of sets, costumes, lights. A novel can use language and the reader’s imagination to conjure a world. In the theater we also use the imagination of an audience. And we use language – not written but spoken aloud by a performer.
- Internal and External Worlds: As a reader of a novel, one of the ways you can access the interior thoughts of a character is through narration. In a piece of theater, spoken language and behavior reveal a character’s inner state. And as we all know from life, people rarely say what they mean. There are theatrical styles that express the inner life of a character through spoken words. Think of Hamlet’s soliloquys. But generally, theater is concerned with action: what are the characters doing. Novels are concerned with action but describe what that action is rather than enact it.
- Fidelity to the Source Text: There are various schools of thought here, but adapters always have to navigate how “faithful” they’re going to be to the source text. There are numerous opinions about this, with some people deciding to stay close to the source material and others deciding to invent additional material. Either way, the process of adaptation usually involves having a clear interpretation of the source text, and then making the changes necessary to translating that interpretation into your chosen media (play, movie, etc.).”
Four of the actors from the script development workshop held at Seattle Rep last month — Annie Yim, Ray Tagavilla, Morgan Tso, and Michael Wu — then read two scenes I had rewritten from the last time we met. The changes including strengthening the voice of the character of Emi to give her more authority and agency, something we noticed was lacking in my first draft and the novel itself.
I am working on several other approaches to the challenges of adaptation as outlined by Paul, and we can talk about them once the play finds its way into the world and you can see for yourself. The adaptation is one I am developing under license from the University of Washington Press, which has published the novel since 1979 and administers the rights for the Okada family. By intention we did not record the event. This is a work-in-progress, and the live audience had the benefit of being a fly on the wall as we worked. It may be years before you hear more, but stay tuned.