How do you transform a moving graphic novel about loss into a theater piece? The creators of Swell set out to answer that question when the piece premieres at the Culture Project's Women Center Stage, a festival celebrating stage work created by women March 8 through April 7 in New York City.
Adapted by author Juliacks and director Kathleen Amshoff, both Fulbright scholars, as well as with The Company, Swell tells the story of Lucy and Emmeline Grouse as they traverse a mind-bending "kaleidoscopic journey of grief." The graphic novel, a haunting collage of words and black-and-white images, focuses as much on feelings as action. Director Amshoff has grappled with the challenge of bringing these feelings to life on stage since beginning this project in 2008. Nearly four years later, it has not gotten any easier.
"There was a moment in rehearsal last night when I said to the actors, 'This is hard. This is maybe the hardest thing I've ever done in the theater,'" recalls Amshoff. "We were wrestling with the last section in the book, when protagonist, Emmeline inhabits the cemetery where she and her sister Lucy used to play. Emmeline is alone, entertaining herself, steeped in memories of Lucy and inventing her own private grief rituals."
This evocative page (pictured below) can capture a reader's attention for a half hour at a time. The little squiggles, small objects, and the placement of the words offer portals to explore and understand Emmeline's loss. But, this one page cannot eat up 30 minutes of stage time. How do you capture the essence of the page and convey it to a live audience?
Amshoff explains the process. "For the play, we need to untangle images into actions Emma Galvin (playing Emmeline) can do or say onstage," she says. "We make decisions about how to handle the narration. Do we say it? Who says it? Do we show it? Is it clear and detailed enough for the audience to follow?"
Luckily, theater is a collaborative art form where actors and the production team (scenic, costume, lighting, video, and sound designers) also generate ideas during rehearsal. Author Juliacks acknowledges that her baby has benefited from this process. She says, "It is incredibly exciting and challenging to be part of a rehearsal process where the book Swell takes on a life of its own. The ensemble is enthusiastic and grappling with the work on many levels. As the author of the work, there is a bit of distancing I need to do in order to see the book from their perspective instead of just my own."
Amshoff discusses one instance where, during rehearsal, she and the company realized that reordering a couple of scenes would make more sense for the stage adaptation and drive more convincingly toward the show's climax. She elaborates, "We postponed a dream of Emmeline's until she meets Andy Yak, the gravedigger who is also somewhat of an Anubis character (i.e. jackal-headed god). When Eija Ranta (playing Andy) crawled into the tomb and woke Emmeline up, there was electricity in the meeting. It was a new moment not in the book, just borne out of the struggle and solution of this rehearsal. It was exciting."
This week after four years of development, Swell will finally be ready for an audience. For Amshoff, it has been well worth the wait, "The process is but "slow-moving" like Emmeline's grief, but also extremely rewarding."
Performances of Swell run March 15 through April 6, 2012 as part of the Culture Project's Women Center Stage at The Living Theatre (21 Clinton Street, New York City). Purchase advance tickets at the Culture Project's web site.