How to Nail Adapted Works

shutterstock_1229889004Remakes and adaptations, always popular, are enjoying a particular resurgence with the advent of live-action Disney remakes. But even if you’re not dancing across the silver screen in the latest Renaissance revival, adaptations of classic works are ubiquitous. When dealing with the pressures of bringing beloved and well-traversed stories to life, certain challenges arise. How should one balance multiple source materials? What if the adapted script is thin sloppy? Below are some things to keep in mind as you navigate your way through any adapted work.

 

  1. The Script is King. No matter how famous the original work you are adapting, your first responsibility is to the text at hand. You have been hired to play this version of Ebeneezer Scrooge, or Anna Karenina, or Sherlock Holmes. So whatever your feelings or allegiances to the original work, your job is to justify the story being told now. When the waters get muddy, go back to the script. Try to look at it with fresh eyes, divorcing it from the history of its previous incarnations. Have faith in the current story and honor it.
  2. Use Research for Foundation. All this is not to say that you can’t use the source material(s) as a launchpad. Occasionally there will be a story so well known, so often adapted, or so massive in content, that the adapted script will cut corners, and you’ll be left to fill in the blanks. I’m currently in rehearsals for a production of The Three Musketeers. This particular script is an extremely pared-down version of Dumas’s expansive saga, heavy on the action and (in my opinion), not too fussed about backstory or motivation. For me, it was enormously helpful to go back and re-read the novel, taking extensive notes of my character’s timeline, backstory, and details of relationships that didn’t make it into the 90-minute version. That kind of research has allowed me to give weight and specificity to my character’s motivations, and keep her three dimensional. Remember, that this kind of research is a tool. If there are multiple versions of the original available and you’re getting overwhelmed, choose the one that speaks to you and best supports your current script.
  3. Listen. When you’re involved in the retelling of a popular story, it is extra-important to engage in the group energy. Everyone is going to be coming to the project with their own opinions and preconceptions, so it is crucial to take care when developing your collaborative personality. Listen to and support your director. Communicate with your cast and crew. Allow yourself to trust in the current version of the story you’re telling and work towards building a cohesive unit. If everyone stubbornly sticks to their own favorite version of characters and events, the script is undermined and the final project will be disjointed and weakened. Receive the tone created by your artistic collaborators, and seek to contribute rather than control.
  4. Watch Out for Pandering. It’s easy to get swept up in fan culture. It’s a lot of pressure to enter into a project in which your audience is already rabidly invested. The temptation to allow the fans to control the narrative is strong, but take care to stop short of pandering. When your performance becomes about satisfying the fans at the cost of honoring the text and your team, your work can easily become shallow and one dimensional. 
  5. Grant Yourself Freedom. Getting too obsessive about “doing justice” to famous characters can be suffocating. Remember that your responsibility is to your character, not everyone else’s opinion of what your character ought to look like. It is still just as important to take chances, experiment, and play. Allow yourself the same freedom you would grant yourself in brand new work.

 

Though there are particular challenges that come along with adapting famous works, your job is the same. Honor the text, work with your team, and fill your character with all the creativity and curiosity you would bring to any other project. Trust your training and your instincts. They will guide you as always. 

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com

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