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Students Zoom into Dialogue with Writer-Producer-Director Aaron Sorkin

One of the challenges of adapting a novel into a play is deciding which parts of the original work to keep and which parts must be discarded. This spring, Professor and Drama Department Chair Shona Tucker decided to call on an expert to help students in her course, “From the Page to the Stage: African American Literature Post-World War II,” explore this question.

Sorkin (lower right) talks drama, TV and movies with students in a class co-taught by Professor of Drama Shona Tucker (top left) and Associate Professor of English Tyrone Simpson (top row, second from right)Photo: Screenshot courtesy of Bryan Smith ’23

The expert Tucker chose was Aaron Sorkin, the famed writer, director and producer who adapted Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird into a Tony Award-winning Broadway play. Tucker had met Sorkin more than two decades ago when she performed in a Syracuse University production of Sorkin’s A Few Good Men. The two renewed their acquaintance last year on Broadway when Tucker was a member of the “Mockingbird” ensemble cast and an understudy for the part of Calpurnia, the Finch family housekeeper.

“Aaron wrote me a very nice note when I was ill and out of the show for a couple of days,” Tucker said, “and we’ve just kept communicating since then.”

When Tucker mentioned that members of her class had some questions about his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, Sorkin suggested communicating with the students directly. On April 30, via Zoom, Sorkin chatted with the students for more than a half hour, not only about the choices he made in adapting To Kill a Mockingbird but about his career. He has created the critically acclaimed TV shows The West Wing, and The Newsroom and the films A Few Good Men, Moneyball, Steve Jobs, Molly’s Game and The Social Network. “I’m lucky I get to write plays and movies and TV shows,” he told the class, “but if I had to choose, it would be plays. 

“I like audiences,” Sorkin explained. “I learned the hard way that my livelihood depends on large groups of strangers gathering in rooms. I’m a playwright who gets away with writing movies and TV shows.”

He said he felt he had grown significantly as a writer since he wrote A Few Good Men more than 30 years ago. “It was my starter play and movie, and I look at it like I look at my high school yearbook picture,” he quipped.

During the class, Sorkin faced some pointed questions about his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. One student, Alice Downer ’23, asked him why he had eliminated one of her favorite characters, Miss Maudie Atkinson, from his Broadway version of the play. Sorkin responded that while Miss Maudie was an integral part of the novel, her character “didn’t advance the story we were telling” in the play. “Plays are very different from books, and when you’re adapting a book of an extraordinary author, you have to fall out of love with the source material,” he explained. 

Sorkin acknowledged that the decisions he made in adapting To Kill a Mockingbird were subjective and that other versions were equally valid. “Maybe you should be the one to tell the story from a different point of view,” he told Downer.

Tucker said she would always cherish the time Sorkin had spent with her students. “It’s an experience they will all process and take with them,” she said. “Aaron was personable and easy to talk to, and he answered all their questions as fully as he could. I think he made them realize how smart they are.”

Indeed, Sorkin acknowledged this sentiment as he left the class at the end of the hour. “One last thing I can definitely tell you,” he said as he signed off the Zoom chat, “there’s not a chance in the world I could ever have gotten into Vassar.”