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Posted on July 4, 2016

Adapting Cowgirl for the stage – a guest post by G.R. Gemin

Today’s guest post is by G.R. Gemin, author of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize-shortlisted Cowgirl, on how the book was adapted for the stage.

One day last year I received an email from the Oxford University Press Education department. They said they were interested in adapting my book Cowgirl for the stage.

I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t. They were serious.

“How are you going to get twelve cows on the stage?” I asked.

“That’s the adapter’s problem,” they replied.

Enter Mike Kenny, a very experienced writer for the stage. You may have seen his celebrated adaptation of The Railway Children, performed at Waterloo and King’s Cross train station with a real stream train. Great, I thought. Twelve cows will be easy…

For the introduction to OUP’s adaption of Cowgirl this is what Mike wrote:

“At the heart of Cowgirl is a herd of cows. Now you might think that that presents an impossible challenge for a playwright. I wouldn’t be surprised if you did. But, honestly? That sort of thing is mother’s milk to those of us who write for the stage. I’ll let you down slowly. There will not be real cows wandering around in any production of this play. It’s impossible. To tell the truth, I’m not even sure that is legal. However, you will see cows. I guarantee it.

Even the most realistic of productions is never actually real. It’s the job of the theatre to make you see things that aren’t actually there. It requires you to awaken your imagination. This goes back to Shakespeare and beyond. If we can do the battle of Agincourt and Hamlet’s father’s ghost, a herd of cows should be a piece of cake.

To be honest, in adapting Cowgirl for performance, the cows were never the problem. I loved the book. I cared about the people in it. I was moved, and occasionally I laughed out loud, but it wasn’t easy to contain the raucous energy of it on a stage. It has a huge canvas. It is about a community and I had to combine a few members of it in order to make it work. Read the book as well. There is a wealth of lovely detail and characters I had to lose in putting it on the stage. Hopefully they complement each other.

This is a piece with strong themes of relationships in families and a community, but its beating heart is a growing friendship between two girls. That doesn’t normally get much of an airing on our stages, so it makes it something special and rare, and in this case that friendship is drawn so well. They’re both strong characters, at some points vulnerable, but most importantly, Gemma and Kate feel real.”

It’s a lovely message and demonstrates how evocative and imaginative the world of theatre can be. This is what I wrote in the introduction:

“Writing for the theatre, in my opinion, is the most difficult of the writing disciplines. So it was especially flattering and satisfying when OUP wanted to adapt Cowgirl for the stage.

When I set out to write Cowgirl I knew it would not just be about Gemma, but a community of people of all ages. A community affected collectively and individually, but ultimately a community that could change collectively and individually. From the beginning of the adaptation process with Mike Kenny it was clear to me that ‘the community’ was at the core of the adaptation. Beyond that it needed the vision of a writer who understood the confines and creative possibilities of the stage. The play and the book are separate entities. They have to be. What Mike has written is fundamentally for the theatre (notwithstanding the challenging inclusion of a herd of dairy cows).

When I wrote Cowgirl, I hoped that Gemma would speak to the reader and connect with them; I hoped her indifference to cows, which develops into a positive obsession, would surprise and touch people, and I wish the same for Mike Kenny’s adaptation – a whole community is depending on it!”

I hope it won’t be long before Cowgirl can be seen on stage – just don’t expect real cows, but rest assured you will see cows.

Thank you, Giancarlo! If you’ve not yet discovered Cowgirl, you can take a look inside the book below. You can buy the book online here, and the OUP Cowgirl play script here.

And if you enjoy Cowgirl, Giancarlo’s second book, Sweet Pizza, is out now too! This is another wonderful book for 9+ readers with a great story, fantastic dramatic writing, strong characters, and big-hearted social realism. You can find out more about the book here – and here’s a look inside:

Thank you, Giancarlo! If you’d like to stay up to date with all of our book news, you can sign up to our books newsletter below.