2008. I am 16. I’m working with my former mentor on a non-musical production of Stephen King's CARRIE that I wrote myself at The Darress Theatre in Morris County, New Jersey in the blazing heat, and of course, the theatre does not have air conditioning. There’s about 12 teenagers and one 20-year-old in this show with varying levels of experience. My former mentor is in his 40's, overseeing all of this happen.
Pictures of CARRIE WHITE STORY (2008) by Sean Pollock. From L to R: Maya Shaw, Rachel Dickert
The stage is very deep and wide and has a faded royal violet curtain with holes in it, with broken footlights on the end of the stage. Attached to the mainstage by small ramps, there are two smaller stages that act as appendages to upstage right and left named the “Winter Stages”. One of the side “winter” stages has a trap door built into it where Carrie gets shoved into her “prayer closet”.
To this day, I’ve never worked in a theatre like it. I don’t live in New Jersey anymore, I live in North Carolina, but have some how managed to come and live back in Jersey for the summer with my friend Maya from North Carolina while an affluent neighbor is on vacation. My script is awful, and I don’t know how to direct at all. I wrote to Stephen King’s agents to get the rights, and they told me no. I decided to move ahead anyway, seeing this as inconsequential. To throw his agents off my tail, I decide to call the play CARRIE WHITE STORY, as if somehow that will fool them.
My former mentor, who will go unnamed, upon seeing my passion, says: “One day you should start your own horror macabre company. You could do a stage version of ALIEN."
2011. I am 18. I have finally moved back to New Jersey. For the last year, starting at when I attended summer camp at French Woods, I have decided to write a stage adaptation of the classic 1975 thriller film (and the 1971 book it is based upon), THE STEPFORD WIVES by Ira Levin.
Picture of THE MERRY WIVES OF STEPFORD (2011) by Tom Timbrook (full credits below).
I decide to call it THE MERRY WIVES OF STEPFORD, playing off the Shakespeare play, which I still to this day have never read or seen. I consciously know that my adaptation is unauthorized, but many adults, along with my peers assure me I will be fine considering nothing happened with CARRIE WHITE STORY. I do not feel like an intellectual property criminal, because there is such little money being pumped into this entire production. This is really just a group of my friends with various level of acting experience just trying to put on a play and we'll be lucky if break even. We're all still learning, and by we, I mean mostly me. This feels like an educational experience, but it's at a theatre outside of a classroom, because there is absolutely no way Mountain Lakes High School would've allowed a teacher let alone myself to stage a play with material like this in their auditorium. In spite of my hard work, my script is not awful, but it’s way too long. I become obsessed with the 70’s and recreating the 70’s aesthetic on stage. It is one of the biggest plays I’ve ever worked on. It has a cast of around 15, including college students. We’re back at The Darress, and Tom Timbrook, the owner, has really gone to town and even built a kitchen for the main character, Johanna, on one of the winter stages. For all the trouble I go through, the result is very creepy. The image of Joanna re-entering as a Stepford wife, gingerly walking through the isles in all white, washed out by a blinding spotlight as she smiles at the audience with dead eyes will burn bright in my brain for the next eight years. The day of opening night, Tom calls me. He never calls me, so I go to the bathroom and take the call. He's gotten a letter from Fed Ex. It doesn’t look good. Yep, it’s a cease-and-desist from the Ira Levin Estate. If we don’t shut down production, they will sue. I rush to the theatre in disbelief. My boyfriend has driven from Long Island to give me roses. I cry in his arms. The following week, I return all the costumes to the band teacher who let me borrow them from our school’s inventory. I weep in her office while trying to explain the whole thing, but its all too traumatizing. A respectable theatre journalist who knew me writes an article for his online column called “Don’t Let This Happen To You”, which is all about me and how I didn’t get the rights even though I knew I should’ve. I'm painted out to be an underage con-artist like the notorious slimy film prodcer Menahem Golan, who was out to strike it big and evade copyright. But that's not the truth. I just want to tell this story and I knew I didn't have access to a lawyer. It just seems like such small potatoes, but at the same time, like the roof is coming in over me. I'm still high school! But while my name, nor the show, is listed in the article, it feels like a swarm of bees is stinging at my heart.
Clipping of THE MERRY WIVES OF STEPFORD (2011) by Bill Westhoven in The Daily Record, Morristown NJ.
Later that summer, I break the law again and I lose my license and my car. It feels like I have had my heart broken twice, both through fault on my own. Some people have to learn the hard way. Slowly, I am beginning to learn that I am one of those people.
The blazing August heat turns into a crisp fall in upstate New York. I arrive at Ithaca College as a freshman. I decide to start my own theatre company dedicated to horror and science fiction but I don’t know what to call it. I rack my brain, and remember what my former mentor told me: “One day you should start your own horror macabre company. You could do a stage version of ALIEN.”
I decide to call my company Macabre Theatre Ensemble. Our premiere production is a parody of the film TEETH, which I got permission from the author to write. But only is it then do I learn that the difference between an adaptation and a parody is that a parody cites under fair use—it’s seen as a criticism of the work, therefore, rights are not needed if it’s explicitly labeled a parody—and I churn out a few horror parodies. One of them is an atrocious parody of Tim Burton’s BEETLEJUICE. Later, TEETH and BEETLEJUICE would get legitimate musical adaptations. In fact, a commercial musical adaptation of BEETLEJUICE is set to open on Broadway eight years later.
2013. I am 20. Macabre has a huge cult following, but everyone in the theatre department thinks I am a nut job. My show posters are ripped down. People tweet mean things about me and Theatre Arts Management Majors jokingly sign their friends up for our interview spreadsheets for new members. One particularly mean-spirited boy tells me Macabre will run itself into the ground, and not to even try. I legally get the rights to CARRIE: THE MUSICAL and become the first college production.
However, the theatre department doesn’t give me space. We stage the musical in a film auditorium, and public safety is forced to stay past building hours. I am forced to reserve the space until 11 and pay them for being there. It completely sells out, as do virtually all my shows from this point on. However, the show runs a few minutes past 11. But I don’t know this, because I haven’t even gotten the chance to have a full run yet to time it. So, public safety tries to shut down the show at 11:00pm sharp, right before the finale number. They complain to my faculty sponsor that I went over the reservation time and caused an inconvenience. The sponsor drops me after the production closes. If this doesn’t feel like the story of my life by this point, I don’t know what is.
Picture of CARRIE THE MUSICAL (2012) by Erik Jaworski. Pictured: Amelia Marino as Carrie, Sappho Hocker, Dan Lesko.
2015. I am 22. 4 years and 22 productions later, and my time with my beautiful sci-fi horror theatre company ends. It is under new leadership. Macabre produces THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW annually now, taking it over from another student theatre company that wanted to rid their hands dry of it. Finally, right as I am about to leave, Macabre is making the most money it has ever made. In an act of sweet sorrow, but in an important act of growth, it feels like I am handing off my child to new parents. My dad drives me home and as I pass the beautiful upstate scenery, tears fall down my face as my finger traces the car window. I cry because I have to grow, and I don’t know where I’m going. But I remember what Becky Ann Baker’s character says to Hannah Horvath in GIRLS: “If you love something, let it go.” I know for a fact that creating scrappy horror and science fiction theatre has given my peers joy and agency. I know it unifies young people, because we are not taught in our classes that this kind of theatre is possible. I know that I had to prove this to be true, and hope that my legacy will remain at Ithaca potentially for the rest of my lifetime, if not only to prove a point.
2016. I am 23. I have lived in the city for less than a year. I met with Ira Levin’s son, Nick Levin, after finding out we share a mutual friend. He apologies to me over lunch about the cease-and-assist, realizing he didn’t know I was in high school at the time. He doesn’t grant me permission to adapt THE STEPFORD WIVES, even though I earnestly ask this time to his face over and egg-and-cheese sandwich with hot sauce and fries at a diner on Madison Avenue. He says if his father wanted a play version, he would’ve written one while he was still alive. However, he says a musical adaptation might be possible in the future, since Old Man Levin couldn’t write songs.
2019. I am 26 years old. I have worked on a wide variety of horror, sci fi and experimental theatre in New York. Some shows do better than others. This spring, a sci fi dystopian musical, BE MORE CHILL (which also started in Jersey) is a massive Broadway hit—the first of its kind on Broadway. I log onto Facebook a few days ago and a headline from CNN appears: “High school’s ‘Alien’ play is the talk of Hollywood”; “High School ‘Alien’ wins Internet Raves”, the New York Times flashes. I learn that there was an production of the 1979 hit film ALIEN at North Bergen High School in Essex County, right near my hometown of Mountain Lakes.
Picture of ALIEN: The Play (2019). Photographer and subject unknown.
There are furious debates on “The Official Playwrights Of Facebook” because the drama teacher who adapted the play did not get proper permission. Many playwrights are understandably pissed off. Why are we making movies into plays still? Why not new plays? Why not MY plays? Some ask. Others say,The teachers who are allowing this are doing a disservice to these kids—they committed copyright infringement. The teachers involved should be arrested for stealing intellectual property. In spite of the overwhelmingly negative response by the theatre community (or at least the community on "The Official Playwrights Of Facebook" and the Onstage Blog) the show is in fact, celebrated and applauded for their scrapiness: they even made props out of recycled materials!
A voice replays in my mind: “One day you should start your own horror macabre company. You could do a stage version of ALIEN.”
When the article breaks, I find myself with a wild, polarizing mix of contradicting emotions.
On one hand, I want to cry out on the top of the tallest mountain in their praises because I feel that in a way, my view on theatre throughout my youth has been validated: by taking a giant copyright infringment--y risk, North Bergen High School proves that horror and sci fi theatre (aka “genre work”, as I’d call it) fascinates the whole world. But the real story is not about a stage version of ALIEN. It is about young people subverting the narrative of what “youth theatre” should be. It gives its middle finger to all of the high school productions of ANNIE, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and SEUSSICAL. It is about them working together doing something unique, different, frighting and weird, putting it on a big stage and getting the whole community involved.
I am jealous, angry, remorseful, and even wrathful because of my troubled past. When I allow my memories to playback on the projector screen in my mind of the string of sci-fi and horror plays I slapped together I feel a great deal of pain coinciding with a great deal of pride. I remember feeling like the world was punishing me, and not rewarding me. I did not get a New York Times Article when I broke the rules: I got an article on an niche theatre blog called “Don’t Let This Happen to You" and a cease-and-desist from powerful lawyers, resulting in myself and the rest of the world never getting to see the fruits of my labor come to life. When I started Macabre, the theatre department turned its back on me. And although the rest of the college thought it was cool, I still feel the betrayal of my own department. I start to honestly feel bitter. Maybe everything would’ve been different, had I grown up as a teenager now had I done ALIEN instead of THE STEPFORD WIVES. I find myself scrolling and asking myself, Where was this stage adaptation of ALIEN when I was a teenager?
I decide to allow myself to feel the duality and reality of both truths. I allow myself to experience the paradox of the battling emotions that exist within me, my emotions split like Jekyll and Hyde. I decide to be proud of North Bergen High School for their success but also jaded given my own failures. I at once want the kids at North Bergen High to learn the hard way and have their wrists slapped as I did, but also protect them and hold them close---far away from the pain I've experienced. I want to tell them that nothing is permanent: success and failure. I want to tell them that lightning rarely strikes twice, and to get the rights for things for the future. I feel jealous, selfishly making this about myself--craving the success these young people have. However, I decide to remain hopeful, that every dog has its day and that success can happen to 15-year-olds and 100-year-olds.
I decide all I can do in the meantime besides feel things is make it to my next opening night of my next horror/sci fi theatrical endeavor: an anthology series of ten minute plays called THE WEIRD by Roberto Aguirre Sacasa (where I will finally get to tackle a ten minute adaptation featured in the play called THE TEN MINUTE ROSEMARY’S BABY, an homage to the Ira Levin classic) which is slated to premiere at The Brick Theatre on April 11-13. I decide I must simply continue to keep growing, keep learning, and to keep making theatre for punks and weirdos for the rest of my life.
I lastly decide if I can, grab a seat to the alleged encore performance of ALIEN: THE PLAY at North Bergen High School across the river from me if the opportunity presents itself; where I will cheer and shout from the audience until I’m blue in the face.
Newspaper clipping of the original production of THE WEIRD at Dad's Garage (2005).