As CJ Godwin and I begin the challenging task of converting the novel Graceland Express into a stage play, we’ve become aware of the term “parameters.” As a novel, it was easy to take the Graceland characters from scene to scene, to introduce any number of new characters, to move back and forth in time, and even to know what was going on inside each character’s mind.
Not so with a stage play. First off, the story can have only a limited number of settings. While a scenic designer may be very clever, there are boundaries to how many scene changes can take place within the 100+/- minutes during which the story plays out on stage. So hard decisions must be made: Is it necessary we show Vangie O’Toole (our lead character) working at the K-Mart or is there another way to let the audience know that’s her job? Must Floyd (Vangie’s brother, a petty crook) be shown stealing money from his drug boss? Does the audience have to see Herb (Vangie’s love interest) driving his big truck, or can that be suggested? Parameters all.
As the book’s author, I was shocked when a count revealed that Graceland Express includes more than 50 characters, some of whom play minor roles or appear as part of a group. Since this isn’t a Broadway mega-production such as “A Chorus Line, ” some paring down obviously must take place. Can one of Vangie’s co-workers at the K-Mart also fill the role of her closest confidant? In the charity banquet that is the climax of the story, can one of the Elvis-4-Ever Fan Club members fill in as a guest? Do we really need all of Floyd’s drug gang, or just a couple of them? More parameters.
When it comes to the play script, the dialogue has to tell the story. The words the actors exchange must convey to the audience their motivations, as well as their inner thoughts and their memories. We can’t, except in very limited circumstances, have characters simply thinking aloud. Some plays escape this restriction through use of a narrator who describes to the audience hidden agendas or what’s happening offstage, but that’s a device that doesn’t adapt well to all plays and does not seem viable for Graceland Express.
Looking at all the parameters sometimes makes CJ and me feel like breaking into a chorus of “Don’t Fence Me In.” On the other hand, it keeps our characters and their story where they belong—center stage. Maybe there’s a life lesson there as well: As writers we all know the Great American Novel should be ours, but the parameters of time, money and family obligations limit us to more achievable goals—a well-crafted poem or a moving short story. Even a novel that may not reach to the level of greatness can nevertheless bring satisfaction to our readers and ourselves.
In that spirit, CJ and I have climbed aboard the stage version of Graceland Express. We hope you’ll stay with us for what promises to be an exciting ride.