ED2015 Columns ED2015 Comedy

Chuck Armstrong & Charlie Stockman: A guide to adapting the classics

By | Published on Thursday 6 August 2015

Moby Alpha

Seattle-based comedy duo Charles are at the Fringe this year performing ‘Moby Alpha’. Basically, it’s “Moby Dick in space”, as their marketing blurb will tell you. It’s a punchy sell, one of the many benefits of adapting a classic for the Festival. But doing so poses conundrums too. As Chuck and Charlie explain…

If, already this Fringe, you’ve had the good fortune of being flyered by us, you know that our show, ‘Moby Alpha’, is marketed as “Moby-Dick… in SPACE.” Brilliant.

Being able to deliver a simple pitch like this to fleeing tourists is just one of the many benefits of adapting a classic for the Fringe. Another is that it provides an existing story that can simply be tweaked with an arbitrary set of constraints, such as minimal cast, maximal nudity, or in some cases, both. It’s no wonder you see so many in the programme.

But there are also a few common conundrums that arise when adapting a classic. So, in an effort to impart what we’ve learned, we’ll here address some of the most Frequently Encountered Conundrums artists face when adapting a classic for the Fringe stage (call it an FEC)…

Which classic should I adapt?
You can adapt any classic, but if this is your first time, we recommend you choose one that has been adapted many, many times before.

Do I have to read the original source material?
Unfortunately, yes. We learned this the hard way. Selecting ‘Moby Dick’ as our classic to adapt turned out to be a huge hassle, mainly due to the 200 pages dedicated to incorrect whale science and the extremely dense chapter about the colour white.

Does my show have to actually resemble the original source material?
Uhh… sort of. The real question is: to what extent should it resemble the source material?

Okay… to what extent should it resemble the source material?
Good question: it turns out the answer is tricky. If you copy the original word-for-word, then you’re technically not adapting, but mounting a classic, which isn’t so bad but does require good acting. On the other hand, if you don’t keep anything from the original, then you’re technically a liar. We found a happy medium by scattering a few references to the source throughout our script, which we felt was sufficient for our patrons to concede, “Yeah, I guess that was basically the plot of ‘Moby Dick’”.

How many references, exactly?
Geez, you’re really putting us up against the wall on this one. Twelve? Maybe fifteen if you count the names of characters.

What is a classic?
There is some disagreement on what technically defines a classic. Strict classicists would include only works published by Penguin Classics. More liberal classicists would include works like the 1988 Tom Cruise film ‘Cocktail’ and, possibly, Popeye.

Do I need to have a reason as to why I’m adapting a classic? Like maybe reversing a character’s gender, race or cultural background in order to shine a light on some of our ingrained assumptions and stereotypes?
Nope. Just set it in space.

You seem to be treating adapting the classics like some kind of lazy shortcut with no artistic merit. Is that really how you feel?
(sigh) Okay, here’s the deal, as comedians, it’s hard for us to take our show that seriously; while ‘Moby Alpha’ is based quite heavily upon the story of ‘Moby Dick’, it’s also a vehicle to lampoon and pay homage to the myriad cliches of classic science fiction. It’s a great time, and if you’re a fan of ‘Moby Dick’ or sci-fi you should absolutely check it out, but given its tone, we’d be hard pressed to afford ‘Moby Alpha’ the same gravitas its source material deserves as a Serious Work Of Art.

That being said, there are a slew of Fringe shows that have used the ‘adapted classic approach’ to produce some very thought-provoking and boundary-pushing work. ‘One Man Star Wars Trilogy’, ‘The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged)’, and of course, ‘Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead’, are just a few that spring to mind as undisputed Fringe classics.

Any artistic work requires a level of mutual understanding between artist and audience, and when one only has an hour of time on a sparse stage, often the best way to find common ground through which to cement such an understanding is by adapting a masterpiece from the rich storytelling tradition of Western Civilization. That is, something we are all familiar with. Yes, adapting a classic can be a shortcut, but it’s a powerful one, and it allows an artist to get directly to whatever it is she wants to say with her work without reinventing the wheel, or, in this case, the universe.

In your opinion, in today’s day and age, what classic is in the most dire need of a modern adaptation?
Sherlock Holmes. Obviously, Sherlock Holmes. Either that or Spider Man.

‘Moby Alpha’ was performed at Assembly George Square at Edinburgh Festival 2015.

LINKS: mobyalpha.com