BY CARY GINELL
There are three new events being unveiled at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center Thursday evening: Lit Live, a new local production company, And Lightning Struck, a new play written by the eminent local actor and producer Robert Weibezahl, and a new director, 21-year-old Austin Robert Miller. The show plays for only four performances this weekend. We spoke with Weibezahl and Miller about their new creation, a play about creation itself, the subject being the story behind the writing of one of the most famous novels in English literature, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
VCOS: First, tell me about Lit Live. What’s it all about and what does it endeavor to achieve?
BOB: Well, Lit Live’s mission is to tie theater into the classic literature that students read, mostly high school. They started with The Dark Heart of Poe and have since done a couple of Shakespeare-related plays. The next one that they will be doing will be The Diary of Anne Frank. Brenda Miller, who I have known for a long time, knowing that I was a writer, came to me and said, “We’re looking for someone to write a play related to Frankenstein. She didn’t know that I was actually fascinated not so much by Frankenstein, but by how Frankenstein came to be written. Mary Shelley was only nineteen years old when she wrote it, which is an amazing thing when you look at nineteen year olds today. She was part of this bohemian circle that included her husband, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John William Polidori and his stepsister Claire who were really, in my view, kind of like nineteenth century hippies.
VCOS: This comes as somewhat of a surprise to anyone who has seen the prologue to the film, Bride of Frankenstein, which shows the Shelleys and Lord Byron to be these stiff, beautifully coiffed, regal people.
BOB: Well, they were wealthy. Class was important in England at that time. Lord Byron was, of course, a lord and Percy Shelley was also titled, so they had a certain amount of money but they were basically like children of rich people in the sixties who would go off and live in a commune. So they were in Geneva at Byron’s villa, but they were basically living on nothing. Byron was running from creditors, Percy’s father wasn’t giving them any money, and Mary didn’t have any money of her own. But they were very well educated free spirits. I was always fascinated by this group of people.
VCOS: How were you able to write this story, given that there wasn’t that much background information to go on?
BOB: Well, I’ve read a lot about Mary Shelley, including her letters. And it’s funny because she doesn’t always talk about Frankenstein, in fact, she doesn’t really talk about some of the tragic things that happened to her. It’s one of those things where you have to read between the lines. There are a lot of biographers of Mary who have done that before, so I read a lot about her and a lot about Byron and Shelley and the Circle, and I decided that the story would not be about Frankenstein, it would be about how Mary came to write Frankenstein.
VCOS: Where is the conflict?
BOB: I guess I kind of created the conflict. When I was reading Frankenstein, I noticed that there were two prefaces: one from 1818 when the book was first published, and then there was one written in 1830 when it was reissued. It’s pretty much accepted fact that Percy Shelley wrote the original one in Mary’s voice. The 1830 preface was written by Mary. So I thought it might be interesting to start the play there, in 1830, because at that point, Percy’s dead, Byron’s dead, most of Mary’s children are dead, and although Mary wasn’t really a recluse, she was living a solitary life. So I created a character called Matthews who is a publisher who comes to ask her to write this preface. She’s very hesitant to do that because she doesn’t want to revisit the past. And during the course of the play, he kind of gets her story out of her and she is visited by the voices of her younger self, Shelley, Byron, Polidori, Claire, her father, and finally, the Creature himself and Victor Frankenstein. So that’s the basic structure of the play. The conflict is that Mary doesn’t really want to revisit this part of her life. She even says, and this is directly from her own writing, that she was happy then and now is no longer happy. After that, within five years, her husband died, her friends died, and that’s the conflict.
VCOS: Austin, you’ve been an actor since you were little and now you are venturing into your first directing effort, and it’s something that’s never been done before. Is that exciting for you or do you feel you maybe should have done something that had a track record, something you could draw from?
AUSTIN: It’s thrilling, but at the same time, it’s a double-edged sword because I have nothing to pull from, I have no previous productions to see and get inspired by, but that means that all possibilities are open. It’s quite a responsibility. I have directed children’s theater and I assistant directed Peter and the Starcatcher, so those gave me some groundwork as to how the job is done. So setting out and doing this on my own, with an original play gives me a feeling of responsibility to present it in its best form, and we’re not going to know what that is until I do it.
VCOS: How much latitude does Bob give you? Is he totally hands off or do you run things by him?
AUSTIN: Bob has been incredibly flexible and open to new ideas. It’s been a work in progress since the beginning. We just recently met and went over things and tried to see how things were working now that they’re underway, but he’s put his trust in me, which I am very grateful for.
VCOS: So Mary Shelley is the protagonist for this play, correct?
AUSTIN: She is, yes. Mary and the younger version of her, her eighteen-year-old self. She is acting out her memories as she is telling Matthews, so we are using two different actresses to portray her.
VCOS: Does it go back and forth between the younger and the present Mary?
AUSTIN: It’s interesting how it’s laid out. It’s almost as if Mary is used to the company of her memories and the ghosts that are haunting her. Once the publisher Matthews is introduced…
BOB: He’s the only fictional character, other than Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. Matthews is my creation.
AUSTIN: And he’s persuaded to write the preface and slowly, as she starts talking about her past and the story about how she created Frankenstein, those memories start to seep into the room and into her life until she is pulled into the memories herself.
VCOS: Do you dramatize any part of Frankenstein?
BOB: I took passages from Frankenstein’s Creature – and I’m very specific about saying “Creature” and not “Monster” – and Victor, and in particularly the second act, Mary is reading an excerpt from Frankenstein and they take it over. Everything the Creature says is taken from Frankenstein. I didn’t write any original dialog for the Creature or for Victor. From the start, I was very adamant to make sure that the Creature was not this ridiculous Hollywood stereotype with bolts in his neck. This was a philosophical novel, it wasn’t a horror novel, but it has become a horror novel in people’s perception. But it’s really a novel about creation and about God and what Man has wrought and what happens when we overstep the bounds. It’s about science and it’s about all these things, which is, of course, what kids learn in school when the read it, but everyone still treats Frankenstein as if it’s a Halloween story.
AUSTIN: I never read Frankenstein, but the adaptations that I had seen of the book were so varied, it was hard to get a sense of what was really true to the novel. Doing this play and then reading Frankenstein while working on it was really a fascinating experience. The Creature is so eloquent and so gentle, but tortured.
BOB: Emotionally tortured.
VCOS: Is it your intention to tell people about who Mary Shelley was or to resuscitate the true meaning of her book?
BOB: That’s an interesting question. I think they go hand-in-hand. First of all, I think my first intention was probably to tell the story of Mary Shelley and explore where this genius came from. This young woman created this amazing story out of whole cloth. She wrote many other books, none of which anybody would know. And it’s sort of a pre-feminist cautionary tale because she actually spent most of her life, after Percy Shelley died, being his widow, making sure his works stayed in print, even though she was still writing. It wasn’t a woman’s place back then to be a celebrity, but she actually spent most of her life keeping Percy alive. So I started with that intention, to honor Mary Shelley, but I think it certainly evolved into also being about the Creature. You can’t really separate the Creature from Mary Shelley. I’m not saying that she is the Creature, but the Creature encompasses aspects of her father and Percy and others in her life. Her father was this brilliant philosopher, her mother, who died when she was born, was really the first feminist, so she grew up, as a little girl, surrounded by all the great minds of English culture and she just absorbed it like a sponge. I’m not even sure if she was conscious of that. We’ll never know.
AUSTIN: The way she is represented in the play, she’s very humble. She doesn’t flaunt her family background and doesn’t put any stock into her own “genius.” I was going to say that it’s impossible to tell the full story of Mary Shelley without getting a better sense of the philosophy and true inner nature of her book. You hear so much of Mary waxing philosophical on her own purpose and why she was created. And when the Creature is out of Victor’s control, he regrets what he thought would be a monumental achievement and it is now haunting him. Mary sees herself in both.
VCOS: So you have this compelling story – how do you turn it into compelling theater?
BOB: Well, from a writer’s point of view, that was a little challenging and until we had the first reading, I wasn’t sure whether we had made it into compelling theater. About half the dialog comes from historical writings, from Mary’s letters, from the novel, from Byron and Shelley’s poetry, so that has the threat of making it a little academic. And when we had the first reading, I didn’t really know. There have been revisions since then, but I think the basic structure was there. There were times where the historical language slowed down the action.
VCOS: How about visually? What do you do as the director to make this into compelling theater?
AUSTIN: I’ve learned, through the process of directing it, not to be scared to let the lines speak for themselves, because they are Mary’s words, mostly. Initially, I was concerned that we had to have scene changes and swirling action and something super exciting so the audience wouldn’t get distracted. But as we went on, I realized how much emotion is already there, just in the words. But the first thing I wanted to do was to find people who could do justice to the words and I think we’ve found just that.
VCOS: Who do you have?
AUSTIN: We have a cast of seven actors, three of whom we found in North Hollywood who had never worked in Simi. They’re fantastic. The woman who plays Mary at 35 is named Kay Capasso and she is stunning. The work she is doing is really incredible. She is a Mary Shelley nerd.
BOB: We found out at auditions that everyone who walked in the room were, “Oh my God, Frankenstein is my favorite book!” And they understood it. They weren’t coming in thinking they were doing the Boris Karloff movie, they were really connected to the material. It was just remarkable.
AUSTIN: And it’s amazing how far Frankenstein has permeated society, from the movies and the books and the plays and the TV shows, so many ways there have been connections to the story.
VCOS: So after the show ends, where do you want to take this?
BOB: Well, that’s a good question. The interesting thing is that last year was the 200th anniversary of when the ghost story was told, and next year, 2018, is the actual 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein. So this is being done right in the middle of those two years. Obviously, I would love to get it out there and make it available to theaters anywhere that would be interested in doing it.
VCOS: Do you have a publisher yet?
BOB: I do not. Hopefully that will happen. I’m waiting to have some press to send along with it.
VCOS: And then you’ll have your own little creation.
AUSTIN: Hopefully one that won’t haunt him (laughs).
BOB: I think the good thing about this play is that I kept it, intentionally, manageable. It’s only seven actors who portray ten characters, but it could be done elaborately on Broadway with thunder and lightning and things flying in and out of the wings, but it doesn’t need that. It can be done the way we’re doing it with the sitting room and Mary’s memories sort of revolving around it. But if Hollywood wants to do it and they give the amount of money Hollywood gives, they can do what they want with it (laughs).
VCOS: And when it does, I hope you’ll be able to say, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
And Lightning Struck: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Creation plays from February 9 through 12 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. For tickets, visit www.simi-arts.org.