Phantasmagoria; or, Let Us Seek Death! tells the story of Frankenstein and its author Mary Shelley in a completely new way. Intertwining fiction with reality, playwright Chana Porter brings historical figures like Lord Byron to life and makes their explorations of gender and sexuality feel revolutionary. The week before Halloween, Chana took the time to discuss her play, writing queer characters and issues for the stage, and her deep adoration for Mary Shelley.
How did you first get involved with Phantasmagoria?
Randy and I met almost six years ago in Brooklyn through mutual friends in the theater community. I had actually just come back that day from a ten-day silent meditation retreat— no books, no talking, no phones, no writing, for ten days! Looking back on it, our meeting was very auspicious. But I didn’t think of it that way at the time. These chance encounters that turn into life-impacting relationships only become clear in hindsight. It’s like throwing pasta on a wall, you know? You find out what sticks.
You are credited as the playwright, but Randolph Curtis Rand is credited with directing and conceiving the show. How would you describe your working relationship?
The night Randy and I met, he talked to me about how he had this long-standing idea for a play that swirled Mary Shelley’s life with the original Frankenstein text, taken from the 1818 version and her original manuscript (which is now available to the public, typos and all). So he brought his own interests to the piece — music of Beethoven, the philosophy of Thomas Paine, romantic poetry of Blake and Byron. But he made it very clear that he wished to empower me to write the play I wanted to write and applauded me every time I brought in pages stranger than the last. Luckily, we have so much aesthetic overlap, our ideas fed and sparked off each other. We encouraged each others’ wildness. There was a lot of “Yes, and!” happening. I think we are both happily surprised by how delightful working together felt, and the friendship that’s now so solid.
How do you find and develop each character’s unique voice?
The writing process was a long one! I wrote several complete drafts, and ending up cannibalizing them into the monster you saw. We had several readings and workshops along the way — there was so much for me to discover. The final touch was incorporating outside text from important writers and thinkers for Mary’s circle, like Milton, Blake, Paine, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Paracelus. Randy and I went upstate together with our producer Eric Borlaug and lighting/sound designer Jess Greenberg. We surrounded ourselves with research compiled by our creative team. We choose several important poems and phrases that felt as if they belonged to the world of our play, and then I decided which characters might say these words. That was how I discovered that Doctor Polidori was obsessed with dreamy Paracelus, while Byron liked quoting grouchy Albertus Magnus. The Creature, of course, is partial to Milton.
Our cast is so unique and fierce! They brought so much to making the individual voices sparkle. And we had some fun coincidences. Katie Melby, who plays the polymath Claire Clairmont, knows German and plays several different instruments, and Ashley Winkfield, whose character is obsessed with Rumi, speaks Arabic (which he wrote in, as well as Farsi). It was fun to create a space where the actors can really show off, leap from character to character, language to language, from player, to singer, to puppeteer. I wrote a very challenging play, and then we found a group of players that relished the task of realizing it. I’m so grateful.
You break the fourth wall several times in the play. What drove you to make such a bold choice?
Once, after enjoying the Maryland sunset at my parent’s house, I came inside terribly bitten up from mosquitoes. My grandmother took one look at me and said, “See, that’s why you don’t go outside.”
The Shelleys lived unapologetic lives, and took risks in harsher times than ours. Without the bits that break the fourth wall, one could say something very similar to my grandmother’s flippant comment, “Well, that’s why you don’t have an open marriage,” or “That’s why sex shouldn’t happen out of wedlock,” and leave it at that. I wanted to make it very clear that patriarchy, capitalism, and lack of good reproductive health practices are what we should be thinking about, rather than watching from a safe, moralizing standpoint. I think we have other things to learn from the Shelleys and their amazing lives rather than fear, or a reinforcement of the status quo.
What did you know about Mary Shelley before writing Phantasmagoria, and what sparked your interest in her life and work?
I knew that Mary had started the book when she was just a teenager, and I had a vague notion of her summer at Byron’s villa in Geneva where the infamous story contest occurred. But when I started researching Mary Shelley’s life and her circle, the so-called League of Incest and Atheism, that became was my true entry point into the play. Oh, those wild sexy people! I just love them.
What does it mean to you to explore queer issues and women’s issues on-stage?
The goal of all of my work is to make the world a more free, fair, compassionate, and loving place. To be an engine of empathy for all beings, everywhere. No matter if I’m writing a science fiction novel, a short story, a play, or a television pilot. I think all writing is political, especially personal writing. I am also a queer bisexual person who is often at odds with what it means to be a woman. I want to enlarge the feminine — being a woman can be like this, or this, or this, or this! So much of my work interrogates myself, or sometimes time travels to send love to myself in the past. Likewise, I hope Mary Shelley can feel my love for her through this work. Mary, I love you so much I wrote you a play.
In researching Mary Shelley, what surprised you the most about her life or work?
Our present generation did not invent kinky sex, or polyamory, or bisexuality. Percy Shelley was an ardent vegetarian. Their parents had just lived through the French Revolution and American Revolution— they were alive at a time when the divine right of kings had just been exploded. They were questioning all assumptions about the “right” way to live. But often, they were doing it without thinking of the consequences for the more precarious people in their circle, those with fewer rights or less money, those without a social safety net. So, carnage ensued. Mary’s story becomes very grim. For a while I thought of her as a victim. Somewhere, my perspective shifted. Mary did it—she became an independent woman artist. She supported herself through her writing, and she survived. That’s incredible.
What do you think the horror genre uniquely offers that other genres lack?
Horror can make the allegorical literal. And that’s really, really frightening. Horror also embraces the theatrical. I want to see more horror plays that extend intellectually, philosophically, emotionally.
What do you hope that audiences take away from Phantasmagoria?
I hope they are surprised, emboldened, delighted, and a little cracked open. Come expecting a visceral experience, not a history lesson! Then, if you want the history, check out the research we compiled on Mary’s life and circle at www.chanaporter.com/phantasmagoria. It’s fascinating stuff.
Do you have any other projects you would like to plug?
I’m currently writing a television show about polyamory with Eric Powell Holm (associate director of Phantasmagoria). I’m shopping my science fiction novel Seep, book one of a utopian eco-horror trilogy, to various agents and publishers.
My next theater project is a workshop at Playwrights Horizons of my play Leap And The Net Will Appear directed by Tara Ahmadinejad. And I’m the co-founder of the Octavia Project, a free summer writing program for Brooklyn teenage girls from under-served communities. Follow me on Twitter @PorterChana or check out www.chanaporter.com to keep up with me.
Phantasmagoria; or, Let Us Seek Death! is now playing thru November 6 at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre. Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for students/seniors and are available for purchase in advance online here or by phone at 646-430-5374. Additionally, there are a limited number of $10 for each show. Check out our show preview here for more information, including a video sneak peek and photo gallery.