I recently concluded the final workshop and presentation of Cc: FANNY! – my final project in NYC before relocating to London this fall. While the initial focus of this project was to investigate the rather tumultuous process of adaptation carried out by filmmaker Orson Welles as he attempted to bring Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons to the silver screen, it quickly shifted to an unexpected and unusual focus on the art of copying and how it relates to adaptation in general. Over the course of a year's worth of developmental workshops, my collaborators and I began inexplicably and instinctually viewing the outcome of Orson Welles' adaptive process – the film The Magnificent Ambersons – not merely as an adaptation but as an artistically crafted copy of the original novel. By redefining the type of film we were investigating, we were able to tap into an artistic process that most of us had rarely explored. We developed a set of questions: What did it mean to copy the product of one particular artistic practice into that of another? What are the various techniques utilized when making copies? And what are the artistic merits of copying?
Early on, we found ourselves eager to define this concept of copying in an admittedly artistic context. We eventually settled on the following definition:
copy: to present the same –
- for practical purposes
- for interpretive purposes
- for deceptive purposes
These three modes of copying when placed within our collective practice of theater-making allowed for a more concentrated process of research and inquiry to take place. We were no longer dealing with the broadest definition of copying, but rather had limited ourselves to three unique ways in which we could investigate the source material in play – namely, the Welles film adaptation. We were also able to establish three sets of rules – one for each mode of copying. These rules also allowed us to create our own original material inspired by our experiences with copying other artists or artworks entirely unrelated to the Ambersons. Eventually, the sketches inspired by the source material and the original material inspired by our own experiences were presented simultaneously, illuminating where the source material and our individual experiences aligned and diverged.
Unsurprisingly, the final presentation dealt almost exclusively with the mechanics of copying – the Ambersons were rarely referenced or conjured. Three performers stood between two mirrors, their bodies infinitely reflected. They took turns welcoming the audience, casually yet carefully claiming to be Orson Welles introducing his latest piece with his Mercury Players. The first performer would set the tone with particular intonations and hand gestures that the next two performers would have to copy, almost as if they were playing a game of telephone. This eventually led to the final performer introducing the Ambersons themselves with a small piece of text clumsily remembered from our original viewing of the film months earlier. This text was repeated twice by the same performer. The first delivery of the text was inspired by the previously defined practical mode of copying. The next, interpretive copying. The final, deceptive copying. We were essentially posing a question that had emerged throughout our work together – could an artist copy herself?
As the piece continued, this rule of three was firmly established and executed by each performer. Each speech was delivered two additional times by the original performer, playing with various interpretations of our three-mode system of copying. These interpretations were set within an array of circumstances inspired by our work over the previous year, as well as the film itself. And seemingly, each attempt to further develop our individual and collective understandings of the practice of copying led to a stronger need to push the boundaries of our three-mode system even further. By the end, the performers found themselves not only copying themselves and one another, but the audience as well. The mirrors were eventually repositioned in front of a now standing audience, reflecting their faces as they watched performers copying specific members of the audience as well as specific actors in the original film.
A sense of anxiety seemed to permeate the piece, as well as the room itself. What had started out as a simple game of telephone had become a more desperate attempt at deception. And this transition seemed to appropriately mirror my own understanding of the art of copying – which in and of itself seemed to mirror the art of performing. Our three modes of copying could subjectively reflect three possible stages of acting – the practical memorization of lines and blocking, the eventual interpretation of those lines, and the inevitable desire to deceive your audience into believing that the lines being spoken are those of the character, not of a playwright. While this investigation into the art of copying had initially baffled me – How on earth had we shifted our focus so drastically to copying from the film The Magnificent Ambersons and the adaptive process? – I had finally drawn the connection. We were simply attempting to understand the performative nature of adaptation. How do we perform the action of adapting the product of one artistic medium into that of another? What are the parallels between that particular process of adaptation and the process of stage performance? And how do we as contemporary theater makers relate to that process? In short, is the art of copying merely the same as the art of acting?