MAC ROGERS with Clay McLeod Chapman
Playwright Mac Rogers has racked up many accolades over the years, including a FringeNYC Outstanding Play award for Viral. Last season, Rogers offered a three-play sci-fi saga (the Honeycomb Trilogy) that clocked in at nearly eight hours’ worth of stage time. The triptych of plays—Advance Man, Blast Radius, and Sovereign—focuses on one family during an extraterrestrial invasion, giving us the before, during, and aftershocks of an alien takeover through the intensely personal perspective of kitchen sink drama. Think August: Osage County by way of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Rogers returns this summer with a one-two punch. First up is Gideon Productions’s Frankenstein Upstairs, an update on Mary Shelley’s classic novel, followed by Ligature Marks, as part of the Game Play Festival at the Brick. We caught up with Rogers during the calm before the upcoming storm.
Clay McLeod Chapman (Rail): Much like the zombie-as-metaphor in pop culture, every generation seems to have had its own spin on the Frankenstein story. Is there something particular to our current decade that makes Mary Shelley’s masterpiece ripe for retelling?
Mac Rogers: Frankenstein just never goes away. Between how often it’s taught, the term papers, the dissertations, the adaptations, the YA books, the cereal—all of it—Frankenstein’s grip on the throat of the zeitgeist is more or less permanent. To mix metaphors even more miserably, I don’t have to justify bringing Frankenstein back from the grave. It’s already out; it won’t stay in. All I have to do is grab the torch and shamble a few blocks before handing it off to the next creature.
Rail: What prompted you to tackle Vic and his monster? What challenges did you face in taking a familiar storyline and filtering it through your own personal lens?
Rogers: Rather hilariously, as the play itself will make clear, the original impetus was to write a scaled-back, personal piece, in the wake of the Honeycomb Trilogy’s all-epic-all-the-time vibe. I thought, Let’s go basic, let’s just do a play about a couple facing some problems that will either break them or redefine their relationship.
I’m interested in the idea that what makes long-term relationships work is an early battering of the youthful dreams and expectations involved. If there’s still love after this early traumatic disillusionment, this love can be more strongly stitched together with some new key understandings:
1) It’s not us against the world. It’s us in the world. The world will never stop pouring into us, nor we into it.
2) Money is very important, and will never be off our minds.
3) Our bodies will age and change and get sick.
4) Our bodies will die.
At the same time, I wanted to write a Frankenstein story. The two ideas just made sense together: who more powerfully conjures the idea of mortality than Doctor Frankenstein? Also, it’s just way more fun to tell this type of story when you throw in reanimated corpses and neck bolts.
Rail: I’m going to play the skeptic for a second. Humor me on this: Why bring sci-fi into theater? What can black box theater do for science fiction that James Cameron can’t?
Rogers: I started writing science fiction plays for no reason other than that I wanted to. I was at an impasse with my playwriting, stuck in a rut of unpleasant, hyperpersonal, deeply exhibitionist plays. There might have been a therapeutic element in writing them, but there was no joy. I realized at a certain point that the only way to save myself was to jettison the idea of art as therapy and embrace the role of an entertainer—to make it about them (the audience) instead of me. And the best way I knew how to do this was to write the forms I’ve always loved, with science fiction and horror being on the top of that list. It was as simple as “maybe I should write a play that I’d actually like to go see.”
In the process of figuring out how to make science fiction work on stage, I discovered that the genre actually goes beautifully with several of the forms that are unique to theater. With my plays Universal Robots and Sovereign, I found that Greek tragedy fits sci-fi like a cybernetic glove. There’s the hubris of people who believe they can harness new technological powers, alien powers, there are the bitter conflicts that poison one generation to the next.
With Frankenstein Upstairs, the attempt is to see if the contemporary city relationship drama—the sort of how-we-live-now play—can be invaded by a different kind of play, one about an age-old technology that shapes relationships on the most profound level possible.
Why bring sci-fi into the theater? Because it belongs there. Maybe sci-fi usually lives in movies and books, but it’s never stopped paying its rent for a room in theater. It still has a key to get in and a bed waiting. Sci-fi has a home in theater.
Rail: Jordana Williams is directing both Frankenstein Upstairs and Ligature Marks. I believe it’s safe to say that Ms. Williams has become the primary interpreter of all words Rogers. How has your relationship as writer and director evolved throughout your tenure at Gideon Productions?
Rogers: In addition to the shorthand that any long-term team develops, Jordana and I have a number of interests in common that make our collaborations fun. We both have dreadful attention spans and want our entertainment to move fast. We both like twisted humor emerging from utterly unexpected situations. We both like depicting women in roles you don’t normally see women in: insurgency leader, gangster-dictator, mad scientist.
The biggest thing we’ve built over the years—and this is tough to establish between directors and writers under any circumstances—is the fundamental sense that we’re on the same team. We’re both on Team Make the Audience Laugh and Then Shit Their Pants. We’re both about making the most entertaining experience possible. So when she gives me feedback on the script, even as it’s in process and being written, I never have a sense of feeling threatened, of feeling that there’s a power game happening. I always know she sincerely feels that the idea she’s bringing up will melt more faces than the idea I’m currently working with, so I consider that idea without defensiveness and adopt it in more cases than not.
Ligature Marks is a smaller, more personal piece. You know how back when singles used to have B-sides, and sometimes those B-sides were like a super-weird reconsideration of the themes of the single? You can see certain aspects of Frankenstein Upstairs funneled into Ligature Marks, ideas about partners in love, partners in crime, strange neighbors living uncomfortably close by, death, and resurrection. In Frankenstein, I crafted those ideas into my version of a big, splashy entertainment with lots of scares and kisses and tears and romance. Ligature Marks is stranger, less linear; a one-act governed more by nightmare-logic. Frankenstein is about a couple on the rise getting derailed; Ligature is about a pair of utter losers enacting the classic noir story’s “one-last-chance” scheme in a really messed up way.
Frankenstein Upstairs by Mac Rogers, directed by Jordana Williams, runs June 13 – 30 (Thursdays - Mondays) at The Secret Theatre (4402 23rd Street, Long Island City). For tickets and further info, visit: www.SecretTheatre.com.
Mac Roger’s play Ligature Marks, also directed by Jordana Williams, will run July 17 – 27 at Williamsburg’s Brick Theater (579 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn) as part of its 5th annual Game Play Festival. For tickets and further info, visit www.bricktheater.com.
ContributorClay McLeod Chapman
Clay McLeod Chapman is the creator of the rigorous storytelling session The Pumpkin Pie Show. He is the author of rest area, a collection of short stories, and the novel miss corpus--and new middlegrade series The Tribe Trilogy, published by Disney. He teaches writing at The Actors Studio MFA Program at Pace University. Visit him at: www.claymcleodchapman.com.