C.C. Humphreys is an award-winning author of thirteen novels and several plays, and an established actor of screen and stage. He originally met the Bard on the Beach festival when he joined the acting company for the 1991 season–his first acting gig in Canada. Now, Bard is putting on a world premiere of Humphreys’ play Shakespeare’s Rebel, which he has adapted from his novel of the same name. Directed by Christopher Gaze and dramaturged by Martin Kinch, the play is the thesis of Humphreys’ MFA in Creative Writing.
What’s it like adapting your own work into a different format (i.e., novel into stageplay)?
Unsurprisingly, quite hard. They have different dynamics. A novel is far more expansive, you can tell story and develop character using interior monologue, describe scenes and people. With a play it all has to be done with words and actions. I tend to use a lot of ‘character in action’ in my novels so it’s not as hard as it would be for, say, Jane Austen (is she still alive?). But how a character conducts himself, what he reveals and conceals, how he reacts, can only be done in dialogue and the odd scripted move. Of course, you are also aware that the script is a blueprint for other talents, that director, designers, actors will all bring their talents to bear. As an actor myself perhaps I am more aware and find less need to spell everything out. But what works on the novel’s page doesn’t necessarily on the stage. New action must be created to make the same point. And scenes I love have to go, because a play has a momentum that cannot pause too long. Darlings lie slaughtered all over my hut! So, yes, hard.
You write a lot of historical drama. What’s one hard thing about writing historical fiction? What’s one good thing–challenge, satisfaction–that only historical drama brings you?
A hard thing–keeping the right balance between the actual ‘history’ and the story’s imperatives. I am a storyteller, not a historian, though I love history and you have to try and get it right, otherwise you’ll get letters (or emails these days!). But taking a real person from history and giving them voice, making them do things they may not have done, ignoring things they did – it can be hard.
A good thing–feedback from readers who love that I got the balance between story and history right. I think we historical novelists have a place in telling the tales from the past, getting more into character than an historian feels able to do perhaps. Of course we get it wrong. But we also turn people onto a person, or an era. And the more we study history the better, as far as I am concerned.
What’s your favourite part of novel-writing? And does it translate to the stage, when that novel becomes a play?
My favourite time is fairly rare–those first draft moments when you are making it all up and appear to be channelling character or action. And yes, those inventions can make it to the stage. When I see the play–or indeed read parts of the book again–I relive the moment when that synapse fired and that connection was made.
To my understanding, this is the first non-Bard show at the festival. Congrats! How did that happen?
Actually, they have done modern plays before, though always with a Shakespearian theme. They’ve just never done a completely new play, a world premiere. It came about because I’d known Christopher Gaze, the Artistic Director, ever since I acted at Bard in 1991. We were friends and he wanted to do the book launch for Rebel at the theatre. We partnered with Academie Duello, Vancouver amazing medieval martial arts school, and did a night of swords and words. We packed the tent and both Christopher and I thought: Hmm! Meeting for a beer, he asked me to adapt just before I asked him. No guarantees but… They were involved in readings and feedback as I worked through the script. Of course, I had the brilliant UBC Prof Martin Kinch on my side as I did the play as my thesis for my MFA. With his help, and after many drafts, Bard decided to go for it.
How involved were you in the production of Shakespeare’s Rebel? Or, how much change did the script go through (from the time it was accepted as part of the Bard on the Beach season to opening night)?
Quite involved. We workshopped the accepted script for two days with the full company and I rewrote based on that. I attended some rehearsals and was always available for questions. Martin Kinch was taken on as dramaturge, so he was in rehearsal, taking feedback from actors and I rewrote some based on their problems and comments. I also had to insist that some stuff went back in when actors changed things without thinking the change or its repercussions through. So, yes, quite a lot of reworking, right into preview week.
It’s a very meta play, referring to the theatre on multiple occasions (which, of course, Shakespearean theatre does). I find it’s rare, on the other hand, for novels to be self-referential. How do you find novels and stage plays to be different, on this account, and how do they inform that tendency towards self-awareness?
Some novelists write with a heavy authorial voice–i.e. you are always aware of someone telling you the story. I don’t do that, letting my characters tell it as much as possible. This play felt that it needed to refer to itself, to theatre. One director friend described it as ‘a love letter to the theatre and to actors’ and I think that’s accurate. I’ve always felt the theatre is strange and magical at its best, and its practitioners part of a mystery. It’s nice for them (and me) to reflect on that within a play.
There are a lot of Shakespearean lines deftly woven into this play, along with a very well-balanced blend of modern and Shakespearean-era language and colloquialisms. Can you speak for a bit on writing in someone else’s voice (in this case, the Bard), and how you adapt it to your own?
Thank you. It’s a balancing act, to be honest. Write too ‘olde-worldy’ and people would retch. Write too modern and you lose the sense of another time. The novelist, David Mitchell, talks of the language you find as ‘bygonese’–inaccurate, but plausible. Giving a sense of a period without tipping into parody. But I am also aware, as I am as a novelist, that I am writing for today’s audience. So I throw in the odd modernism, carefully and for effect. (For example, Burbage, urging Shakespeare to write a massive hit otherwise the company’s broke adds, ‘No pressure’). As for having the character Shakespeare on stage and putting words into his mouth, all I can say is: he’s been doing it to me for years!
Sarah Higgins is into her second year of her Creative Writing Masters of Fine Arts at UBC. She’s foremost a playwright, and has had work produced at both edges of the country—from Little Mountain Lion Productions in Vancouver to a recent show in the Halifax Fringe festival.