For over a decade now, young adult literature has been a major force in the publishing world. Typically targeting readers between the ages of 12 and 17 (although in 2012 a study showed that 55% of books aimed at young audiences were purchased by adults worth reading), YA fiction has spawned massive movie franchises (“The Hunger Games,” “Divergent”) and a slew of Netflix content (“Dumplin’,” the controversial “13 Reasons Why,” a “Uglies” is imminent).
Given the cross-pollination between the shelves and the stage, there has inevitably been some cross-over in the world of theater as well. However, the term “YA” is not widely used in theater – these shows are more likely to be called family theater or theater for younger audiences. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is both a key example and an anomaly in that it is not an adaptation of an existing novel, but rather a world-building exercise ( and IP expansion) created by JK Rowling in collaboration with playwright Jack Thorne.
Most productions that could be called YA theater are based on existing books. Adapted by Joel Horwood from Neil Gaiman The ocean at the end of the road currently plays in the West End. The National Theater production of “The curious incident of the dog in the night” is currently on a 10th anniversary tour of the UK and Ireland. A new stage version of Philip Pullman The Book of Dust: The Beautiful Savage – by Bryony Lavery, whose other adaptations include “Swallows and Amazons” and “The beautiful bones – recently wrapped up its run at the Bridge Theater in London. A new stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s World War I novel Private Peaceful – it originally existed as a solo show but Simon Reade reworked it for an ensemble cast – recently embarked on a UK tour. Infused with Sophie Anderson Folklore The house with chicken thighs, aimed at the slightly younger age group of 9 to 12, is adapted by the visually inventive theater company Les Enfants Terribles. He begins his tour in Manchester in the spring.
London’s Unicorn Theatre, which constantly programs inventive works for young audiences, including teenagers, takes a different approach, forcing Lulu Raczka to adapt Jonathan Swift’s play Gulliver’s Travels. Swift may not be YA in the traditional sense, but Raczka has a solid background in writing about the teenage experience, so it will be interesting to see what she makes of it.
Are there any special challenges and considerations in adapting work for young audiences? Do certain materials lend themselves particularly well to being remade for the stage?
Esther Richardson is artistic director of the Pilot Theatre, a company that does “adult work for young audiences”. She directed the stage version of Malorie Blackman’s dystopian Tic Tac Toe and is currently working on a production by Zana Fraillon The Bone Sparrow. Fraillon’s novel – winner of the Amnesty CILIP Honor Award among other awards – tells the story of a young Rohingya boy whose entire life was spent in an Australian detention camp for refugees.
Are there any special challenges and considerations in adapting work for young audiences? Do certain materials lend themselves particularly well to being remade for the stage? While Richardson believes any book could potentially work on stage, she is drawn to stories with a cinematic sweep, which are character-driven and take a compelling hero on a journey.
She points out that teens go through changes, both biological and emotional, and that influences the kind of stories they want to engage with. “We find that they love and want to repeat and explore big emotions – so it’s no surprise that incredibly dramatic stories are hugely appealing to this age group.” Things that work well on the page can potentially sound melodramatic when translated on stage, and that’s something she takes care of when directing the work.
YA books can also often be very plot-heavy, so she finds it necessary to weigh what’s essential and what can be cut to create a stage version of around two hours. (Although brevity was clearly not a concern for Rowling; “The Cursed Child” is a two-part film with each part running just over two and a half hours).
Tone is another factor. YA fiction often deals frankly with violence and sex, and care must be taken in portraying these things on stage; it’s one thing to read them, it’s another to see them enacted. She is quick to point out that “we never tone down the drama and believe in being authentic and true to the spirit of the book and its major events.”
“Difficult and potentially upsetting times we always include in our commitment to authenticity, but we manage them with care,” she says.
Going to the theater is obviously a more expensive activity than buying books. Take a family of four to see a show and the expenses can skyrocket. The most expensive premium tickets for ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ cost £125, although tickets are available from £20. At the Theater Royal York, where ‘The Bone Sparrow’ tour begins, tickets range from £15 to £27. But given the appetite for YA material, it’s likely to play an increasing role in the type of work that makes it to our stages. For many young people, a theatrical adaptation of a favorite novel or book series may become their first introduction to live theater, in place of traditional pantomime.