Adaptation is a part of life. It's how we evolve and adapt to our existence that ensures survival on an individual and species level. The same goes for writing. Especially when you're writing an adaptation of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. On a general level, a playwright's play evolves and adapts throughout its development process. From thought to outline to treatment to draft to workshop to staged reading to performance to publishing to... well, maybe it stops there. Maybe not. For me, I wrote my version of this classic American tale for a wonderful company in Nashville. Street Theatre Company's ClassAct Dramatics wanted a fresh take on the classic for their youth division. So I wrote one. They liked it. They produced it. We called it Ichabod: Missing in Sleepy Hollow. And now, over a year later, I'm renaming it. Rebranding it. The title needed to adapt. To what?
Sleepy Hollow: The Lost Chapter.
Nice, huh? I like it. I mean, yeah, of course, that's why I'm renaming the play. But why now? Why the change? Mostly, the original title didn't actually fit the play anymore. Titles are hard. Playwrights spend hours agonizing over them (some of us do). You want something that resonates with the play, something that looks good on a poster, something that draws in an audience and sets them up for what they're about to see. You want it to sound cool. I know that sounds simplistic, but it's true. There are tons of play titles, just like there are tons of book titles and movie titles and TV show titles --- all in, millions of fragmented sentences and words trying to catch someone's eye. To break out and get an audience member to pause, to click, to read. I mean look at the title of my blog post. It's click-bait 101. No, seriously, I went to a site and put in some words and it generated that. Except in this case, I'll defend using it, because not only does my play basically ask you to forget everything you learned about Sleepy Hollow; I had to forget a lot of what I thought about my own play going in to find the right title after it was all said and done.
You see, my play opens after Ichabod vanishes (in those final climatic pages of the original story). But it's not a sequel. Per se (which, I think, the original title indicated... you see why I was having trouble with it). In those few pages of Irving's text, after Ichabod disappears, but before everything settles down and (SPOILER ALERT) Brom and Katrina get married, I wrote a play. That's where it lives. There, and in the epilogue. It pulls from key moments of the original text (primarily the bit about the headless horseman, because, I mean, that's why people come see shows about Sleepy Hollow), but most of the script is my own invention of events of what really happened. The idea I had was that Ichabod's former students and their new teacher would solve the mystery of his disappearance. Hence, Ichabod was Missing. In Sleepy Hollow. Relying on the most recognized character in the story (since, it's his story), I thought I'd go with the name and play on it.
For some reason, I didn't think about changing it after that. It happened. It was a thing. I didn't want to negate that and I had a production to build on. A name change, I thought, would be a step back. As the play was finished and performed, and then subsequently read at Curtain Players theatre in central Ohio, and workshopped into a further polished play, it became clear that while Ichabod being missing was the event of the play (along with the upcoming nuptials of the future Mr. & Mrs. Brom Van Brunt), it wasn't the whole story. He wasn't even the main character of the play. And there's a reason for that.
Have you read the original story lately? (You can do that here at Project Gutenberg.) Going outside the part we all remember, with Ichabod being chased down by a headless horseman, the bulk of the story is full of detailed descriptions of small village life in rural 1790 America (which, if you remember, is just seven years after the end of the Revolutionary War... this story takes place when George Washington is President, and New York is the capital of the U.S.). The story focuses very little on anything that happens outside Sleepy Hollow. It's more about Ichabod Crane settling into this tiny village in upstate New York (upstate circa 1790, which puts it about 53 minutes by car from Brooklyn today); and the guy is kind of a louse. I'm sorry, but he is. He's mean. He's only after Katrina for her father's money. And he's kind of a snob to Brom Bones (his perceived rival for Katrina's affections). In Ichabod's defense, I suppose you could argue that he is written as a man of the times, though that thought is actually more disturbing.
When I set out to adapt it, I knew I wasn't making him my lead; but I still named the piece after him (or, again, after the perceived crux of the play). Which was strange, because the new school teacher, Abigail Seymour, and the oldest student, Hanna, were clearly my dual protagonists. Hanna going so far as to take on the closest thing to narration duties anyone could have in this script. After a year or tweaking it, I realized that the original title felt wrong. It felt like it wasn't genuine to the play. Or to Abigail and Hanna. This had really become a Lost Chapter of a larger piece; a play that pulls from the story of Ichabod, Katrina, and Brom, and of the residents' tales of ghosts that haunt their village, but that tells its own story. It's like the end of Back to the Future II, where Marty McFly is running around in 1955 again while the original plot of the first film is going on and you're watching all this stuff happen that you didn't know was happening, but now that you know, it's pretty sweet. Yeah, it's like that. It fits into the original; you could practically cut and paste it on that one page near the very end; but it also makes you look at the story from another perspective (and if you haven't seen the Back to the Future Trilogy, please do; both to get my point and because it's Back to the Future). I wasn't changing Washington Irving's world --- just shining a new light on it. Okay, I did change things a bit. Again, adaptation.
So why the new title now? There are lots of adaptations of Sleepy Hollow out there, in and out of the theatre world. Lots of versions done by theaters all over, every year, and I wanted a title that stood out, but that made it clear this was different than a faithful adaptation. I want it produced elsewhere. I want to see it happening around the country, for it to become a Fall tradition. And I didn't think the old title was inviting that to happen. I just didn't. And I knew the play. One of my playwriting professors once said he didn't think there were many plays that could pull off a gerund in the title. I think he was right about this one. More so, when you read the old title and the synopsis, they didn't gel. If you read the first act sample, they didn't click. Because that's not what the play's about. It's not about Ichabod being missing. Ichabod just happens to be missing. It's much more the journey of Hanna and Abigail, their friendship, and the mystery as to why the horseman haunts Sleepy Hollow. It's Sleepy Hollow, but with more of the world being revealed. It's meant to complement the original, remind you of it, take you back to it, but it's its own story. Did I take liberties? Yeah. Is Abigail maybe more independent than young women of 1790 upstate New York were portrayed? I sure hope so. Truly, in essence, it's fan fic. Let's be honest, cards on the table; all adaptations are fan fic. The FOX TV show Sleepy Hollow (which I love), or Once Upon a Time on ABC, or the book (and musical) Wicked, or BBC's Sherlock, CBS's Elementary, or the film Maleficent, or hey, even Frozen, or pretty much every Disney film ever made... it's all fan fic. They're all adaptations of other stories. You know the movie Tangled was once called something else. Probably Rapunzel. But they changed it. Now, some say that Disney did that to market the film to boys as well as girls (apparently boys can't handle watching a film named after a women or some such rubbish), but gender politics aside, I think Tangled is a better title. That story is, yes, about Rapunzel, but it's also very much about her and Flynn Rider and this adventure that they (yeah, I'm going there) get tangled up in together. It's a cute title that ultimately fits that movie better.
In the case of my own freely adapted piece, I think it makes sense for the title to adapt along with it. The new title, SLEEPY HOLLOW: THE LOST CHAPTER, conveys more of what it actually is, what I consider it... a lost chapter. My play stays true to the title of the original Washington Irving story, while hopefully indicating that there's going to be something new coming to the table. To me, it gels. As the description states: When Ichabod Crane went missing in Sleepy Hollow on that fateful night in 1790, it was thought that to be the end of the story; but Ichabod Crane wasn't the only schoolteacher to come to Sleepy Hollow. SLEEPY HOLLOW: THE LOST CHAPTER picks up in the final pages of Washington Irving's classic, revealing a previously untold piece of the legend. After Ichabod disappears, his students are determined to find out the truth of what happened. Their new schoolteacher, Abigail Seymour, is more focused on teaching than chasing ghosts---that is until she has her own run-in with the Horseman. Now, she and the students must hurry to retrace Ichabod's final night in Sleepy Hollow and find a way to stop the Horseman once and for all; along the way, we discover new revelations, gain clues on who the Headless Horseman could be, and meet all the original Irving characters from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Adaptation is fun. As a playwright, it's not something I saw myself doing regularly, but now it's a huge part of my writing world. First Sleepy Hollow: The Lost Chapter, then I did my own take on The Legend of Robin Hood, and up next I'm working on The Last Queen of Wonderland (you can figure out where that one's coming from). But then, really, most writing is adaptation. Even original stories (if there are any left), get written and rewritten. Writers go through that process I mentioned earlier with workshops and readings, and eventually a writer is adapting her own words. She's taken an idea, a scene, and outline, and adapted it in the revision process. Evolved it. Made it into something new. Until it's just right. Thinking of it that way, it makes sense to me that sometimes our titles have to adapt during that process. I'm probably not alone on that at all. For me, it was immensely helpful. Once the title changed, the revision fell into place. It helped me to mentally forget everything I knew about the Sleepy Hollow I was writing, and focus on the one I was supposed to be writing.
Adaptation is a part of life. It's something I'll think about more with my future writing, especially if I'm stuck. Might not be just the play that needs to adapt. Might be the title.
Kicking off 2015 with some excitement! My home away from home, Nashville, beckons once again as I'm writing my third play for ClassAct Dramatics at Street Theatre Company! First, we went to Sleepy Hollow in 2013. Last year, it was off to Sherwood Forest. And now, I'm taking them to one of my favorite places of all... Wonderland!
Thoughts. From my brain. Anything to do with how we tell stories and the stories we tell each other. Literally and figuratively.
Writer. Husband. Father. Effulgent dreamer. A Fightin' Irishman (@NDdotEDU '01). A playwriting Bobcat (MFA in Playwriting, @OhioU '13). I write plays. I'm a geek. I wanted to be an astronaut. I go places in my head.