The Art of Adaptation

Troy Price
Reporter

What happens when an ancient Ghanaian ritual is crossed with an alien invasion at a Chaka Khan concert?

 Oedipus Rex, apparently.

Many might argue that such a combination is absurd, but these people aren’t award-winning playwright and adaptor Walter Dallas, whose play Asafohene put a fiercely modern twist on Sophocles’ ancient tale of incest and tragedy, to great reviews.

Dallas isn’t alone in his knack for adaptation.

The Tony award-winning Murray Horwitz borrowed from the works of Fats Waller to write Ain’t Misbehavin’. Former Poet Laureate of Connecticut Marilyn Nelson has used old slave tales to great acclaim. Julia Rhoads, of Lucky Plush Productions, has a new dance/theater hybrid coming out called The Better Half, based on Gaslight, the film about an evil husband who tries to make his wife go insane.

All four have something else in common. They were featured on the Art of Adaptation panel at the University of Maryland in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center Monday night, where they regaled a spellbound audience with their inventive adaptations, and explained why adaptation — the act of altering another’s work to better communicate the story’s message — is so important.

Each panelist agreed that the task of keeping classic works, like Oedipus Rex, from being lost or ineffective falls squarely on the shoulders of the adaptor. It’s not enough for adaptors to merely recycle the same old story, they must contribute something fresh to the work to make it relevant and meaningful to audiences today. Adapting from one medium to another works the same way, even if the adaptation isn’t released much later than the source material.

“You really do want to be a kind of vessel,” Horwitz said. “Transporting something from one place, or one time, to another.”

There’s a lot that goes into being a good vessel.

According to Rhoads, one of the most important things a good adaption must do is thoroughly understand the original, even if the adaptation doesn’t retain aspects of the source material.

“I think it’s just really important to know where you’re borrowing from, what you’re borrowing, to be able to contextualize it, to be able to talk about it, to understand the lineages that affect you and your work,” she said. “Your work will be so much richer for it.”

An adaptor must also be aware of the source material’s fan base, because they have an investment in the story too, Dallas said. He cited his experience of adapting the movie Sparkle as an example.

“People literally would call my office and say, ‘We hear you’re doing it, we can’t wait, don’t leave out this part, it’s my favorite.'” he said. “Basically what I got from the calls was: it’s a real treasure, so treat it carefully.”

So there are a lot of factors that go into an adaptation. And every artistic choice must be a deliberate one. If not, the adaptation could fail in effectively communicating the message of the original story. Good adaptations, though, will make the original story all the more illuminating.

“I think it’s true of adaptation that it rediscovers reality,” Nelson said. “Maybe you know Gaslight, maybe you don’t, but it’s making you see it in a different way. It’s opening your eyes to something that you may have known already.”

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