Same Same But Different
The Challenge of Adapting Thai-riffic! for the stage
With the world premiere of Thai-riffic! (the play I adapted from Oliver Phommavanh’s bestselling book) only a week away, I thought it might be nice to talk about the challenges of the adaptation process.
Adapting things is heaps of fun but it’s not always easy. On one hand, it is a huge relief that some other person has done all the hard work of creating the story world and the characters (thanks Oliver!!) but on the other hand, an author doesn’t write a book thinking it will become a play, so they create all these characters and settings and scenes that can’t possibly all fit into the play version (thanks Oliver!!). The playwright needs to be true to the source material, whilst also making it work for the new medium.
It needs to be same same but different.
Above: the first read through of the script with the cast
Here are some of things we had to consider:
The joy of a book is that there are no budgetary restrictions when it comes to bringing the story to life – it’s all done with the imagination and it’s free. This is not the same for theatre or film. The Thai-riffic! play’s budget meant we could only afford to have 5 actors on stage so it was not possible to have all the characters that were in the book.
The good thing is that actors can play multiple roles, so we weren’t limited to only 5 characters; still, we were limited to how many main characters we could have. The biggest change from book to play is that Lengy’s brother no longer exists. Sorry, Lengy, you’re now an only child. In the early drafts we also took Lengy’s mother away – that’s pretty cruel removing a bother and a mother so we decided to add references to the mother to explain her continual absence, and then, in a stroke of genius (and thanks to the magic of video projection), we found a great way of bringing her back into the story. You’re welcome, Lengy. There were also too many kids in Lengy’s class, so we merged a lot of them into the character of Hayley. Rajiv, Mr Winfree and Grandma all made it into the play relatively unscathed.
Number of scenes and locations
Theatre shows for young audiences generally don’t go longer than 1 hour, which is mostly to allow the possibility of doing multiple shows a day. This becomes a limitation when it comes to re-telling a story that is 190 pages long. The story needs to be cut. Also, we can’t keep changing the set and moving to different locations – this takes up precious time and potentially lots of money in creating set pieces, so when deciding which scenes to have, we must also consider what are the most important locations featured in the book.
For Thai-riffic! we decided the two most important locations were the Thai-riffic! restaurant, and Lengy’s English classroom, so this is where most of the play is set. A lot of the scenes in the book that were featured in Lengy’s house, have been relocated to take place in the restaurant, and scenes within the school now take place in the English classroom. We still have a few other important settings – a discount store, the streets of Newtown, a rival restaurant, the takraw field and the location of the Songkram festival – and for these we are using projections to transport us. Projections cut down on both the time wasted in changing sets, and the costs of making them.
A challenge when adapting books to the stage or the screen, is in working out how to let the audience experience the main character’s inner thoughts. Thai-riffic! is written in first person narrative, so we always know what Lengy is thinking but in the play version, we are outside of Lengy’s head watching the action from the comfort (hopefully) of our theatre seats.
One of the ways we solved this problem was to make Lengy address the audience. We call this breaking the 4th wall. The action on stage kind of freezes around Lengy while he looks out and talks to us, letting us know important information, or sharing his humorous observations about what is happening. In films, the same effect might be achieved by having a voice over. I think it’s important not to overuse this device though as it takes us away from the action of what’s happening on stage.
So there you go, there are a few of the considerations that were made when adapting Thai-riffic! into a play. Make sure if you’re in Sydney that you head down to Darling Harbour for the world premiere. It runs from the 4th-8th of July. Tickets can be purchased through this link: