LAWRENCE — With interest in dramaturgy growing nearly as fast as that in the adaptation of literature into different artistic genres, the time is ripe, according to Assistant Professor of Theatre Jane Barnette, for her new book, “Adapturgy: The Dramaturg’s Art and Theatrical Adaptation” (Southern Illinois University Press, 2018).
Barnette delves into both the theory and the practice of moving from page to stage from the dramaturg’s perspective.
She opens the book by defining her terms. A dramaturg is often thought of as a historian or researcher, and, indeed, part of that role is to ground a production in the time frame in which the work is set.
The dramaturg, Barnette said, is “that person who is responsible for helping the cast know how to pronounce words, who helps the props master know did Velcro exist by this point? Should we only be looking at buttons, or did they have zippers yet? Those are questions that ideally your designer already knows, but you want to double-check. You want somebody out in the audience who is like another set of eyes, and that can be the dramaturg.
“We used to think they just go into the library and sit there and read their books and come back in and go, ‘Hey, here are all these books!’ But the best dramaturgs today are using music, fabric, three-dimensional items — doing things that are not traditionally research-based but that are embodied experiences.”
That’s the pre-production part of dramaturgy. Barnette said dramaturgs also have roles during productions (eavesdropping on audiences at intermission, for example, to learn what they like and don’t like, or understand and don’t understand) and after the set is struck (participating in post-mortem discussions of what worked and what didn’t).
But dramaturgy for adapted works has its own set of concerns that no one had yet set down in print, Barnette said.
Barnette was for eight years the resident dramaturg at Kennesaw State University outside of Atlanta, and there she often worked on plays adapted from literature. One of those source texts, Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage,” became the basis for a case study in “Adapturgy.” She also looks closely at productions of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.”
“I discovered that I was having to come up with principles and techniques that weren’t part of my training as a production dramaturg or as a new-play dramaturg, but which had to do with adaptation dramaturgy,” Barnette said, “and why weren’t people asking these questions?”
Moreover, Barnette said, “Most people writing about adaptation studies in the academy talk about novels to film or to some kind of digital media, but not live performance.
“The central question in dramaturgy is why this play now?” Barnette said. “Why are we performing this particular play in 2017? So I have transformed that question in the book into ‘why this source as theatre now?’ You should always know why and what it’s saying to your current worldview. But if you are doing an adaptation, you need to understand why you are doing this source as theatre now. Because you could turn it into a film, a ballet or any other medium, but the adapter has chosen theatre. So part of my job is to figure out what does theatre allow us to do with this source that just reading it doesn’t allow?”
How best to achieve at least thematic fidelity to original source material is a constant issue for theatrical adaptation, Barnette said.
“It’s all the more important with adaptation, I argue, because someone out there — and probably a lot of people, if it’s a classic text like ‘Moby-Dick’ or ‘Huckleberry Finn’ — they have a very specific idea of what that felt like when they read it,” Barnette said. “So someone, and I argue that’s the dramaturg, needs to contend with all of those people who are so attached to the source. What is it that people really love about ‘Moby-Dick?’ Why do they feel it’s a classic text? Then they also have to understand why and how the adaptation emerged in the way that it did.”
Work on theatrical adaptation is critical, Barnette said, because of the strong economic imperative to produce plays that have name recognition.
“People are doing adaption because the market is saturated,” Barnette said. “I know that if people like the book ‘Little Women,’ there is a very good chance they are going to like it as a musical. You’ve got a kind of built-in audience. So more and more of these are happening, and yet no one was talking about the dramaturgy, the very real need to do that research and connective thread-making between source and adaptation.
“And then I realized I had been doing that work without theorizing, without writing down what those steps were, and so I pitched and wrote the book as a theory book about practice, and a practice book about theory.”
She calls it both “a textbook and a guidebook.”
Another reason adaptation is so prevalent these days, Barnette said, is the desire to reinterpret canonical works with new eyes.
“Some of the best texts for adapting have been circulating in our culture for a long time,” she said. “And then you get to come at it a different way. So you can still address concerns you might have about equity or diversity or inclusion, but you can do it by intervening.
“To me, I am successful as a dramaturg if I hear somebody say, ‘I have to go back and read that,’ because then that’s a full circle. That means that they are going to re-encounter that source with the theatrical experience in mind, and they won’t ever read it the same way again, because that source continues to evolve and live with them and becomes a whole different thing.”
Photo: Assistant Professor of Theatre Jane Barnette holds a copy of her new book, “Adapturgy.” Photo by Henry Bial.