5 questions with IVAN playwright James E. Grote

2016-10-16-jim-sf-heartJames E. Grote is an artistic ensemble member at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago. The 30-year-old company specializes in original literary adaptations for adults and children. Jim is both an actor and a playwright, with such titles as Giggle, Giggle, Quack and Duck for President to his name. He first encountered The One and Only Ivan in 2013, when he began adapting it for the Lifeline stage. He took time from his latest projects to chat with Kathy Janich, Synchronicity’s resident dramaturg, and answer a few questions.

SYNCHRONICITY: When, and how, did you first learn of Ivan’s story?

JAMES E. GROTE: It actually sort of fell into my lap. One of my first adaptations was of Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin’s Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type in 2003, which was a big success for Lifeline Theatre, and which led to my adapting four of the other books in that series. Doreen and Betsy’s agents, Pippin Properties, are also the agents for Katherine Applegate, and they sent me The One and Only Ivan in the summer of 2013, asking if I might want to adapt it. And I thought, “Come on, it’s a Newbery winner, of course I want to adapt it!”

S: What made you think it could be a play?

JG: I wasn’t sure at first, given the serious (and sometimes very sad) aspects of the story. But even as I was reading the book for the first time I was already visualizing how I wanted to make it into a play. It’s ultimately such a beautiful and hopeful story that even with all the pain and sadness in it, I knew I had to bring it to the stage and to our audiences at Lifeline.

S: How did you decide what to leave in and what to leave out?

JG: With picture books like Click, Clack, Moo, I’m doing a lot of original writing to fill out the story, but with a longer chapter book like this one, I have a lot of difficult decisions to make about what to keep and what to cut. I always want to include scenes that I love, scenes that explain who the characters are, and scenes that point up the themes that I want the play to express. I sometimes combine and condense multiple scenes into one, or I give a character in the play lines that may have belonged to a character in the book that I had to cut.  But even so, I sometimes have to cut scenes that I love if they don’t move the story forward.

Some of the easier scene cuts are ones that are dictated by technical limitations. For example, if you only have five actors, you can’t have a scene with six characters. During the development process we talked a lot about how we would realize the many memory stories in the play (from Ruby, Stella and Ivan). Lifeline’s stage is small (we have a 100-seat house), so there’s no way we could change the entire set to a jungle from the mall. So I had to think about how to either make those scenes work on the set we had, or those scenes had to go.

S: How many drafts did you write … and what are the major differences between the early versions and the final version?

I just went back to my Ivan folder on my computer and I counted 30 drafts! At Lifeline we have a combination development/rehearsal process, so most of those 30 drafts are just smaller changes from one rehearsal to the next. I would say there are probably five or six drafts where the script changed a lot.

The biggest change from the first draft to the final draft is that I took out a lot of Ivan’s narration.  Once you get in the rehearsal room and see the actors bringing the characters to life you realize how much less language you need to tell the story. A look, or a movement, or one word said in a certain way can accomplish more than a whole series of lines.

S: How did you go from acting to playwriting (although we know you still do both)?

JG: My first show as an actor with Lifeline was in 1992, playing Tucker Mouse in an adaptation of The Cricket in Times Square, and I performed in a number of shows after that.  Because nearly all of Lifeline’s shows are original adaptations that we develop in-house, we are always looking for new writers, and in 1999 I was invited to join the ensemble with the hope that I would develop into a playwright/adapter. While I had never written a play before, I knew that the support the artistic ensemble gives to the development of our scripts would mean I’d be in good hands. I am working on my 14th show for Lifeline, so it looks like it turned out OK!

S: What do you want audiences of all ages to leave the theater thinking about and why?

JG: Mostly I want audiences to think about our responsibilities to the creatures in our care, whether in our homes, our farms, our zoos, or in nature. We have a great obligation to be good stewards to the world’s creatures and to do what we can to treat animals with respect and to ensure that their environment is healthy. I also would like folks to think about how we can be more like Ivan, helping others (like Ruby) when they need help, and standing up for what is right when we see injustice in the world.

BONUS QUESTION: What character do you most identify with and why?

In some way I identify with all of the characters in my plays, because they all have some elements of who I am, particularly in my shows based on picture books, where I’m creating a lot of original story. With this play, though, Katherine gave me such rich characters to work with that what you see onstage is very much what she created, and they don’t have much of “me” in them. That being said, I’d probably say I’m most like Bob the dog: true to my friends, somewhat cynical at times and always looking for a snack!

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