A Conversation with Vincent Murphy
By Philip Auslander
Vincent (Vinnie) Murphy, Professor in the Department of Theater and Dance at Emory University, and Philip Auslander,
Editor of The Art Section, have known each other since the late 1960s when both were active with the Boston Children's
Theater. Auslander interviewed Murphy on the occasion of his having published the book Page to Stage: The Craft of Adaptation.
PA: To introduce
you to our readers, tell us a little about yourself, the work you’ve been doing, and how you came to your commitment
to producing theater through the adaptation of primarily non-dramatic literary works.
VM: My first experience of
seeing a fully produced play happened when I was thirteen, from backstage at the Boston Children’s Theater. My mother’s
welfare worker had forced me to join BCT after I was almost arrested for using a can to panhandle money in downtown Boston
for a nonexistent children’s theater. Awkwardly standing backstage at BCT to help with props, I witnessed my teen peers
transforming themselves into other characters.
a child, I watched TV shows like I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and Bonanza playing out the stories of people
who seemed real to me as they got themselves in and out of interesting predicaments. And my previous lack of exposure to live
performing arts hadn’t kept me from inventing skits with my family and friends or from believing that what we did was
like what we saw on television. So once I experienced this transformative power of theater—to alter us, to tell our
stories—it took hold of my life and changed it. Since then, my career has persistently returned to adapting and directing
literary works for the stage.
The first reason I adapt is that the powerful content we sometimes find when reading a novel, short
story, poem, or essay comes alive in my theatrical imagination. A theme, character, story line, or place may so capture us
that we want to share the discovery with others. If theater grew out of the human need to tell our stories, then adaptation
takes a story and makes it life-sized on the stage, which after your living room is the best place to tell tales. Theater
allows us to share a discovered story in the unique way that only live performance can, bringing the storytellers and audience
together for the experience.
us some examples of adaptations (your own or those of others) that you thought were particularly successful in making the
page to stage transition. If you don’t mind, please also give us one or two examples of relative failures in this area.
My adaptation of John Barth’s short story “Petition” into Me And My Shadow is a favorite as I developed
a theatrical vocabulary around the ideas of twins and doubleness and the style of German Cabaret. The production was acclaimed;
Barth himself called it “Astonishing.” In the author’s note that prefaces his collection of short stories
Lost in the Funhouse, Barth describes this story as impossible to translate from one medium to another. He writes that some
of his other stories might work as radio plays, animations, reader’s theater, or stage plays; indeed, he challenges
his readers to imagine the stories not only read silently but also spoken aloud. But “Petition,” he insists, is
one of the pieces that can work only as literature, that would “lose part of their point in any except printed form.”
for me include Mary Zimmerman’s Scheherazade which totally ignores the killing of the king’s wives before
Scheherazade and my adaptation of The Man Died by Wole Soyinka for the the National Back Arts Festival in Atlanta
where my idea of casting local celebrities along with actors undercut the horror of his solitary confinement.
PA: I notice that the title of the book posits
theatrical adaptation as a craft rather than an art. What lies behind your thinking of it this way?
University’s 1994 Athol Fugard Festival, Athol spoke eloquently on the craft of playwriting. Building plays. Using tools
to remake them from ideas, sources, and failed attempts. With adaptation, you are working from a source that you must rebuild
it in the 3 dimensional space of a theater.
PA: I'm interested
in different contexts and ways of working in relation to adaptation, and also in the adaptation of different kinds of materials.
For example, how is it different to adapt a poem or a painting for the stage versus a story with an established narrative
All works of art have a vocabulary of expression. Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire has its sweat
and violence, King Lear its metaphors of vision and seeing and blindness. The source gives you clues: a Hopper painting has
its loneliness, isolation, and urban context; a Sexton poem has racecar turns of phrase from past personal pain; and a novel
like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has the arc of a family journey. Each will ask for a unique way to be shared
live with an audience.
PA: How does the role of the adapter/playwright change when working with performers
who also make significant contributions to the development of the material? I'm thinking here of American experimental theater
groups who worked with writers like The Open Theater or the Medicine Show, with which you worked, and what the Brits like
to call "devised" theater.
VM: Frank Galati had his Steppenwolf Company for The Grapes
of Wrath just as Shakespeare had his company to adapt the Holinshed histories. Knowing the gifts of your actors gives
you both freedom and boundary lines in choosing material and emphasis. A Lois Smith opens up a Ma Joad capable of being fierce
get what you’re saying, and it’s a good point. But I was thinking more of circumstances in which the company works
more collectively on the adaptation. Have you worked as an adapter under such circumstances and do you have any thoughts on
the adapter’s role when there are more cooks, so to speak?
VM: It is much harder on an adaptor in
a collective situation. The Open Theater’s collective adaptation of the Book of Genesis into The Serpent with
Jean-Claude Van Itallie as writer almost tore the company apart as he claimed sole ownership after its success. When I worked
with the Medicine Show on The Frogs, adapted from Aristophanes, we made it clear to the writer that we had joint
ownership of the script with him, which undercut how many rehearsals he would see when we toured Europe with it. I don’t
work collectively on my adaptations.
PA: Even though I’ve known you for a long time, I didn’t
know until I read your book that you had worked with the Medicine Show. I was a fan of theirs and saw that production of The
Frogs. Is there anything about that experience you’d like to recount?
VM: We worked with the Aristophanes text as a frame and from some of the dominant themes, such as transformation,
we wrote, improvised and researched characters who would take a journey of discovery that involved turning into frogs, then
back into humans. As we were coming out of Vietnam in 73, I focused on Winter Soldier testimony about the atrocities American
soldiers committed on civilians to create a very confused character, a 20 year old would-be draftee, and built the atrocity
confessions around some autobiographical writing on a Catholic full of guilt, longing, and a need to shed his skin.
PA: Can you say a bit more about the ways
adaptation can be
responsive to the times and circumstances under which the material is
performed, as you say the Medicine Show’s work on Aristophanes was?
VM: Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses
became a phenomenon because it opened in New York City just after 9/11 and
dealt with loss, grief, and resurrection.
PA: Do you believe that adaptations should be “faithful” to the
is my favorite quotation on the subject. Simon
McBurney, the actor and acclaimed artistic director of several theatrical
adaptations for Britain’s Théatre de Complicité, has also given us a window
into his selection process: “I’m not attracted to literary, narrative, or prose
work as an idea. I became interested in a particular subject matter. And there
will be urgent concerns, urgent ideas, urgent stories within my own life. There
is no formula. The desire to take a work of prose is, you suddenly have a
desire to make it present [and] share the presence of it with 500 people like a
kind of celebration or party. If theater can make good parties, everyone will
want to go.”
Murphy, who in 2005/2006 stepped down from 17 years as artistic producing director of Theater Emory, has a professional career
spanning three decades of collaboration on more than 200 productions in the United States, Canada, South America, and Europe.
As a director, playwright, actor, designer, choreographer, and artistic director, he has garnered more than 40 major awards,
working at several leading regional theaters in the United States, including The American Repertory Theatre, The Alliance
Theatre, The Sacramento Theater Company, and The Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Philip Auslander is
the Editor of The