Adapting: First Things First


by Jake Lipman · April 13, 2015


I am in the process of adapting my favorite novel, The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman into a play. 

The tricky part is, I’ve never adapted a novel into a play before.  I’ve also committed to doing a staged reading of the work-in-progress this April, followed by a fully-staged production in the fall, so the stakes are high. 

I’ll be chronicling my progress over the coming months at Indie Theater Now and thought my experience might prove instructive to other theater artists thinking of doing an adaptation for the first time, namely: 

  1. Be passionate about the source material.
  2. Find some common ground with the author.
  3. Be prepared and talk about your proven skills.
  4. Be patient.
  5. Be ambitious and collaborative. 

Be passionate about the source material.

I read The Inn at Lake Devine when it was published in 1998, and immediately felt a kinship with the narrator, Natalie Marx, who wants nothing more than to gain access to The Inn when she and her family are refused entry for being Jewish.  She doggedly pursues various avenues to infiltrate The Inn, to humorous and sometimes heart-breaking results. 

I love this book; I’ve read it more than a dozen times and it’s my favorite book to recommend and give as a gift.  Once I thought about adapting it, I knew I could speak about it with passion and in great detail. 

Find some common ground with the author before suggesting the adaptation.

I knew a few things I had in common with the novelist Elinor Lipman: we are both from Massachusetts, Jewish, love strong female leads, and she taught creative writing at my alma mater, Smith College.  My mother had also planted the seed in my mind that we were distant cousins.  I included all these points in common when I sent off my first e-mail of inquiry. 

It turns out we are not related, but fortunately, there were enough other points of interest for Elinor Lipman to take the meeting.  We all have friends, relatives, neighbors, or friends-of-friends whose work we admire, so start with the common ground. 

Come prepared and talk about your proven skills.

In preparation for my meeting with the novelist, I prepared a one page proposal and rehearsed my 90-second pitch: the major plot points, size of cast, stylistic references, intention to produce a fully-staged production, and my qualifications. 

If you’re reading this article, I assume you’re a working theater artist with some track record in an aspect or more of theater.  When meeting with the novelist, I brought rave reviews and copies of recent scripts that I had produced, helped devise, and directed.  I was able to liken my vision of The Inn at Lake Devine to prior successful productions. 

Be patient.

Once I pitched the adaptation, Elinor put me in touch with her agents at William Morris Endeavor.  I e-mailed a detailed proposal and my qualifications.  Further conversations, conference calls, and negotiations ensued. 

I reached out to friends in the industry, a lawyer familiar with intellectual property, and clarified what I hoped to accomplish in the adaptation, before signing a contract. 

What I ended up negotiating was the option to write the script and produce the world premiere of the play, The Inn at Lake Devine, in 2015.  I’m creating a derivative work; Elinor Lipman, as the creator of the source material, retains the copyright. 

From our first meeting to our signed contract, four months passed.  It wasn’t overnight.  I had to be patient and focused, and now I’m adapting my favorite book into a play.  Perseverance pays off. 

Be ambitious and collaborative.

Today, I have a good working draft of the script, version 10.  I am by no means done yet, and I am indebted to the many people giving feedback on the adaptation. 

Each earlier draft has been reviewed by a few trusted readers (former professors, an experienced adaptor who also read the book, playwright friends, to name a few).  I’ve employed a group of talented actors to meet monthly to read the script aloud, and to perform the staged reading on April 23.  The reading will reveal how the script flows in performance, and how the audience reacts to the story.  Rather than holding a talk-back after the reading, I gather comment cards to solicit candid responses. 

Last, but certainly not least, I have shown both an early draft and the most recent update to the novelist, to ensure I am going in the right direction and keeping true to the source material.  I can’t wait to see how the next act unfolds.

For more information about Jake and her company, Tongue in Cheek Theater Productions visit her website

 

 

 

 

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Broken Bone Bathtub
After being asked who is comfortable with audience participation, we are lead one by one into the small room and guided to our seats. A young woman sits amid pleasantly floral scented bubbles, face turned away from us.
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