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Interview with Eva Di Cesare, Sandra Eldridge and Tim McGarry

Monkey Baa: Eva Di Cesare, Sandra Eldridge and Tim McGarry formed the dynamic professional theatre company Monkey Baa in 1997. The chief aims of the company are to adapt existing Australian literature and create new work for the stage.

Their adaptation of Jackie French’s Hitler’s Daughter toured to 33 venues throughout Australia and won the 2007 Helpmann Award for Best Children’s Presentation.

We spoke to Monkey Baa about what it takes to adapt a great novel for the stage, about Hitler’s Daughter and what they are going to do next.

Where do you start when adapting a novel for the stage?

We start with a great novel – a story that stays with us long after we’ve put the book down. We read it a lot and talk and muse and drink a lot of tea and try not to eat a lot of biscuits. We meet the author and make sure that we get where they’re coming from. We research the era if the novel is set in a different time. We take a good six months just to dream on it, and then we begin to write. We look at dramatic structure, themes, plot, scene breakdowns, characters - what is needed and what is not. Books can have pages and pages of fabulous description and we look at what elements we can incorporate in to the design and/or dialogue. Conflict creates good drama and the conflicts in the novel will be pulled out and highlighted in the stage creation.

What do you think teachers and students gain from seeing the play that they mightn’t gain from reading the novel?

It’s a different art form engaging other parts of a person’s being: it’s immediate, it’s live. The realities in the novel are created on stage in front of them. It is a social, public event whereas reading can be an isolated event. In the theatre, students and teachers respond together and it is actually really interesting for them to discuss and compare their reactions and responses to each form, how they differ and how they don’t. They don’t create it in their minds. They can’t put it down. They have to stay till the end ... well, most of the time.

Why and how did you choose Hitler’s Daughter for a stage adaptation?

It was introduced to us by Noel Jordan at the Sydney Opera House. All three of us had a similar reaction to it. A powerful novel, it stayed with us for weeks after we’d read it. The themes were so potent, so real, so current. The questions it posed were too hard to ignore. We knew from the beginning that this book would make a stunning play. It is a truly compelling story.

What restrictions do you face when adapting a novel and how do you overcome them?

There were some challenges adapting Hitler’s Daughter. The shift between worlds was the biggest challenge, how to go from modern day Australia to the fall of Berlin in World War II and back within a couple of lines of dialogue and not send the audience to sleep with a huge set change. It was never truly solved until we got to the rehearsal room. The Creative Team and the actors came up with a simple but stunning solution using lighting, simple set and the actors themselves.

Sometimes with a novel you have to add more dialogue or even create a character from an illustration as in some picture books that we have adapted – a great challenge. Also, you have to be brutal as there are so many rich threads in a story and sometimes you can’t use them all. Everything in the script from the setting through to dialogue has to earn its place. It’s hard when you know you will only have four actors to tell the story. You double up but it still means that some characters never get to make their stage appearance.

How much influence does the original author have in the stage version?

Ultimately, the author entrusts us with their story. We often meet informally with the authors at the beginning and give them our ideas about how we see the story on stage. We also get as much background as possible about the original concepts of their stories. Once we have a first draft, we send it to them for feedback and this may happen two or three times. In our creative development process all the creatives, actors and a dramaturge meet for a week to work on the play with us as adaptors, and we always invite the author to be a part of this process. Jackie has been amazingly generous in her support of our adaptation of Hitler’s Daughter from day one. All the authors we have worked with to date have been brilliant, and have helped us with clear succinct feedback and guidance. Fortunately they have all understood that the theatre is another art form and have been extremely open and trusting in us transposing their stories to the stage, and we cannot thank them enough for that trust.

Your stage adaptation of Jackie French’s novel toured Australia in 2006 and was seen by an audience of nearly 24,000 people. What do young people find appealing about the story of Hitler’s Daughter?

It’s thought provoking to say the least. Jackie has the utmost respect for young people and humankind generally, and it shows in her work. She reveals this amazing world to her audience juxtaposing past and present. She throws down some challenging themes to be digested. The issues in the book appeal to young people because they are issues and moral questions that we ask as members of the human race: What does it mean to do the right thing? How do we know when we are doing the right thing? Does the past have to be repeated? Are we condemned to commit the sins of our parents? How would we feel if our parents were evil? The last questions are particularly potent ones for young people who are in the process of defining who they are and what their moral code is and who are wondering if they are like – or indeed have to be like – their parents.

In your Q&A sessions after the show, what were the best questions you have been asked by audience members?

Did Hitler’s daughter really exist? What if she did and what if she lived in Australia now? How long does it take you to write? How do you make the sounds? Is that actress really 12? How old are you all? How does that actor do all those costume changes? Are the trees real? Are any of you married?

What are your next projects?

We are in various stages of our next three adaptations. We are currently in the creative development process of Stephen Michael King’s Milli, Jack and the Dancing Cat which goes on a huge national tour in 2008. We are about to start work on the inspiring I am Jack by Susanne Gervay which will tour NSW in term three 2008. And we are thrilled to be in dreamtime with Sonya Hartnett’s Thursday’s Child, which will open at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2009. A very rich creative time for us ... and we are loving it!!

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