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The Notion of Adaptation Theory

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The following essay explores the notion of adaptation theory in a theatrical context by engaging with Emily Jade Whitehouse’s On Reflection of Titus (2018) as a primary case study. In particular, I shall engage directly with Whitehouse’s process of adapting Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and the manner in which the adaptation features significant changes but maintains its connection to the original. In doing so, I shall demonstrate that the adaptation is dually a translation and transposition of the original. Additionally, I shall examine the importance of interpretation by considering theatre as a medium of perception, whereby there is a merging of subjectivities during a performance.

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It is integral to begin by establishing the discourse surrounding Adaptation Theory within the specific context of theatrical performance. Adaptation is a process in which a production is reworked based upon or inspired by a pre-existing original text, thereby highlighting, altering and/or proliferating its structure, narrative, meaning and form. The notions of translation and transposition are essential tools used in adaption, whereby translation refers to the manner in which a text will be transferred to a new medium, such as a book being turned into a play, while transposition alters/transforms the dramatic qualities of a play to make it applicable to a new audience (Etherton, 1982, pp. 102-103). Adaptation is a process that can take place to varying extremes, such as an original play influenced by/alluding to another work. Both of these terms may be applicable to this case study, as although Titus Anonymous retains semblance to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, it fragments and reconstructs the play in a manner that alters its stylistic presentation (DIY Theatre), focal points and structure.

Emily Jade Whitehouse’s On Reflection of Titus (2018) documents in great detail the process in which she adapted Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus as a performance piece, under the directorship of John Michael Rossi. This process began in December 2017, and their intentions were to modernize the original to appeal to a contemporary audience in a manner that addressed and rectified its poor reception (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 113). This was done through fragmenting the play and altering its context, framework and focal points (Etherton, 1982, pp. 102-103). 

Sarah Mullan, lecturer of drama at the University of Northampton (the institution at which the production was conceived), explains that fragmentation is essential in this adaptation as between the fragments, “the reader must slip in and connect if [they are] to get anywhere,” (2018, p. 5). As such, fragmentation deconstructs and expands upon an already known story which provides the foundation for an “original creative vision” (Govan, Nicholson, & Normington, 2007, p. 89). Moreover, in the creation of the production, each individual oversaw a particular aspect – whereby Whitehouse dealt with props – and this resulted in the ability to do much more in the limited time they had (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 114). 

However, there were noticeable challenges and limitations of this process as well – most of which relating to the group dynamics (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 116). Whitehead identifies the difficultly of voicing her opinions, which came about as a result of delayed thought process and working through the sensitive subject matter (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 116). The director spoke with each individual privately so that they could voice their concerns. Once the issues were pinpointed, it came to light that the most pressing issue was the lack of cohesion in the group. They solved this with team building workshops which aided in reconciling the difficulties. This made the creation process run more smoother as the group got a sense of energy from the connection established between members.

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a work not commonly staged, and this is often attributed to its “bloodthirsty nature” (O’Neill, 2018, p. 9). Titus Anonymous combats this issue using a degree of translation, which usually entails the use of a metaphor through which the original text and its context are moved to a new medium (Govan et al., 2007, p. 100). The notion of the metaphor is used to refer to the subject matter in a way that does not actually describe it so as to “carry across” meaning from one medium to another (Govan et al., 2007, p. 88). 

In this case study, the original text was written with the intent that it should be performed and thus did not need to be translated to a new medium per se; however, the adaptation “carries across” meaning in its mode of presentation, which explores how to represent conflict and violence in their performance. Similarly, in Samuel Weber’s Theatricality as Medium, claims that “meaning is not separable from the way in which it is staged” (2002, p. 26), emphasizing that theatre is a ‘mode of perception’ and a particular view point that is determined by aesthetic framing (Weber, 2004, p. 28). In the case study, the aesthetic framing is established through DIY (“do it yourself”) 

Theatre, whereby the performers took advantage of items they found nearby (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 109). In doing so, they did not need to purchase/outsource any props/sets/costumes, opting instead to make use of the materials they already had and exercise the unconventional use of props, whereby objects are used for multiple purposes – such as the letter being created from a script and hairband (Govan et al., 2007, p. 100). DIY Theatre thus, expectedly, presupposes a specific aesthetic. As a result of this, the medium in which the play is adapted stays the same but the “aesthetic framing” is changed. This causes the audience to look at/interpret the play in a particular manner.

The translation of the original continues through the establishment of two focal points that construct a discernible point of view (Govan et al., 2007, p. 91). These focal points are asserted by Mullan as: “How do we address and unpick the role of Aaron and a history of racism inherent in Renaissance drama?” and “How do we address the prevailing language and actions of rape in the staging of the play?” (2018, p. 6). The workshopping process began by establishing central themes in the original text that relate to their focal points and would assist in structuring the work in a manner that enabled them to experiment with narration, dialogue and the portrayal of space and time. 

The selected themes were spite, revenge, madness, self-destruction and the grotesque (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 109). These themes were engaged with individually through games, improvisation and movement, which Whitehouse explains entailed “first [choosing]an enemy in the room to focus vengeance on, then focused that energy into a physically of spite, which then became a location of grotesqueness…” (2018, p. 109). As they progressed to explore self-destruction, the movements “became maddening” (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 110). They proceeded to contextualize each theme using an exercise in which they asked questions related to it, following which they investigated further through theoretical research (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 111). 

Whitehouse conducted her research from a psychological point of view, during which time she discovered that revenge is retaliatory and intends to discourage actions against a person that would decrease survival of the species, spite comprises vindictive acts that harm both involved, and self-destruction is the result of internal conflict. While unable to find information on grotesque specifically, Whitehouse asserts that disgust is the result of evolutionary adaptation as a means of deterring individuals from potentially diseased sources (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 112).

Eventually, these themes became the titles of each act – all but for the grotesque, which became a recurring motif throughout all the acts (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 109). This suggests that they have fragmented the original work to reveal and highlight its core issues (Govan et al., 2007, p. 95). Through reshaping the structure of the original and ordering the acts in such a way, it becomes evident that the adaptation process allows for the practitioners to explore how the narrative is assembled (Govan et al., 2007, p. 99). This enables them to transpose the story to fit a new context, whereby an already-know play is the catalyst through which the performers and audience can communicate using metaphorical means to “carry meaning form one form to another” (Govan et al., 2007, p. 89).

Improvisation is an essential aspect to adaptation, particularly when working in a group (Wright, 2010, p. 14). In the adaptation process of Titus Anonymous, each actor used their spirit animal as a starting point when improvising in character; first by conducting research about their animal and then through a physical workshop where they embodied it (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 112). This progressed to an exploration of movements and presentations with both human and animal characteristics, which, when applied to the Shakespearean characters, were highly stylized. 

Each performer was assigned a character that best suited their anthropomorphic physical presentations (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 113). And indeed, “their style of performance creates, through imagination and voice and body, an embodied alternative to clever innovations, technological tricks, and other spectacular effects,” (Govan et al., 2007, p. 99). This mimics the manner in which the stage may be viewed as a metaphorical playground and is essential as it demonstrates a commitment to the creative process where the actor is in the centre (Govan et al., 2007, p. 99). 

As a result, “the medium of theatre… presuppose[s], as one of [its] indispensable preconditions, some sort of real, immediate, physical presence,” (Weber, 2004, p. 1) dually of the actor and the audience, who witness the production take place. The performance is thus the sight of interaction between the actor/practitioner, audience and subject (the play’s content).

However, the performance as a meeting point between these subjectivities is made more complex in the case of adaptation, as the author was once the audience/witness to the original text (Balodis, 2010, p. 44). As indicated by Whitehouse, further alterations were made using improvisation to experiment in each scene (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 115). The most prominent of these included changing the genders of some of the characters, and changing the nature of various relationships (such as making two of them siblings). Whitehouse asserts that further alterations, omissions and additions occurred as the rehearsal process progressed. This reimaging evidently brings the practitioners’ own artistic merits into the text, demonstrating the significance of interpretation, which takes place on the part of the creator as well as the audience.

Another consideration made during the adaptation relates to the language used in Shakespeare’s original work (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 114). In attempting to create a derivative that relates to contemporary issues, there was a debate as to whether certain terminology should be altered to fit a modern context. In particular, the word “moor” became the subject of contestation. It was discussed whether they should use a more current controversial term, as “moor” was used in a racially divisive context. 

They decided not to change the word, but instead to utter it with such contempt that it would explicitly sound like racial slur (Whitehouse, 2018, p. 114). This decision was vital for their adaptation as it encouraged engagement and understanding of the play. It demonstrated that they understood the purpose of each word and thereby pointed out the manner in which language can carry vastly different meanings/connotations, which may evoke different types of engagement on the part of the audience.

In conclusion, the process undergone by Whitehouse and fellow practitioners exemplifies the manner in which the adaptation both translated and transposed the original work. This was done using DIY Theatre to frame the work aesthetically, as well as establishing definitive focal points that recontextualized the work to fit contemporary society. Moreover, interpretation on the parts of the audience and practitioners are essential as the performance merges the subjectivities of the creator, subject and audience.

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