There are innumerable methodologies and aesthetic values to negotiate when undertaking an adaptation for the stage. The most apparent approach is a simple transposition of narrative or “staging the plot.” While transposition can lead to very stage-worthy work, it can be artistically problematic when it fails to address the urgent questions of adaptation, the first of which is obviously why adapt at all?
The original creator of the source text decided the form it should take (novel, essay, conversation, chart, etc.), and so the adaptor must ask the same question one hopes a playwright asks of any new work: why does this need to be a piece of theatre as opposed to any other medium? Unlike the creator of a new play who might be able to get away with the still unsatisfying answer “why not?” the adaptor arrives at a source text already rendered in the form deemed most appropriate. The adaptor must then say: “Yes, and it also needs to be a piece of theatre.” The implicit claim of any adaptive exercise is that the source text has more to offer than it or its creator realizes, and only by refiguring it in a live performance can the fullest experience be mined. This is especially true when as in the case of Moby-Dick there are numerous adaptations for screen and stage thus the question becomes: “why does this need to be a piece of theatre again?”
The answer is personal, born out of a passionate encounter with the original work within our current context. In the case of Or The Whale the journey began with a Fort McMurray boy arrested by the parallels between systems of commercial enterprise at the expense of the environment and pondering his place within that system. As the team grappled with the sprawling complexities and philosophic density of Melville’s novel, the focus of the production shifted to address a deeper underlying question around our position in the universe with respect to conceptions of God, fate, human agency and our ability to make meaning out of our lives.
In considering the mechanics, form and function of the original work, and in questioning the validity of translating it to the stage, adaptation inherently must contend with the nature of meaning-making, so the quest for understanding that has lifted out of the text for us is perhaps not surprising. The adaptor is required to consider not only what, but also how and why the text means. In short, the act of adaptation necessitates an examination of our desire for meaning and the ways in which we shape it.
Freeing oneself from the knee-jerk impulse to “stage the plot” that is the default setting for a dismaying number of adaptive endeavours is difficult. We fear confusing the audience or being accused of failing the original if we allow the adaptation to truly be a new work. But of course if we grapple directly with the “thingness” of the source text in both form and content the adaptation will be a radically new work that exploits the possibilities of the live event to both make strange, make relevant, and make personal the source material. The act of adaptation is not just about revealing the text in new ways but about revealing ourselves, both as audience and as creators, in new ways through the text.