20 August Stage v Screen
“Wait,” I hear you saying, “what’s 20 August? I’ve never seen it. Never even heard of it.” (Well, okay, you might at least have heard of it if you follow my work at all.) But you won’t have seen it because, though the screenplay has been optioned a couple times, it has never been produced.
So allow me to fill you in briefly before we get down to the nitty gritty of this discussion. 20 August started as a stage play that I then adapted for screen. It’s about four college friends, now in their late 20s—a kind of quarter-life crisis tale—in which one friend named Lucky isn’t keen to grow up and join the “real” world. And the pressure to do so… Well, go read it if you want to know what happens. (The stage version is in Lost Pieces and Things with No Place.)
Whenever I’m asked to talk to a classroom of writers, I point out the key differences. Prose is a form of telepathy—the author attempting to take something in their brain and transmit it to the reader’s mind. Both stage plays and screenplays, however, are blueprints. They are instructions for how to make either a play or movie: here is what you will need, here is what it will look like, here is what the actor should say, etc. But the key difference between plays and film is that plays live and breathe—they are different from production to production, even night to night—and film is static. Once you have the takes and have edited them together, it will always be the same every time you watch it. You may notice things you hadn’t before, but the film itself has not changed.
And that’s what makes the stage version of 20 August a little bit better that any potential film version. Because 20 August was originally designed for open casting and, depending on that casting, the story’s undertones change. If Lucky is a white guy, that’s one thing. If he’s Black, though, or Asian… And that’s true of all of the characters in the play. The casting will change the story just that little bit. Charlotte, for example, is headstrong and bossy. Any woman can be those things, but if Charlotte is played by a Black woman, or Asian, or other minority? Her character takes on a bit of a different slant.
Don’t get me wrong, I would love for 20 August to be made into a film. But it’s a little sad to think that, if it were, there would be a “definitive” version that showed only one of many possible facets of the story.
By the way, community theaters and schools are welcome to stage 20 August or any of my short plays for free so long as they credit me and send me something (a program or poster or flyer) for my scrapbook.
I’m not saying that film is inferior to live theater. They are simply very different experiences for all involved. And different modes of storytelling, which in some cases, like that of 20 August, can change the story entirely.