PROVO — Adapting a 300-page novel into a two-hour play that maintains and communicates the book's major themes is no small feat, but such was the task taken on by three women in preparation for the BYU Department of Theatre and Media Arts' upcoming adaptation of Utah author Shannon Hale’s novel “Princess Academy.”
Hale’s book follows strong female characters who band together, and director Megan Sanborn Jones, playwright Lisa Hall Hagen and dramaturg Janine Sobeck similarly collaborated on something bigger than themselves.
Jones said she began looking into creating a stage adaptation several years ago. She had read "Princess Academy" with her children and wanted to share the story with others because of the valuable themes found in the novel, which was named a 2006 Newbery Honor Book.
Set in the fictional kingdom of Danland, "Princess Academy" tells the story of 14-year-old Miri of Mount Eskel. Miri was raised on the mountain and, with several other girls from her village by a stone quarry, is required to attend a “princess academy” to be trained as a candidate to marry the kingdom's prince.
Along with gaining other skills, Miri learns to read, and she uses her education to lead her classmates, make her village more prosperous and ultimately escape from dire circumstances.
“It’s a story about the power of education and how girls are brave and smart and strong,” Jones said.
When the rights to adapt the best-selling novel were secured about 18 months ago, Jones enlisted the help of Hagen and Sobeck.
Hagen said the adaptation was highly collaborative as each woman influenced the others as they developed the script.
“It was this totally integrated process, because I was writing for (Jones), and she’s directing to help me, and (Sobeck's) managing both of us, trying to help everybody create a cohesive vision," Hagen said. "And that is really unique and awesome.”
Among the results of their collaborative efforts are a large mountain set and the incorporation of rhythm and a cappella singing.
“It’s hard to say whose idea was what because there’s been so much back and forth, and there’s been so much conversation that the collaboration has been really wonderful,” Sobeck said. “I think actually the biggest challenge was that sometimes we had too many ideas.”
During a recent rehearsal, Jones, Hagen and Sobeck sat watching together, suggesting improvements one minute and throwing back their heads in laughter the next.
Jones said they identified the main storyline to highlight and then made cuts based on what would contribute to that narrative.
“It is very faithful to the novel,” Jones said. “It’s just that we picked the emphasis on Miri and her journey.”
Some changes — such as the number of characters and scenes — were made for practical reasons. But Jones, Hagen and Sobeck did their best to stick with Hale’s storyline. Sobeck acknowledged the impending scrutiny of loyal fans who know the book backward and forward, and Jones said they worked hard to cover everything important to the story.
“The thing that stuck out for all three of us was how education, love of home and kindness is what makes these girls princesses,” she said. “It’s not the crown. It’s not getting the prince. In fact, getting the prince has nothing to do with being an amazing woman. So that’s the story we wanted to tell.”
Having that focus made it possible to choose the right cast members, Jones said, adding that Hale's characters were distinct enough that they just had to look for actors who fit the roles.
“We knew what the story demanded, and then we tried to find the best people within that,” she said.
That led to the casting of Aubrey Wilde, who will play Miri. According to Jones, Wilde looks like Miri physically and has the ability to carry the show like Miri would.
Wilde said she identifies with Miri both physically and in other ways.
“I don’t think I’ve ever connected with a character so much as I have with Miri, because we’re both these little human beings but with huge ambitions and huge hopes and dreams,” Wilde said.
Hagen hopes audiences will enjoy what she and her collaborators have created based on what they imagined and loved about the book.
“You can’t capture what happens in everybody’s imagination when they read a book,” Hagen said. “That’s why books are awesome.”
Sobeck also hopes their interpretation of the book will be a positive experience for viewers.
“As a theater practitioner, there is no greater delight than to create a world that is lovely and beautiful and fun and creative,” she said. “I hope that people enjoy the way that we’re choosing to tell the story.”
After years of being just an idea, more than a year of being adapted and two months of being prepared and rehearsed, the stage version of “Princess Academy” will open May 29 in the Pardoe Theatre at Brigham Young University. Then, Sobeck said, the production will gain the one thing it's missing.
“Traditionally in the theater, it takes two or three productions to really understand a play because the audience is that final piece,” she said. “I think we’re going to have a really great show next week, but it’s going to be very interesting to see how people react to seeing it for the first time.”
Among the audience members seeing it for the first time will be Hale herself. She was not involved in the adaptation process, but she will be in attendance at the June 13 matinee, after which she will participate in a Q&A with the audience.
"I'm honored that BYU is creating a dramatic performance out of 'Princess Academy,’” Hale said in an email. "I've seen some of their other wonderful productions, and that gives confidence that they'll do something fantastic."
If you go ...
What: "Princess Academy"
When: May 29-30, June 4-6 and 10-13; 7 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on May 30 and June 4, 6, 12 and 13
Where: Pardoe Theatre, Harris Fine Arts Center, BYU
How much: $12, discounts available for students, alumni and seniors
Email: [email protected]