THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Bringing The Twilight Zone from Screen to Stage
Anne Washburn discusses her upcoming adaption of The Twilight Zone at The Almeida Theatre in London
The Twilight Zone will run at The Almeida, Dec 5 2017 to Jan 27 2018
UPDATE: The Twilight Zone will be return to London at The Ambassadors Theatre from March 4, 2019.
Ahead of rehearsals for the upcoming stage adaption of The Twilight Zone for The Almeida Theatre in London, American playwright Anne Washburn spoke to us about her memories of the iconic American Sci-Fi series, and bringing it to UK audiences.
A lot of people have favorite episodes of Twilight Zone, and particularly motifs from the original television series, do you have any favorite moments from the series' history, and did this have an effect on the episodes you opted to present in this adaptation?
A question I’ve been asking Americans at least, over the development of this play, is what Twilight Zone episode scarred them as a child. Mine was the one in which a bookish misanthropic bank clerk evades nuclear Armageddon because he’s hunched in a vault during lunch, reading; he emerges from the vault into a destroyed landscape from which all people have evaporated; his initial response is despair, when he sees an intact library. He realizes that he will be able to read, to his hearts content, entirely unbothered by anyone, and his despair becomes joy and he is stacking up a delicious pile of books when he drops and steps upon the glasses without which he is basically blind and he sinks to the ground, destroyed. I think it was my first introduction to heartbreaking irony. It was the only episode I refused to watch when researching the series and although I’m sure I’m right that it could not be adapted for the stage because it relies too heavily on impossible visuals – a nuclear Armageddon, walls and walls of books – still, really, that’s at heart an excuse for not wanting to return to a childhood hot spot.
Some really intriguing episodes didn’t make it, either because they can’t really be adapted for the stage or because they don’t quite pan out but their influence does linger in the script.
What are the challenges for a playwright when translating what was a hugely successful on screen art form to a production on stage, and given the show's Sci-Fi roots, how do you feel the show's adaptation may affect the storytelling?
That was something the director Richard Jones and I looked at kind of endlessly when we were selecting which episodes to use. There are some wonderful, iconic episodes which would never work on the stage, and others which feel right at home. Early television was only just one step removed from theater with a lot of tv writers doing double duty in both mediums, so the scripts themselves are much closer to theater than tv scripts are today.
Science fiction has almost no place in the contemporary theater but in fact the stage is a very natural place for it; theater, maybe in a nod to its roots in ritual and religion, has traditionally been a place for the extraordinary; the Greek Tragedies are full of ghosts and gods and demons; the Elizabethan plays were full of the dead, witches, magic; it’s only recently that theater has become a place largely devoted to a realistic description of life as we commonly believe we experience it.
Thinking about the technical processes of translating the show to the stage, some of the more poignant factors of the original Twilight Zone were that it was in black and white, and its sound was beautifully echoey in a way only 1950s television could be - how have you responded to some of these famous aspects of the show for this stage adaptation?
Sound is extremely important in this production, both because it was important in the original series and because it’s always especially effective in a theater. We’re using a fair amount of the original scoring, which is wonderful. As for the black and white, that kind of haunted austerity, I don’t think that’s something a stage show can replicate but a live performance has another kind of charisma it brings to the storytelling.
With that process of adaptation in mind, I was wondering if one of your other recent productions, Mr. Burns, has been at the back of your mind? Mr. Burns seemed to reflect on the way in which a popular televisual concept - in this case The Simpsons - can alter in meaning through the generations. Have the messages from Twilight Zone changed over time, and how do you approach taking that into account when putting this production together for a 21st Century audience?
Mr. Burns is the other thing I’ve worked on which revolves around a television show but it was entirely different to write; Mr. Burns was about faithlessness to a source, really, and this project is as much as possible an adaptation of Rod Serling’s original vision. In looking through the Twilight Zone episodes we found that some of them had become too dated to include – some because the images or ideas have been so imitated that they no longer have the same impact, some because the political impulse behind them is no longer provocative; some episodes which had originally been fanciful felt topical - there’s a wonderful episode about a warming earth which was included in an early draft but ultimately felt too on-the-nose.
Twilight Zone was filled with iconic images and for many is an important contributor to America's cultural development. For you, what did the show contribute to American culture and how did it reflect American values - and do you think these contributions to American social life are still relevant today?
I feel like it’s an early signalling of the upheaval we associate with the '60s; it’s a show which at its heart questions whether reality is stable, our view of the world is stable. When we quote the iconic ‘dee dee dee dee’ of the series intro we do it to indicate that the impossible has just become possible. I think that feeling, that we’ve hit a fault line in reality, that our world has just shifted in an important way, is often relevant.
The London performances at The Almeida will be the production's world premiere - what was the thinking behind introducing a production about a popular show in America's history in the UK?
I can’t entirely speak for the theater, but I think they were interested in the show’s place in the UK as something which is known but not entirely familiar, that audiences here might be intrigued to immerse themselves in it. And that now might be an interesting time to talk about American nightmares.
In terms of timing, this production runs from December 2017 through to the end of January 2018 - Twilight Zone has always seemed like a perfect show for dark nights and wintry conditions, was the show's selected timings by chance or part of the plan to bring back the unique experiences of watching the show during Fall and Winter?
I think it falls really nicely into the British tradition of the Christmas Ghost Story which I suppose dovetails a bit with our Halloween as an occupation of, yes, the dark time of year, the shorter days, the stories told by the hearth.
Finally, what do you hope visitors to Twilight Zone will take away with them, and what do you hope to add to the long and culturally significant heritage of the show?
Oh I hope they’ll have fun.The Twilight Zone runs from December 5, 2017, to January 27, 2018, at The Almeida Theatre in Islington (nearest Tube Station: Angel). For tickets, go to https://almeida.co.uk UPDATE: The Twilight Zone will be return to London at The Ambassadors Theatre from March 4, 2019.