A Conversation with Vincent Murphy
By Philip Auslander
Vincent (Vinnie) Murphy, Professor in the Department of Theater and Dance at Emory University, and Philip Auslander, Editor of The Art Section, have known each other since the late 1960s when both were active with the Boston Children's Theater. Auslander interviewed Murphy on the occasion of his having published the book Page to Stage: The Craft of Adaptation.
PA: To introduce you to our readers, tell us a little about yourself, the work you’ve been doing, and how you came to your commitment to producing theater through the adaptation of primarily non-dramatic literary works.
VM: My first experience of seeing a fully produced play happened when I was thirteen, from backstage at the Boston Children’s Theater. My mother’s welfare worker had forced me to join BCT after I was almost arrested for using a can to panhandle money in downtown Boston for a nonexistent children’s theater. Awkwardly standing backstage at BCT to help with props, I witnessed my teen peers transforming themselves into other characters.
As a child, I watched TV shows like I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and Bonanza playing out the stories of people who seemed real to me as they got themselves in and out of interesting predicaments. And my previous lack of exposure to live performing arts hadn’t kept me from inventing skits with my family and friends or from believing that what we did was like what we saw on television. So once I experienced this transformative power of theater—to alter us, to tell our stories—it took hold of my life and changed it. Since then, my career has persistently returned to adapting and directing literary works for the stage.
The first reason I adapt is that the powerful content we sometimes find when reading a novel, short story, poem, or essay comes alive in my theatrical imagination. A theme, character, story line, or place may so capture us that we want to share the discovery with others. If theater grew out of the human need to tell our stories, then adaptation takes a story and makes it life-sized on the stage, which after your living room is the best place to tell tales. Theater allows us to share a discovered story in the unique way that only live performance can, bringing the storytellers and audience together for the experience.
PA: Give us some examples of adaptations (your own or those of others) that you thought were particularly successful in making the page to stage transition. If you don’t mind, please also give us one or two examples of relative failures in this area.
VM: My adaptation of John Barth’s short story “Petition” into Me And My Shadow is a favorite as I developed a theatrical vocabulary around the ideas of twins and doubleness and the style of German Cabaret. The production was acclaimed; Barth himself called it “Astonishing.” In the author’s note that prefaces his collection of short stories Lost in the Funhouse, Barth describes this story as impossible to translate from one medium to another. He writes that some of his other stories might work as radio plays, animations, reader’s theater, or stage plays; indeed, he challenges his readers to imagine the stories not only read silently but also spoken aloud. But “Petition,” he insists, is one of the pieces that can work only as literature, that would “lose part of their point in any except printed form.”
Failed adaptations for me include Mary Zimmerman’s Scheherazade which totally ignores the killing of the king’s wives before Scheherazade and my adaptation of The Man Died by Wole Soyinka for the the National Back Arts Festival in Atlanta where my idea of casting local celebrities along with actors undercut the horror of his solitary confinement.
PA: I notice that the title of the book posits theatrical adaptation as a craft rather than an art. What lies behind your thinking of it this way?
During Emory University’s 1994 Athol Fugard Festival, Athol spoke eloquently on the craft of playwriting. Building plays. Using tools to remake them from ideas, sources, and failed attempts. With adaptation, you are working from a source that you must rebuild it in the 3 dimensional space of a theater.
PA: I'm interested in different contexts and ways of working in relation to adaptation, and also in the adaptation of different kinds of materials. For example, how is it different to adapt a poem or a painting for the stage versus a story with an established narrative line?
VM: All works of art have a vocabulary of expression. Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire has its sweat and violence, King Lear its metaphors of vision and seeing and blindness. The source gives you clues: a Hopper painting has its loneliness, isolation, and urban context; a Sexton poem has racecar turns of phrase from past personal pain; and a novel like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has the arc of a family journey. Each will ask for a unique way to be shared live with an audience.
PA: How does the role of the adapter/playwright change when working with performers who also make significant contributions to the development of the material? I'm thinking here of American experimental theater groups who worked with writers like The Open Theater or the Medicine Show, with which you worked, and what the Brits like to call "devised" theater.
VM: Frank Galati had his Steppenwolf Company for The Grapes of Wrath just as Shakespeare had his company to adapt the Holinshed histories. Knowing the gifts of your actors gives you both freedom and boundary lines in choosing material and emphasis. A Lois Smith opens up a Ma Joad capable of being fierce and mythic.
PA: I get what you’re saying, and it’s a good point. But I was thinking more of circumstances in which the company works more collectively on the adaptation. Have you worked as an adapter under such circumstances and do you have any thoughts on the adapter’s role when there are more cooks, so to speak?
VM: It is much harder on an adaptor in a collective situation. The Open Theater’s collective adaptation of the Book of Genesis into The Serpent with Jean-Claude Van Itallie as writer almost tore the company apart as he claimed sole ownership after its success. When I worked with the Medicine Show on The Frogs, adapted from Aristophanes, we made it clear to the writer that we had joint ownership of the script with him, which undercut how many rehearsals he would see when we toured Europe with it. I don’t work collectively on my adaptations.
PA: Even though I’ve known you for a long time, I didn’t know until I read your book that you had worked with the Medicine Show. I was a fan of theirs and saw that production of The Frogs. Is there anything about that experience you’d like to recount?
VM: We worked with the Aristophanes text as a frame and from some of the dominant themes, such as transformation, we wrote, improvised and researched characters who would take a journey of discovery that involved turning into frogs, then back into humans. As we were coming out of Vietnam in 73, I focused on Winter Soldier testimony about the atrocities American soldiers committed on civilians to create a very confused character, a 20 year old would-be draftee, and built the atrocity confessions around some autobiographical writing on a Catholic full of guilt, longing, and a need to shed his skin.
PA: Can you say a bit more about the ways adaptation can be responsive to the times and circumstances under which the material is performed, as you say the Medicine Show’s work on Aristophanes was?
VM: Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses became a phenomenon because it opened in New York City just after 9/11 and dealt with loss, grief, and resurrection.
PA: Do you believe that adaptations should be “faithful” to the original?
VM: Here is my favorite quotation on the subject. Simon McBurney, the actor and acclaimed artistic director of several theatrical adaptations for Britain’s Théatre de Complicité, has also given us a window into his selection process: “I’m not attracted to literary, narrative, or prose work as an idea. I became interested in a particular subject matter. And there will be urgent concerns, urgent ideas, urgent stories within my own life. There is no formula. The desire to take a work of prose is, you suddenly have a desire to make it present [and] share the presence of it with 500 people like a kind of celebration or party. If theater can make good parties, everyone will want to go."
Vincent Murphy, who in 2005/2006 stepped down from 17 years as artistic producing director of Theater Emory, has a professional career spanning three decades of collaboration on more than 200 productions in the United States, Canada, South America, and Europe. As a director, playwright, actor, designer, choreographer, and artistic director, he has garnered more than 40 major awards, working at several leading regional theaters in the United States, including The American Repertory Theatre, The Alliance Theatre, The Sacramento Theater Company, and The Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.