The final product of a successful theatrical script is usually a play — but not always. A St. Paul theater's deeply emotional show about adoption will live on as a 300-page graphic novel.
Wonderlust Productions began developing "The Adoption Play" in 2014 by holding story circles in which people touched by adoption talked about their experiences. Two hundred adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents, as well as social workers and adoption agency staff attended.
"I do remember just being overwhelmed by how many points of view there were," said co-artistic director Leah Cooper. "But also for this project in particular, how much grief is involved in this story, for everybody involved."
Stories ranged from the joy of welcoming a new family member, to the sadness of giving up a child. As an adoptee herself, Cooper began acknowledging the emotional weight she carries.
Co-artistic director Alan Berks said there was another surprising element.
"I remember people, more than one, saying 'I didn't know other people felt this way.' Like literally saying 'How did you get into my head? I have had those thoughts and there were people saying it.’ "
The play Berks and Cooper molded from those circles premiered in December 2016.
It begins with a young woman named Alice who meets her future in-laws for the first time at her “Alice in Wonderland”-themed engagement party. They are surprised to learn she is adopted. The in-laws then upset her and her parents with thoughtless questions.
Things get worse when her sister Jen, who was adopted from Korea, returns unexpectedly from a trip to try to find her birth parents. Soon Alice and Jen find themselves going down an identity rabbit hole. Jen finds a prickly server on a smoke break who introduces herself as Caterpillar.
"You belong to that party of people with the money?" asks Caterpillar.
"Do I look like I belong?" Jen responds.
“Story of my life," huffs Jen. “I do."
Jen learns the server is Native American and also unhappily adopted as a child as they talk about their lives.
The play is jammed with stories, good and bad, about adoption. Thirty-five cast members performed in the show, some of them professional actors, and others amateurs from the story circles.
Cooper remembers how, long after every show, audience members jammed the lobby because they were compelled to talk about what they had seen and relate their own stories.
Then it was over.
Cast members kept asking when Wonderlust planned to do the show again. Cooper remembers saying the play was like a sandcastle washed away by the tide, ephemeral and not to be replicated. But the requests kept coming.
"And because so many of them had given us their stories and their experience and their time, we actually felt a sense of responsibility to give them more,” Cooper said. “And we started thinking how can we make this something that is not ephemeral, how can we continue on?"
The answer was a graphic novel. And they knew an actor, Becca Hart, who is also an illustrator. Berks met Hart when she did cartoon reviews for the Minnesota Playlist, and realized she possessed perfect sensibilities for the project.
"She really understood what a character's intention in a scene means," he said. "And then she understood how to illustrate that to bring out what we as theater people are trying to bring out on stage."
Berks and Cooper asked Hart to base the drawings on real actors in the show. Naively, they all thought the project would take about a year. In reality, it took two-and-a-half years. Hart said the play's emotional landscape demanded great specificity in her drawing.
"This is a couple of pages about grief, and this is a couple of pages about rage, and this is a couple of pages about love," Hart said.
Wonderlust launches the graphic novel virtually on Friday through its website. "In My Heart: The Adoption Story Project" also will be available at Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul.
"I just hope anybody who has ever been affected by adoption, which by the way is probably everybody, gets a chance to read it and understand how layered this experience is," said Cooper.
And looking to future Wonderlust shows, Cooper said reshaping the adoption play as a graphic novel has opened her eyes to other storytelling possibilities.
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