I get asked a lot why I started creating performance adaptations. Here’s an answer.
I feel like I’m still in Wonderland.
A writer’s job, and calling, is to create characters and landscapes in which the reader can lose herself, himself, themselves, and emerge energized, blinking, pleasured, disturbed. The one-on-one meeting of reader and page, one mind recreating the story another has assembled. . . It’s a shared and singular intimacy.
Films—video, movies—are of necessity much more passive: you engage by sitting and watching. Conventional theatre is sit-and-watch, too. To remake the narrative in the 3D, tactile, sensual world, is a more immediate, and very personal, way of opening the book.
Take the text. Take Lewis Carroll’s: now the tiny chairs are piled upside down, it reeks like burned sugar cookie, it’s dark in here. It’s dark on the altar, too, where Christopher Marlowe’s devil who never lies throws down for Faustus’ soul, while in the pews, deadly Sins snatch at your ankles from below. Three bedizened floors beckon at my own Under the Poppy, with perfume and whiskey in the air. And at Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Cathy’s thoughts are scrawled across the floor, and heaven’s made of cloudy sheets and twinkling lights.
I thought, if those Sins touch me I’m going to scream.
All the words are the writers’ own. I adapt those texts, and, with the rotating ensemble of impassioned actors and artists who make up my performance group nerve, make those words a landscape as near to the heart of the books as we possibly can: offering the audience a way to experience the stories in a fierce and playful, physical, transformative way.
And it is transformative. Because the audience ceases to be an “audience” when the Tea Party goes wild, when a floozy flirts with you, when Mephistopheles catches your eye, when you write with painted hands on the walls of the Heights. Your eagerness or hesitation or laughter or silence helps to create the story for you; and for us, all of us who are there, that night, any night. No night is the same at a nerve performance, ever.
Sometimes people get offended and leave. Sometimes they won’t leave, even when the performance is over. Sometimes they try to protect one character from another! And sometimes, afterwards, they volunteer, they sign on to help us make the next world.
I’m still reeling from THE HEIGHTS.
Again and again, patrons say “I’m going to go back and read that book!” or “Where can I get that book?” For THE HEIGHTS we even heard from people who don’t like the Brontë novel, who trusted us to show them a new way into the story. Because nothing we do replaces the actual reading of the book: it’s never meant to, but to enhance, to foster that spark of connection between mind and mind.
It was everything I was hoping it would be, and so much more.
A story begins with an impression, an inspiration, a feeling. A writer writes. And a curious, adventurous reader finds, considers, and walks into a book.
[All quotes from nerve patrons, from performances of ALI<E, FAUSTUS, THE HEIGHTS, and UNDER THE POPPY. ALI<E photo: Rena Hopkins. All others: Rick Lieder.]