The bus wasn’t due for half an hour, so Rob Hamilton walked into Waldenbooks, found a novel that looked interesting, and bought it for seven bucks. That book was Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a story about two Chinese boys sent to the countryside for “reeducation” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s. And reeducated they were, both falling for the same girl—the little seamstress—and falling in love with Western literature after stumbling upon a suitcase full of books, including one by French playwright Honoré de Balzac. These books changed the boys and the girl forever.

Hamilton, a technical director and stage designer at Carolina, loved the story and its fantastical imagery and poetic dialogue describing a bygone era. He loved the colorful scenes of dirty livestock running up and down a hospital corridor full of women about to give birth. He thought all this could easily be adapted to the stage.

“Yeah, right,” he says now, after toiling for years with the script. Friends and colleagues told him that his first draft was way too long, and—yikes—a little boring.

“My own wife couldn’t even finish it,” Hamilton says. “So I set it aside for a year until I decided it was too good a story to abandon.”

He got started again, and in 2005, he took Joseph Megel’s UNC graduate course in stage adaptation. Megel and fellow students helped Hamilton winnow the four-hour play down to size and replace dialogue with unspoken textures, such as set design, character movement, music, and sounds.

“This was a breakthrough period because I realized I could let go of the novel and trust myself to rewrite the script, as long as I was true to the author’s intent,” Hamilton says. He changed lines, added dialogue, altered integral scenes, and used puppets and masked actors to represent the novel’s symbolic but significant non-human characters, such as fire, the moon, and a red raven.

Click to read photo caption. Image by Rob Hamilton; ©2007 Endeavors.

In the book, one of the boys always lights a fire and roasts a sweet potato when he feels stressed. Hamilton thought, “Why not have an actor dress up and play fire—a warm embracing presence that no human characters would acknowledge.” Then he decided that each main character should have a similar non-human companion.

“The enthusiasm I was getting about such changes from people in and out of class was amazing,” Hamilton says. Classmates began saying, “We really need to do this play.”

The communication studies department agreed, and so Hamilton continued to plug away, including researching Chinese culture and hiring Chinese consultants to make sure the play was historically and culturally accurate. But despite four years of rewrites and research, and the larger-than-life puppets and striking masked characters (which The Independent Weekly said left some audience members gasping), the novel’s main theme still rang true during the play’s three-weekend run this summer at UNC’s Kenan Theatre: books change lives.

“This story appealed to me because it’s about books and how books fill your life and send you off in directions you never knew existed,” Hamilton says. “That’s very much me.”