Meet The Playwright: David MacDowell Blue

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David MacDowell Blue

GK moderates We The Infected, dedicated one of the most exciting vampire novels in years, Let The Right One In by Jan Alvide Lindqvist. A few months ago he interviewed the writer of this play about Carmilla and all sorts of things related to same:

You’ve had a long career in theater and a long love for this story – Carmilla. What caused you to write this play now? Was there some tipping point? Has this been something you’ve been working on – at least in your head – for a long while?
In a way, I’ve been trying to write this for over two decades! Or more! My first meager attempts at writing a play version go back to the late 1980s. But within the last five years I’ve rediscovered live theater in a big way by starting to review performances for my blog. And at the same time I’ve been writing more often than in years and years. With the upsurge of interest in vampire stories, just seemed inevitable I’d start work on a play version once more–but this time with less baggage, more skill and insight. Comes with age, I suppose. And tears. For example, when I first started writing Carmilla back in the 1980s I’d never lost anyone to death. Since then, I’ve lost both parents and a woman I loved. That tempers you, like a blade.

The play has an intriguing presentation in that the central character, Laura, is on stage in, well, two time periods at the same moment. I’m not sure of how to explain that or what the theatrical term for it might be. How did you come upon this – is this something you’ve seen done elsewhere – and do you see any risks for this will might come off?
Actually, I felt more-or-less inspired by Peter Shaffer and his his plays Equus and Amadeus, both of which do something similar. Quite simply, a character tells what happened, and events are acted out on stage to demonstrate. The added factor in my play is that the narrator (Laura) speaks to a specific other character (Captain Martin) with an agenda of his own. We see what happens, but we also see what Laura says happens–they don’t always match up. And we see Captain Martin’s reaction to same. When think about this kind of “flashback” isn’t so odd. Look at the Mrs. Lovett telling Sweeney Todd what became of his wife! Or for that matter Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But having the narrator as part of events, that comes from Shaffer.

 How do you find the process of launching into a play, as a producer? You are the author here, as well, so that must play into it. Is it all-consuming, keep you up nights Рor have you a means for keeping it from running you life for the next months?
Ha! The fact is, preparing everything proved more thought- and time-consuming so far. What helps most of all is that I’ve got help in a handful of folks aiding me, and the fact I spent so much time in preparation. Especially the last! In fact, I’d say that was key to any success we achieve!

Do you have a solid idea of what you want to do for sets, props, layout and lighting – or is this something that evolves as the play moves from the drawing board, through rehearsals and meetings and eventually to opening night?
Generally yes, but it will evolve. Always does. For example, we only recently decided that to highlight the historical background of events–Austria joining the Reich on the eve of WW2–to pretty much keep to the colors of the Nazi flag. Shades of black and white mostly, with specific dashes of bright blood red. Someone involved in the production wanted to somehow highlight that aspect of it.

And, of course I have to ask, is there any chance of you making an appearance on stage for Carmilla?
Only if something goes terribly wrong and I have to fill in one of the parts!

Shifting Periods

masks1The research that went into writing The Annotated Carmilla led me to a very specific belief about the time period in which LeFanu’s story takes place. A character mentions a certain Grand Duke, who can only be one historical person, and then Laura talks about visiting Italy from Austria, which narrows it down further. Bottom line–it cannot take place later than 1846.

I set my theatrical adaptation in 1938.

Why?

Excellent question and I’m glad to explain. Begin by considering this–Carmilla had a specific impact, one we can presume the author intended. But that impact is dependent upon the context of his times, circa 1870. A very different time in many ways from our own! One particularly obvious one, at least to even amateur historians like myself, must be how readers react to the setting…

“In Styria…” With those words Laura begins her report of events. And where is Styria? Austria–a nation in the 19th century known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a land without a Parliament or Congress, without trial-by-jury, and held together by a secret police and threats of brutal military suppression. We do not think of Austria that way. Not anymore. Yet if Carmilla is hunted down by forces of a tyranny–as she is in the original–it adds something. A nuance. An ambiguity. Something a little less straightforward.

How to fix this? How to get the same reaction?

Quite simply, there seem two options available. First, shift the locale in place from Austria to a location a modern audience would think of the same way in that era. Germany might well work. Tsarist Russia might work even better! Or not. That does rather depend on the viewers’ knowledge of 19th century history. Or–shift the time period, to within a modern and well-known dictatorship. The makers of the new motion picture Styria did precisely that, setting their version behind the Iron Curtain! I decided on a different tyranny, hence my shifting to the year 1938. The year of the anschluss when Austria became part of the Greater German Reich, and in the process came under the authority of Germany’s dreaded Gestapo.

Other advantages pop up in moving the story forward as well. For example, an audience naturally finds it easier to slip into a story when the clothes, music, furniture etc. feel more recognizable. Consider Lawrence Olivier‘s Richard III against (or along side) Ian McKlellan‘s! Both contain great power, with top-notch casts performing very well. Yet the former feels more antique, a little less accessible, a fact Olivier realized and pulled many a trick to get around. The latter needn’t work so hard, for the simple reason on some level we understand many tiny details better. In Olivier’s film, to give one subtle but pervasive example, the costumes show men as society’s peacocks. They wear the elaborate hats, show off their hosed legs, are seen in splendid colors. Women remain covered virtually head-to-toe, with flirting a profoundly private thing. Not like our time at all! Now look at the McKlellan film, in which women don a elaborate array of outfits, show off some leg, while men garb themselves in business suits, tuxedos or uniforms. We recognize one pattern as that of our world, the other as someplace other.

Translating this to Carmilla, when Colonel Spielsdorf shows up sheathed in the black uniform of Himmler’s SS, that in and of itself tells us much.

More, it allows (or insists, really) the characters to behave in a more open way given the time period, decades closer to what we call “the present.” Any kind of intimate contact or hint of same ended up circumspect in the extreme by our standards, at least in LeFanu’s original text. By putting the story in the era of the radio and phonograph, I found an opportunity for Laura and Carmilla to dance! More, not the constrained minuets of the 19th century but a tango!

Decision about period made, opportunities opened up nicely as well. Remember, a play is not a novella. If one simply copies one to the other it rarely works. The two media remain fundamentally different experiences. Books we read, at our own rhythm and leisure. Plays we see and hear, at the pace and energy set by the production! So I eagerly grabbed the opportunity to let the radio intrude upon Laura and Carmilla, reminding them (and us) of the outside world  tightening its web.

Better yet, it allowed me to give a further context, bringing into sharp relief what remains almost hidden in the book. Laura in the text recounts her story to someone, someone who remains mysterious. This play gives that person a name, a voice, and most importantly an agenda. Someone to ask Laura questions, to doubt her word and motivations, to seek the truth.

And to be deceived by Laura, as we see the difference between what she says and what actually took place.

Things To Avoid Adapting CARMILLA

Having watched all but two filmed adaptations of Carmilla (there’s a French television one from the 1980s haven’t tracked down yet, and a lost BBC version from the 1960s), I feel qualified answering this question: What should anyone adapting LeFanu’s work avoid?

CryptV10The most obvious two things to avoid are pervasive in pretty much every single film version ever made. First, giving Laura a suitable male romantic interest. Why not? First and foremost, it completely alters the dynamic of what happens. A lonely girl growing up surrounded by much older adults in an obscure part of a foreign country must become a different person if she has a boyfriend. How not? Part of the seductive power of Carmilla herself lies in how she remains an outsider. Laura cannot help but feel the same way–she has no siblings, no playmates, not even a mother to teach her how to become a young woman. LeFanu’s description (through an unaware Laura’s eyes) tells of a home equal parts empty yet suffocating. Anyone functioning as a Prince Charming alters this. Instead of escape then, Carmilla becomes nothing but an invader, diminishing the layers of ambiguity. Yet that very ambiguity gives the story its power! Power here is key. Laura has none. But a brutal truth which explains something of the attraction Laura feels for Carmilla is that, in love, the one who loves least has all the power. In this case, that one is Laura.

vampire_lovers053Mind you, were Laura more-or-less betrothed to someone against her will, that might work very well. Providing her would-be paramour remains not her choice. On the same basis, we the audience need to understand why she doesn’t want this person. Which means creating an entirely new character (or altering an existing one–turning the elderly Colonel Spielsdorf into a younger man for example). I’m anything but opposed to that. But–does it achieve anything worth the trouble?

Possibly. However, that becomes a different topic.

The second most common mistake made is essentially to rob Laura of a personality. This highlights why Carmilla remains (at least in my humble opinion–okay, not soooo humble) a feminist classic. Western society assigns certain traits to different genders. Allowing women, for example, to display traditionally masculine traits becomes thus ground-breaking. Bravo to Buffy The Vampire Slayer! And Clarice Starling, River Song, Lara Croft, etc.!

Angel-Buffy-Shows-vampires-15859991-610-745On the other hand, therein lies a trap (one addressed by Caryl Churchill in one of my favorite plays of the XXth century, Top Girls). If we value women only when they behave like stereotypical men have we really accomplished much? Laura in Carmilla is by no stretch of the imagination a tough grrrrl or A-type personality. One might easily call her a waif. This invokes the stereotype of “mindless doll” which, in turn, degrades a big percentage of the human race. Male as well as female.

Writers do face a dilemma with Laura. She seems to take little or no action. Emphasis on “seems.”

This dilemma vanishes once you accept an essential fact about the story–the “action” consists of Laura’s emotions, just as the “setting” is Laura’s mind. Her feelings, her awareness of events, her reactions to people and events–this makes up the stuff of the story. When about ourselves, it also makes up the bulk of our own. How not? But then we face another dilemma–isn’t fiction supposed to be more exciting that real life? Yes, it should. Hence emphasizing the mystery and eroticism of the tale is the way to go, rather than artificially stapling onto Carmilla all kinds of action-adventure tricks.

617183_475726369125722_1254493957_oThat, not incidentally, makes for yet another trick to avoid in any adaptation–what I call copying Bram Stoker (or James Bond) . In a nutshell, folks who want to fit the story of Laura and Carmilla into a different kind of dynamic than the one it already is! Instead of drama, romance, addiction, mystery, eroticism and subtle horror they look for thrills and chills, action and adventure, heroics and daring-do. Consider Crypt of the Living Dead as well The Vampire Lovers, both of whom focus on the menfolk rushing against time to find the vampire’s lair and destroy her, thus saving the ingenue from a fate worse than death! Blood and Roses at least mixes this up a bit by having them fail, but never realizing it. One very cheap adaptation adds the thrill of Laura’s sister and husband trying to flee a small New England town transformed by Carmilla into a nest of the undead (very Salem’s Lot).

What none of these do is tell the story in LeFanu’s novella. He has Laura recount what happened about a decade after the fact (to whom remains unclear, but internal evidence suggests an older woman from a city). Doesn’t take much to realize she’s an unreliable narrator given her (subtle) contradictions and omissions. In the Victorian Era, what we see as little more than mild hints they viewed as akin to hardcore pornography. Much as with The Turn of the Screw, Picnic at Hanging Rock, even The Usual Suspects, a huge amount of background remains tantalizingly unclear. The major mistake folks generally make in adapting this story is avoiding the heart of what the author originally created.

Mind you the Polish television version from the 1980s and the upcoming independent film Styria (that I’ve had the good fortune to see) manage to avoid these mistakes quite neatly.

Hopefully, so have I!