Performance Practical Tips & How-Tos

Page to Stage: Adapting a Book into a Play (Part 1)

Being an author and theatre director, I spend a lot of my time either writing about fictional worlds or bringing them to life on stage. The perfect combination? Adapting my own book into a play! I’m currently in the process of bringing my first book in The Firebird Chronicles series, Rise of the Shadow Stealers, to the stage. In the next two posts I’m going to take you through the whole process, from writing to rehearsing to performing.

The Process of Adapting Rise of the Shadow Stealers

I’m going to start by giving you one of my biggest pieces of advice: take it slowly. There’s not much use in rushing something and getting a bad end result. If this is something you care about and you want it to be the best it can, going slowly and carefully is the best option. It’s actually one of the values of the theatre company that I’m working with on Rise of the Shadow Stealers.

An important thing to remember is that working on a play compared to a book is a very collaborative process. This means that as an author you have to let go more. You have less control than when writing a book. That doesn’t have to be a negative thing, though: to have the chance for others to bring their ideas and vision to your story is an exciting opportunity. You can bounce ideas off each other and you might actually discover new aspects of the story you hadn’t considered before. Make sure you have some fun and enjoy the process!

The whole process of adapting Rise of the Shadow Stealers started about a year ago. The first stage was to put together a rough draft of the script with scriptwriter Paul Birch. Paul and I met with company co-director Lynsey Jones to have a chat about the book and talk through our ideas. Luckily they were both very interested to get started! We set a deadline for the first draft to be completed and Paul went away and wrote it. It took a couple of months to get the first draft back (remember, don’t rush!), and then we got together again to discuss it and make notes about what to include in the second draft.

Challenges and Decisions

More often than not, books are complicated. Whereas plays are often based in one or two locations, a book has the ability to travel to various times and places. That’s the case with Rise of the Shadow Stealers. It switches between different scenes, times and even worlds, which is a challenge when adapting it for the stage.

Because of that, the first job was to find the story’s simplicity; a through line for audiences to follow. When performing for children it’s important that the themes be apparent from the start. We decided that the main theme to draw out was the search for home, for a place of belonging: through the story, the main characters, Fletcher and Scoop have to find their home, their memories, their family and where they came from. We had to bear in mind we were making this play for kids, so the focus needed to be something they would be interested in.

The second challenge was to think of imaginative ways we could visualise the world the Firebird Chronicles on stage. Could we use puppetry? Show pieces of film or animation on a screen? These were all possibilities to explore, ways to bring our story to life. We also chose a main symbol to express the theme – that of ‘story threads’: Fletcher and Scoop following the threads of their stories and having to untangle them in the places where they’ve become knotted and tied.

One big challenge when bringing a book to the stage can be the number of characters in the story. Throughout the whole process you have to consider practical things like money and space – generally, more actors equals more money. Introducing a new character in a book is free and can be done as often as you like, but the reality is different when casting for performance. So, we had to get creative. Can actors play multiple characters? It happens all the time on stage. Take Peter Pan for example – often the same person will play both Mr Darling and Captain Hook, because they’re never on stage at the same time. We decided that the actor playing the Storyteller would play multiple characters, and that Knot and Grizelda would be large puppets, voiced and manipulated by Fletcher and Scoop.

The Second Draft

When Paul came back with the first draft we realised the story still needed to be simplified. As the author of the book this often means it’s your job to help make the big decisions about the plot: what to cut and what to keep. I made the difficult decision to cut Libby, a girl living in Leeds. The story switches between the fantasy world of Fullstop Island and our world. It became clear that this was too complex to portray successfully on stage and so Libby and our world had to go!

We wanted the whole piece to be about an hour long so cutting sections of the book was essential. Again, this isn’t a negative thing. It means that when the audience sees the play, and then hopefully decides to read the book, they get something extra. The book provides them with more depth and further insights into their favourite characters and places.

After chatting about the first draft and giving our feedback, last summer Paul wrote a second draft and the whole process repeated until we had a final draft that we were certain would work well on stage. The next phase was where the fun started: fundraising, casting and finding the right people to bring this story to life.

Read more about the process in Part 2.

8 replies on “Page to Stage: Adapting a Book into a Play (Part 1)”

Hi Mark. I’m sure there will be but I’m afraid my experience in this is practical rather than academic so I’m afraid I can’t suggest anything. Let me know if you find anything interesting though!

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