I like the word ‘playwright’. I like its association with other ‘wrights’ like cartwrights, wheelwrights and shipwrights. The word suggests that a ‘playwright’ is an honest, toiling tradesman. Creative writers who dream up novel, original stories are ‘novelists’. Playwrights roll up their sleeves and do a job.
I’ve done that job often, perhaps most successfully with stage adaptations of Robin Klein’s Hating Alison Ashley and Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, and more recently Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything and Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s The 13-Storey Treehouse.
Adapting a book for the theatre feels more like a craft than an art.
If it’s a good book (and why pick a bad one?) the brilliant author has already taken care of the difficult stuff – setting, theme, characters and plot. If I’m lucky they’ve also invented powerful, economical dialogue and maybe a few jokes. Famous authors even provide a ready-made audience of fans who love their books.
So all the playwright has to do is type it out, omitting the ‘he said’s and ‘she sneered’s, and assume the story will entertain an audience for an hour or two. It ought to be a pushover. Very occasionally it is. Very often it’s not.
Because the imaginative, creative novelist has an arsenal of tools not normally available to the humble, hardworking playwright.
A novelist can look inside people’s heads. ‘This man has destroyed my sister’s life,’ she told herself, ‘I can’t wait to see his face when he opens the car boot.’ Her face was an inscrutable mask as she handed him the key. Playwrights have to tell the story with action and dialogue. Narration delivered direct to the audience becomes clunky if overused, particularly while wearing an inscrutable mask.
A novelist can make anything happen. The doors of the giant spaceship suddenly flew open and out fell three hundred dancing pink giraffes and Justin Bieber. Tricky. An actor pointing up into the fly tower and yelling, ‘Hey, will you look at that!’ may not have the same effect.
|Belvoir Production of The Book of Everything. Matthew Whittet. Image credit: Heidrun Lohr|
Novelists are free to ‘express themselves’. They can write whatever they damn well like and, if they’re lucky, others may like it too. If they don’t they’ve only wasted pen, paper, laptop and time.
Playwrights who ‘express themselves’ without thinking about the requirements of the production and the demands of the public may well find that nobody ever sees their work. Staging theatre requires a team, and a little or a lot of money too.
Playwrights have to take account of budgets, cast sizes and theatre dimensions. They have to consider time needed for scene and costume changes. They have to think about what dialogue will sound like when spoken aloud and find compelling and convincing visual stage action that won’t cost too much.
|Belvoir Production of The Book of Everything. Matthew Whittet, Alison Bell, Claire Jones. Image credit: Heidrun Lohr|
But playwriting offers joys not normally available to novelists, because we do our honest, tradesman-like work surrounded by other people. Playwrights go to rehearsals and work with enthusiastic, creative directors, composers, designers, choreographers, puppeteers, musicians and actors. It’s a social experience and when it’s working well, which is most of the time, it’s a process I love.
At times book authors may deal with editors and publishers, agents and publicists, but essentially it’s a solitary occupation.
Finally, playwrights can share their work and see immediately how people respond to it. There’s nothing better in my working life than lurking nervously in the dark theatre (I like to sit near the back), watching a talented cast bring a story to life for an appreciative audience.
|Image credit - Melbourne Theatre Company|
Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s weird, wacky and immensely popular book The 13-Storey Treehouse was totally impossible to adapt to the stage, but we did it anyway and it sold out. It will be doing a return season in the Sydney Opera House from 28 December 2013 - 25 January 2014, then touring Australia.
Both are shows I’m very proud to have crafted.
|Richard Tulloch guest appearance as Mr Big Nose in The 13-Storey Treehouse|