Flowers for Algernon

Today for NaCreSoMo I worked on a stage adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon”, a project I’ve been working on on and off since December. My goal is to finish by next week and submit it as a potential piece for Theatre Rice’s spring Showcase show. (Theatre Rice is the theater group I was in for my last two years of college.)

“Flowers for Algernon” is a story about a mentally-challenged man named Charlie Gordon, who undergoes a procedure to surgically increase his intelligence. The short story is told in the form of a journal, in which the lab scientists ask Charlie to record his progress. I’m actually avoiding the full-length novel (and the movie, “Charly”) until after I finish my adaptation, so that I don’t get the urge to throw in a bunch of new things or make my stage piece exactly like the movie.

Making this short story into a stage piece is hard enough; here are some of the challenges I’m facing:

  • The journal narration in the story allows the reader to get inside Charlie’s head, but some of the scene-setting is unnecessary in a stage piece, since the audience will be able to see for themselves what’s going on. I’m keeping a fair amount of the narration anyway because getting inside Charlie’s head is really important.

  • The story is entirely told from Charlie’s perspective, but a stage piece—at least, a Theatre Rice stage piece—shouldn’t rest entirely on a single actor. At the very least, it’s a ton to memorize when the actor is also a full-time student. Part of this is taken care of by removing the unnecessary description and part by just removing content, but in the end it’s just necessary to have the other characters actually say things, rather than have Charlie report secondhand for the entire piece. (However, see Conceit #1 below.)

  • On the flip side, a short story has no cost to pulling in more characters, and there are actually quite a few minor characters in addition to Charlie and the three or four supporting main characters. I’m doing a cursory job pruning out unnecessary characters, but in the end there will be a few nameless extras still necessary to make the scenes work. TR can pull these from other troupes.

  • In that same vein, a short story can use whatever settings and props it wants; I have to make do with a stage, and for Theatre Rice that “stage” is usually the front stage in a lecture hall, not a proper theater stage. Minimalistic cues towards the setting are key. (However, see Conceit #2 below.)

  • In the end, I’m aiming for a twenty-to-thirty minute piece—any longer and Theatre Rice won’t be able to use it. Even in the short story, though, there’s a lot going on. Consequently, I’m condensing scenes, cutting scenes, and also just crossing my fingers about what I’ve decided to keep; some time before the submission deadline (next Sunday), I’ll try to read it through to see if the dialogue alone is too slow.

All that said, I do have two “conceits” I want to include that are only possible in a stage medium. While I’ve been avoiding stage directions as much as possible, in order to give the director and actors freedom to make the piece their own, I am hoping they’ll be able to work both of these clevernesses into the final product.

  • Conceit #1: If you haven’t read the story, I don’t want to completely spoil it, but remember how Charlie starts out mentally sub-average, then his intelligence increases? In the beginning, in my adaptation, Charlie is the only one who speaks, narrating what’s going on around him. (It actually starts with him laboriously writing in a physical journal.) At a certain point (after he first beats Algernon in a race), the other characters begin to speak as well. However, Charlie’s intelligence continues to grow, and eventually he’s again no longer on the same plane as others; at this point he’s the only one speaking once again. In my mind, the effect feels like a camera starting out of focus, coming through the focus point, and then continuing on until everything’s out of focus again.
  • Conceit #2: In my second semester in Theatre Rice, another troupe did a version of David Ives’ “Variations on the Death of Trotsky”. Since the piece is a series of “variations”, the directors wanted the furniture to be arranged differently for each scene; they decided to have two “stage hands”1 in all black come out and calmly rearrange the props between each scene, rather than having a full black-out.

    In my adaptation, Charlie is on stage the entire time, and there are very few full blackouts. However, the story takes place over several weeks, and Charlie is in very different situations for all of this. Consequently, to show both the progression of time and Charlie’s progressing intelligence, I want to have Charlie wear layered clothes on stage, and have a “stage hand” or two come out and help strip off each layer. These could be people in all black, people in lab coats, whatever—the point is that it shouldn’t interrupt the flow of the piece as Charlie goes from a hospital gown to a factory uniform to a suit, and so on. (Poor actor’s going to be boiling, though.)

Right now, I’m mostly just choosing what to keep and what to cut, then taking lines verbatim from the book and arranging them appropriately. (“Arranging” is a good word; adapting this piece for the stage feels very similar to my process for arranging a song to be sung by an a cappella group.) I imagine that there’s a lot more that needs to happen after that—my first adaptation for Theatre Rice, “Windup” started out with bare-bones plot and with completely unsympathetic characters. Even now it’s a bit too plot-driven, but I credit all the humanity of the piece to the lead actors, Christian and Abby, and to them and the rest of my troupe (Tiffany, Jaimie, and Alex) for rewriting the script into something worthwhile.

Phew! If you made it through all that, you’ve earned this: an excerpt I wrote today. If you just scrolled down to get to the good stuff, well…

Technically, this is a plot spoiler, but since the point of the story isn’t the plot so much as Charlie’s character, I think it’s okay.

CHARLIE and KINNIAN sit in silence. DONNEGAN [Charlie’s boss] enters S.L. and stands waiting for CHARLIE. CHARLIE notices; he and KINNIAN stand up together. CHARLIE turns and walks over to DONNEGAN; KINNIAN collects the candlestick from the table and exits S.R.

DONNEGAN: Charlie, my boy…

CHARLIE: What is it, sir?

DONNEGAN: I…that is to say…it would be better for all concerned if you left the company.

CHARLIE: But…why, sir?

DONNEGAN hands CHARLIE a stapled packet of paper, about ten pages long. CHARLIE scans through the first page, then flips to the next, and the next.

CHARLIE: This petition…this must be over…eight hundred names…

DONNEGAN: Eight hundred and forty.

CHARLIE: …everyone connected with the factory.

DONNEGAN: I’m sorry, my boy.

Pause, then DONNEGAN shakes CHARLIE’s limp hand, takes the petition, and exits S.L.

CHARLIE: What in God’s name do they want of me?

Lights out. CHARLIE moves to S.C., facing upstage. DR NEMUR and DR STRAUSS move to either side of him. Spotlight on CHARLIE, with NEMUR and STRAUSS partly lit. NEMUR and STRAUSS raise CHARLIE’s hands like a prizefighter; loud applause.

At once: spotlight off; S.C. light quickly fade up; NEMUR and STRAUSS let go of CHARLIE’s hands; STRAUSS quickly exits S.R.; NEMUR quickly exits S.L.; CHARLIE drops his arms and turns around. CHARLIE takes a step towards the audience.

CHARLIE: Algernon and I were presented to the American Psychological Association last Tuesday. We created quite a sensation. Dr. Nemur and Dr. Strauss were very proud of us.

If I get lucky, someone at Theatre Rice will decide to direct this piece, and it will be performed in Berkeley in April as part of a larger variety show. Meanwhile, check out their Midsemester Show, “Uncommon Sense”, this Friday and Saturday in 155 Dwinelle!

Part of NaCreSoMo; join us!

  1. The “stage hands” were actually the directors themselves, which was smart because it meant they didn’t have to get extra people to come rehearse with them. ↩︎