Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Room with a View: From Page to Stage!

The following is a brief account of the journey to make Forster’s novel a stage play for Austin Playhouse. While I’ve done my best to be fairly accurate and comprehensive, if you have any questions or comments about the process, they are always welcome!
-Lara Toner

I was 10 years old when Merchant-Ivory released their beautiful film version of E.M. Forster's A Room with a View. I did not see it in the theatre, but sometime in the next year or two, probably when it made it to HBO, I saw it. For a very, very long time it was my answer to "What is your favorite movie?" The moment when George waded through a poppy-stained Italian barley field to grab Lucy and kiss her... Well, for young Lara, that was about as good as romance could get.

I read Forster’s novel in high school and loved how he managed to combine seemingly mundane events with some of the kindest and most accurate commentary on the human condition: Love one another. Tell the truth. And we’ll get through this muddle together. His novel added a depth to the story I loved in film.

In 2005 Austin Playhouse produced Matthew Barber’s stage adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel, Enchanted April. The play’s first act is set in England and its second act in Italy. The play was well received and shortly after working on that production I began thinking about my favorite Italy/England tale, A Room with a View. I mentioned to my father (Austin Playhouse’s Artistic Director) that I thought it would work as a play, but that I didn’t want to talk about it too much until I had a draft. I’m a little superstitious about these things and I feel that talking too much gets in the way of actually doing. And then a lot of time passed. 

A few things did happen during the next few years: I downloaded a copy of the book, reworked it to remove most of the descriptive narrative and highlighted all of the dialogue. And that was about it. Part of the frustration was that I couldn’t see our current space at Penn Field working for the play. At the other side of the process I see that this was more my limitation than the space’s.

The ensemble. Our Lucy plays the violin instead of the piano!  
In 2010 it began to look very promising that the Playhouse would be in our new home for our 2011-2012 Season. I began working in earnest. The first draft was mainly an edited version of the novel in play format. I kept in large swathes of descriptive language to describe action/characters/scene settings. I formatted the dialogue and basically determined which characters and scenes would be included. Then I went back through and cleaned it up a bit. This was the draft I turned in when the Playhouse company was nominating plays for our 2011-2012 Season. It was very, very rough.

The season selection process at the Playhouse starts with company members nominating plays. The artistic director narrows them down to a list that’s presented to our “early-bird” subscribers and they get to vote on plays when they purchase season tickets for the following year. The final decision is made by the artistic leadership, but the input of the company and audience is taken strongly into consideration.

For this season Man of La Mancha topped the poll (as we knew it would –big musicals are almost always the highest vote getters) and A Room with a View came in second. Which was a big surprise. And which meant that I really needed to get busy writing. When we worked out the season we placed Room third. At this point we knew that we would be in a temporary facility for the first play and possibly the second, but I was still hoping that Room would open in our new theatre. I love our tent and in spite of all the challenges I’m so glad I had the opportunity to perform in our temporary facility, but for several reasons I did not want to try to stage Room there. For one thing, weather is hard to control and Room is a big costume piece with lots of layers of vintage clothing. Also, several scenes would be much, much easier to stage in a more formal theatrical setting (the murder in Florence, bathing in the Sacred Lake…). And finally, I wanted to project Forster’s chapter titles and a few commentary projections throughout the play. 

The process to get us into our new theatre did not move quickly. The ongoing saga is full of permits and bureaucracy and funding issues that I’m sure surprise no one.

We opened The Lion in Winter on November 18, 2011 and at that point it was pretty clear that A Room with a View would be done in the temporary facility. I made the final decision to cut a couple smaller characters and to try to double-cast two other roles. Our backstage space is limited in the tent!
Three members of the Playhouse company were pre-cast, and auditions were held for all the other parts. Out of all the decisions I made during this process, assembling the first cast to bring the play to life is the one I’m unequivocally happiest with. They are an incredible group, not only ridiculously talented and well-suited for their parts, but also smart, collaborative, supportive, and full of good humor. Many of the best ideas (like how to stage the Sacred Lake scene) came from the actors.

Our Lucy and George, Claire Ludwig and Joey Melcher.
Just before our cast was assembled, the play was read again by Don Toner and Cyndi Williams. Cyndi is an acting company member, a friend, and a fantastic playwright. And she had the incredible advantage of never having seen the film or read the book. Her reaction to the play was incredibly helpful because she didn't carry any bias from the other works. Once the cast was assembled we began a series of read-thrus. I’d deliver a new draft a couple days before, we’d read it, then I’d go away and try to make it better for the next time. For me, the writing process was a hybrid writing/editing process. I wanted to preserve as much of Forster’s delicious dialogue as possible. And where the words were mine, I wanted them to blend seamlessly.

Once we started staging the play, several challenges presented themselves. Originally I’d envisioned the play in two halves: Italy and England. After the first read-thru it was clear that the Italy portion only took up about one third of the stage time. In fact, the play naturally fell into a three-act structure. Because it was being performed in the tent there were some concerns about taking two intermissions. I began looking for a different act break and eventually settled on the spot where Lucy finds out the Emersons will be her neighbors in England. We worked with this act break throughout the rehearsal process, but it always felt a bit disjointed and randomly placed. The Tuesday before we opened we ran the play with the two breaks, where the play wanted them to be. It worked.

Abandoned projections!

Our biggest technical challenge was the projections. I envisioned simple projections using Forster’s chapter titles to set the scene as well as commentary projections to occasionally incorporate Forster’s comic narrative voice. The Friday before we opened we tested them out and it quickly became apparent that there was no way to make them work in the tent. During Sunday matinees you can’t see the stage lights until curtain call as it is. And most evenings it’s not completely dark till half an hour into the show. I talked with the cast and proposed having the ensemble speak the projections. We eventually lost all the commentary projections and about a third of the scene settings. As it turns out, having the ensemble lead the audience through the narrative is probably more of a natural fit than projections would have been. Many other small moments transformed throughout this process. The very, very nicest thing about working on a new piece is the flexibility to make changes.

I could not be more grateful to work with this ensemble of actors and designers. This has been an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience. Thank you for joining us on this adventure!

1 comment:

  1. Amazing piece! So proud of you and hope that it continues to do well. I look forward to hearing more about this! :)