Lisa Moore on taking February from page to stage

We asked each of the Canada Reads authors to share a "story behind the story" with us. Today, Lisa Moore, author of February, shares her experience of adapting her own novel for the theatre.

Comedian Trent McClellan will defend February during the Canada Reads debates February 11-14.

Thumbnail image for february.jpg

It took about four years to write the novel February, and by the time I was done, I felt I knew my characters inside out.

But touring with the novel, reading from it all across Canada and Australia, and in Cheltenham, England, and elsewhere, to large audiences at festivals and small audiences, of sometimes four or five people, in communities with the population of a hundred or so, outside Whitehorse, for example, and at book clubs in peoples' living rooms, I came to know my characters in a much deeper way.

Audience members would speak to me after a reading and tell me about their own experiences of falling in love, raising children, working in the oil industry, or other industries where tragedies had occurred, and sometimes, people spoke about the experience of having someone whom they have loved very much die suddenly.

These discussions, often philosophical, often about the aesthetic concerns of writing, sometimes critical, always honest and generous, changed my novel for me again and again.

Stories never belong to the author who happens to write them down, they are also the creation of each individual reader.

Every book is chimerical and shapeshifting, altered by the context in which it is read, and by the experiences of the individual readers who make it come alive in his or her imagination. This is what I love about literature, what makes it magical for me.

I sometimes imagine stories and novels are like the transparent film of soap that coats a child's bubble wand - and the breath that blows it into a bubble, is the breath of the reader. The reader's imagination gives a story shape and substance. It is a private and secret bubble of experience belonging solely to the reader, lasting for as long as the reading of the book last, ending with the turn of the final page, when the bubble bursts, and the 'real' world becomes solid again.

Then came the thrill of watching the story I thought I knew re-created by others before my eyes.

The experience of writing the stage adaptation of February, and watching its production, made the characters in my novel absolutely new for me in a way I had never experienced before.

The first lesson in writing a stage adaptation was to let the characters talk. They must talk and they must talk to each other. They can talk to the audience, of course, they can talk to ghosts, or even to themselves, but they must talk. There is no omniscient narrator to describe them.

They must tell us who they are, what they feel, where they've been, what they are afraid of, what they want, where they want to go. They have to speak with urgency and what they say must be potent, but sound ordinary.

They have to talk the way people actually talk: they have to say, 'pass the salt', or 'this is what death is' or 'I am afraid'. They have to repeat themselves. And not be repetitive. They must not instruct the audience on the meaning of any given action or speech; but the audience must understand the meaning without being told. That was the first lesson.

The second lesson was that the characters must move through space, and the space is limited. The space is the stage. I was given two pieces of advice on this front: 1) Don't write a herd of camels galloping across the stage. It's impossible. Don't do it. It's a stage, for god's sake, not the movies. 2) If you want a herd of camels, write a herd of camels and let the director worry about how to get them galloping across the stage. Everything is possible in the theatre.

My play was performed at the Alumnae Theatre in Toronto, directed by Michelle Alexander with the assistant director, Darwin Lyons.

If I had wanted camels I think Michelle and Darwin could have made them appear.

Only when I saw the play did I realize what I had demanded of the actress who would play Helen. Lavetta Griffin, in that role, lived up to my every expectation and then some.

The character Helen O'Mara is onstage for every scene. She makes love on stage, cries, beats eggs, gives birth, learns that her son is coming home and is in trouble, loses her husband, is visited by his ghost and falls in love again while undergoing house renovations. She cries, has an orgasm, tries online-dating, and lives through the sinking of Ocean Ranger with her husband on board. She changes her clothes several times, gets married, and sometimes speaks in unison with her son, John, (who rides a zip line in Tasmania, cooks a turkey, comes to terms with a newborn child, the death of his father, and nearly drowns during an accident simulation as a part of a helicopter-safety training course. Justin Skye Conlin managed all of this with a great deal of passion and rage and convincing heart). All the while an oil rig looms onstage in the background, a skeletal structure that is festooned with props and costumes that the actors take down and use as the play unfolds.

John Fray as Cal, Helen's husband, tells the audience what it feels like to die in the void that must have been the North Atlantic the night the Ocean Ranger sank.

The experience of watching these actors, including Victoria Fuller as Jane Downey, Steve Switzman as Barry, Kathleen Jackson Allamby as Louise, and Trevor Cartlidge as Cal's father (all the actors were magnificent and committed, talented and alive to the idea of trying the impossible) was as close as I will probably ever come to knowing how a reader creates a character in his or her imagination.

It was a gift and an honour to see what was once a few wispy figments of my imagination, the beginnings of a story, (as all stories are before they are read by readers), transformed into breathing beings who talked and walked and became someone else's creation entirely, for the hour and some, until the play was over.

Related links:

Comments are closed.