Page to Stage: The Journey of a Memoir

I first met Amanda Miller while we were both MFA Graduate students at NYC's New School. We were studying non-linear narrative form with the outlandishly creative and incredibly inspiring Shelley Jackson. I always looked forward to Miller's class presentations, due to her keen sense of the theatrical (I seem to recall her donning a bleach blonde wig at some point) along with her clear love of language.

It was no surprise when I heard about (and later read) Miller's enthralling, emotionally charged memoir, One Breath, Then Another that she has since developed into a solo show.

I caught up with the quirky, energetic and wildly talented Miller as she geared up for her show and book launch party at Dixon Place on March 9th.

What inspired you to adapt your memoir to the stage?

I finished the memoir in 2010, and I didn't anticipate it existing in a form outside the page. While submitting the book to agents and presses, I was working with an interactive performance ensemble -- we improvised plays with an audience volunteer. I was inspired by the idea of making an audience part of the story. That was the first inkling of turning the memoir into a stage piece.

A major part of my book is about completing a yoga teacher training on an ashram in India, a powerful paradigm shifting experience for me. I thought it would be cool to develop my memoir into a solo show that would invite the entire audience to practice yoga and meditate, simulating the ashram experience for them. I would be telling my story of healing while making the point that everyone has one. By getting the audience to engage with their breathing and bodies and memories, my hope was that the show would end up being as much about them as it was about me.

Do you find creating language for the stage as poetic/lyrically driven as when writing dramatic non fiction or do you use a different part of your creative brain?

Writing for the stage is certainly different than writing for the page; I absolutely use a different part of my creative brain for both. With a book, the words are everything; my entire focus is crafting the language to serve the story I am telling. Of course I do this as well for theater, but the stage has many more elements to consider: a live audience, space, lights, sound, acting, and collaboration with a director and designers. When I went to write this show, I kept all these elements in mind, knowing that the words themselves were part of a larger operation.

Having worked on the book for two years, the language became so fixed for me that adapting it for the stage was challenging initially. I speak directly to the audience throughout the show, and I wanted this to feel like natural speech, so I had to break open the crafted sentences and pull out my conversational voice while still retaining poetic flourishes. In the stage version, I have found the poetry primarily resides in the piece's structure and theatricality. As I work with director and sound designer, Colleen Toole, the language has continued to evolve in rehearsal.

What were some of the challenges you faced in crossing genres from written non fiction to a stage show?

In addition to adapting the language, I found it challenging to figure out how to structure the show, and what specific material to use. When I started writing it, I was mirroring the chronological structure of the book, working chapter by chapter, starting at age three, which felt really overwhelming and unsustainable. I solicited feedback from people I trusted and concluded that my task would be simplified if I anchored the show in one place and time; the ashram section was perfect for that, as it was its own self-contained narrative. I communicated earlier parts of my story through flashbacks triggered at various points during the yoga teacher training. Then I whittled it down from there, determining what was most theatrically impactful. And it was still too much. At that point, I had to workshop the SHOW. I performed sections at The Parkside Lounge where I host a couple of monthly performance series, assessing what worked and what didn't, leading up to a full show workshop at a Brooklyn yoga studio in November. I had an audience talk-back there and realized I had to cut two characters entirely. This was difficult because they were real people from my story, but they were contributing to some confusion in the performance by being too similar to other stronger characters I was playing, so they had to go.

But I think the biggest challenge of all has been an acting one, and that is playing the role of my father, especially playing my father in conversation with me as a teenager. It's one thing to write those things down and quite another to embody them truthfully in front of an audience. It continues to be a challenge, and probably always will be. It's the most emotional part for me, the driving force behind the whole story: my being like him, loving him, and not wanting to end up like him.

Did adapting for the stage free the material up at all? Did anything you discover in developing the stage show get added to the memoir or influence that final product?

Adapting for stage did free up the material in that the story found a different structure. The process reminded me that there are many different methods and mediums for storytelling, and its fun to play around with them. The things I discovered in developing the stage show didn't actually get added to the memoir though; they could have, but that animal was done being touched.