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First-time playwright adapts Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil

Lindsay Cochrane

When Toronto teacher Lindsay Cochrane first read Yann Martel’s allegorical, multi-layered novel Beatrice & Virgil (Knopf Canada), she was convinced it would make a fantastic theatre production.

Four years later, the first-time playwright’s adaptation is having its premiere at Toronto’s Factory Theatre. Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley and starring Damien Atkins and Pierre Brault, the production runs from April 12 to May 11, with an opening night performance on April 17.

Q&Q spoke to Cochrane about her experience.

How did this adaptation come to be? When the book came out four years ago, there was this incessant voice in my head saying that it needs to be adapted into a play. I felt the action between the taxidermist character and Henry the writer was inherently dramatic and would work well on stage. I also thought a lot of the book’s themes would translate, especially the idea of being silenced and finding a voice.

How did you get Yann Martel’s permission? I didn’t have any playwriting experience, but I felt someone needed to do this. On a whim, I emailed Yann Martel a draft of a couple scenes and an outline. I didn’t really expect anything to come of it. His initial response was that he thought it sounded pretty ridiculous but he would take a look at it. A few months later there was a message from Yann on my voicemail giving me permission to adapt it. I was probably the least qualified person to take this on. I teach French immersion at an elementary school.

How did Factory Theatre become involved? I had the rights for six months and wrote a couple of drafts, which I submitted to Factory Theatre’s dramaturge Iris Turcott, who is responsible for developing new playwrights. Her guidance and experience helped me make this piece into something that’s quite sophisticated.

What were some of the challenges you faced? Most of the book translated quite easily. The biggest challenge was not making it too enigmatic or dense. There’s still a lot of mystery and people will leave the play not knowing everything, but, as the director put it, it needed to have a comfortable level of enigma so that it’s not too confusing.

How did you deal with the book’s non-human characters? That’s funny, it never struck me as a problem. One of the wonderful things about theatre is that it doesn’t have to be literal. You can have two people acting on stage and know on some level that they’re a monkey and a donkey without actually putting them in monkey and donkey suits.

How involved was Martel in the process? He’s been incredibly supportive. He flew to Toronto in June 2012 to help us workshop the script and has seen drafts since then. He will be here for previews, but not for the opening.

What lessons did you learn about writing for the theatre? I’ve watched theatre for many years so I was always thinking about it as an audience member and makes it the most interesting and engaging for them. But in doing workshops it became apparent I had to think about what the actors need, too.

Will you write any more plays? I don’t know, I have other creative projects that I’m pursuing. If I do write another one, it will have to be like this one: a story I just have to tell.

This interview has been edited and condensed.