Review of Writing Adaptations and Translations for the Stage: A Guide and Workbook for New and Experienced Writers

Jacqueline Goldfinger and Allison Horsley. Writing Adaptations and Translations for the Stage: A Guide and Workbook for New and Experienced Writers. London: Routledge, 2023.

Reviewed by Lindsay Webster and Jane Barnette

Jacqueline Goldfinger and Allison Horsley’s recent guide and workbook is a slim volume of 125 pages that intends to serve as a user-friendly “community toolbox” designed to share insights from contemporary theatre practitioners who specialize in translation and/or adaptation (xi). Fittingly, the structure of the book is meant to resemble “the trajectory of a creative process: brainstorming, writing, producing, and sharing theatrical work” (xv), allowing readers to choose their own pathway into the text, based on where they are in their own processes. Through seven chapters, the authors track these stages diligently, culminating with two case studies (chapters 5 and 6) and a series of reflections on adaptation in “Other Performative Modes.” While the authors do not include any kind of scholarly citation in the book, it appears that their use of “performative” for this final chapter is meant to signal “theatrical,” rather than its other copious meanings in theatre and performance studies fields (see Aaron Thomas, “Infelicities” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 35.2 (Spring 2021), pp. 13-25). Unlike the previous six chapters, chapter seven operates more like an appendix, insofar as it is not attributed to either author but instead consists of several quotations from their interviews with the aforementioned professional theatre-makers—it is therefore likely that these excerpts were ones that the authors found useful but could not integrate into the previous chapters, making the final chapter operate as a kind of repository of observations that readers may find relevant to adaptation (less so to translation).

The first chapter (attributed to Goldfinger) details the process from starting with an artistic intention and proceeding to mesh it with existing work, in an effort to serve both the source material and the audience. It guides the reader to consider the dramaturgical “why” – why here, why this piece, why this community, why this medium, why now. The ideas of intention and dramaturgical context are at the heart of everything Goldfinger instructs her readers to do, although the lack of references to existing scholarship that intersects with these ideas belies the fact that these insights are well-documented in adaptation dramaturgy elsewhere.

After generating a list of potential adaptation materials, the key moments in each, and what might resonate for modern audiences, Goldfinger moves onto the specifics of writing a first draft for an adaptation. Here the workbook gets less abstract and more technical by discussing characters, setting, and tone, and including some approachable writing exercises so the reader may begin to immediately practice Goldfinger’s advice. She takes care to explicitly note why the writing exercise relates to the book’s content, as well. These exercises will likely appeal to theatre practitioners of all specialties, including designers, directors, actors, and dramaturgs, as well as playwrights and adapters.

Horsley mirrors Goldfinger’s approach as the author of the second chapter, outlining the process for writing the first draft of a translation. As this is the first bit of text dedicated purely to translation, Horsley begins by discussing translation’s distinction from adaptation and the need for an unbiased voice that still considers cultural nuances. Again, leading questions are utilized to inspire and motivate the reader.

In chapter three (“Production”), Goldfinger discusses what happens when an adaptation moves from concept to actualization. The incorporation of a creative team frequently leads to revisions and pivots, and the reader is encouraged to shift into a new role as collaborator, while not losing sight of one’s initial intentions for the piece. Although the writer’s level of involvement in creating theatre is understandably the chapter’s primary focus, the lack of attentiveness to traditional design processes (even with a “Quick Chat” excerpt from designer Thom Weaver) and the difficulty of making changes late in the technical production is palpable, and the absence of reference to producing translated stage works is especially noteworthy.

Chapters five and six consist of case studies, one from each author, with Goldfinger’s focusing on a creative adaptation and Horsley’s on a more traditional translation. The juxtaposition between these two examples – a piece that entirely reconceptualizes a story for modern TYA (theatre for young audiences) vs. one that seeks to serve and mostly preserve the work of a revered playwright – covers wide ground and makes for page-turning reading. That both of these examples stem from the authors’ professional theatre experience ensures that these case study-focused chapters are highly engaging.

Throughout the text, Goldfinger and Horsley break up their exposition with interviews, section titles, summaries, and lists, effectively reengaging and refocusing their audience. Including “major takeaways” before each interview is particularly helpful, as it clearly outlines why the authors chose to include that particular interview. By posing questions to readers about their intentions, strategies, and desires for creating an adaptation, the authors create a concise guide, making frequent use of bullet-point lists. In this way, they facilitate readers’ ability to scan back through the book to find previous questions and shifts in thought. The authors’ consistent reference to specific, real-world examples demonstrates application of their overarching concepts. Following any digression from the main topic at hand, Goldfinger often uses quick refocusing sentences, brief numbered recaps, and straightforward checklists to remind readers what they have learned so far and what the next logical step in the process should be. Though Horsley has her own voice and specialty, the two writers’ styles blend smoothly together, and the switch between them is never jarring or confusing. Goldfinger does write more of the chapters than Horsley, however, and as a result the workbook offers more material related to modern adaptation than linguistic translations. If readers extrapolate Goldfinger’s techniques for theatrical adaptation to help enrich Horsley’s approach to translations, they may find some of these tactics transferable, but the uneven treatment of these two approaches to creating for the stage remains frustrating.

Overall, Goldfinger and Horsley’s organization of the book’s content excels at engaging introductory-level readers. Varying between long and short paragraphs, including surprising yet relevant brief tangents, breaking up pages with interviews and lists, the authors’ syntax and style will likely appeal most to high school and undergraduate students. Readers of Writing Adaptations and Translations for the Stage will find the concepts and suggestions for application to their own work straight-forward and easy to understand. More advanced writers may also find this guide helpful in its simplicity, should they find themselves stuck by a difficult project and need to revisit the basics for inspiration. For those of us working and writing within academic contexts, however, the book’s lack of citations and omission of any reference to the scholarly fields with which the book intersects will prove unsatisfying.

Lindsay Webster is a third-year MFA Scenography candidate at the University of Kansas, where she studies scenic, costume, lighting, and projection design and works as Instructor for Costume Production, Scenic Production, and Lighting Production courses. Lindsay’s research focuses on scenographic techniques and history, advanced technology and computer science applications for theatre design, and accessible design for the stage. She will graduate with her MFA in May of 2023.

Jane Barnette is the Head of Dramaturgy and an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Kansas (KU). Her book Adapturgy: The Dramaturg’s Art and Theatrical Adaptation explores the potential of dramaturgically-savvy adaptations for the stage. Barnette’s research includes Chicago-based touring theatre at the turn of the twentieth century, student-centered pedagogy, and depictions of witchy characters onstage as well as in popular culture. A freelance dramaturg and director, Barnette serves as the VP for University Relations for LMDA.  

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