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Changing stories, changing things: Dennis Kelly and Alexandra Wood in conversation with Aleks Sierz

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Ambition in adaptation sometimes pays off. The following is an edited transcript of a public interview conducted by journalist Aleks Sierz with two British playwrights, Dennis Kelly (born 1910) and Alexandra Wood (born 1982) at the ICA in London on 4 May 2012. Kelly has adapted Roald Dahl’s popular 1988 children’s novel, Matilda, into the musical Matilda the Musical (2010) for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Wood created a stage version, for the Young Vic, of Jung Chang’s 1991 bestselling Wild Swans, a non-fiction account of three generations of a Chinese family spanning the era of the Communist Revolution. The interview examines the process of adaptation, starting with the adaptor’s first encounter with the source work, their original versions of the text, the changes made during the process of collaboration and the final fine tuning of the result. Both playwrights stress the support of their theatre companies and especially of their directors, in the case of Matilda the Musical this was director Matthew Warchus and musician Tim Minchin, and in the case of Wild Swans it was Sacha Wares. In both of these adaptations, a key preoccupation was that of storytelling, that is adapting the literary mode of storytelling to be found in the source texts, whether children’s novel or family biography, into a stage story, where temporal, visual and musical elements are at least as important as, and sometimes even more constraining than, the words of spoken dialogue. In both cases this process required similar skills: narrative economy, clarity of representation and emotional engagement. In terms of politics, both playwrights have focused on the personal politics of change, asking whether it is possible for individuals to change the life story that they have been born into, as nurtured by their parents, and then exploring the emotional costs of such changes.
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Keywords: China; Leverhulme Olympic Talks; Matilda the Musical; Wild Swans; children’s literature; history; musicals

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Rose Bruford College

Publication date: July 1, 2014

More about this publication?
  • Adaptation, or the conversion of oral, historical or fictional narratives into stage drama has been common practice for centuries. In our own time the processes of cross-generic transformation continue to be extremely important in theatre as well as in the film and other media industries. Adaptation and the related areas of translation and intertextuality continue to have a central place in our culture with a profound resonance across our civilisation.
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