SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: Adaptation, Get It On Paper

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In a previous article I mentioned the choice you’ll inevitably need to make on opening up your life to your art. You as Autobiographical Playwright. You’ll have to sort it out, what is in bounds, what isn’t. Some playwrights are performance artists at heart and love to display the family jewels. Others mask the autobiographical well, splattering in reality amidst a wider fictional canvas. While I’m not up for dropping my pants four nights a week in front of a paying crowd, I’ve never shied away from the Autobiographical Playwright. I mean why was I writing a play in the first place? Did I want to Babushka dance at dawn amidst the sick and sorry affair known as life—or what?! OK, forget the Babushka dance, forget making grand statements or trying to define my time on this orb. Maybe just lay it out, nail it down, do the best work I can. Remember this play you’re working on, it’s a piece of the legacy, the snail trail that defines you. I won’t presume to ever tell you which path you should choose. Your call, Good Reader. Stick to the autobiographical stuff if you like. There is another path though…

get it on paper

I wrote a half-dozen autobiographical plays before I tried my first adaptation. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with companies like Prop Theater and Live Bait, as well as my brother Chris’ company IgLoo, which brought me out to Chicago long elephant-years ago circa ’88. I’d say among the 25 or so productions I’ve had, it worked out about 50-50, original play productions vs. adaptations.

So, Point A: Let’s say you found a book—poem—painting—myth—legend—graphic novel—comic—newspaper or magazine article—and you want to write a theatrical adaptation. What’s the first thing you need to do? There is no debating this one…

Get…the… Rights!

I’m no lawyer, so look here if you want to understand what falls under public domain, or here for fair use.

The horror stories are plentiful. Playwright friends who had verbal commitments from the owners of source material, who were 100% sure they had the rights and didn’t get it on paper, only to later see the deal fall through after they wrote the goddamn script! Just a killer. Don’t let it happen to you.

get in on paper

Cavalcade Of Stars

I recently had a Chicago company ready to produce an evening of theater I’d mapped out based on Jackie Gleason, a recreation of Cavalcade Of Stars. For those of you born after the first Star Wars movie, I’ll let the elves at Wikipedia describe Cavalcade Of Stars: “Gleason’s first variety series was aired on the Dumont Television Network …Gleason stepped into Cavalcade on July 15, 1950, and became an immediate sensation. The show was broadcast live, in front of a theater audience, and offered the same kind of vaudevillian entertainment common to early-TV revues.” Cavalcade also featured the very first skits of The Honeymooners. The idea of recreating early Honeymooners episodes live for the stage—having the Gleason-actor during the “commercial breaks” improvise with the audience, and bringing back some of great lost vaudeville now only found on half-destroyed videotape archived at UCLA… sounded like a cool night a theater to me.

Even though the Dumont Network was long gone, I’d need rights to the broadcast TV material. I put on my detective hat to figure out who owned the rights. If what you’re planning to adapt isn’t public domain, you’ll have to do the same. If the author is alive, seek him out. If dead, seek out the estate. Here, Gleason was dead so a quick check brought me to a lawyer representing the family estate. I discovered that Gleason’s daughter was executor and contacted her. She requested a proposal and I spent a week writing a pitch concept. Without a dime for option rights, I pitched a limited package: Theatrical, one-time, local rights only. I damn well knew this was commercial, and her letter back to me confirmed it. Paraphrasing here: “Like the idea. Been thinking about a similar concept. In talks with Off-Broadway producers. Can’t give you the rights.”

Sonofa–!

How do I know I didn’t just serve her the idea on a silver tray? I don’t. But I don’t own the original material and there’s no copyrighting an idea. So, if you ever see Cavalcade Of Stars on Broadway, you can say you know the miserable fellow who probably thought of it first.

bukowski

Buk: The Life And Times Of Charles Bukowski

What was the first thing I said in this article? Get the rights, yes? So why would I do the reverse when dealing with Charles Bukowski? This is a pretty good story…

For the lion’s share of our lives, the sibling rivalry with my brother Chris was pretty much non-existent. He got the looks, I got the talent. Er, let me rephrase that: He was the producer/director. I was the writer. Life is simpler when you know your strength and stick to it. But here was my brother talking about a Charles Bukowski adaptation for our theater igLoo. He actually went and wrote—or should I say cut and paste—one. It was lousy and I told him so. He said something infantile like: I’d like to see you do better. So I set out to write one. I grabbed seven Bukowski books off my shelf and started piecing it together. The adaptation was called Buk, The Life and Times Of Charles Bukowski.

Ah, Ignorance! I never once considered that rights would be needed to make this play happen. My job was to be the paper pirate-hat wearing Ar-tist, not to be bothered with trivial nonsense. Allen Ginsburg once called a traffic accident the “face of absolute reality”—that’s kinda what happened here, a traffic accident. Couldn’t get the rights and not even freewheeling igLoo was going to wing a production with full production costs without the rights. You would get shut down and sued. So the play never happened. Until The Prop Theater and Live Bait came around.

You can’t teach connections. My friend Scott Vehill, Artistic Director at Prop Theater, in true Chicago-style, knew a guy who knew a guy. This was 1992. Bukowski was alive and living out in San Pedro, CA. Scott’s friend knew where. He would take the script and put it in Bukowski’s mailbox. No PDF’s, no email proposals. Good Reader, take heed: Given the choice between getting your adaptation to John Martin, Bukowski’s powerful publisher at Black Sparrow Press, a money man through and through who would certainly reject us for lack of option money—or getting it to Bukowski himself, who still made Santa Anita by day and wrote tales of jackrolling and being jackrolled in the 40’s by night—always seek out the writer first for rights.

I was shocked a few weeks later when a letter arrived from Charles Bukowski. “I thought the play read condensed, brisk, bloody, and bright. Good show.”

Sonofa–!

get it on paper

He gave us John Martin’s information and when we approached him we had Bukowski’s blessing. Martin gave us the rights for a Chicago production for $500 bucks. If you want to know what sort of deal that is, know that film rights for Bukowski material like Women and Post Office today goes for six-figures. This started a two-year correspondence of letters from Bukowski, as well as the first Chicago production of Buk. The show got Joseph Jefferson nominations. Following that was a National Public Radio performance in Los Angeles, which is still around. Bukowski came out to see it and yeah, I’ve got the photo of us framed along with a discarded pack of Beedies, his Indian cigarette of choice, and the NPR program. Bukowski picked up the bar tab for a full tables of actors with a Gold Amex card. These were L.A. movie actors, among them Harris Yulin. I complained that the original Chicago cast was way more “kick ass” but he told me to relax and be more forgiving. He said the adaptation worked. “My notes, your arrangement.” He cried during the speech about the goldfish dying on the floor, the goldfish given him by his girlfriend, now dead too. Bukowski himself was dead within the year.

His notes, my arrangement. Theatrical adaptation really needn’t be any more complicated than that. In future articles we can decide on whether a faithful adaptation or “original” adaptation is called for with your upcoming play. For now, let’s just say you probably don’t want to rely on putting scripts in author’s mailboxes.

Get it on paper.

 

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