A while ago, I was thinking (aloud) about page-to-stage adaptations of German novels, a fairly popular phenomenon, and about ownership of texts and how writers (and their descendants) react to meddling by translators and directors. And now there's a symposium in Berlin on this very subject: RealFiktionen. Last night I went along to the second of their three events, excited to see my friends, the writers Deniz Utlu and Olga Grjasnowa, talking about their experiences of having their novels adapted for the stage.
The evening began, however, with Wolfram Lotz and Hannes Becker, two young men who've been getting a whole lotta hype recently. And they were sexy and silly and made all the girls laugh, but I found they tested the patience of the older members of the audience, myself included, who seemed to have a different sense of comic timing, let's say. Still, I did actually love, love, love their 27 Demands for The Theatre, for its almost achievable utopianism and for addressing the horribleness of hierarchies. (I recently spent a day in a foreign country with some German theatre people, purely by coincidence, and was amazed that the dramaturg ("the guy who re-writes the plays," said the electrician) refused to sit at the same table as the technical staff and didn't exchange a single word with them. What an idiot.)
And then came the podium discussion with Olga and Deniz and the directors Nurkan Erpulat and Hakan Savaş Mican, who are staging their respective novels at the Maxim-Gorki-Theater (which the NY Times says is "leading an immigrant vanguard", but hey, I suppose they have to write something eye-catching in the headlines, even if it makes you feel like you're stranded in the seventies). And the discussion, while it could have been tighter, was interesting for several reasons.
First of all, the writers were both totally laid-back about having their novels adapted. Maybe because they know the directors and trust them, or maybe because they recognize that the stage versions are going to be radically different to the originals anyway and so can relax into the whole experience. Olga Grjasnowa actually said she prefers the play of her first novel to the book; there's one scene that simply works better, for her. Novels are finite, nailed down to the page and can't be changed, while plays can come out differently at every performance, have the potential for constant evolution. I don't know whether that means constant enhancement; I can imagine there are nights when the actors are more jaded than others, but what do I know. And she pointed out that publishing a novel means surrendering control over its interpretation because every reader understands it differently; writers can only hope readers will even finish their books. Plus, the editor and the publisher and even/especially the sales reps have the power to cut entire characters and plot strands (although maybe that changes as writers become more established and have greater punching power). So a director reaching in and wrenching out the "soul" of your novel, as Hakan Savaş Mican put it, is only one in a long line of interventions.
Interestingly, Deniz Utlu sees things differently when he writes directly for the stage, because there he has more of a vision for his work in the context. But everyone on the panel agreed that there are two huge differences between page and stage: time and space. In a novel, everything happens in the reader's imagination and a writer can slow down or speed up time, focus on a hummingbird's wings for two pages or have characters age within a paragraph. And theatre in particular has to find a way to compensate for that. The example given was Elyas and his Uncle Cemal in Utlu's Die Ungehaltenen, who in the novel meet up over and over and sit and drink tea in companionable silence – something the director said he doesn't want to recreate in real time (Lotz and Becker might, though), so he has to condense those encounters, which are important for the respective characters.
And the space element is the fact that there are real people up there acting things out, moving closer and further away from each other and the audience. What they didn't mention was sound; I think music is not unimportant either, but maybe that's more of a film thing. Or lighting, or stage design and costumes. What I didn't realize is how theatre people go about making novels into plays, sometimes: according to Nurkan Erpulat they all read the book (actors and designers and directors and assistants; Lotz and Becker say the technical staff do/should too, but maybe they don't, I don't know) and then they go into a rehearsal space together and think about how to make a play out of it, and only after a few weeks does anything get written down, I think by the dramaturg but I'm not sure, and even then that initial version is still very flexible.
It was fun to listen to directors talking; they seem to be a different species to writers. At one point Nurkan Erpulat pretended to be a moderator, intoning an inane but not uninteresting question into the microphone, and the best moment of all was when Hakan Savaş Mican proclaimed it impossible to adapt a novel for the stage. I'm very much looking forward to his production of Deniz Utlu's novel now, what with my translator's realistic love for performing impossible feats.