Artistic Director Gus Menary gives us a broad look at the first steps in making your favorite book into a play.
At Book-It, we read a lot of books. Perhaps too many books, if such a thing is possible. This certainly serves me as a curator of the list of titles Book-It considers each year for production, but as someone who has lived in the highly collaborative world of new-play development for the past ten years, I believe that the key to making great work is finding the right artist—or artists—to bring a story to life. Thusly, I often start shaping a season by having conversations with playwrights and directors and working together to identify the titles that they’re passionate about. That’s really the essential ingredient in any endeavor—passion. Many playwrights and directors are also avid readers and have titles they have long wished to adapt, but they have put those ideas aside because obtaining rights can be complicated and expensive. It’s always a great pleasure to tell them to put this concern aside for a moment and dream big.
After the artist and I have identified a title we’re interested in, I roll up my sleeves and get to work. (As an aside here: I never anticipated that becoming Book-It’s Artistic Director would require such an in-depth knowledge of contract law and intellectual property rights.)
At a more conventional theatre company, licensing is generally a simple process of contacting a playwright, playwright’s agent, or licensing company and inquiring into a play’s availability. From there, one can usually work out the particulars relatively quickly. At Book-It, we often start by directly approaching an author (or their estate or literary agent), explaining who we are and what we do, and asking if they’re willing to let us turn their novel into a brand-new work of art. This part has been great as it’s allowed me to communicate with many authors whom I admire. Authors, even great ones, are just people and are often happy to talk about the limitless possibilities of adaptation.
If we get the go-ahead, we nail down the specifics—performance dates, number of performances, number of seats in the theater, and ticket prices—and work out an agreement. Book-It uses a specially constructed non-exclusive contract that allows us to adapt and present a book, but doesn’t preclude other theatre companies from adapting it later. This is helpful if an author would like us to adapt their novel but doesn’t want to rule out the possibility of a future Mary Zimmerman adaptation. Dream big, right?
Once that’s all squared away, the playwright can begin work!
Book-It’s process starts with the playwright writing a first draft of their adaptation. The team will sit down together and talk it through in all its rough, messy first draft glory, and then the playwright will go away and work on a second draft. This is the draft that we bring into workshops, where the playwright has their first opportunity to hear their play out loud, with a full cast. They can have discussions about what is and isn’t working and revise their script before hearing it all again. After this workshop, the playwright writes a third draft for use in rehearsals. We’re almost there!
During the rehearsal process, the playwright, in consultation with the director, might still want to make some changes based off what they’re seeing and hearing. This is the most delicate part of all, because actors are learning their lines at this time! In can be a challenging edge to walk, the space between making the show as great as possible and not overloading the actors. I’ve found that the better a script is going into rehearsals, the more everyone in the room is able to focus in on telling the story.
At Book-It we are looking at expanding this process even further, allowing for even more drafts and more workshops of future adaptations. We ‘re excited by the prospect of new work development that is not product-based, but process-based. Allowing playwrights to work on their dream adaptations without fear of impending deadlines. Commissioning work to be created, not with the ultimate goal of production, but of expanding the canon. Ideally, this would allow us to be more thoughtful in our process, more generous with our time, and more plugged-in to the rich nationwide—and worldwide—tapestry of new work development and production.
But in the meantime…what title would you want to see produced if I could help make it happen?
Go ahead. Dream big.
Photo credit: Brandon J. Simmons in Beowulf. Photo ©Anthony Floyd