Tembak: Instant Café Theatre’s Adaptation Masterclass

“I believe we never stop learning,” said actor Anne James, sitting down at a long table. She was right on time for the day’s session, arriving just before me; everyone else was running a little late. Australian director Lawrence Strangio — whose critically acclaimed adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace” ran at KLPac between July 4th and 8th, 2007 — would be helming a masterclass in translating non-dramatic text to the stage, and participants had been instructed to bring along something that they intended to use to that end. Anne had brought Azar Nafizi’s “Reading ‘Lolita’ in Tehran”.

The pleasure of a workshop lies in the hope that one is taught something new; the specifics of this intercourse do, however, vary. Lawrence, when he arrived, said: “I really want this to be more of a discussion. I’m not a master. I feel like I’m at a lecture. Can we get rid of the tables?” The tables were moved and conversation began.

“What relevance can you find in a text?” I wrote in my notebook, as Lawrence asked the room about their choice of books. I had grabbed two off my shelf, at random: “What Is Your Dangerous Idea?”, a collection of essays compiled by the Edge Foundation; and Jorge Luis Borges’s “Book of Imaginary Beings”. I wrote: “It is necessary that the text is a conscious choice? Is anything potentially relevant?”

Songwriter Shanon Shah had chosen a chapter from “Constitutional Conflicts in Contemporary Malaysia”, detailing the 1988 sacking of the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Tun Salleh Abas, by executive powers. The next day, Shanon singled out a particular passage of interest: the contents of a letter the justices drafted to the Agong. Lawrence ran with the idea, and we discussed, at length, the need for language to be embodied in a space. I wrote: “An object becomes both a textual image and performative image: the letter passes through many hands.” Weeks later, determined, Shanon would still be making notes in the margins.

Playwright Ann Lee held up Primo Levi’s “If This Is A Man”, but considered transposing the Holocaust into a hypothetical Malaysian setting; Lawrence got her to read a few paragraphs about Jewish children awaiting their move from ghetto to concentration camp, and us to transcribe it to life. Bernice Chauly (Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love”) began to sing “Ke Ren Lai”; Kam Raslan (Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”) pretended his cell-phone was a car; Jo Kukathas (Farid al-Din Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds”) looked up and tried to keep her kite flying. I wrote: “Relevance is subservient to the human story.”

Everyone had brought vastly different material; it was clear that the participants would find no formulaic solution to their work. Aside from focusing on his students’ pet texts, Lawrence stuck to talking about his own: how he reread “Alias Grace”, cut down the initial drafts, and secured permission for its staging. “Permission is necessary,” Lawrence said. “It’s an artist’s right to own her work; you need to give her due respect. But Atwood was really supportive; the rights for ‘Alias Grace’ are actually owned by a film company, and she wrote them a letter saying: ‘Hey, these guys are staging a play, let them do it.’ “

“How much does the adaptation / people behind this adaptation own their work?” I wrote. “Is an adaptation mine (the playwright) or yours (the author)? ‘Fast Food Nation’, as a book and as a film; Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Adaptation’. Does the creative component in the act necessarily have to be limited to technicalities, or is it possible to manipulate themes and concepts? If so, is this okay? When does adaptation stop being adaptation?”

Eventually, I realised my questions were largely semantic. Isn’t a director’s interpretation of a playwright’s text, arguably, adaptation? Discussion continued on, and it was obvious that others, regardless of whatever wool-gathering they may have done, would not let definitions and categorical exactness get in the way telling a story. Ridzwan Othman — whose play, “Flies and Foreigners”, was workshop-ed, then staged by Instant Café Theatre in 2004 — had with him Volume Six of “The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia”: “The Seas”.

He looked self-conscious as he described it. “Actually, my text doesn’t really have a narrative,” Ridzwan said, chuckling nervously. “I was just inspired by this entry about jellyfish.” He held this up for us to see: a two-page spread in full colour. “I don’t know. I just like the way it’s written, the way it’s laid out on the page — actually, I just like jellyfish.”

Everyone laughed. Lawrence said: “Well, you’re really not making it easy for yourself, are you?”

We had assignments — “1. Identify what in the source text is important to you; 2. Come up with a basic structure for performance: moments, images.” — for day two. By then, Ridzwan had already constructed a yarn: he told us about a marine biologist, the author of the entry about jellyfish in an encyclopaedia, who is now a soldier –­ and, in the course of fighting, is stranded on an island, and wonders why a person like him is in a war. “I thought soldier, because I was thinking about jellyfish,” Ridzwan said, “And how they look kind of like parachutes.”


First Published: 02.08.2007 on Kakiseni

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