Finding good source material to adapt can be challenging for a number of reasons—the most obvious one being that someone else owns that source material and you need to get them to agree to let you adapt it.
But, let’s put that aside for this entry and just look at the artistic side of finding source material, and focus on three questions: “Where can you find it?” “What makes it worthy of adapting?” and “How can you train yourself to be a ‘Source Material Detective?’”
1. Where can you find it? In the case of Helen, it came from my best friend from my Boston acting days, Dan (Danny) Bolton. Danny is one of the brightest, wittiest, most well-read people I know, and a great actor to boot. I wish I could say that I just happened to be reading the New Yorker magazine in 1998 and found Wendi’s story myself. But, the reality is, the story came to me in the mail seven years ago, with a post-it on it from Danny that read, “You should do this with your students.” I will take credit, however, for holding onto it in the special orange binder where I keep all my potential source material—articles, stories and photos that have interested or moved me in some way—and for pulling it out when the time was right.
2. What makes material worthy of being adapted? I’m sure this is a personal question for each individual to answer, but for me, Helen had the following qualities:
- A “voice” very similar to my own, a similar world view and sense of humor, and an appreciation for the intersection of children and theatre, strong mother/daughter bonds, and the acceptance of loss.
- The story and the writing struck a beautiful balance between high brow and middle brow and comedy and tragedy, which is exactly the type of art I hope to create.
- When I read it, it absolutely screamed, “Adapt me for the stage!” Really. The story is inherently dramatic and theatrical—it has colorful characters, lots of subtext that can be examined through music, it’s got Greek drama, it grapples with meaningful questions about art and life, and most important: it has a unique protagonist (Vita) who has a very strong want/desire—and we get to watch her struggle to attain what she desires, and all the obstacles and setbacks that she faces along the way.
3. How can you train yourself to be a “Source Material Detective?” Don’t isolate yourself solely in the musical theatre world, or even the theatre world, for that matter. Travel, talk to strangers in line at Trader Joes, volunteer, ask your taxi driver his/her story, read both the New Yorker magazine and US Weekly, watch cartoons and foreign films, read books about history, watch “The Millionaire Matchmaker” and “The Wire,” take a cooking class, learn another language, have friends that have never set foot in a Broadway theatre before and probably never will, etc. You never know where your next great story may come from. The broader your world is, the more unique and interesting the material at your disposal will be.
And if none of the above works, have a friend like Danny.