In November 2007, Greasy Joan & Co. invited playwrights to participate in their Contemporary Classics Series. They were looking for “new adaptations of classic plays or stories.” I had always wanted to adapt Treasure Island for the stage. It’s my second favorite novel ever, next to Cat’s Cradle. (Third favorite novel ever: The Cider House Rules) And it’s certainly a “classic story.” I had proposed Treasure Island, informally, at Lifeline Theatre years earlier, but more recently, I had decided to hold off on adapting it because I thought the story was too similar to Johnny Tremain (my latest adaptation at Lifeline.)
At any rate, I re-read Treasure Island late 2007. I hadn’t read it since my roommate and I read it out loud to each other, one chapter a night, right out of college. I wrote a proposal for the adaptation, and submitted it to Greasy Joan along with a résumé and a writing sample. But I got so excited re-reading it that in the next ten days I cranked out a first draft. Ten days is “cranking” for me. Normally I do four pages a day (the easy parts first, of course), which means a first draft will take about a month. But I never heard back from Greasy Joan. So there my draft sat, all alone in its own little folder on my computer’s desk top…
…until the next June when I submitted it to Remy Bumppo Theatre, which was accepting adaptations for a series of readings. I did hear back from Remy Bumppo. They weren’t interested, and I can’t blame them. That cranked out first draft was embarrassingly rough, and long, and repetitive, and all the things that cranked out first drafts are. Not all theaters are as patient with new works as Lifeline. The script has come a very long way through the Lifeline process. All the usual things happened: characters were cut/added/consolidated, scenes were cut/added/consolidated/re-ordered, lines were cut/added/trimmed/changed/given to other characters, and the story-telling was focused while keeping the story in tact and very faithful to the novel. I even threw in a little “heart.” OK, whatever… Coolio… I also managed to sneak in a few gags just for me.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the entire production crew and designers of the show (set & props, costumes, lights, sound, dialects, fights—hope I didn’t forget anyone) for allowing me to tell this story in the complicated way that I had imagined telling it—with so many characters and locations, and multiple narrators and flashbacks, and so forth. And in particular, I need to thank director Rob Kauzlaric for seeing the big picture, giving shape to my cranked out mess, and his commitment to keeping the “edge” on this story.
I also wish to thank the talented, veteran cast of Treasure Island for hanging with all the script changes—huge, big, small, tiny, and micro—but for also letting me know when a line or a scene was not quite right. I depended a great deal on their instincts. Finally, I thank the Lifeline artistic ensemble for providing all the “outside eyes” which helped to trim the fat from scenes and make the story-telling clear.
After every read-through and every rehearsal, the draft got tighter and clearer. But as great as the Lifeline process is for tightening up a draft, it’s still a brutal process because of limited rehearsal time and limited resources. As an adapter, you’re lucky to get 50% of what you originally ask for. (So make sure your draft asks for lots of stuff early, and then pick your battles later on.) Here are a couple of my favorite lines from the novel that made the Lifeline adaptation, pretty much word for word:
For thirty years I’ve sailed the seas, and seen good and bad, better and worse, fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going in and out, and what not. Well, now I tell you, I never seen good come o’ goodness yet. Him as strikes first is my fancy; dead men don’t bite; them’s my views—amen, so be it.
LONG JOHN SILVER
Avast, there! Who are you, Tom Morgan? Maybe you thought you was cap’n here, perhaps. By the powers, but I’ll teach you better! Cross me, and you’ll go where many a good man’s gone before you, first and last, these thirty year back—some to the yard-arm, shiver my timbers! and some by the board, and all to feed the fishes. There’s never a man looked me between the eyes and seen a good day a’terwards, Tom Morgan, you may lay to that.
And here are a couple of my favorite lines from the novel that did not make the Lifeline adaptation:
LONG JOHN SILVER
Ah, she’s a handsome craft, she is; but you can’t touch pitch and not be mucked, lad, you may lay to that.
LONG JOHN SILVER
Well, who crossed me? Who forced my hand, and began this dance? Ah, it’s a fine dance—I’m with you there—and looks mighty like a horn-pipe in a rope’s end at Execution Dock by London town, it does. But who done it? Why, it was Job Anderson, and Israel Hands, and you, George Merry! And you’re the last above board to that same meddling crew; and you have the Davy Jones’s insolence to up and stand for cap’n over me—you, that sank the lot of us! By the powers! but this tops the stiffest yarn to nothing.