Adapting to Change

Actors on stage
Betsy Schwartz as King Henry VI, Kate Wisniewski as Margaret, and Ensemble in Seattle Shakespeare Company and upstart crow collective’s 2017 production of “Bring Down the House.” Photo by John Ulman.

“Shakespeare is, here, now, always, what is currently being made of him.” –
Graham Holderness

By Judith Rosen

OSF’s 85th year will bring a rich array of adaptations to the stage, among them Bring Down the House, which condenses and conflates Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy into a fast-paced, two-part production.

Had he been consulted, Shakespeare likely would have approved.

This may sound surprising. As an act that alters an original, “adaptation” has come to carry a hint of diminishment, especially when its object is the work of someone as culturally exalted as Shakespeare. But adaptation was central to Shakespeare’s art. Paradoxically, his reputation for unmatched originality rests on texts that reshape and even outright copy the plots, characters, language and imagery of countless other writers. His own plays’ shapes and content shifted to accommodate individual actors, musical interludes, traveling troupes, different audiences and stages. And his works’ adaptation by other playwrights, during his lifetime and after, has been an enduring part of his creative legacy.

Adaptation was, and remains, central to the art and process of theatre itself. To bring a play to the stage is necessarily to change it. Some changes may occur for logistical reasons; a text will have to be cut to fit an assigned running time, shifting if even slightly the story that can be told. Archaic words or obscure references may be edited for clarity. Casting decisions might result in conflating roles or removing them.

Theatre exists in two different forms: text and performance. Performance does not translate or transmit a text. Performance transforms it . . .

Other changes have to do with the fact that theatre exists in two different forms: text and performance. Performance does not translate or transmit a text. Performance transforms it, putting words into collaborative partnership with completely different forms of meaning: bodies, movement, light and sound. As a result, the meanings a production generates may multiply in ways the text alone does not envision. Hence the power of adaptations such as OSF’s 2018 Oklahoma!, whose changes to characters’ gender and sexual identities opened up the musical’s explorations of love, belonging and identity in previously unforeseen ways.

At the same time, performance can, and often must, narrow the range of meanings available. A play on the page can generally sustain a wide variety of readings. A play on the stage may strive to keep a text’s multiple resonances and ambiguities alive, but in an embodied performance there are crucial choices to be made. At the end of Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, how does Sylvia respond when her love, Valentine, offers her in marriage to his friend who has just tried to rape her? The play text and the stage directions don’t say; what the director and the actors choose to do will profoundly shape spectators’ understanding of the play.

Choosing which of a play’s possible stories a production will tell is a director’s central task. In a recent OSF interview, Nicholas C. Avila, who will direct 2020’s The Tempest, said he seeks to identify “the most relevant story within [the play text’s] plot for the time you are in and where you are. Because there are many different takes, right . . . ? What is the most relevant, important story that we can tell right now from this?”

Rosa Joshi's headshot
Rosa Joshi, director and co-adaptor of “Bring Down the House.” Photo by John Ullman.

What Avila speaks of implicitly, Rosa Joshi, the director and co-creator of Bring Down the House, makes explicit: “The plays are completely Shakespeare . . . Our version. Anytime you’re doing a Shakespeare play as a director you’re adapting to a certain extent, right? Because you’re shaping your version of the story for the stage and for the contemporary audience.”

For Joshi, the most compelling and relevant story in the Henry VI plays had to do with the ways that the personal and political lives of their characters intertwined. “In these plays particularly,” she says, “it’s so much about how personal ambition drives political decisions that affect masses of people, like common people that have no power. At the center of this play is a massive civil war that is fought for personal, political gain . . . I see that happening now, [where] divisions in our society are deepened for cynical, political gain.”

Her choices will have a profound effect on the production to follow. Shaping the story of the Wars of the Roses and the surprising rise to power of the ruthless Richard III meant a lot of textual cutting, condensing and rearranging. Long sections involving the Anglo-French wars—primarily backstory and unfamiliar to most American playgoers—were excised; in the end, roughly 10 hours of playing time were whittled down to 4. The shifts were significant enough that Joshi and her co-adapter, Kate Wisniewski, felt they needed to identify the work explicitly as an adaptation. However, both saw their actions as clarification and focus rather than radical change.

Joshi describes the revisions as Shakespearean in aim and spirit; as she notes in a separate interview, Shakespeare himself “plays havoc with English history to get to the drama in the pieces.” She also notes that the most radical compressions, which take place in Henry VI, Part I, have a certain internal logic. “Some scholars think that Part I was written after Part II and Part III as a prequel,” she says. “That’s when I started looking and thinking that Part I, yes, is just a different story.” Her decision was also helped by the fact that the Henry VI trilogy is commonly viewed as sprawling and convoluted, and thus well-served by editing. In 2004, OSF’s Scott Kaiser also presented the cycle in two parts, substantially pruning Part I and combining Parts II and III into a single production.

There is no authoritative “master text” of Shakespeare’s plays as they were performed. 

Actors perform in 2004
The last time OSF staged the Henry VI trilogy, it was also performed as two plays, with the second and third parts presented as one production. Pictured: Cristofer Jean, Jeff Cummings and Ensemble in “Henry VI, Parts Two and Three: Henry and Margaret” (2004). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

It’s interesting to note that these kinds of extensive textual shifts occur most often and most easily—though not exclusively—in plays that are lesser-known. This may have something to do with the possibility that spectators less familiar with the text of the play they are seeing are less concerned with how “faithful” the production is. Lack of fidelity to the text in productions of works like King Lear is a common complaint. It is also a fascinatingly unanchored one, for there is no authoritative “master text” of Shakespeare’s plays as they were performed. King Lear, famously, exists in thoroughly different folio and “good quarto” editions, neither of which can be considered more “authentic” than the other.

For this play as for Shakespeare’s others, the versions that most people attending a production have probably read, especially editions assigned in school or affordably available, are to one degree or another mash-ups, with words, phrases and speech assignments editors deem most authoritative or most appealing selected and inserted from the multiple texts available. As a result, stage productions based on these conflated editions will seem “faithful” to a majority of spectators because they appear familiar and “complete.” But the faithfulness most people prefer will be to versions never read in the Renaissance and never seen on its stage. An “authentic” production, then, will always depend largely on what an audience is prepared to accept. And that will be always in flux as times and expectations shift and productions adapt to address them: King Lear’s happy ending a necessary part of the play in the 18th century, King Lear’s bleak one in a post-Holocaust and post-Hiroshima age.

The Henry VI plays’ treatment of gender roles was another resonance Joshi particularly wanted to highlight and explore. There are, unusually, two women shown on the battlefield in primary leadership roles in the plays, she observes, while “by the time we get to Richard III the women have all been relegated back to the domestic sphere.” She and Wisniewski decided that they would make theirs an entirely non-binary and female cast. That decision had a double purpose: to serve the social justice mission of their company, upstart crow collective, which is to open up opportunities on the stage for non-binary and women actors; and, simultaneously, to underscore the plays’ depictions of gender in ways that would resonate with a modern audience.

“We do not change the gender of the characters in the play,” she says. “We keep the world binary . . . because what we’re interested in is what is revealed about these plays [about power and gender] because of the patriarchal structure. And then what is fascinating is how we see gender differently when there is a single gender, how suddenly realizing ‘oh, that’s a bunch of women’ in a way that is kind of jarring . . . makes people think.” Here, too, Joshi’s decision has precedent at OSF, namely director Sarah Rasmussen’s decision in 2014 to present The Two Gentlemen of Verona with an all-female cast.

In speaking about her work on the Henry VI plays, Joshi foregrounds a collaborative relationship with Shakespeare’s texts. Bring Down the House is at once “all Shakespeare” and hers and Wisniewski’s; the women’s adaptations are designed to clarify and sharpen the relevance of the plays’ issues and events to contemporary concerns rather than critique the plays themselves.

Marcus Gardley's headshot
Marcus Gardley, “black odyssey” playwright

Two other 2020 adaptations—works that interact with much more culturally dominant plays—take a different tack. The first, Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey, is a fundamental reimagining of Homer’s classic poem, loosely adapting The Odyssey’s structure along with West African and African-American folklore, music and history to tell a story of the Black diaspora and healing.

The Odyssey, famously, is about a man trying to find his way back home after war and reclaim his identity as a husband and a father. black odyssey centers its narrative of physical and psychological journey on Ulysses Lincoln, an African-American man who joined the army to earn money for his young family but who finds himself drawn unwittingly into war after the attacks of September 11, 2001. After being lost at sea and presumed dead, he will spend 16 years searching for the way back to his faithful wife, Nella, and his son Malachi. He must battle storms and capricious gods on his way; just as debilitatingly, he must struggle with his own sense of guilt, both for what he did as a soldier and because, as an African American lacking knowledge of his ancestors and his history, he cannot understand who he is.

Gardley’s use of Homer’s epic form immediately underscores the scope and magnitude of the story he dramatizes, even as it lets an audience see the connection between intimate, personal stories and national ones. There is dignity in claiming one’s culturally marginalized story as epic, especially this epic, which comprises one of Western literature’s foundational tales. But there is also danger in it. As Ulysses Lincoln’s name suggests, his identity as an African-American man is completely obscured by those of two white giants: one who proclaimed that a man can know and find home, the other who declared that all men can be free. By intermingling elements of Greek, Yoruba and African-American culture, Gardley suggests their common connection and equal value, along with the falsity of racist boundaries that would deny and divide. His hero, too, is entitled to claim the privileges of Western “human experience.” Yet at the same time the specificity of Ulysses Lincoln’s narrative also insists on the specific injustices and oppressions that Gardley’s characters must endure and that make “universal” experience a myth.

For this reason, the play’s 2020 director, Monty Cole, was excited to learn that black odyssey will take place in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre, a frame that has “the weight of [Shakespeare and] Western Civilization.” How “American and Black and maybe even the Pacific Northwest . . . could be inside of that frame of Shakespeare was exciting to me and how those two [could] work together, then also maybe repulse each other as well,” Cole says. The space will become a powerful part of black odyssey’s adaptive work. While keeping cultural differences and hierarchies visible, the space will help to “connect issues that you may see as, maybe, Black issues, or issues outside of your own culture, and find a way in to empathize and . . . a way into your own tragedies as well.”

Sarah Mantell's headshot
Sarah B. Mantell, “Everything That Never Happened” playwright

“I think there’s a way in for everybody,” Cole adds. “There’s a connection in it for everybody.”

Like Gardley, Sarah B.  Mantell uses adaptation as a strategy to challenge both the dominance and the incompleteness of canonical narratives. Her play, Everything That Never Happened, serves as a kind of talk-back to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Its title, like the name of Gardley’s hero, points to something Shakespeare’s play, in all its cultural authority, has erased from history: the reality of Jewish and female identity and experience. In other words, from her perspective, everything.

The stories our culture chooses to tell and retell have a huge impact on how we see each other in our daily lives.

“William Shakespeare took a long-existing stereotype and imbued it with just enough empathy that it has lasted generations beyond his death,” Mantell states in an interview with The Realm. “But it’s still a stereotype. One that has been used as an excuse to harm an entire ethnicity/religion/race/culture of people for a very long time.”

Trying to take on Shakespeare, she says, can be daunting. But she wanted to write a play from the gaps and absences in his work that would let characters distorted by stereotype “to speak in Jewish voices for the first time.” Everything That Never Happened aims “to give them back their history, their humor, their heartbreak.”

This restoration is crucial, Mantell insists, because the stories our culture chooses to tell and retell have a huge impact on how we see each other in our daily lives. When we consistently hold Shakespeare’s plays up as a pinnacle of our artistic accomplishment, we lose sight of the fact that we are elevating one specific experience above all others. Shakespeare is brilliant, she still believes, but he is limited.

“It is possible to love something and also name the way it causes harm,” she says. “And what is missing from it. I wrote Everything That Never Happened to prove to myself that this is true.”

“Adaptation,” at its root, means “to fit to a new context.” The contexts in which plays are written are past. The contexts in which productions of these plays unfold on the stage are ever-changing.

The works discussed above understand this, adapting narratives that have long dominated Western culture to keep them in conversation, acknowledging both their power and at times their incompleteness. Together these adaptations strive to keep theatre a living art, to make sure the compelling stories that help shape and interpret our lives remain part of the here (and now) always.