Page to Stage: Adapting a Book into a Play

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.

Bringing the Team Together

A play can’t be performed without people to create it, so we needed to bring together a dedicated team. I took on the role of director, with theatre company co-director Lynsey Jones being one of the actors. The play is a three hander, so we needed to recruit two more actors. We were really pleased when Tom Jackson and John Holden-White joined the team. We also took on a producer to help with funding and admin. During this time, we spoke to a number of other artists, asking them to become part of the team once the full amount of funding had been secured. You can begin to form relationships and build the team even while in the process of fundraising is in progress, in fact funders will be more likely to take the project seriously if they can see there is a good team willing to be involved. We needed a stage manager, a designer for set and costumes, someone to help us with puppetry, and an potentially an animator. Once we had our team in place, it was time to begin the planning process and production meetings.

Around this stage, we also began fundraising too. Nothing can go ahead without the funding, so it’s important to gather enough money to make the project possible (an ongoing challenge!). We’re so grateful to Greenbelt and Seedbed Trust for funding the first phase of the project. In a project like this, applying for funds has its ups and downs. Don’t let failed applications get you down, you have to adjust and troubleshoot. If things don’t go to plan straight away, don’t get disheartened – try again!

Planning and Rehearsals

In these meetings we plotted out the rehearsal process. We planned for the initial stage of rehearsals (the ‘research and development’ phase) to start this autumn. The aim of the first phase is to get the actors in a room and begin to build a ‘shared language’ of movement, an understanding of the themes, and to start to build a performance style together. Most importantly, it’s time to play and get to know each other. Our aim was to produce a fifteen-minute segment of the play to show at the Leeds Big Bookend Festival’s Children’s Day, in November. This will be followed by a workshop where we can get some feedback from the children. This stage of ‘market research’, finding out what the audience really think of the play, is so vital – it tells you what you’re done right and what you may need to improve on.

We’ve just completed this initial period of rehearsals, and our fifteen minutes of performance is ready to be shown! We had six days of rehearsal, three at Harrogate Theatre and three at The Carriageworks in Leeds. It’s great having the support of established venues (again, it helps with funding) and asking for rehearsal space is a good way for venues to support the project in-kind.

We started the first rehearsal by having food on a picnic blanket, while discussing the story and its themes. In the book, Fletcher and Scoop travel to a banquet, so I wanted our first meeting to reflect that. Food is always a good accompaniment to conversation and it was a relaxed way to begin the process and get to know one another. We then picked up on the theme of story threads, playing with various workshop exercises centred around this image. We developed the idea that the Storyteller could pull imaginary threads attached to the characters and make things happen, as if they were human puppets. We worked on some performance skills, including mime, before moving onto blocking and rehearsing the fifteen minute piece of the script to be shown, using the techniques we’d just practiced. At the end of the rehearsal process we headed out to Leeds Central Library to take some photos of the characters (not in their final costumes, but something we can use for publicity along the way.) The pictures are by Tom Jackson – it’s great when one of your actors is also a professional photographer!

After we’ve performed our fifteen minutes and led our workshop in November, we’re going to have a break from rehearsals and pick up again in spring. During this time our plan is to raise more funds, complete all of the essential admin and focus on the design elements of the production. In spring, we’ll have two weeks of rehearsal to bring the whole thing together, which is going to be intense and fun! Following that the real excitement begins…we’re going on a mini tour with the show, taking it to a variety of venues, including schools, theatres, libraries and community events. With the theme of stories being lost and knotted, before being rediscovered and untangled at the heart of the production, we’d like to make a link to issues around adoption and fostering, so we’ll consider working with adoption agencies too as part of the mini-tour. Once we officially know what works in terms of audience and performance space, we’ll aim to take the show on the road for a full tour in autumn 2017!

Why not consider it yourself?

Overall, the process from discussing our ideas to performing the finished production will be about two years. It’s so worth it! I’m loving every moment of the planning and the rehearsals.

The purpose of these posts is for authors who may be interested in developing their books into a stage productions. Don’t be scared to just give it a go and experiment! It’s definitely doable for anyone to put on their own small scale production. Find out about local production companies and approach them with your ideas, and I bet there will be someone who will be keen to work with you.

If you want to know anything else about the process, don’t hesitate to contact me and I’ll be happy to help.

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