From Page to Stage: How My SUNY Press Book Became a Play
Guest Post by Zack Rogow (SUNY Press Contributor)
When SUNY Press published my co-translation of Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island and Other Previously Untranslated Gems by Colette, the last thing I thought about was presenting this project as play. My collaborator Renée Morel and I had just spent years finding great work by the great French writer Colette that had not yet been brought into English and creating a version that did justice to her elegant style, sense of humor, and Parisian sophistication. Colette is the author of fifty works of prose and theater, including Gigi and Cheri, both made into beloved films.
To celebrate the publication of our translation, we decided to host a reading from Colette’s work at a bookstore in San Francisco. This was BC, Before Covid. We asked the actor Lorri Holt if she would do the honors. Lorri is not just a legend in Bay Area theater (she created the role of Harper Pitt in the first production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America), she is an author herself and a huge fan of Colette.
When we held the launch at Book Passage in San Francisco, Lorri showed up, trouper that she is, in a costume from the 1920s, when Colette flourished as a writer. Lorri also wore a wig that matched Colette’s bushy brown hair, and she did the reading with a French accent, pretending she was Colette. Many in the audience told us we should turn this into a play, which seemed no more than a random compliment. Then Lorri mentioned to me that the Kennedy Center in Washington DC had scheduled a revival of the musical Gigi, based on Colette’s novella.
On a whim, I called the Kennedy Center the next day to ask them if they might be interested in a play on the life of the author of Gigi. To my amazement, they said yes, and asked if we could bring the show for a public reading on their Millennium Stage. The only problem was that they wanted the play in four months, and we hadn’t yet written a line. I said, “Sure.”
Lorri Holt and I worked hard those sixteen weeks to piece together a play from that collection of short stories and personal essays. When we arrived at the Kennedy Center, we literally got the red carpet treatment. It’s an amazing venue, with a great staff. But the show was not ready. The reading was exciting for us, but the audience was less than wowed. We had the bone structure of Colette’s great writing from Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island, but held together with only a little bit of plot cartilage.
We realized that to turn a collection of short stories and personal essays into a dramatic production was going to take more work. We signed on with solo show maven David Ford at The Marsh theater in San Francisco, where David had mentored and directed such terrific performers as Geoff Hoyle, Marga Gomez, and Charlie Varon.
The first time Lorri performed our script for David in private, he sat in the back row of the theater and didn’t say a word. He didn’t crack a smile at the jokes and appeared unmoved by the dramatic scenes. When Lorri finished performing the script. we turned to David, hoping to hear excitement and praise. David just uttered, “Well, it’s episodic.” He explained that we needed more of a narrative arc to connect the episodes in the author’s life and work.
After months of delving deeper into the script and Colette’s life, Lorri, David, and I finally developed a version we felt excited about presenting to an audience. We have continued to refine that script in runs of the show in San Francisco, Berkeley, London, a New York showcase, London, and Portland. Lorri has received superlatives from critics for her performance as Colette and nine other characters from the author’s life, with adjectives ranging from “stunning” to “spectacular.”
Now Lorri Holt is reviving the show at the newly renovated Presidio Theatre in San Francisco on March 19 and 20, 2022. If you’re in the Bay Area, or you have friends or family there, I hope this show is added to the calendar.
Zack Rogow is the author, editor, or translator of more than twenty books or plays. His blog, Advice for Writers, features 250 posts on topics of interest to writers. He serves as a contributing editor of Catamaran Literary Reader. www.zackrogow.com