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A play becomes a graphic novel; Broadway @ the Ordway returns

Alan Berks and Leah Cooper have adapted “In My Heart: The Adoption Play Project,” into a graphic novel. A virtual book launch on Friday will feature members of the original cast in a reading from “In My Heart.”

A spread from the graphic novel “In My Heart: The Adoption Story Project.”
A spread from the graphic novel “In My Heart: The Adoption Story Project.”
Courtesy of Wonderlust Productions

Graphic novels have been adapted for TV series (“Watchmen”), movies (“Persepolis”) and theater (“Fun Home”). It’s rare to go the other way, from TV, movie or musical/play to graphic novel.

But why? Especially for plays. Reading a graphic novel is tons more fun and interesting than reading a script.

That’s what Alan Berks and Leah Cooper thought when they decided to adapt their play, “In My Heart: The Adoption Play Project,” into a graphic novel.

The founders of Wonderlust Productions, Berks and Cooper have their own way of making theater. They start with a theme, then hold many hours of story circles with hundreds of people, gathering personal stories to weave into plays. (Other Wonderlust plays have included “The Veterans Play Project” and “Our House: The Capitol Play Project.”) While creating “In My Heart,” they heard from adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents, siblings, social workers and others in what they call the adoption community.

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The play tells of a young couple, Alice and Lewis, who have gotten engaged, and much of it takes place at their engagement party. Alice was adopted, and so was her sister, Jen, who was born in Korea. Lewis’ parents are surprised to learn that, and not in a good way. The play takes a deep but relatable dive into the history, issues and realities of adoption.

“In My Heart” was presented at Mixed Blood Theatre over three weekends in December 2016. It was a powerful emotional experience. Before seeing “In My Heart,” we didn’t think much about adoption, and we knew almost nothing about it. We came away schooled, in the painless way good art has of teaching you.

Leah Cooper
Leah Cooper
A play is an ephemeral thing. A graphic novel would keep “In My Heart” alive and spread its hopeful, positive message. Berks and Cooper reached out to Becca Hart, a triple threat. She’s an actor (“The Wolves,” “Small Mouth Sounds,” “Ride the Cyclone”), a cartoonist since childhood, and her day job is at a small publishing house, so she knows about books. (Berks has requested that if we only quote him once in this article, he’d like to say, “Becca is brilliant.”)

Where did it start? In conversation earlier this week, Cooper said, “A key idea was, ‘Let’s not try to translate the story to a book. Let’s capture the play itself.’” The illustrations are of the actors who appeared in the play. The scenes are from the play. Berks said, “Becca understands the theater – what a character’s intention is, where we’re trying to move the scene. She was able to translate that into the language of the graphic novel.”

Berks, Cooper and Hart first met about the book in pre-COVID November, 2019. “It was snowing,” Hart recalled. The restaurant where they met didn’t survive the pandemic. Their original goal was to have printed copies by Christmas 2020. “We’re, like, how hard could it be?” said Hart.

Alan Berks
Alan Berks
Um, very. Also time-consuming. Starting with character designs (based on the actors), Hart moved to storyboards. “Alan and Leah gave me the script, and I went through it and broke it down into pages with boxes, talk bubbles and stick figures. Once we got through the storyboard phase, I started doing the drawings” – electronically on her “handy-dandy iPad.” “After the drawings were approved, I did the shadings and the backgrounds. That took until summer.”

What we’ve skipped in this summary is the constant back-and-forth of responding, explaining, decision-making, editing, approving and improving. “I think if the pandemic didn’t happen, we’d still be working on the book,” Berks said. By March 2020, they were meeting over Zoom.

Who is “In My Heart” for?

Becca Hart
Becca Hart
“First and foremost, it’s a gift back to the community who helped us make the play,” Cooper said. “Second, it’s for anybody who’s ever been touched by adoption. A lot of people think adoption is an event, but it’s not. It’s a whole life-shaping thing that goes on and evolves over time. And third, it’s for folks who say, ‘I don’t know much about adoption.’”

It’s a book that adoption and support organizations can use in their practices. And families can share. It’s about love and acceptance, discovery and forgiveness. There are parts every adopted child will relate to. What is it like to be “the other”? This book understands.

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Berks added, “At Wonderlust, we’ve always been experimental people. We’ve tried to figure out ways beyond theater to keep telling these stories. Now that we have the book, it helps us to see that along with doing play projects, we can do story projects.”

A virtual book launch tomorrow evening (Friday, June 11, 7 p.m.) will feature members of the original cast in a reading from “In My Heart.” Marianne Combs, journalist and Wonderlust board member, will moderate. Berks, Cooper and Hart will talk about turning stories about adoption first into a play and then a graphic novel. Members of the Minnesota adoption community will discuss the adoption experience and its complexities. Register here. Hard copies of the book will be available starting July 9.

Ordway announces 2021-22 Broadway season

In November, when the Ordway presents “Fiddler on the Roof,” it will have been 500 days since a Broadway show took place inside the gleaming performing arts center on St. Paul’s Rice Park.

In March 2020, the Ordway closed to COVID before “The Color Purple” could open, and “Groundhog Day,” planned for July into August, never had a chance. Same with the entire 2020-21 season, which would have launched with an Ordway Original holiday production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and ended with “Rent.”

Also gone: Sting starring in “The Last Ship.”

In August 2020, Jamie Grant, the Ordway’s president and CEO since 2016, left for a new position in Palm Desert, California. Christine Sagstetter has served as interim president during a national search for Grant’s successor.

In light of the past year, it’s no surprise that the 2021-22 season is about making audiences happy. Here’s the schedule. All will be touring productions.

An image from the touring production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Courtesy of the Ordway
An image from the touring production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Nov. 30-Dec. 12: “Fiddler on the Roof.” A celebration of joy, love and life, filled with memorable songs: “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Tradition,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “To Life.”

Dec. 28-Jan. 2, 2022: “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” The story of Summer’s life, loves, and courage, held together by hit songs including “Hot Stuff,” “Last Dance” and “She Works Hard for the Money.”

Jan. 20-23, 2022: “An Officer and a Gentleman.” A new musical stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film with a fabulous ’80s soundtrack: “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Higher Love,” and the Grammy winner “Up Where We Belong.”

March 8-13: “Waitress.” Pies will be baked in this uplifting story of friendship and motherhood. Among the songs are “When He Sees Me,” “She Used to Be Mine” and “Opening Up.”

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Rod Kaats, producing artistic director, said in a statement, “Knowing that the Ordway’s beautiful bright lights will be back on for Broadway shows … fills my heart with hope. I know audiences are excited to be back; to reconnect with each other and to feel the thrill of a Broadway musical. You can already feel the energy in the air.”

Sagstetter said, “Nothing can match the experience of a great Broadway musical with the people you love inside our beautiful venue in downtown St. Paul.”

Pick-your-own subscriptions are on sale now online or by phone at 651-224-4222. Individual show tickets will go on sale starting June 29.

Note: Artscape took a short break from the picks this week. They will return next week.