Adaptation Aspirations in the Riotous Rehearsal Room

Image Dan Fearon

'Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness,’ is the wisdom Karen Blixen reveals in her short story, The Blank Page. ‘But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence.’

Many of us have viewed the film version of a favorite novel and afterward mused that, ‘the book was better.’ This is because the adaptation of a novel to the big screen (or in the case of Out of Blixen, four short stories to the stage) involves a vast web of choices full of potential and consequences. It takes masterful artists to unravel the entanglements of prose and weave the threads into an exquisite tapestry of a script, or as Blixen contends, into a ‘blank page.’

In developing Out of Blixen, various pivotal questions are tackled by the Riotous Company members on a daily basis, including:

  • What was Blixen’s original intent for each story and character?

  • Which parts of the narrative should remain in the original language of Blixen?

  • When abridging the narrative, what must remain to retain the essence of the story?

  • When is the use of a ‘narrator’ character employed to preserve the Blixen narrative?

  • When does dialogue and action better capture theatrical moments?

  • Which characters remain in the story? Which ones are contracted? Which ones are expanded? Are they evolving in a way that is different from the original story?

  • How economical can we be and still cultivate the audience’s attention throughout the play?

  • How often do we direct the audience to certain points, and how much space do we allow for them to draw their own conclusions?

It is imperative to respect audience members as intelligent human beings. Being too didactic can be patronizing. At the same time, there is a danger that the production can become muddy and lack clarity. This does not mean that the story needs to be boiled down to one clear message or resort to two-dimensional characters. We must trust that the audience is capable of following complicated narratives and empathizing with complex characters. On the other hand, we must ensure that the big picture as well as small details must guide them on a journey without losing them along the way. Perhaps this is what Blixen means by being faithful to the story and hearing the ‘voice of silence.’

With the monumental works of Karen Blixen, transforming her philosophical narrative prose into dramatic theatre is an exhilarating struggle. The Riotous Company is motivated to remain loyal to the stories and therefore Blixen’s silences will speak volumes. She divulges, in The Blank Page, that it is important to trust the work and remain loyal to the story, and that if we do, ‘It is in front of the blank page that old and young… sink into deepest thought.’

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