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Bob Armstrong's From Stage to Page

If you’ve spent much time at all watching live theatre, you’ve probably seen a play based on a novel. Some of the biggest and most enduring plays in the last hundred years—think Peter Pan, Of Mice and Men, Dracula, Les Miserables, Wicked—began life between book covers.

On the other hand, when I think of plays that have been turned into novels, I come up with a list of one: my novel Dadolescence. So how did this strange transformation come about?

Prior to 2005, I had had six or seven plays produced by professional theatre companies, on the Fringe Festival circuit, or commissioned by a local high school. I was brainstorming an idea for another play to take to the Fringe and decided I’d like to try writing and performing in a solo show—a style of play that is a perfect fit for the small venues and intimate environment of the festival.

Solo shows work best when they’re built around something intensely personal and important to the author/performer. So I wrote a play called You Are Here that combined a bit of autobiography and a bunch of pondering over masculinity, outdoor exploration and the crisis of masculinity in a world where exploration is a thing of the past. Working with Ardith Boxall, artistic director of Theatre Projects Manitoba, as director, I learned a lot from the experience. When the festival was over, I felt satisfied artistically and was pleased with the audience and critical reception. So I was encouraged to consider doing another solo show.

The next year at the Fringe, my son Sam and I saw a play written by actor-director-playwright Debbie Patterson and performed by her partner Arne McPherson and their children Gislina and Solmund. (Candy From a Baby—it was a great show and one of the hits of that year’s Fringe.) So when I was talking at the breakfast table one day about my idea for a play at the 2007 Fringe—a comic monologue about the anxieties of a stay-at-home father—Sam piped up “Can I be in it?”

Now, I wasn’t actually a stay-at-home father. But I was a father who stayed at home to work as a freelance writer and playwright. And in that capacity, I’d seen plenty of other fathers who stayed at home either full or part-time, who walked their kids to school, who volunteered for school lunch or field trip duties, whose lives did not follow the pattern they’d grown up observing all around them.

So I came up with a character and a personal journey for him to take and it occurred to me that the journey would work better if we saw this stay-at-home father actually being a father on stage, and thereby Sam got his wish. I asked Debbie to direct, and she helped me shape the story and bring out the relationship between father and son. We put the show on at the Fringe and it turned out to be a hit: sold-out houses, five-star review. And I still felt there was more to the story than could fit into 60 minutes on a small stage.

In 2008 I started thinking about my character’s relationship with his wife and his parents and with society at large. This was the year of the big financial crash and, as I was rewriting and expanding the story, an intense recession was beginning to throw disproportionate numbers of men out of work. Some of the same questions that inspired me in my solo show You Are Here—now phrased as “what does it mean to be a man in a post-work world?”—began to play a bigger role in my thinking. Class questions also became more prominent. My character was a university-educated, suburban middle-class guy and approached these questions in a middle-class way. I needed to widen the circle of manhood as the story grew. And obviously, although I kept it as a first-person narration, told from the man’s point of view, it became more and more important for the reader to be able to see his wife’s view of these matters and to get an understanding of how their relationship works.

In turning the play into a novel, big chunks of the main character’s thoughts—which were spoken onstage to the audience in the play —were cut out. In a 60-minute play you can have longish monologues, so long as they are entertaining. In a novel, monologues in which a character tells you “here’s what I’m thinking” violate the Number One Rule of Creative Writing Workshops: Show, don’t tell. So instead, I figured out scenes between the main characters that would give the reader a chance to see these ideas and attitudes exhibited through action. The late Wayne Tefs, who edited the novel for Turnstone, did a wonderful job of challenging me to find the essence of each sentence and chapter.

By the time Turnstone published Dadolescence in 2011, I’d spent a few years writing semi-autobiographical fiction for stage and page. It was a great learning experience, personally and professionally, but I think I’ve got it out of my system. In my recent short fiction and in my current novel in progress there are no stay-at-home fathers, no writers, no 21st century suburbanites pining for an age of manly adventure.

Last modified onFriday, 26 February 2016 10:59

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Turnstone Press acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Manitoba Arts Council, the Government of Canada, and the Province of Manitoba through Manitoba Sport, Culture and Heritage.

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