The Making of an Adaptation: First Read/First NEW Draft A Conversation Between Writers

by Noelle Fair & Lisa LaGrande, OnStage Columnists Noelle Fair and Lisa LaGrande, the two writers and adapters of ‘Martyr’d Signs’ an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus sat down to discuss and debate their findings during their first reading of their new draft. 

“The first reading was helpful, but at the end of it, extremely frustrating – but, frustrating in a good way.” Says Noelle, “Ugh!  It’s too LONG!  I knew it, I knew it. . .” is what I knew going into this reading of the second incarnation of this script, but still, asking my friends and colleagues to painstakingly read through all 70-some-odd pages of this new draft of ‘Martyr’d Signs’ just felt like cruel and unusual punishment. ‘

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“Does it need to be cut? Absolutely. It will be cut, we knew this going in, but decided before we cut a ton of text, let’s hear it and honestly give it a chance. It taught us a lot.” Says Lisa.

“Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself,” says Noelle, “Our friends want to help – but I tend to be an impatient creator who always wants to be at the finish line on the first day of rehearsals and when it’s not perfect I feel badly for wasting everyone’s time while I figure it out.”

“. . . It doesn’t have to be perfect right now,” says Lisa, however, she admits that “You want it to be perfect. You want to move people with your words, your stories, and your performances. You feel like you constantly have something to prove . . . . .I must admit with every press of the ‘send’ button [which] emailed the new draft to [our actor friends who volunteered their time as readers] even I had butterflies. It’s hard to hand it over to someone else and wait anxiously as they read to discover what kind of response you’ll get. We want their feedback. Their feedback is what will make it better. It will open our eyes to [] things we have lost along the way. It was at the stage again that we needed to hear it with a full cast or it was never going to be clear. “ says Lisa.

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Without giving too much away, Lisa and I wish to detail more of our findings from the read-through and try to give you, the reader, some context for the play we’re creating.

Essentially, the play ‘Martyr’d Signs’ is the women’s perspective on the events in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.  To read the first installment of this blog series please visit.  { Our main story plot for ‘Marytr’d Signs’ takes place in the afterlife in which the two women characters, Lavinia, Titus’ tormented daughter, and Tamora, Queen of Goths, are forced to deal with each other.  It’s something of a nod to the imagery of Dante’s Inferno as well going with the idea from the play No Exit where “Hell is other people”.  The play has a non-linear structure which flashes back in time from the present of the afterlife to their memories in the past.  When we initially rehearsed this, our directors referred to these memory scenes as “French scenes” since the play itself is not divided into scenes and acts.

“When we first began re-writing these French scenes they never felt long.” Says Noelle, “It felt like the characters needed the time to be explored and express themselves – as I mentioned in the first blog entry, the first performing our play felt rushed, so this time we decided to take the time to go back and really flesh certain elements out,” Noelle goes onto explain “In the first writing, I was so concerned about the length of the performance that I stopped writing, and just wanted to cut. Lisa, on the other hand, had to be coerced into cutting lines.  It was a difficult balance.  Now, I find it funny that Lisa is saying things that I said last year and that now I’m the one halting on the cutting.  Perhaps we will find a happy medium. I find it funny how we balance each other out like that. Admittedly, though, in reading the whole play, it felt like we over-stating the point.  There’s a saying “If you can say it in 5, say it in 1.” (The numbers referring to the number of lines) and in this case, MAN, was that the case!  I wrote down in my notes throughout “Too many cool lines.”  By this I mean that Lisa and I had found so many awesome Shakespeare lines, and, in striving to build the new scenes, we included all that we found AND the kitchen sink.  However, going forward, I want to sit on the ground with the script spread out, and highlight the lines I really love and just forget the rest.  I want to stop looking at the whole of a scene and just pick the lines I think are necessary.  I felt the desire to go through and just pick the one line which really, truly, and deeply says that sentiment.  In other words, to quote Polonius “Brevity is the soul of wit”.

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There were some structural issues as well.  Aaron, the Moor, acts as this devil character throughout, and in our initial draft this sometimes was not that strong of an idea (although our actor, Brandon Burton did a great job of physically filling in the gaps by moving his hand to bring characters on and off, and controlling the action with his gestures)  – so we tried with this new draft to bring him more in the forefront of being a guide or being the audience’s way in to the play.  He’s this Machiavellian, Iago-ish type.   As we experimented with this, we found that it gave the play more structure – however, in hearing the entire thing, the play felt stunted, as if Aaron’s speeches interrupted and halted the action which was propelling it forward.  Additionally, when we initially wrote this, it was the discussions of the women which propelled us into a particular memory.  However, this time around it seemed to be more Aaron’s doing than our own.  Aaron’s speeches became an extra entity that got forgotten after while. Aaron’s beginning intro to the play did help to introduce the play’s set up, but the very thing we set up, seemed to be a weakness as we continued to read it.  I’m not sure yet what to do about that.  Perhaps try getting rid of those introductory speeches? Just get rid of the ones which are problematic? Cutting them down?  Is it just a placement issue?  I’m unsure at this point, but I want to try a few things.

Lisa and I also felt a desire to go back to our performance draft and re-read that.  Perhaps it holds some clues to fix our current structural issues.  Sometimes in writing it is about re-writing and maybe we were closer than we thought?  Well, in anything, you try something new and you see what sticks.

Lisa goes on to add that “I was surprised at how some scene[s] [that, when read out loud] turned out differently than I thought when I was writing it. It makes you go back and realize all those things you gripped so tightly to the first time around, suddenly don’t seem nearly as important when you look at the story as a whole. I was particularly caught off guard by the fact that, while the death of Lavina’s beloved husband Bassianus is important, it’s not the main source of her grief. “ says Lisa, “Lavinia loved Bassianus more than life; of course she longs for him, of course she wants justice for his murder. Perhaps she does believe a part her died when he did. [But, it’s what occurs after his death that really eats at her.] At the reading we realized we had these women speak about their dead husbands and that’s why they hate each other in the script so much. [Although, for Lavinia’s character] it became tedious and a bit untrue,“ says Lisa.   get-attachment (14)

“Although I would not say the same for Tamora,” counters Noelle, “We needed to initially give Tamora a reason for why she does what she does.  So, I devised a back story for this woman from the research I had done on the women Shakespeare had based Tamora around – Hippolyta, Scythia, Hecuba, but I took the beginnings of another woman – Buddica.  Buddica was a woman who had political ties to the Roman Empire, but had decided to exist outside of Rome in an independent nation-state.  They were nominally financially supported by Rome, and in exchange had a treaty in place – that when her immediate descendant line ran out, that the Emperor’s heirs could take control of her nation-state. However, for some unknown reason, Rome decided to disregard this treaty.  They invaded her country, killed her husband, raped her two daughters, and tortured her. As far as I could find in my research, I’m still unsure as to why this occurred or what the immediate outcome was.  Perhaps it was because they just wanted to keep them in check, perhaps Buddica’s husband was becoming a threat to Rome.  I’m not sure. However, some years later, Buddica, with the help of her two adult sons, raised an army, and sacked Rome.  She was eventually killed and her tomb is in Cardiff’s Natural History Museum in Wales and she is referred to as “Mother Britain”.

There were moments where Lisa and I both felt “Ah, FINALLY, this character gets to speak these things.”

“At the command of Tamora, Lavinia is brutally raped by [Tamora’s adult sons] Chiron and Demetrius , without remorse. [Not only that, but they] cut out her tongue and chop off her hands and then leave her there to die.’ I’ve been studying a lot of the myth of Philomel in Ovid’s Metamorphosis which is referenced constantly in Titus. Noelle challenged me to find something that really spoke about what Lavinia went through, to get down to the very core of her pain and to make Tamora see it. Lavinia really needed that, she deserved that. I took the text from Philomel and shaped it into a monologue. She holds Tamora accountable in that one line. This woman, who had the power to stop it, gives the order and then leaves this helpless girl in the woods to be ravaged and mutilated and for what? What exactly did Lavinia personally do to this woman to deserve such an act? Be cruel to her? Stay silent when her son was being murdered ? Or was [Lavinia] simply the easiest way to hurt Titus and gain [Tamora’s] revenge? Maybe I wasn’t ready to let that sink in all the way the first time around, but I am now. We are going to further explore this moment between them in future workshops. How Tamora responds to this is still unclear, but we are both very curious to find out. “

“However, what I also find interesting is this idea of dismemberment and disability that Lavinia now has to process. There is a whole LOAD of things to explore in someone who went through something so traumatic, and now, you can visibly see frustration and the difficulty that comes with relearning how to communicate, to do daily tasks, to live.” Says Noelle, “You have to relearn how to live – sort of like an amputee, or anyone who’s lost some sort of physical ability.”get-attachment (15)

“[Lavinia is] unable to communicate, or find any relief or have the ability to get justice for what was done to her. Let’s think about that for [a] minute. She doesn’t die, not physically. After somehow surviving that nightmare, she’s found and brought back to her family; but even her own brother exclaims, “Ay me, this OBJECT kills me.” She’s barely human anymore.”

“She’s become a thing, not a person.” Noelle adds, “I found that was true of both of them.  They are referred to as people towards the beginning of the play,  “gentle girl”, “dread queen”, but then quickly they become objects “This object kills me”, “Thou map of woe”, “Some certain snatch”.  And I think that goes back to what this exploration of this text was about.  We have on our title page of our script a quote from Jimmy Carter’s Noble Speech in 2002

“In order for us human beings to commit ourselves personally to the inhumanity of war, we find it necessary first to dehumanize our opponents, which is in itself a violation of the beliefs of all religions. Once we characterize our adversaries as beyond the scope of God's mercy and grace, their lives lose all value. We deny personal responsibility when we plant landmines and, days or years later, a stranger to us — often a child – is crippled or killed. From a great distance, we launch bombs or missiles with almost total impunity, and never want to know the number or identity of the victims.”

Tamora and Lavinia have forgotten that the ‘other woman’ is a person.  A person who has joys and dream, wishes, hopes, families, desires, children, parents, siblings, ambitions, etc.  I think WE, as Americans, forget this too.  We’re so focused on we’re in the right, and why they are inhuman, and they are the problem, and they are the evil ones.  We demonize them so quickly.  This play speaks to a larger construct.  A construct where we forget that the ‘other’, our ‘supposed’ ENEMIES are people.

“you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus-“ Richard II


“So we have more work ahead, but I’m excited to see what more we discover.”

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