The Brooklyn College Adaptation Project
There is something the matter with these people.
Is tuna salad an adaptation of a tuna?
Is bacon an adaptation of a pig?
Is a unicorn an adaptation of a horse?
I must confess that I find it rather difficult to define the word “adaptation.” It seems conceptually overwhelming—like “technology” or “Africa.” So, I thought I’d turn to three rock star playwrights—Erin Courtney, Karinne Keithley and Kate E. Ryan—who have their very own adaptations running this month as part of the new Brooklyn College Adaptation Project: Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood, and ask them to shed some light on this seemingly antiquated concept.
Harnetiaux (Rail): What is your personal definition of adaptation?
Erin Courtney: I don’t have a personal definition of adaptation, but I do have two questions…
Why write an adaptation? I think one needs to contemplate the reason for adapting a particular piece before one can begin it. Why take a perfectly wonderful piece of writing, and re-make it? Usually, there is something essential about the piece that makes a writer want to engage with the text in a new way.
What rules will I follow? I liked the rules that Sheila Callaghan had created for herself in her play Dead City, which is a loose adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses. She followed the outline of the novel, but she switched the genders of the main characters and she modernized it. I decided those rules would work really well for this adaptation of The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr by E.T.A. Hoffman.
Karinne Keithley: When I thought about adapting this text—changing it so that it was suitable for this new environment—I realized that I didn’t want to theatrically interfere with the book. It was too majestic and too much a book. And I was honestly overwhelmed by just how complete it was. I didn’t want to dramatize it because it seemed to me fundamentally undramatic— it’s about reflection and it’s about reading. Dramatizing Berlin Childhood (Walter Benjamin) would be like dramatizing Proust. I found myself thinking instead about how live performance might intersect with some part of this book.
I came up with two answers. One was to pick up a common element, which is space—the book is very much about memory as it’s stored in spaces and objects—and to use dance, which not only of course happens in space, but also I and my cohorts happen to be specialists in the confluence of cartooning, memory houses, childhood psychosis and dance, from our days collaborating at Ur [Williamsburg’s “neighborhood dance palace,” 2003-2005, R.I.P.].
The other was to represent the book instead of to adapt it. This was to answer these questions about the book: what does it do? how does it work? And try to create an arena of reflection on that to surround the spatial siftings that the dances are based on. So most of the text that I wrote centers on trying to describe the mechanics of the book, and then within that are whole episodes straight from the book, like the book is an intact jewel and my adaptation is just a setting for these few little stones I’ve been brazen enough to use.
Kate E. Ryan: I try to get a sense of the material; along with spending lots of time with the original work, this effort includes academic research and discovering an emotional connection. That’s how I start.
I decided to adapt the text of newspaper articles published just after the murders (August 1892) and during Lizzie Borden’s trial (June 1893). My plan is to respect the original sources as being complete and perfect on their own, and to make something separate and personal that reflects my beliefs, hang-ups, and creative interests. I’m disgusted by the mass media’s response to America’s recent tabloid tragedies, but at times I, too, watch the nightly news and buy magazines and feel a strange pull to know more, to be a part of the histrionics and blame…
Many, many people have an avid interest in the Borden case. Most are interested in the question of who murdered Andrew and Abby and why, but some people’s interest extends to details unrelated to the murders such as what sort of false teeth Andrew Borden might have worn…. There are entire chat rooms devoted to these discussions. I like the obsessive responses to the story.
Rail: Too often we, as viewers and critics, get bogged down in all that “coherence of story” nonsense. How have you dealt with the evil word of STRUCTURE in your adaptation?
Courtney: I don’t think structure is an evil word. I think structure is a glorious word. I love patterns and multiplicity and symmetry, and these can be great structures for plays. In fact, the reason I was drawn to the E.T.A. novel is because of its complex structure. Hoffman has created a wild and absurd premise that allows him to intertwine two distinctly different narratives. These two narratives wink at each other constantly and this really satisfies my love of symmetry.
Keithley: I don’t think structure is an evil word and I also don’t give a rat’s ass for the normal ideas about coherence. Having spent years in the most heady abstract part of the dance world, I’m very comfortable working as a gardener: planting, grafting, arranging unlike things to work as a whole. My piece in this festival is grounded more overtly in my dance life than anything I’ve made in a long time. Overtly because we’re dancing a lot, but I also think I’m employing choreographic structures. Berlin Childhood is so melancholy and I guess I am lately too, so it’s a very quiet tone piece. The structure then is about accumulating a sense of population in space, and attending to the play between density and surface tension.
Ryan: When I adapted Sophocles’s Women of Trachis for Target Margin last winter, I was in awe of Sophocles’s brilliant structure and decided to use all of the plot points of the play. I created new language and messed around with character. What I have decided to use from the Borden story is character and the media’s language; the actual story is messy. I’m creating structure. My big challenge is creating a landscape and context for this story. I want audiences to feel the tragedy in its entirety.
Rail: How has this section of text (excerpted here) reflected your sensibility and responsibility to the original work?
Courtney: In The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr by E.T.A. Hoffman, I love the self-referential humor about living an artist’s life, the emotional honesty, and the absurd premise that a tomcat has taught himself to read and write. The tomcat’s book is intertwined with fragments of a story about a composer. In order to give myself room to play, I switched the cat for a goat.
Ryan: Like many other playwrights, I love cutting up and playing around with found text. For this project, I get to do that a lot with these newspaper articles. The Lizzie Borden case often is said to be the first tabloid crime (daily reports on the trial were published in papers across the country). It is interesting to see the writers find their footing in this type of reportage. The language is by turns sensationalistic, rhetorical, cruel, sensitive, and confused so it’s fun to work with. Of course, I respect the fact that we have this particular kind of historical record because of thae reporters diligence.
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Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood will run on rotating nights the last two weeks of June. All performances will be held at 136 E. 13th Street:
For Every Spot Appeared Wholly Occupied By What Once Had Been
By Karinne Keithley
June 21 & 22 @ 10pm
Maggie, Come Down
By Kate E. Ryan
June 29 @10pm
The Life and Opinions of the Nanny Goat Jane
By Erin Courtney
June 30 @ 10pm
Kate E. Ryan’s Maggie, Come Down
Erin Courtney’s The Life and Opinions of the Nanny Goat Jane
June 24 7pm
The Life and Opinions of the Nanny Goat Jane by Erin Courtney
(adaptation source: The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr by E.T.A. Hoffman)
It’s not rational.
So, how’s your goat?
Oh! The goat is great!!!! She is so great, but I think she’s lonely.
You should get her a friend.
I know. I’m thinking about it. She’s very friendly with the cow and the dog. She is really good at keeping the sheep calm, but sometimes she looks at me with these big sad eyes. Yeah, I should get her a friend. A goat friend. You and the goat are very similar actually. Goats also have a real need for hierarchy.
NANNY GOAT JANE
I started writing poetry first. Poetry about my life and experiences. Confessional poems.
MY BILLY GOAT DAD
By N. G. Jane
I MET HIM AT THE COUNTY FAIR
I KNEW IT WAS HIM, RIGHT AWAY
I RECOGNIZED THE SLANT OF HIS HORNS
THE CURVE IN HIS UNDERBELLY
THE BROWN STRIPE ON HIS HIND LEGS.
HE SAID ‘’I AM SO HUNGRY FOR EXPERIENCE.”
I’M PETTING ZOO
SO ALL THEY FEED ME IS PELLETS
AND CHILDREN CALL TO ME
“GOAT, HEY, GOAT. HERE.”
AND SO I LICK THE UNIFORM PELLETS
FROM THEIR HANDS
THROUGH THESE LITTLE SQUARES
I’M SO HUNGRY FOR A NEW SMELL,
A DANDELION, A WEED,
SOMETHING WITH SOME TEXTURE TO IT,
I TOLD HIM I WOULD BRING HIM BACK
BUT ONCE I GOT THE DANDELIONS
IN MY MOUTH
IT GOT TOO HARD
TO RESIST THE TEMPTATION
THOSE SMOOTH PETALS AND THEIR
I COULDN’T FACE HIM
I HAD EATEN ALL THE DANDELIONS
STEM AND ALL
I HAD EATEN ALL THE DANDELIONS
STEM AND ALL
But, as you can see, it’s very derivative and so I decided to dedicate myself to prose. Non-fiction. I wrote what would have been a very,very controversial piece of literature if any of my barnyard friends could read. It was called “ The Devil’s Lamb and the Scapegoat of God” and it smashes the religious stereotypes that have been connected with goats and lambs—it’s a withering argument built upon Rogerian rhetoric!
But then I realized, my real calling was the theater. Kate had hosted several backyard theater events that I observed over the small fence and I thought, oh yea, this is the form. This is the form! And so I began writing a monologue for a Goat.
For Every Spot Appeared Wholly Occupied by What Once Had Been by Karinne Keithley
(adaptation source: Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood)
Nothing in the house is melancholy. We’re not in the house.
And memory is not company.
Alternately, think of it as a kind of a personal dream life. As if the early century is dreaming what’s to come. And in the dream, everything is innocuous. Maybe nice, maybe not nice, but nothing in the dream has a cost- there’s no real knowledge, just the things explored. The experience that emanates from the things comes later as a part of our reading them. Only possible to determine in the expanse between then and now. The empty spaces that make the room for understanding. And so it’s like the dreamlike—like the morning dream time of Walter Benjamin or: Berlin childhood around 1900.
It’s already here. We just don’t see it.
The room of the idea.
The city not as a labyrinth of concealment but more like the document of wandering through it. A fascination that comes from close focus.
Collecting as a form of nearness.
Memory as a practice of collecting.
[TARYN GRIGGS dances ellision #1: a dance created by a procedure that ellides a fairly straightforward physical mapping in space of aspects of rooms and objects mentioned in the book. The dance speeds and condenses the initial material to the point of non-recognition, but is recited internally by TARYN as a catalogue of images: toy doll dollhouse bridge pedestals electric butterflies super bright wings telephone hanging between hamper and gas-o-meter house across the canal memorial garden overhanging banks dead girl horses in fields slimy flagstones great shiny buttons on great bosoms the god of the marketplace pouring goods into the laps of vendors.]
Maggie, Come Down by Kate E. Ryan
(adaptation source: Newspaper transcripts from the Lizzy Borden murder trial)
The play consists of enactments of events that reportedly took place in the Borden household before, during, and after the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden. They are performed in real time. For the most part, acting is interior and blank, and motions and gestures are everyday, even banal. Sentences and sentence fragments (both written and culled from newspaper reports) are transmitted at various points from various sources. The theatrical reality of these scenes is a mash-up of today (including various technologies that did not exist in 1892) and Fall River, MA in the late 19th century. The Borden family members are not aware of the fact that the information they hear centering around the Borden murders is related directly to them.