Interview with Erik Jackson, scripwriter of the new stageshow version of Carrie. September 2006.
Erik Jackson is the playwright responsible for bringing Stephen King's breakthrough novel Carrie to the stage, in New York this December. Here Rocky Wood, co-author of The Complete Guide to the Works of Stephen King and Stephen King: Uncollected Unpublished conducts an exclusive interview for www.horrorking.com.
I understand the concept was pitched to King without much hope of a positive response? What was the story behind your coup in securing the rights to one of the master's most iconic character-driven tales?
My theater company, Theatre Couture, actually had the idea to revive the flop 1988 Broadway musical in a "Rocky Horror Show"-style production, embracing the camp aspects of a piece that was much reviled despite having some very wonderful things about it. But the creators of the musical had other ideas; I think they believe the piece was wildly misunderstood and hope to one day see it vindicated. So we decided to write to Stephen King's representatives to see if they'd consider a new, blackly comic, non-musical version. I really didn't know what to expect. One of his attorneys sent a letter back saying that King would be in no way interested in going down that road again. I noticed that he'd cc'd Mr. King on the letter. I was very disappointed and resigned myself to the fact that we'd reached the end of that road. Then a couple of months later I received another letter from the attorney saying that King was interested in hearing more. So I wrote him an impassioned, 6-page letter explaining who I was and what my company had done and why he should trust me with his novel. It worked, and I was given six months to write the script and submit it for his approval, which I ultimately received in the form of a personal email--surely one of the coolest days of my life!
Take us through, if you can, the main challenges you found in adapting King's short novel to the stage?
The biggest challenge was winnowing the characters down to a manageable number so that the play's budget wouldn't be astronomical. (I tell the story with nine actors.) The structure was also a bear-King quite brilliantly uses multiple perspectives, reports from newspapers, excerpts from fictional books, letters and other ephemera to tell the story. Looking for a good dramatic structure for the piece, I zeroed in on "The White Commission Report," an investigation into the events of the deadly prom night at Ewen High, which is referred to a few times in the novel. I made the commission the framing device for the play; the first scene is Sue's testimony before the commission members, which has a courtroom feeling, and we return to the commission several times throughout the play. Many of the other challenges will be undertaken by my brave collaborators: cutting a pig's throat, a car flipping into the air and exploding, and, of course, the piece de resistance: the prom.
What is the main thematic concern of your adaptation?
I suppose the essential nature of the story to me is the examination of the outsider, the outcast, the loser. I think most everyone on the planet at one time or another has felt like that person. I was intrigued by the idea of exploring a reverse Cinderella story: put-upon ugly duckling gets the guy, goes to the ball--and then it all goes to hell, quite literally. I love extremes in my own work, and have always been drawn to the contrast between King's novel's sweet, quiet moments and the gruesome spectacle. Hopefully, my adaptation will follow suit.
How did you deal with Carrie White's motivations and those of her mother in your script?
Carrie and Margaret will certainly be recognizable from the novel, but since this adaptation is a black comedy, I've tried to inject a little more variation and humor into their interactions. There is a new scene between them while Carrie is sewing her prom dress, and--I'm going to horrify the "Carrie" purists out there - Margaret also throws a Tupperware party (sacrilege!), and the only guest who comes is Miss Gardner, as we call the gym teacher in our version (a little nod to the musical, which called her that). We just had to have a scene between those two characters, and also I'm a sucker for plastic leftover containers.
Blood has many representations in literature, both horror and more mainstream; and was somewhat hijacked in the 1980s by overly obvious connections to HIV/AIDS in many cultural representations. Is blood important in your adaptation?
I suppose that's the beauty of King's premise: it's so skilfully constructed that you can read all sorts of interpretations into it. The dumping of pig's blood on Carrie is just another bit of King's genius. We plan to mine it for all its Grand Guignol glory onstage.
What characters or incidents did you feel had to be left out?
Well, the whole adaptation is out of necessity pretty streamlined, so there are a lot of wonderful characters and events that I just couldn't include. For example, in earlier versions of my adaptation, I had several monologues by Estelle Horan, the next door neighbor who witnesses the ice storm that Carrie summons as a little girl. Although I loved having this particular side story in the show, it ultimately bogged down the pace, so we decided to cut the character. I miss her, but it was the right choice. Maybe she'll show up on the DVD extras.
Tell us more about storyline or characters you added that were not in the original novel?
The principal, Mr. Morton, has a more prominent role in my adaptation, and for economy, I wrote a composite of several of the high school girls into one character, a sort of "henchman" for Chris.
Is Carrie set in a particular timeline? Presumably the wonderful pun in the widely circulated strapline (Carrie: A Period Piece) refers to the obvious and does not have a double-meaning?
Actually, "A Period Piece" is just an ad tagline we're using. Somehow one of the press outlets got wind of it and mistakenly added it as a subtitle. The show is set around 1980, so it is, in effect, a period piece - but you're right. That ad tagline really is just a sly (and definitely obvious!) wink to the plot's motivating factor.
Were you at all influenced by the DePalma's movie adaptation of the novel?
Oh sure. It's such an incredible adaptation, and its images and performances are so iconic that it's hard to avoid their enduring power. I thought he did a masterful job, and though we don't imitate his work, the influence is unavoidable.
I understand Stephen King read and approved your script? Did he give you any specific feedback or provide comments?
He has read and approved it, but no, he hasn't given any specific feedback (so far!). His representatives have been incredibly supportive, however. They came to the initial workshop in 2004 and were huge fans. I met Mr. King when he received his honor from the National Book Foundation and he was so gracious and funny. He reminded me that a musical had been made out of "Carrie." "It wasn't very good," he deadpanned. I also sent him an invitation to the workshop of the show, but he wrote back that it was on the same day as his son's birthday and if he missed that, Tabitha "would dump a bucket of pig's blood on his head." I'm really hoping he'll be able to make it to one of the Off Broadway performances--though if that's the case, I'll need to be down the street throwing back gimlets to keep my nerves in check!
How does it feel as a scriptwriter to have the undisputed Master of Horror, and one of the greatest storytellers of all time approve of your adaptation of his work?
It was the thrill of a lifetime. When I was growing up, I marked the calendar by three major events: 1) the last day of school; 2) Christmas; and 3) the publication date of the next Stephen King novel. He was a deity for me, so to even be a tiny blip on his radar screen is an awesome honor for me.
Will your script be available for production by other companies in the United States or overseas?
God willing. Nothing would thrill me more. But I don't want to put the cart before the horse: I still have plenty of chances to foul up the Off Broadway version and add to the "Carrie" stage curse!
One of the most interesting aspects of the production is the eponymous character, Carrie White, played by a New York actor and nightclub star, Sherry Vine (aka Keith Levy). Keith will obviously be in drag but this production is dramatic, not a drag show, and not a musical, is that right?
You're right. Keith is a brilliant comic actor who just happens to also be a brilliant comic actress. We met in college; while I was getting my BFA in drama, he was getting his masters in drama. He has real chops, as they say in the stage biz, and he has an utterly unique way of making you laugh and breaking your heart simultaneously.
I understand you found some interesting resonances in the idea of the ultimate outsider (the ostracised, weird young girl with a fanatically religious mother) being played by a man in a dress?
I was intrigued by this idea, especially with the all hysteria in America over gays and anything that blurs the hard-set, often irrational gender lines. My adaptation is not "about" this, however; there will be no heavy-handed politicising. If an audience member sees resonances, then great. But the production has no agenda other than to entertain and won't be dependent on any kind of conceptual thinking.
Surely Sherry Vine is quite a bit older than Carrie White, who was not quite 16 at the time of her first period and the events of the novel? How will the production overcome this apparently risky casting?
By flying right in its face. There is an element of absurdity that we'll be exploring throughout, and casting a decidedly non-teenage man in the role of a virginal, 16-year-old girl is just the first of many deliberately head-spinning choices we're making. Hopefully it'll all work!
Are you or the producers concerned at that the terrible publicity and flop of Carrie: The Musical in 1988, as SK himself noted, might somehow rub-off?
Nah, we welcome it. We have always been attracted to the underdogs and misfits, and my collaborators and I love the legend that the musical version of "Carrie" has created.
Promo material promises 'thrilling special effects' created by puppeteer Basil Twist. Can you give us a preview (the concepts of buckets of blood and burning gyms obviously provide severe challenges to the live theatre space)?
Basil is one of the most creative individuals I've ever known. He's an indescribable mix of puppeteer and magician. He's in the process of dreaming up his effects right now, and if you've ever seen one of his shows (check out some photos at www.basiltwist.com), you know you're in for something eye-popping!
The venue for Carrie is Performance Space 122, a not-for-profit arts center at the corner of First Avenue and 9th Street in New York City. I understand it is an abandoned Public School with two theatre spaces. What specific challenges does presenting at this venue present the director and cast; and how did you factor them into your script, if at all?
Well, it would be generous to call the theater a shoebox, so there will definitely be instances where we'll have to dance with the one that brung us, as they say in my native Texas. But for the past decade, Theatre Couture has made P.S. 122 its home, so we hopefully know how to use this storied venue to its full advantage. It's also worth noting that the actual theater we'll be performing in was the gymnasium of the former school. So when the characters are in the gymnasium in "Carrie," they'll actually be in the real gymnsaium of the old school. Trippy, right?
How many seats are there at PS122?
We hope to fit somewhere between 80 and 100 people each performance. It'll be intimate. We may have to hand out ponchos to keep the splashing blood from hitting patrons in the front rows!
Your production company, Theater Couture, has been in operation for 15-odd years? What can you tell us about the uniquely twisted sensibility of Theatre Couture?
Theatre Couture started out in the early '90s as an offshoot of the downtown New York City club scene. Sherry Vine and her collaborators, including "Carrie" director Josh Rosenzweig, tapped the unique talents of this colorful band of nightlife denizens to follow in the footsteps of such stage greats as Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch, actors who took the genres of drag theater and camp and exploded them. Slowly but surely, the company grew even more legit, adding accomplished, trained actors and designers who were Broadway regulars to the mix. As for material, Theatre Couture is often attracted to the detritus of popular culture, especially that of film and fashion. Some of the company's hits include founding member Douglas Sanders's "e.s.p.--Eyes of a Supermodel Psychic," a hysterical blend of the Diana Ross film "Mahogony" and "The Eyes of Laura Mars;" "The Bad Weed '73" (also by Sanders), a delirious mash-up of "The Bad Seed" and "Reefer Madness;" and "Tell-Tale," a B-movie/film noir take on Edgar Allan Poe.
And what of director Joshua Rosenzweig, who has apparently helmed all of Theater Couture's plays and has some short film credits?
He's a megatalent. Josh's vision is integral to Theatre Couture's longevity and success. He's the eye of this particular storm: calm, collected and meticulous, he somehow manages to create cohesion out of chaos. Mounting a piece of theater is a daunting task, but with Josh at the helm it somehow seems way easier than it should be. He's such a smart director, able to discern where the laugh is, or where we should play it straight to give more emotional resonance. And his film work is equally fantastic (though I'm somewhat biased, since we collaborated on the film adaption of the Theatre Couture hit "Charlie!" in 1999). Dig around on the internet for a copy of "Scream, Teen, Scream!" if you want a real treat.
Which adaptation of King's work to the screen do you most admire and for what reasons?
Putting "Carrie" aside, I am crazy about "Dolores Claiborne." The performances are sublime. Taylor Hackford totally got the humor and the horror of that extraordinarily ordinary Maine milieu, and he bravely didn't shy away from the melodrama (which, like camp, has become a frowned-upon genre over the past couple of decades).
If you could adapt another King work to the stage (or screen) which would it be?
I actually have my sights set on adapting another of his novels, this time into a musical. But I'd better not jinx it by saying what it is. Also, I was very jealous to learn that a stage version of "Misery" was already in the works. It played in London, I believe, and may be headed to the states, if my sources are correct. I would have loved a crack at that!
Our readers would certainly be interested to learn more of your own career. How did you get into scriptwriting? What are your credits? And, of course the old chestnut, what next for Erik Jackson?
First off, let me say that anyone who has read to this point deserves a medal for indulging me this long. But to answer your question: After getting my degrees in acting and poetry--two very wise career choices, don't you think?--I got the chance to write a script for Theatre Couture. That show was "Charlie!", a comedy whose plot was built around the strange abundance of the name Charlie in the 1970s (in it, Charlie's Angels worked for Charlie Manson and went on a mission to kidnap Revlon's Charlie perfume model--as you can see, it was very highbrow). The comedy's success led to several more shows for Theatre Couture, some as-yet-unproduced film scripts and, recently, some TV writing. My poems were featured in the Showtime movie "The Escape," staring Patrick Dempsey. And I also happily sold out to co-write the book to a musical featuring the songs of Neil Sedaka, imaginatively called "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," which is making its way around the United States. I hope all the horrorking.com readers can make it to "Carrie." If they do, I hope they'll come introduce themselves. I'm always happy to meet fellow Stephen King fanatics.
Thanks Erik for your time and insight and GOOD LUCK with the show. Anyone with any chance to make it to New York in December should RUN now to book online or by phone!
You may think you know Carrie White from Stephen King's worldwide bestselling novel. But you've never seen her like Theater Couture sees her, in this eye-popping, rib-tickling comic horror thrill ride.
Poor Carrie. At home , she's abused by her religious fanatic mother. At school, she's the butt of every joke. And to top it all off, she just got her very first period. In the locker-room showers. In front of a throng of nasty classmates, including beautiful but brutal Chris Hargensen. When Chris is later barred from the prom for humiliating Carrie, she plots a particularly nasty revenge involving a bucket of pig's blood.
But Carrie has a secret: she has the ability to move things using her mind. And when her prom night turns from dream-come-true to nightmare, you'd better believe someone's gonna pay!
Filtered through the uniquely twisted sensibility of the critically acclaimed Theatre Couture (creators of the Off Broadway hits Charlie! and Tell-Tale) and featuring thrilling special effects, Carrie is a bloody good time!
More details about the show at: http://www.ps122.org/about/
I can't tell you how sorry I am to be living thousands of miles away and miss this one!
The Complete Guide to the Works of Stephen King - www.horrorking.com