From musical to graphic novel

Leah Cooper and Becca Hart talk about how they turned "In My Heart: The Adoption Play Project" into a graphic novel, out Jul 9.

Here's how Becca Hart's illustrated versions of the characters Lewis and Alice look like compared with the real actors. All photos courtesy Wonderlust Productions.


In Wonderlust Productions' 2016 show, "In My Heart: The Adoption Play Project," audiences followed two sister adoptees, one Korean and one White, one acting out and one internalizing, as they fell into an "Alice in Wonderland'' world that made them question who they were and where they belonged. The musical was based on two years of conversations with hundreds of adoptees, adoptive parents, biological parents, social workers—anyone who was tied to adoption. Then, after two weeks of performances, it was all over.


"We tried saying that thing that theater artists say, like, 'It's a sand castle that washes away,' but there was so much heart invested in this project," co-artistic director Leah Cooper says. "So we [co-artistic director Alan Berks and I] thought for a long time, 'What could really capture theater?'"

The cover of "In My Heart: The Adoption Story Project"

Their answer: A graphic novel.


Four years later (and two years after asking actor and artist Becca Hart to illustrate it), the graphic novel of "In My Heart" is celebrating a July 9 publish date with a free online event June 11. The event will feature conversations with the state's adoption community, a sneak peek into the process, and a reading voiced by local actors and members of the community, just as the original play was performed.


Ahead of the launch party, I got to chat with Cooper and Hart about turning the musical into a graphic novel, drawing Wonderland, and the aftermath of adoption.


Can you tell me about how you turned "In My Heart" into a graphic novel?


Cooper: I'll say there were at least two layers that were really difficult, more than your typical graphic novel illustration. One is that there are different styles, multiple levels; it's a fiction within a fiction, and on top of that, it's based on the play with real people in it, and we wanted a sense of the backstage, the people who made it.


Then there's the play, the story, and Wonderland. How does the reader know what world they're in? We didn't just hand her [Becca] a script, and Becca put every word in it where a picture might tell the story better. There were huge learning moments for all of us. Like, the play was a musical: How do you convey a song in the graphic?


Hart: And it's really cool to see the way that it works. Two years ago, in the meeting with the donors, I was like, "There's the actors, and there's Wonderland, and there's the real world where you know you're watching the play, and we're going to convey those things through different styles of drawing!" And everyone was like, "Huh?"


Wonderland is more sketch-y, and the real world, its style is very simple for the drawings, but the way they're colored is more watercolor. I was confident when I said it at the time but when I started drawing it, I was like, "I don't know..." Now it looks great!


In both the play and the graphic novel, you weave in so many perspectives. Could you go into that a bit?


Cooper: This goes back to the conception of the piece and how we do our work. We don't ever decide what the play's about. We decide who it's about. Almost every word that you read in there was said to us by someone else. We talked to hundreds of people and kind of blended them together. It's no one person's story. And I'll admit that probably makes me even harder to collaborate with for Becca because I'm fiercely protective over every word. I'd tell her, "Somebody said that." I remember them; I remember the rest of their story; I remember how much vulnerability it took to share that.


Part of the reason for "Alice in Wonderland" was that we wanted a mythology that allowed us to go to some shadowy places, some really deep, self conscious truths. Everyone in the triad—parent, adoptive parent, or adoptee… There's grief that's carried around. I'm an adoptee, so I probably get overly passionate, but Becca's like, "But you still need fewer words." [laughs]

Hart: Any of the layering and the multi-narrative things you see in the illustrations didn't come from my brain; that came from Leah's and Alan's. I can remember a couple of times I presented you [Cooper] with a page of the scene and be like, "Oh, here's what's happening; here's what they said," but you being like, "When they're saying that, they're actually referencing this emotion or they're saying this to hide this."


Do you have any examples?


Cooper: I'm remembering one of the scenes we spent the most time on was the last scene of the first act, the birth mothers singing a song called "I Had Sex."


Hart: My first pass, I was like, "Woo!"


Cooper: It came off super whimsical, and I had to say, "No, there's a lot of grief here." The second version seemed like a dirge; everyone had their eyes down, and it was like, "No, that's not the same, either. It's more like defiance. We're shamed but not anymore."


Giving feedback to Becca was a lot like being a director because Becca's an actress. She internalizes the characters. I would say, "Maybe like this," and she would be doing the facial expression on her face. I didn't have to say, "No, no, no, draw it like this," and it's better if I didn't because you [Becca] do it better. It was more like, "No, no, no, this is the feeling."


The ending still had the perspectives that make adoption so complex. Given that, what's your takeaway from it all?


Hart: It feels kind of cheating to go with like the last lesson, but I'm thinking of Alice and Jen [the sisters] at the end, together. … [It's] that idea of "We don't know what's going to happen, but wherever you came from, I'm with you now. We're here together," which is something I think whether or not you've had any interaction with the adoptee community in your life you can understand.


Cooper: I think it was a much more personal journey for me than expected [as an adoptee myself]. I experienced a lot of grief I didn't know was in me. I have to admit, that grief was singular in a way, and I felt very isolated, like, "Oh, people who aren't adopted can't possibly understand." The weird thing is, now that I've done a reckoning in that grief, I have a greater capacity for joy. … There's this joy, this universal part of me that makes it easier for me to show up in other people's grief, whether their grief is having to do with adoption, or perhaps not. And especially inherited grief, multigenerational grief, stuff handed to you before you had words for it, to show up for other people's experience with that.


But if I'm talking about the book and thinking about the takeaway, it's that we don't make happy families by pretending. Frankly, adoption only happens if something went wrong or if something went different than expected. If we pretend it was meant to happen and that everything's great, that's not true, and that grief stays bottled up inside you.


This interview was edited for style, length, and clarity.