We commence work on our next project. As with The Tempest, I’ll post a weekly narrative of the creative process over the whole span of its genesis. No specific time or place for its premiere: hopefully within a year, hopefully nearby, and hopefully to have a touring life. The Jim Henson Foundation has given us a $2,000 seed grant for early-stage development, so it’ll happen somehow, and we’re allowing ourselves an opulent amount of time to do it.
A sixteen-year-old girl, of notorious radical parentage, is swept off her feet by a would-be poet who’s been expelled from college, married and fathered children. They flee the country, impoverished save for heavy borrowing from friends. At 18, she’s lost one child and is pregnant with another. As an entertainment among a small circle of social misfits, she accepts a challenge to write a horror story.
The result is Frankenstein, a work that’s had as wide a range of interpretations as any ancient myth. Usually it’s seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, of seeking forbidden knowledge, of Man usurping the role of God. But for us, in our 1998 adaptation with Touchstone Theatre and our plans for further adaptation to puppet staging, its resonance is deeper.
In Mary Godwin Shelley’s novel, Victor’s obsession with creating life has its genesis in his mother’s death, which may echo her own mother’s death in childbirth. His scheme is a grand “denial of death,” the quest to bypass conception and birth in order to conquer mortality. The result of this denial-of-death is death. We can draw parallels in our present-day alienation from the natural world, our attempts to save nations by destroying them, our drive for bigger bank accounts, bigger cars, bigger bellies to make ourselves too big to fail—whatever strikes you.
Shelley was cutting very close to the bone. Victor’s abandonment of his creation echoes her lover/husband Percy Shelley’s own mix of idealism and irresponsibility. The Creature’s first murder is a child named after Mary’s dead first-born. The principles espoused by her parents, the radical philosopher William Godwin and notorious feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, permeate her vision of the Creature’s innate goodness, yet fall to the assaults of the real world.
For those unfamiliar with any but the movie versions: Victor is a student, not a mad scientist. He has no dwarfish assistant. We donâ€™t see electrodes buzzing or cauldrons bubbling: it’s not clear how Victor animates the Creature. Nor do we know what makes him appear “monstrous,” except for vague descriptions of watery eyes and unusual size. There’s no mistaken transplant of the brain of a criminal, and he learns to speak eloquently. There’s no torch-bearing mob of peasants: Victor and the Creature pursue each other into the Arctic, Victor dies, and the Creature is lost on an ice floe.
On first reading, for me, the novel was disappointing. Years later I came back to it, and despite its dated style and lack of the cinematic hot spots, I was stunned. We staged it with a trio of LeCoq-trained actors from Touchstone Theatre in Bethlehem, PA, with great success.
We envision this new Frankenstein with our usual form of puppet: a 2/3rds-lifesize figure, one hand inside the head (moved by wrist and fingers, weight supported by a fingerless glove), the other hand as the puppet’s hand. We also expect to use shadows, video projection, and an enlarged form of toy theatre with 15″ cut-out figures—the civilization the Creature encounters—all set in our 10x8x8 ft. aluminum-frame cube, with lighting apparatus self-contained and readily portable.
Why puppets? To tell a large story with a small cast. To create the fractured reality inhabited by both Creator and Creature. To maintain realism of detail while expanding its mythic dimension. And simply because we believe in the enormous power of puppetry.
Work has started on both sculpting and storyboard. More to come next week.
Life continues, not always requiring puppets. Elizabeth and I midway through a memoir of our creative life together, called Co-Creation, and we’re looking to finish it for self-publication in November to coincide with our fiftieth anniversary. With a friend, we’ve finished a screenplay, and that’s being shopped around. May 3-14, we’ll be in Blue Lake, CA, at the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre working with their MFA students on dramaturgy for new work. Next week, our son is on his way to Portland, Oregon, to exhibit at a comics convention, and our daughter is visiting from Italy!
— Conrad Bishop