A bestselling novel by a local author gets a new stage adaptation
Almost 11 million Americans have tried methamphetamine, or crank, at least once. And, according to a 2012 study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1 percent of 8th and 10th graders, and 1.1 percent of 12th graders had used meth at least once in the past year.
Author Ellen Hopkins’ daughter, Cristal, was only 17 when she first tried crank—not yet a senior. And that one choice led to 18 years of heartache, jail and prison time, and numerous health issues, including brain damage. Determined to understand Cristal’s story and share it with others, Hopkins, a resident of Washoe Valley, wrote Crank, her 2004 young-adult novel written in verse—a story told through free-verse poems. It went on to become a New York Times bestseller, receive numerous awards and earn the distinction of being one of a growing list of banned books.
Now this book by a local author has achieved another distinction: the premiere of its stage adaptation, Flirting with the Monster, which is currently in production by TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada (TWNN) at the Laxalt Auditorium in Reno.The Spell of the Monster
Crank is a story told in first-person by Kristina, a 16-year-old Reno girl with divorced parents who lives with her mother, stepfather, brother and sister. During a court-ordered visit to Albuquerque to see her father, a heavy user of alcohol and drugs, Kristina falls head over heels for neighbor Adam, a seductive bad boy “from the wrong side of the tracks” who, in a pivotal moment that changes Kristina’s life, offers her a line of crank (“the monster”). To win his approval she accepts, unleashing “Bree”—what she has named the danger-seeking side of her personality who begins to dominate her life and drive her poor decision-making. Her pursuit of crank drives her to destruction—estrangement from her family and friends, pregnancy at the hands of a rapist, and incarceration for dealing.
Hopkins says Crank is a fictional story, but “pretty much all the plot points happened with my daughter.” It’s a powerful, at times upsetting story, which is why many schools have banned it from their libraries.
But it’s a story Hopkins says she felt called to write, despite how personal and painful it was.
“I want that information out there,” she says. “I do high school visits, and when I’m talking to kids, I’m very clear. I show pictures of my daughter, before and after, and I say, ’This is who she was, and what she’s become, all because of a single choice when she was 17. All because of a guy.’ It has affected all our lives for 18 years now. It was more important for me to be honest that it was a real story.”
Hopkins said it has made a big difference for readers, many of whom are grappling with the same issues. “I get about 200 messages a day on social networks, with people sharing their responses to these books.”From Page to Stage
A TWNN board member posited the idea of adapting Crank for the stage during a 2013-14 season planning meeting. The theater company approached Hopkins about writing a stage adaptation, and she liked the idea. Working closely with director Holly Natwora, Hopkins crafted a script that observes the conventions of stage plays while retaining much of the original verse.
“[Doing the adaptation] was difficult,” says Hopkins. “I’ve done short video scripts that gave the idea of movement, but for this I had to look at movement on stage. It’s a small local theater company, so I knew they couldn’t have a whole bunch of set changes. I had to think about which scenes really needed to be there and which ones to condense. There are some great interior monologues, and beautiful language that I didn’t want to lose. I got some of that to fit in where I could, because it meant a lot to me to keep certain lines.”
Natwora, a local actor who has appeared in numerous productions with Brüka Theatre, has directed one other TWNN production, and seized the opportunity for this one when it was offered to her last spring.
“I wanted to work on an original piece,” says Natwora, who borrowed the 537-page book and read it in a day’s time. “I’d developed some short pieces with authors, but nothing of this magnitude. It’s brilliant. The language is fantastic, and I was just enamored. It’s not the kind of language you hear on stage often, so I was excited to incorporate that.”
Of course, adapting a book in first-person verse won’t work on stage. The immediate challenge was to give life to the other characters and let them speak, to avoid it being a one-woman show. Though much of the powerful verse was retained in the adaptation, there are scenes portrayed through traditional dialogue throughout the play, which Natwora knew was essential for connecting to the audience and dramatizing the story.
The staging of this play has been a bit of a challenge for Natwora, as it’s an episodic play told from memory; it doesn’t flow in real time, and the locations frequently change. But it was really important to both Natwora and Hopkins to maintain the integrity of the story, including having Kristina (played by 21-year-old Hannah Davis) speak right to the audience, and at times moving at a frenetic pace to mirror Kristina/Bree’s drug-induced state. And while a considerable amount of the original verse is in the play, it’s never intrusive, and never feels unnatural.
“Ellen was awesome in process,” says Natwora. “She’s a busy woman, but when she’d come in for some rehearsal, I’d ask about cutting a bit, and she’d say, ’OK, sure, no problem!’ She was very giving with her work, which was great. She was open to every suggestion, and was there for audition process. It’s been extremely important to me and all who are involved in acting to honor Ellen and this book. And I think we do that.”
“It’s Holly’s play, but if there are things I feel she’s missing, I’ll point it out,” Hopkins says. “Just as I’m willing to omit passages, she’s willing to listen. It’s been really collaborative, and I think that’s what makes it so strong and so realistic.”
Hopkins says she thinks that the stage is an ideal venue to tell this story, as opposed to film, which might have resulted in the loss of some of the verse that means so much to her.
“I’m very happy with the end product,” Hopkins says. “Holly really wanted it to be like a meth experience, have it be fast and have language fired back and forth, and it really works.”
And what was it like for Hopkins to see this personal story play out on stage? “Watching it come alive on stage, there were really hard scenes to watch, especially the first few times I watched it. My youngest daughter was in tears.”
Hopkins will be available after each performance to speak with the audience. This production was made possible through a grant from the Alliance with Washoe County Medical Society.
“It’s been an amazing experience and opportunity,” says Natwora. “I think it’s going to engage audiences in a way that they haven’t been in a while.”