Your Regional Guide To The Performing Arts

An Interview with Jim DeVita, Playwright of Learning to Stay

An Interview with Jim DeVita, Playwright of Learning to Stay
Photo Credit: Jim DeVita

Learning to Stay opens March 23 at Forward Theater in Madison. The play, the first commissioned work by the theater company, was adapted by local playwright Jim DeVita from Celello's novel of the same name. DeVita shared with us via email where his inspiration came from and his perspective on the process.

F: What has it been like to work with Erin on this adaption? 

D: Erin has been just wonderful, supportive and forthcoming. Before writing novels, I cut my teeth as an author writing adaptations – but to be honest, I had never worked with a living author. The lion’s share of my adaptations have been from classic stories.

This would be a new experience to work with a contemporary novelist – who lived just around the corner. Before either of us said yes to the project, Erin and I, and Jen, met together to talk and get to know each other a little, and I felt immediately at ease with Erin, as she did with me. I felt she trusted me to take her work on this journey. And she trusted me to bring her book to the stage while maintaining the integrity of the original novel.

She’s been incredibly helpful with her input. She has read draft after draft, and attended our public and in-house readings, and has offered up insights and criticisms along the way which have greatly shaped the creation of the play. 

F: If you don’t mind sharing, how many drafts has Learning to Stay been through at this point in time? 

D: Well, at this point, I’ve had four major revisions. By that I mean I am not counting the numerous re-workings of scenes and speeches which happen on a continual basis. Each time we’ve had either a public reading, in-house reading, or a note session with the author, Erin, and Jen Gray, the director, we have had major overhauls to the script. Not only in content, but in the style of performance envisioned.  

F: Jen mentioned you are no stranger to adapting books for the stage – what is your favorite part of the process?

D: Getting to know a book and an author’s voice intimately. Rarely does one read a novel as many times in close succession as when adapting one. I’ve done close to twenty adaptations over the years, and I count all of these authors’ works as sort of my continuing education. I did not go to school to be a writer, so books, and their authors, have always been my teachers.

I get to go beyond the first two or three reads, where I am still simply absorbing the story, and I then start to see and appreciate the craft and style which the author has brought to a work.  

F: What are the challenges of adapting from book to stage?

D: Oh, gosh. There are many. It’s a continual balancing act of trying to stay true to author’s original intent, and yet also making the book viable for the stage. Some books are easier to adapt than others, particularly ones without a number of sub-plots, and also those where authors excel at dialogue and use a lot of it. You can often use much of these authors’ lines verbatim.

It’s more difficult transforming narrative into believable dialogue. It’s also a challenge to communicate necessary exposition without sounding like you’re communicating necessary exposition. And of course, you always have to write a certain amount of original material, while trying to stay true to the voice and tone of both the characters and the author.

You can never put all of a novel onto the stage, but what do you leave out? I often say that adapting a book is like a house of cards – how many cards can you pull out of the house before it collapses.

F: What other books would you like to adapt next, or do you yourself have any other books in the works?

D: I am currently 50,000 words into a second book in a series featuring Detective James Mangan. It picks up where my last book, A Winsome Murder, leaves off. I can’t say much, as it’s a mystery, but those who know the book might find it fun to know that Detective Mangan has left Chicago and moved to a small town in Wisconsin!
For more information on DeVita, please visit his website,

Forward Theater's Learning to Stay runs March 23-April 9 at The Playhouse in Madison. For tickets, please visit

Want to learn more about Learning to Stay’s author? Then check out this interview with Erin Celello.

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