Taking a Book from the Page to the Stage: Five Key Lessons Learned

It’s been a little over three weeks since the debut of my stage play, When the Smoke Clears. While I never set out to become a playwright, birds of a feather…well, you know the rest. For the past five years, I’ve been surrounded by not just other authors, but playwrights, producers, directors and even actors. And while I started out as a resource for a phenomenal group of creatives, Urban Playwrights United (UPU), I soon became an official member and part of the tribe. By June of 2017, I’d partnered up with two people I consider to be my dream team, Melissa Talbot and Richard Bass, two industry connections that came through continued engagement with UPU.

After multiple revisions to the script, a few days of a casting call and a secured venue, we walked into what would be six to eight weeks of rehearsals. On August 12 and 13, we presented multiple shows to sold-out audiences at The Boll Theatre in downtown Detroit. Since then, I’ve received inbox messages, phone calls and emails for authors who “want to pick my brain” (whatever that really means) about taking their book from the page to the stage. While I don’t have the time (or much brain matter left) to consult with each individual for hours on the best strategy for them, I thought it best to at least make some lessons learned public to help the author who is even considering taking their bestseller to the stage. Here goes.

  1. Main ideas over miniscule details. You’ve got an hour and a half, maybe two hours max, to wow an audience. While your book may be 250 pages, all of that content won’t fit into an hour and a half production. We took the main ideas from the book, When the Smoke Clears: A Phoenix Rises, such as loss of a loved one, problems in marriage, blended family and family secrets—and presented those key concepts on stage.
  2. Write it, then release it. Many times, authors look at their manuscripts and books as babies. We protect them. We cover them. We don’t want to release them too soon because, well…we don’t want anyone to critique or criticize “our baby.” But in drafting the script, I had to yield to the flow of the characters and the plot. I had to yield to the creative direction of the producer and director. If something didn’t make sense, it didn’t flow well, or it was flat out boring (or cliché) for theater, we removed it. You can’t want to hold on so tight to your voice, your story and your final product that you don’t bend to suggestions.
  3. Don’t wear your feelings on your shoulders. This ain’t (yep, I said ain’t) for the faint at heart. Remain open for constructive (not bickering and complaining) criticism. Even when people love the show, they will ask questions that you may have left unanswered (intentionally) and they’ll call out the holes you could possibly fill moving forward. Everyone won’t love the show. Some people will hate it. Take it with a grain of salt, make adjustments where you can and keep it moving.
  4. Pay the professionals, and let them do the job you paid them to do. As much as I hate micromanagers, I’m guilty of the same (sometimes, maybe). If you try to write, direct, produce and act in your own production (and sell tickets at the door and sell your own books at your vendor table), you’ll be overwhelmed. If you can achieve the vision all by yourself, and you don’t need help, the vision isn’t big enough. By the second week of rehearsals, the producer and director had politely excused me from rehearsals (well, they kind of kicked me out). I had to trust them to bring the vision to life. I had to trust the actors to deliver it in excellence. I had to trust the door sales crew, the person managing my book sales and even the theatre lighting and sound tech. You’re going to have to trust other people to bring this to life! Pay the professionals, and stay in your lane.
  5. Mistakes and mishaps are inevitable. Don’t sweat the small stuff. My cast will tell you I was shaking like a leaf behind stage, nervous for THEM! They missed lines. It was a wardrobe tsunami on the sides of the stage. And I tried my best not to get fake blood on my white suit jacket as I poured it on the hands of a cast member who was moving way too fast. The day of, things won’t go perfectly. They won’t go off without a hitch. But more times than not, you’re worried about stuff that the audience won’t even notice. Breathe, and let the experts do what they do best.

 

For more information, or to connect with Tenita “Bestseller” Johnson, visit www.soitiswritten.net.

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