A&HHE Special Issue December 2016AHHELogo-e1420559902593

The poet, the adapter, the director, the dramaturg and the text: Vanishing Point on stage

Jeri Kroll

Flinders University

Abstract

This essay in the form of a case study explores issues around creating a script for publication based on a theatrical adaptation of a hybrid text, my crossover verse novel Vanishing Point (2015). The purpose behind this process, involving the poet and the adapter/director/dramaturg, is to extend audience interaction with material that from the beginning had a strong social as well as aesthetic identity, as it focuses on anorexia and bulimia. The essay discusses adaptation and dramaturgical theory, offers a working definition of ‘production dramaturg’, a practitioner who plays a key role in realising a play, and then considers the nature of a script. It argues that what surrounds and contextualises the script itself, such as author/adapter or director/dramaturg’s notes, musical score and research resources, as well as pre- and post-performance activities, can function as paratexts (as theorised by Genette). These paratexts can influence the script’s reception by individual audiences and the culture at large. In addition, they guide later directors and dramaturgs – in particular those working in universities and regional theatres ­– who wish to use the package as springboard for their own theatrical interpretations.

Keywords:

Verse novel, adaptation, dramaturgy, paratext, script

Introduction

This essay in the form of a case study explores issues around creating a script for publication based on a theatrical adaptation of a hybrid text, my verse novel Vanishing Point (2015). It is a hybrid in two senses: as a novel in verse it integrates two genres and it also contains both poetry and prose. The purpose behind this process, involving the poet and the adapter/director/dramaturg, is to extend audience interaction with material that from the beginning had a strong social as well as aesthetic identity, as it focuses on anorexia and bulimia in particular and the need to develop an integrated personality in a generally complex world. The protagonist, Diana, speaks in more than one voice; that is, she has alter egos with whom she wrestles, trying to contend with complex family dynamics (a Downs-syndrome brother, an overweight mother, a reserved father) as well as with a sexualised culture that promotes images of the ideal female body.

Vanishing Point to date exists in three forms: first as excerpts in Workshopping the Heart: New and Selected Poems (Kroll, 2013), second as a play intended for publication, and third as a printed text. The next and fourth stage in the collaborative partnership of author and director/dramaturg is producing the script package, which enhances one of Vanishing Point’s identities – as a work that intends to support social change in the culture. The script package, including text, music, authors and directors’ notes, set photographs, and so on, intends to facilitate production by universities and regional theatres and, thus, the collaborators must consider how that originating purpose affects the content. The composer, Roy Barber, wrote a complete score for Vanishing Point and the transcribed music will also be included in the script package.[i]

This essay discusses the challenge of perpetuating a cycle that began in 2008, when the director came to Australia as a Senior Fulbright Research Fellow in Drama and first met me at Flinders University. It reveals how preparing a script of a production that already has been ‘“re-telling” a story’ (Turner and Behrndt, 2008: 42) opens out possibilities for directors and dramaturgs to respond to changes in social, cultural and organisational environments as well as to embody ‘an [existing] attitude or belief system about the context surrounding theatre’s production and reception’ (Eckersall, 2006: 284). In effect, this project hopes to provide a flexible blueprint for remaking its public identity every time a new director and team engage with it and new audiences experience it.

As director and poet have argued (Kroll and Jacobson, 2014; Kroll 2012), choosing to adapt an already hybrid work offers a range of benefits. Its interstitial nature (Fenkl, 2003), where readers are aware of its duality as both narrative and poetry, parallels the type of drama that does not attempt to hide its theatricality, but rather encourages audience engagement, not relying on a suspension of disbelief common in fiction. Some contemporary adult verse novels do not suppress but exploit these tensions (Addison, 2009), extending and reinventing their literary ancestors: medieval romances, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century verse narratives and twentieth-century ‘long poems’ (Kroll, 2012). This essay focuses on the challenges facing director/dramaturg and author in bringing a publishable script of this type of hybrid artefact to fruition. The first half of the essay examines key concepts such as adaptation, dramaturgy and script. The essay then turns to the process of how transforming a published text, Vanishing Point, and stage production (2014, 2015), back into another textual form – a species of reversal – facilitates the goal of contributing to a theatre designed to effect social change.

Before defining terms, we should take account of the theatrical background of one of the collaborators, which qualified her to work on ‘a crossover verse novel that poses the question of how individuals can learn to be comfortable in their own bodies’ (Vanishing Point, book cover). Professor Leslie Jacobson of the Department of Theatre and Dance at George Washington University has alternate identities as adapter, director, dramaturg and writer. Among many original productions, Jacobson co-created (with Vanessa Thomas) in 2005 The Body Project, which ‘focuses on the uneasy relationship which contemporary American women and girls have with their bodies, and how this can complicate and distort their relationships with others’ (Kroll and Jacobson, 2014: 2). Gad Kaynar’s understanding of a dramaturg’s and director’s influence, dependent on ‘his or her sociopolitical Weltanschauung and aesthetic credo’ (2006: 249), speaks to why Jacobson was therefore predisposed in 2008 to undertake a project aimed at adapting a work-in-progress, whose protagonist, Diana, is a nineteen-year-old Australian woman suffering from anorexia and bulimia. The first thing Jacobson said upon reading thirty pages of Vanishing Point was, ‘I can see this staged.’ Our collaborative friendship, therefore, underpinned both the verse novel’s text and the original performance script as they simultaneously developed. The various staged readings, undergraduate classroom exercises and professional workshop performances, culminating in the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts ‘Page to Stage’ Festival in 2011, were fellow travellers.[ii]

In addition, Jacobson’s role as a co-founder and director of Horizons Theatre, one of the oldest feminist theatres in the United States, based in Washington DC, includes a brief to highlight how gender roles function in contemporary culture. Jacobson already favoured collaborative strategies to create innovative theatre with ‘actors/playwrights, through a combination of improvisation in the rehearsal hall and writing based on the resultant discoveries’ (Kroll and Jacobson, 2014: 2). Interviews and background research also were integrated into Horizon scripts. Jacobson functioned as a ‘production dramaturg’, that is, a practitioner charged with realising a play on stage and, if not the director, on underpinning her vision (Kaynar, 2006: 246). This heuristic approach mirrors that of other modern and contemporary dramaturgs and directors, including the seminal Bertolt Brecht in Germany, whose work has influenced either directly or by extension recent work in mainstream, subsidised and alternative theatres globally (Luckhurst, 2005), including practitioners in the US (Luckhurst), Israel (Kaynar, 2006), the United Kingdom (Turner and Behrndt, 2008: 102-03; 174-77) and Australia.

Like Brecht, many playwrights and dramaturgs have allied themselves with particular production companies (Eckersall, 2006; Kaynar, 2006; Meyrick, 1 May 2015: 6); Kenneth Tynan working with the National Theatre in the UK provides an early contemporary model (Luckhurst, 2005: 1). A brief to generate new work and improvisational methods seems to suit theatre organisations whose aim is to exploit performance as a social and political vehicle (see Eckersall, 2006 on ‘The Dramaturgy and Cultural Intervention Project’). Drama in the Anglophone countries flourished within a ‘general post-war ethos of democratising education (and the more specific mantras of equal opportunity, multiculturalism and political correctness’ (Luckhurst, 2005: 265). The Jacobson-Kroll partnership therefore naturally grew out of a US director’s habitual collaborative performance processes, developed in that Zeitgeist and tested in both regional and university theatres, as well as through her role as an academic with an international professional network.

Adaptation

Adaptation studies developed in the mid-twentieth to early twenty-first centuries, although to date the genres primarily under scrutiny are films, plays, stories and novels, which possess a conventional generic integrity. Those are also the predominant forms into which works are adapted; in addition, television and operatic versions have become widespread, not to mention the popularity of comic book and graphic novel formats. Given the technological explosion in the late twentieth century, new opportunities now exist using multimedia and other electronic platforms, either as sole production vehicles or combined within a play or film structure. Normally, however, one author has produced the seminal work to be adapted rather than a collaborative team. In adaptation studies’ early years, therefore, the question of fidelity was paramount (Stam, 2005: 3), and this led to the problematisation of authorship (D’Monté, 2009: 163), following on from Roland Barthes’ questioning of the author’s relevance (1977: 146) and asserting the reader’s (and indeed the culture’s) primacy in ‘creating’ textual meaning.

The status of the original versus the copy naturally became an object of investigation, conditioning any debate about authorial intention and control of material. As Stam observes, ‘In a Derridean perspective, the auratic prestige of the original does not run counter to the copy; rather, the prestige of the original is created by the copies, without which the very idea of originality has no meaning’ (2005: 8). Certainly this process of duplicating, enhancing and transforming seminal texts has given rise to twenty-first century Hollywood’s preoccupation with remakes not only of popular novels, epics and plays, but also of classic and blockbuster films. The most recent fad is comic book adaptation to the screen. In these latter cases, one presumes Hollywood predicts financial success, which also tangentially or directly has other monetary outcomes. Adapting in the first instance and remaking in the second might boost sales of a print or filmic original. This accounts for Jane Austen, a favourite of TV and film producers, enjoying a run as a (posthumous) best-selling author. This cultural development facilitates a circular process whereby the art object transforms into a consumer product and the author (or heirs) might benefit, if they still own copyright. Whether they have artistic control or even input into what happens in new iterations after the ‘sale’ of their art depends on contractual details.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari theorise what could be seen as the paradoxical relationship between original and copy in a manner that speaks to the positive benefits of artists reinterpreting the work of others. Stam suggests that they envisage ‘a new possible language for speaking of adaptations in terms not of copy but of transformational energies and movements and intensities’ (2005: 10). The translator of A Thousand Plateaus (1987), Brian Massumi, highlights Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualisation of variation and repetition as inherent in experimentation. They might, therefore, be integral to vibrant artistic practice:

… one of the points of the book is that nomad thought is not confined to philosophy. … Filmmakers and painters are philosophical thinkers to the extent that they explore the potentials of their respective mediums and break away from the beaten paths. (Deleuze and Guattari, xiii)

I raise here the oft-discussed theory of the rhizome as a principle applicable to intellectual and artistic thought and practice to emphasise the generative nature of adaptation. In the natural world, ‘A rhizome as subterranean stem is absolutely different from roots and radicles. Bulbs and tubers are rhizomes’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 6), as well as wasps and orchids (1987: 10). An interlinked organic system forms ‘a map and not a tracing’ (1987:12), which ‘has to do with performance’ (1987: 12). This description offers a useful metaphor with which to approach the adaptation process, since in one sense the original functions as the centre of a system that connects over time to present and future variations – and, over time, it is possible that memory of the original might be lost or superseded by more successful iterations.

This above discussion illuminates an exploration of a dramatic script’s nature and potential. In many cases and certainly in the case of Vanishing Point, scripts are framed by a paratext. Genette’s formulation of this concept in both Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation (1987, 1997) and Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree (1982, 1997) is apt here. Under the umbrella of that term, he places the following:

‘a title, a subtitle, intertitles; prefaces, postfaces, notices, forewords, etc.: marginal, infrapaginal, terminal notes; epigraphs; illustrations; blurbs, book covers, dust jackets, and many other kinds of secondary signals, whether allographic or autographic’ (1997, 1982: 3, quote marks in original).

Scripts belong to a particular genre just as novels or poetry collections have a generic home. With the addition of a paratext comprising visual and printed material, that nature is enhanced and the paratext therefore must, Genette argues, have some kind of effect on readers, in particular by strengthening the ‘generic contract (or pact)’ (1997, 1982: 3). Paratexts can work towards building multiple links with the culture too. As he wrote in his later formulation of the paratextual concept about the possibility of unadulterated or ‘pure’ texts,

…this [original] text is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions … And although we do not always know whether these productions are to be regarded as belonging to the text, in any case they surround it and extend it, precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world, its ‘reception’ and consumption in the form (nowadays) of a book. (Genette, 1997, 1987: 1; also see 2-3)

This argument postulates that a script’s paratexts ‘extend it’ and with ‘precisely’ the intent that any resulting dramatisation produces particular responses in the public. Although not a book, a script is a text, just as a play is both a written and performed ‘text’. Framed by a paratext, including, for example, director’s, author’s and composer’s notes, music notation, photographs of previous productions, playbills, reviews, and so on, the script package keeps possibilities open rather than closed, because it is not a self-contained artefact, demanding only one form of engagement. Its audience comprises not simply readers, but readers with a purpose – to assess a text’s suitability for production and to source useful and/or provocative suggestions, instructions, research background and information about technical platforms to facilitate practice. In sum, a script package’s raison d’être is to have the text at the core adapted, and is successful only if it can speak to multiple practitioners who can create new dramatic embodiments.

Consequently, I agree with those who suggest that when theatre artists transform a single-authored work such as a verse novel into a collaborative art form, they must consider the political, cultural and social orientations of the team. Stam poses this question:

Do not adaptations “adapt to” changing environments and changing tastes, as well as to a new medium, with its distinct industrial demands, commercial pressures, censorship taboos, and aesthetic norms? And are adaptations not a hybrid form like the orchid, the meeting place of different “species”? (Stam, 2005: 3).

Stam’s comment about adaptations as hybrids such as orchids recalls Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, and points to the complex manner in which national, cultural and political environments affect contemporary dramaturgy, where opportunities arise to ‘ming[le] different media and discourse and collaborations’ (Stam, 2005: 9) with the aim of creating something fresh.

Dramaturgy

Dramaturgy as an academic discipline has a relatively short history, despite the fact that the word (and the practice it denotes) has a venerable lineage (Luckhurst, 2005: 5, 8-9). Academics and theatre professionals continue to debate the roles and responsibilities of individuals designated as dramaturgs; indeed, depending on context, they can intersect, replicate and entangle, demonstrating the fluidity of artistic practice. As Mary Luckhurst states (quoting Susan Jonas, Geoff Proehl and Michaesl Lupu’s introduction to their 1997 edited book, Dramaturgy in American Theatre), ‘The meanings of the words dramaturg and dramaturgy are unstable, sometimes bitterly so – “Few terms in contemporary theatre practice have consistently occasioned more perplexity”’ (2005: 5; also see 11). This essay acknowledges this ongoing debate but only concerns itself with a more focused definition of dramaturgy – what is called ‘applied dramaturgy’ (Kaynar, 2006: 246) – in order to understand how the dramaturg’s skills have affected the staging of Vanishing Point as case history. As a field of study, therefore, dramaturgy is less well developed than that of adaptation. There has been a similar divide, however, between the approach of critics and practitioner-critics; the first group has been interested in theoretical, cultural or historical issues and the latter in adaptation practice and/or theorising that practice in order to perfect it. It is worth reproducing Gad Kaynar’s epigraph to his 2006 essay, ‘Pragmatic Dramaturgy: Text as Context as Text’, since it reflects upon how poets and novelists work:

A dramaturg is to a play as a mechanic is to an automobile: he may not have built it, but he knows what makes it work, and this enables him to rebuild it as the theatrical occasion warrants. (Kaynar, 2006: 245, quoting Bert Cardullo, 1995)

This focus on craft recalls the twentieth-century US poet Ezra Pound’s assertions:

You would think that anyone wanting to know about poetry would do one of two things or both, i.e., LOOK at it or listen to it …

And if he wanted advice he would go to someone who KNEW something about it.

If you wanted to know something about an automobile, would you go to a man who had made one and driven it, or to a man who had merely heard about it? (Pound, 1934: 30-31)

Here the poet takes the position of the automotive manufacturer – he or she has made a car and driven it. In the Cardullo comment, dramaturgs have not constructed the original car but they understand its working parts, which enables them to reconstruct it depending on performative circumstances.

Historically, Bertolt Brecht was perhaps the most innovative and self-consciously theoretical theatre figure influencing contemporary continental conceptions of dramaturgy, and his influence continues globally. As Turner and Behrndt explain it, ‘Brecht’s “telling of a story” was, in fact, frequently a matter of “re-telling” a story’ (2008: 42). Adapting classical and modern works to further a political agenda puts Brecht at the forefront of a movement that is still often known as ‘theatre for social change’. His form of poetics, if you will, demanded ‘that artefacts perform cultural work’ (Hecq, 2015: 19). For Brecht, drama was never simply about entertainment, but about ‘revitaliz[ing] theatre in provoking its audience to thought and action’ (Turner and Behrndt, 2008: 42). To that end he tried to ‘defamiliarise’ and alienate reality, forcing audiences to acknowledge new perspectives. As he said of his own historical moment,

Our own period, which is transforming nature in so many and different ways, takes pleasure in understanding things so that we can interfere … He [humankind] does not have to stay the way he is now, nor does he have to be seen only as he is now, but also as he might become. (Brecht, 1949: 193)

This policy of ‘interference’ to effect improvement leads into a discussion of the myriad ways in which dramaturgs work in contemporary theatre. Kaynar’s definition of ‘pragmatic dramaturgy’ not only encompasses engagement with ‘a performative text intended for stage realization by a specific director, designer(s) and actors’ (2006: 246), but also as one affected by ‘particular, and apparently disconnected, intra- and extra-theatrical conditions’ (2006: 246).

Eckersall particularises these conditions by saying that ‘dramaturgy is everything that has action or effect; not only text and actors, but also, ‘as Eugenio Barba enumerates, ‘“sounds, lights, changes in the space…”’ (Eckersall, 2006: 284). Like chefs consulting a master’s cookbook or indeed writing one, dramaturgs must do the best they can either with standard recipes or by modifying them as necessary, taking into account the environment in which the culinary performance will be prepared. When pragmatic dramaturgs document the way in which they respond to production challenges, they record what Peter Eckersall calls ‘working “on the floor”’ (2006: 283). When they begin to theorise that documentation of process they move into the arena of practice-led research. This assertion underpins Melanie Beddie’s comment that dramaturgy ‘“can be thought of as the midwife between theory and practice”’ (quoted in Eckersall, 2006: 284). The use of the gerund ‘working,’ the metaphor of cooking and the notion of the dramaturg performing as midwife all signify that a script is still a work in progress that needs to be brought to life, especially a script framed by a paratext containing notes by director, dramaturg, designer, and so on, and which might in a published form include pictures of original and subsequent variations of the play or film. Given this variability, any production will affect audiences differently, just as the environment in which it experiences a play will affect its reception.

Kaynar’s analysis of a dramaturg’s possible functions provides a useful outline. He enumerates:

‘The dramaturg and the theatre’ (predominantly co-responsible for devising the repertoire and artistic policy), ‘The dramaturg and the production’ (predominantly in the major task of production dramaturgy, in the course of which the dramaturg devises his/her mise-en-texte to sustain the director’s mise-en-scène) and ‘The dramaturg and the audience/public’ (from writing the programme notes to theatre criticism). (Kaynar 2006: 246)

This essay primarily concerns itself with the production dramaturg, although Leslie Jacobson has performed to some extent in the first and third roles. I should clarify here that slashes to denote Jacobson’s role are necessary since, save for the full productions in Washington DC (2014) and Cleveland, Ohio (2015), she functioned as sole dramaturg,[iii] controlling performances that, in every instance but one (Cleveland), took place in familiar theatrical spaces.

Before moving to the specifics of reversing the adaptation process – verse novel, to performance, to script package – I need to say a word about the word script’. As Julian Meyrick has said, ‘the term for the act of writing’ (April 2015: 2) derives from Greek and Latin (scriptum) terms, ‘expanded to refer to its correlate products’ (2015: 2). The Shorter Oxford Dictionary on Historical Principles offers these definitions, among others:

  1. Something written; a piece of writing.
  2. Law. The original or principal instrument, where there is also a counterpart 1856.
  3. Theatr. Short (‘script’) for MANUSCRIPT 1897 (Little, Fowler, Coulson, Onions, 1933: 78)

A script designates, therefore, a short manuscript that appears in whatever technology is available in a particular culture (handwritten, typed, electronic formats, and so on). The legal definition suggests that it also contains within it the idea of an original and a counterpart – an original or copy. Logically, then, there would be no reason to prepare a script unless someone aside from the original author would read and/or act upon it in some manner. By their nature, scripts need to be actualised in another medium (aside from text) and therefore reinvigorated.

The performance script must be open-ended; directors and dramaturgs are offered suggestions and guidelines that allow them to develop alternatives to the original production that now exists before them as a blueprint or, indeed, as a recipe of sorts. A script package by its nature contains more than the basic play text, but also contains a paratext that makes the whole operate as a functional cookbook, one covering a range of national cuisines. To be useful, the text must anticipate and acknowledge in print that readers might inhabit different cultural milieu, where certain ingredients or cooking implements might not be available. There might be budgetary constraints as well (for example, if you can’t afford saffron, use turmeric for colour). The recipe’s ultimate aim is to facilitate the preparation of a competent and hopefully exciting performance.

Vanishing Point on Stage and in Script

The verse novel Vanishing Point is a hybrid in both a generic and individual sense, as the work comprises not only poetry and narrative, but also a range of poetic forms, prose poems and prose. By the time of the October 2014 MainStage production in Washington, DC, a complete musical score and songs as well as movement had been added. When adjudicators from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival arrived to assess the play for the competition (which would result in a festival performance), they asked if the author and director could explain exactly what it was. None of the available terms seemed to fit. Was it a play with music, a musical, or a verse opera?

Revisiting this complex artistic production and then distilling the text and salient information into a package that will benefit practitioners is obviously a challenge. Here there is only space to consider the play and the resulting script within the context of theatre for social change. According to Eckersall, a key goal of the Australian ‘Dramaturgy and Cultural Intervention Project’ was ‘to develop a politics of dramaturgy that is visibly about the arts connecting with the social world’ (2006: 294). In an atmosphere designed to encourage debate and experimentation, some participants looked at ‘art as a way of accessing power’ (2006: 290); others ‘discussed the importance of crossing borders and how theatre is made as a contract of negotiated effect between the stage and audience’ (2006: 290). These concepts relate to a dramaturg’s and playwright’s wish to use art as an intervention by helping audiences to see from alternative viewpoints.

Historically, whether playwrights, adapters and dramaturgs want to engage with conventional notions of drama or to resist them, they cannot in the final analysis ignore its cultural environment, which includes financial circumstances, government policy and the political milieu. Rebecca D’Monté’s case study of the adaptations of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca,[iv] in particular during the pre-war and wartime years, reveal what adapters and dramaturgs of necessity learn from practice: that whatever they do will affect the audience’s perception of the work within the context of a theatre’s physical space and an historical moment that exerts pressure on cultural norms (2009: 164). Rebecca was published in 1938 and then performed as a stage play in 1940 before becoming a film. Relevant to this argument is the problem du Maurier confronted of translating Rebecca’s portrayal of female sexuality and the psychology of jealousy to the stage. Her solution as adapter was to weaken or lose that dimension.  

In Vanishing Point, however, Jacobson chose to foreground the psychological and interior aspects of the verse novel rather than to diminish them. The non-naturalistic sets constructed for Vanishing Point foreground the character’s mental disposition, suggesting the underlying causes for her search for perfection and, hence, her anorexia and bulimia, rather than hiding them. The innovative staging functions thus as both social intervention and as solution to the practical problem of embodying a poetic narrative with metaphorical depth. Jacobson as dramaturg envisaged all the characters always on stage, though not in full view, appearing as shadows behind screens that are backlit. Colours operated metaphorically and helped to manipulate mood, so that whether consciously or unconsciously the audience could experience the action as in some way occurring in the protagonist Diana’s mind. The other strategy that enhanced the expressionistic and non-naturalistic character of the piece relates to the protagonist’s alter ego devised by Jacobson as adapter/dramaturg and the construction of props that facilitated her manifestation. Jacobson chose a second actor to play Diana (a negative ‘Ana’), which provided a theatrical equivalent of the italicised alter egos in the verse novel (where more than one appears), representing physically the internal conflicts from which Diana suffers. Although pared down, these potent emotional drivers communicate to the audience dramatically the fragmentation Diana feels. They provide equivalents to the metaphorical strategies in the verse novel.

The input of the designer here was critical. The functional light wooden cubes, representing tables, chairs, beds and benches, allowed actors to move them with a minimum of fuss, changing locations in the story in full view of the audience. They also provided actors places to sit when not centre stage to observe the action and sometimes to contribute to it with facial expressions and body language. The theatrical experience is thus ‘thickened’ or deepened. Audience members are spectators to past and present memories and psychological stresses. In addition, the wooden cubes’ weight and volume made them easily transportable to Cleveland for the Theatre Festival performances. The large backdrops or screens could not be transported, however, and so finance, logistics and a theatre’s physical dimensions altered a production’s effect on audiences; these circumstances qualify as what Kaynar described as ‘extra-theatrical conditions’ (2006: 246).

It should be mentioned that the Kennedy Center ‘Page to Stage’ reading (2011), a precursor to the full production in 2014, was followed by a talkback session where a large proportion of the audience stayed to discuss it as a work-in-progress. Participants commented about the distancing narrative strategies occasionally employed, about Australian slang, and about whether music would improve or detract from the text as well as the subject matter – anorexia and bulimia. A similar talkback was held after the 2012 Professional Workshop where the audience engaged with poet, actors and director. The composer had pre-recorded some music, but the full score had not yet been developed. These talkbacks functioned as critique and feedback opportunities as the project moved towards MainStage production; they allowed director and poet to gauge the success of dramatic strategies in rendering the subjects of gender identity and self-image. In other words, the audiences became stakeholders in the performance as an aesthetic experiment and an intervention relating to health and social issues. Finally, for the first time a panel discussion followed the Saturday night performance of Vanishing Point in October 2014; audience questions and comments were part of this event, embodying what could be conceived of as a dramatic paratext. A university counsellor, two students, the director and the poet participated. This event thus compares with a book’s afterword by the author or a health professional, reflecting upon what artistic consumers have just read or experienced. Also framing the production were print materials on anorexia and bulimia, which were available on a side table at the theatre entrance. These items functioned as a book’s preface might by preparing the public to receive the performance and its subject matter in a particular fashion.

In the poetic narrative Diana is given multiple voices and, although she reintegrates at the end, she is only at the beginning of this process at the conclusion of the staged version.[v] Diana decides not to be a victim of her own neuroses, associated familial pressures and the broader cultural context in which woman are objects offered to the male gaze, judged according to how they match societal norms of beauty and sexuality. The 2014 Program Notes foregrounded those ideas for audiences in Adapter/Director’s, Dramaturg’s and Author’s comments. In order to reinforce this social identity, I prepared extensive Teachers’ Notes for the verse novel; they are now available as an eBook through Puncher and Wattman. An Additional Resources section includes research background on verse novels as a literary form, practice-led research discussions of the adaptation process over time (from 2008-2015) and resources about anorexia and bulimia. Professor Tracey Wade, Dean of the School of Psychology at Flinders University, an expert who has worked as a clinician in the area of eating disorders for over 20 years, provided up-to-date information. Some of that material will be incorporated into the script package in order to highlight the way in which the text and script contribute to the project as social intervention by engaging with anorexia and bulimia, body image and disability.

One final point about language is significant, given that Vanishing Point is an Australian verse novel, with Australian characters, written by a dual citizen Australian-American, but first produced as a play in the US. The play’s language uses contemporary Australian diction, and this caused some concerns among the Kennedy Center audience during talkback and at the Professional Workshop; the issue of cultural context therefore needs to be addressed. In his analysis of the novel form, Bakhtin discusses how language’s historical and literary pedigrees affect a work’s reception: ‘It frequently happens that even one and the same word will belong simultaneously to two languages, two belief systems that intersect in a hybrid construction – and, consequently, the word has two contradictory meanings, two accents…’ (1987: 205). Although I do not have time to investigate this in detail, I need to point to the problematic nature of some Australian words in the context of a US production where those words have local and perhaps personal resonances for audiences, actors and director. Indeed, some words or phrases might not be easily comprehensible or socially appropriate.

In Vanishing Point, minor linguistic and cultural confusion surrounded the use of kilos instead of pounds and of seasonal reversal. Some of the actors themselves needed explanation for words such as ‘spunky’ (sexy), ‘paddocks’ (fields) and ‘dinked’ (riding double, originally applying to two on a bike, rather than a horse). Given the protagonist’s age – nineteen – another issue arose around the term ‘Senior College’. In Australia, it denotes years 11, 12 and/or 13 in secondary school; in addition, the generic term ‘college’ can refer to tertiary institutions such as TAFE (Technical and Further Education). In the US, on the other hand, college normally refers to postsecondary education at a university (four years) or a community or junior college (two years). To avoid confusion, in the final print version of Vanishing Point and in the playscript the text now reads, ‘When I enrolled in another college’ (Kroll, 2015: 13). Although language is inextricably connected to culture, some accommodations need to be made if a play is transplanted to another country, even if the native tongue is the same. Alterations are acceptable if they do not seriously interfere with the original and adapted work’s core values. This essay has focused on Vanishing Point as an innovative stage production and social intervention. None of the linguistic changes hindered that purpose, although song rephrasing sometimes sacrificed poetic intensity.

Conclusion

This essay has first considered adaptation and dramaturgical theory before focusing on how the director/dramaturg is a key player in promoting Vanishing Point’s identity as a vehicle for social change. It is not necessary to enumerate all permutations in that role nor to distinguish between the labels dramaturg and literary manager (Luckhurst, 2005: 263), especially given their contested natures, but only to highlight the manner in which the director/production dramaturg has functioned in order to help this play and script achieve their potential. As a case study, Vanishing Point shows the textual and production transformations designed not only to translate a hybrid work to the stage but to enhance social intervention, including practical issues about how to express the dynamics of anorexia and bulimia. The script in particular, therefore, operates as an aesthetic product, as a template for future companies and as a working text brought to life by a practitioner who fulfills the complex role of a dramaturg, including that of being a theatre’s ‘“literary conscience”’ (Luckhurst, 2005: 9).

Anorexia and bulimia and the associated issues of body image frequently appear in the news and are the subject of reports by national and international health organisations.[vi] The collaborators’ hope is that the script will underpin the verse novel and play’s public identity and foster debate about what has become a disease prevalent among girls, women, boys and men. Directors and dramaturgs who engage with the script will be faced with making their own ‘judgement[s] about its artistic ideological, popular and/or commercial appeals’ (Luckhurst, 2005: 11). Aside from practical matters such as sets, casting (additional actors for the alter ego, and so on), spatial and temporal constraints, the essay suggests that framing the production with an event such as a panel on eating disorders, or providing literature either separately or as part of a program, enhances this social identity. Some of these strategies can be embodied in paratextual material such as research bibliography, essays, production suggestions, or notes, for example. These additions make it feasible for university and regional theatres to devise productions with current resources. Eckersall asserts that a purpose of the Australian ‘Dramaturgy and Cultural Intervention Project’ was ‘to develop a politics of dramaturgy that is visibly about the arts connecting with the social world’ (2006: 294). Vanishing Point as verse novel, stage play and script package is working toward that goal.

Notes

[i] This essay, however, does not have space to treat the complex relationships between text and music.

[ii] Performance history to date: 2009 Horizon actors and students, George Washington University; 2010 Voice and Character Acting Class, George Washington University; 2011 John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts ‘Page to Stage’ Festival – professional actors and students (5 September); 2012 Performance Workshop with professional actors, director, composer and movement director (June); 2014 MainStage Production at the Marvin Betts Theatre, George Washington University (October); 2015 MainStage Production in Playhouse Square at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Region II, Cleveland, Ohio (January).

[iii] In the Vanishing Point program for the George Washington University production, a student, Marcelene Sutter, is identified as the Dramaturg.

[iv] I have discussed this essay before but in a different context.

[v] Time constraints and a workable dramatic trajectory necessitated that the play only covers the first two thirds of the novel.

[vi] In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation, which hosts a Research Institute, prepared an overview entitled Investing in Need: Cost-effective interventions for eating disorders (Butterfly Report 2015), available on http://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/investing-in-need-cost-effective-interventions-for-eating-disorders/ In the US, see http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org. The Teachers’ Notes contain additional information (puncherandwattman.com.au).

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