Playwright Chana Porter took time out from preparing for rehearsals of Phantasmagoria; or, Let Us Seek Death! to answer our 6 Questions, in which she talks about Frankenstein, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Thomas Paine.
1 How did Phantasmagoria; or, Let Us Seek Death! come about?
I met Randy [director, Randolph Curtis Rand] in 2011 when I was 26. I had just come back to Brooklyn from a crazy strict 10 day silent meditation retreat— no phones, books, pens or paper allowed. It was a fortuitous moment, but at the time I was just delighted to talk to people again! We got to talking about Mary Shelley and he told me his idea for a play that swirled between her unconventional life and the original Frankenstein text. I actually raised my hand and said “Me! Me! I want to write this!” Then I went home and sent him every play I had ever written. Thankfully, he liked those early plays and we began to meet to talk about Mary Shelley, her circle of artists and thinkers, the French Revolution, Romantic poetry, Gothic literature, Thomas Paine— it was a real education.
2 What do you find interesting about Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein?
First of all, the story around the book’s creation is so incredible. It began as a contest, inspired by “the year without a summer” in 1816 when it was too cold for frolicking outside. I love that Mary’s story is the only one that really had much of a life, because she actually finished it! As a writer, I can’t take enough inspiration from that: your work will only live on if you see it through. Keep going.
For the Frankenstein sections of the play, I went back to Mary’s original manuscript, which you can find published aside the original 1818 version. It’s choppy and very modern, with not much punctuation. The slapdash manuscript of a brilliant teenage girl. I was entranced by the language, the sophisticated Creature with his love of John Milton, the idea of alchemy from ancient science-philosophers like Paracelsus and Agrippa. Of course, the question of mastery over death. But there’s so much more! You can read Frankenstein in the vein of parental responsibility, or look at it through the lens of medical ethics or environmentalism. As modern readers, Frankenstein just keeps giving us gifts.
3 Can you talk about the queer aspect(s) of the play?
I was most interested in exploring this slice of history from a queer feminist frame. In Shelley’s circle of free thinkers, who were experimenting with what they termed “free love” and embracing their queerness, straight sex still had such social and physical repercussions for the women. As a bisexual queer woman, I feel deeply for Mary and her circle. They were trying to remake the world and were crushed by it, again and again. (Of course, everyone had different agendas. It didn’t seem like Lord Byron was concerned about social issues at all— he found talk of revolution and class politics gauche.) So the women would run off with these men who promised to love and support them without the tyranny of marriage, only to be financially and socially ruined upon abandonment. And the men were crushed by these times too. Remember, in England during the entire lifetime of Byron and Shelley, men as young as adolescents were hanged for having sex with each other. Mary and her scorchingly brilliant step-sister Claire, ran off to Italy and later Switzerland with Percy Shelley, where the laws were not so oppressive and they were out of the public eye. It was under this new freedom that she conceived Frankenstein. But the demands and judgements of the outside world did not stay away from them for very long. I don’t want to give too much away, but I could argue that Mary’s life was actually just as grisly as Frankenstein. Death and heartbreak followed her. That’s part of why we choose that subtitle, Let Us Seek Death, which is actually from Paradise Lost (the Creature’s favorite book!) We can’t skirt around death in this production, so we decided to run towards it, to embrace it, to face the abyss head on.
4 Who are some writers you admire?
I’ve always been interested in science fiction and horror, particularly writers who use the fantastical to talk about potent social issues or explore possibilities for alternative futures. I’m currently loving the horror writer Victor LaValle and speculative fiction author N.K Jemisin. Octavia Butler is an all-time favorite. I adore the creeping biological horror of Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent Southern Reach Trilogy. For scarily delightful plays, Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue does all the things to me— it upsets me while making me recognize the beauty of small objects and chance encounters. Every time I pass a Christmas tree lot I think of Julia Jarcho’s terrifying yet tender Grimly Handsome. And Kristine Haruna Lee will soon be taking over the world.
5 What is your favorite scary movie and why?
This is really difficult, but I probably just have to say John Carpenter’s The Thing. Wait, no! All time favorite is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1978 version. Oof, that movie! My SF novel, Seep, is like the utopian version of that movie, where aliens in the form of a viscous substance completely remake the world through human-alien symbiosis.
But in Body Snatchers it’s not so nice! I love that the aliens don’t ever seem interested or even able to actually communicate with the people they’re taking over. We are the same as flowers to them. They have no sense of human speech or morality, they infiltrate and consume, while the people run around and try to make sense of what’s happening. And I love a good love story. Donald Sutherland is crazy charismatic in that movie. Sometimes it really takes the end of the world to tell someone how you feel. And then it’s too late! Because now you’re both pod people, bwahahaha. Yes, I love to be gut-wrenched.
6 What does working at La MaMa mean to you?
I’m so honored to be working at La MaMa, especially in the historic and gorgeous Ellen Stewart Theatre. I’ve been coming to see shows at La MaMa since I was in undergrad, traveling down from Massachusetts as a baby experimental theater nerd. I’m really excited about the La MaMa archives being open to the public this year, to watch and read past performances and now to be a part of that legacy. Life is too good. I’m all gratitude.
La MaMa presents
or, Let Us Seek Death!
Conceived and Directed By Randolph Curtis Rand
Written by Chana Porter
Puppetry by Benjamin Stuber
An Eric Borlaug Production
October 20 - November 06, 2016
Thursday to Saturday at 7PM; Sunday at 4PM
Tickets: $30 Adults; $25 Students/Seniors; ten tickets priced at $10 each are available for every performance as part of La MaMa 10@$10 ticketing initiative.
For Tickets and Info: CLICK HERE