Frankenstein is having a moment.
If you trace the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of adaptations just in the last 100 years or so, it is easy to see that the classic story never quite went out of style. It is beyond trend. It is the origin story of our collective unconscious.
LA Theatre Works is bringing its own voice to the cannon this month with its upcoming radio drama production of Frankenstein, adapted by former BBC producer Kate McAll. The audio format allows McAll and LA Theatre Works to get back to the language of the book itself, and offer a version of the story that strips away the visual influences of television and film that have created the pop culture ideas of what we assume Frankenstein to be.
“I like to get to the heart of the original material,” says McAll about her approach to adapting work for the radio. “My adaptation uses Mary’s structure and language. If she saw it – or heard it – she would recognize it.”
McAll, like myself and like many people who consume pop culture, didn’t read the book until she dove into the work of the adaptation, and so her cultural touchstones were mainly based in the movies. When she began talks with LA Theatre Works to do this adaptation, she thought this might be a great opportunity to try something new – last year she adapted A Room With A View which had a lot of comedy in it and made people laugh. This was a moment to do something scary. But when she read it, she completely changed her mind about it.
“I found it to be about something else altogether,” says McAll. “My version of it was not going to be like the classic scary monster thing. Because that’s not what I found in the book.”
What did she find in it? Not the same horror box in which we tend to place the Frankenstein of pop culture. “There are horror moments in it but they are not at all like the movies…The book is surprisingly poetic,” says McAll. “It is very powerfully about loss. It is really about seeing Frankenstein descend into the deepest, most scary depression and obsession after the loss of his mother. As for the Creature, his loss – of a parent of any kind – was the greatest of all.”
That’s the heart of what the story is about for McAll. Grief. And that’s what keeps it so fresh and timeless. It’s this very personal story about grieving, about fighting against death, about abandonment (which grief often feels like), and how different characters deal with this process – for better or for worse.
McAll has been personally coping with grief over the last two years, “so it was quite strange to come to this and find that’s what Frankenstein is about. It’s got immense emotional maturity given that Mary was only 19 years old when she wrote it.”
Connecting the storytelling style in the book to the genre of radio drama has been the structural exploration of this adaptation. “I’ve just let the storytellers tell their stories….in its purest form. I haven’t imposed anything on it, ” says McAll.
The process of adapting Frankenstein and leaning into this kind of oral storytelling tradition reminded McAll of a memory she’d forgotten, a pure enchantment with storytelling before she was old enough to think about a career at the BBC – or any career at all: “It made me think of when I was little…there was a show on the radio called Listen with Mother…My mother was pregnant with my younger sister, so I must have been four. We’d lie down on the floor and I’d curl into her tummy, and we’d drift off together, listening. It was lovely to have that memory back.”
Based in the UK, McAll has come out to the US every year for the last 20 years. Perhaps fittingly for the theme of her current adaptation, the first project she pitched for production in the U.S., a possible adaptation of the book The Blood of Strangers, began with a phone call asking for advice with the actor Martin Jarvis on September 11…2001. The news was only just breaking and she pointed out to Martin, who was in LA at the time and just waking up, that there seemed to be something happening in New York.
And so grief seems to follow us.
“Frankenstein feels very relevant for the times we live in. Many of us are dealing with a kind of political grief. It’s a state of shock,” says McAll. “Grief for how you believed the world was. And as you get older and the losses become more likely, this kind of story just makes you think about it all.”
McAll is a freelance producer, director and writer working mainly for BBC Radio 4, which produces new radio dramas daily. While radio dramas mostly died out in the U.S. with the introduction of television, that didn’t happen in the UK. “Radio stayed. It’s always been strong,” says McAll. “In radio, the most important thing is to keep people listening. There are a million ways they can stop and switch off. You might have 30 seconds when they’ll concentrate. You’ve really got to capture them from the start and hold onto them.”
McAll didn’t always know that her place was in radio drama. “I came from a very working class background where nobody was educated past the age of 16. I remember one day at school, then I was about 9, the teacher said we were going to create a radio drama complete with sound effects – coconut shells for horses hooves and everything…I remember being very fired up at being introduced to this world of imagination. It was different from books. That stayed with me for a long time.”
McAll was the first to go to university in her family. “After I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to be or could be. I sort of reverted to being this child of a working class family. I couldn’t imagine having a profession. I just didn’t have a template for it in my head.”
She started with a “very very boring job” working as a secretary for the head of engineering at the BBC, but realized Radio 4 was just across the car park. “I smoked at the time, and a lot of the radio producers smoked, so they were the first people I met – in the smoking area! It was as if a light went on. It was so thrilling and exciting,” says McAll. “I managed to find where I was meant to be, figured out how it worked, applied for jobs since I was already in the door, and worked my way up from secretary to a producer in just over a year.”
With her 30 year career in radio documentary and drama, McAll knows the importance of voice actors, and the LA Theatre Works production of Frankenstein is pulling no punches with Stacy Keach in the role of “The Creature” and Adhir Kalyan (Arrested Development) playing Dr. Victor Frankenstein. “If anybody can tell you a story, Stacy can,” says McAll. Radio acting takes an abundance of talent: “You’ve got to keep people absolutely enchanted with what you’re saying.”
Actors Mike McShane (Whose Line Is It Anyway), LA Theatre Works favorite Darren Richardson, Seamus Dever and Cerris Morgan-Moyer round out the cast; LA Theatre Works associate artistic director Anna Lyse Erikson directs. “Actors who do comedy are really great at drama because they have the timing,” says McAll. “They know exactly how something should be. If you can do comedy, you can do anything.”
Watching live foley, amazing actors, and listening to a classic tale in an LA Theatre Works show is more than enough for a great evening at the theatre, but it is the heart of the story that will stay with anyone listening – the purity of how Mary Shelley describes and explores the idea of birth and death and our own grieving for both moments. “How the Creature describes what it was like for him to come into being is so beautiful and thoughtful,” says McAll. “And if you’re coming to this with the movies in your head, it is so unexpected.”
McAll writes in her introduction to the play how the original novel was birthed from the most primitive and important rituals of human experience – telling stories around a fire to ward off the darkness. “There have been many adaptations of this tale, and it’s a daunting task to present another, but what I have wanted to keep in mind is that this was originally a story told in a single voice, from a young girl’s imagination; that it was born of a waking dream, and recounted in a creaky old mansion, on a dark, cold, rainy, candle lit night.”
Frankenstein runs Friday February 28 – March 1, presented by LA Theatre Works at the James Bridges Theater UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, 235 Charles E. Young Drive Los Angeles, CA 90095. Call 310-827-0889 or visit www.latw.org for information and reservations.