A strange transference of forms

Resident Director Tom Brennan updates us on rehearsals in a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas; as we cross over into The Twilight Zone.

 

Dear Doctor Rathman,

I hope you are well. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to our regular therapy session on Tuesday. As I explained, I’m in rehearsals for a new theatre show at the Almeida. I’m writing to you because there have been some strange occurrences in and outside of the rehearsal room that I can’t explain. I figured a man of your expertise, your awareness of the human mind and its capacity for imagination, might be able to help me.

I’m hoping that I can trust you. Everyone else I’ve told has either laughed or called me crazy. I’m worried that my marbles have been lost and are never to be found. But even worse Doctor, I’m worried that these strange events might have some semblance in science itself. That these occurrences are not in fact the imaginative creations of a man on the brink of a breakdown, but real.

The play is called The Twilight Zone. It’s adapted from the old TV show - the original anthology show. Each episode was a different story, a kind of new play every week. Most episodes were written by the creator of the show, a man called Rod Serling. It’s unsurprising that Charlie Brooker cites The Twilight Zone as a major reference when making Black Mirror

So the TV show was like a kind of theatre, and in turn the theatre show is based on TV. It’s a strange transference of forms. There are certainly many questions that arise when thinking about the legacy of the show and its new manifestation on stage.

How do you do a pre-commercial break cliff-hanger onstage?
How do you create a high-concept perspective twist with no camera?
What is the best form for building tension?
What is the best form for creating a sense of the paranoid, the mysterious, the genuinely strange?

And although you might not know the show itself, you’ll know the universe. If you’re familiar with The Simpsons, Futurama, The X Files, Rick and Morty or Doctor Who, then chances are you will have osmosed some aspect of the particular universe of The Twilight Zone, the tones, characters and the thematic territory. Everything from Stranger Things to Twin Peaks to The Matrix was influenced by the paranoid, atmospheric sensibility of Serling’s show.

In an article for thenewatlantis.com entitled The Enduring Legacy of The Twilight Zone, academic Brian Murry describes the impact of Serling’s time in the U.S Army from 1943-45 on his work. He describes how;

“Serling saw action in the Philippines during the fierce closing months of the war. He took part in the Battle of Manila, where American casualties were high. Serling was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, and, according to his daughter, when he returned to the States he suffered from what used to be called “shell shock.” In her memoir she writes that, as a child, she often heard her father scream out in the middle of the night. For years in his dreams he continued to fight the Japanese. He turned to writing, he admitted, as “a kind of compulsion,” a “terrible need for some sort of therapy.””

And so, his show is certainly a product of the Second World War. Like many post-war artists, it can be argued that Serling used his art as an attempt to make sense of a world that made no sense. Shaken by the horror of war, the holocaust, the atom bomb and the threat of nuclear war, artists across all disciplines were pushed to new places and to deal with ideas in different ways.

If music produced Ligeti or Penderecki, if the theatre produced writers like Arthur Miller or Beckett and if movies produced filmmakers like Carol Reede, and later Kubrick, American TV instead gave birth to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. It’s true that the cultural response to the Second World War was also to retreat into wholesome universes of I Love Lucy and Leave it To Beaver but here too was something new: something darker, more unsettling and stranger, something that aimed to reflect and critique the new world that surrounded it.

One of the reasons that the show has held up and was so influential was that it used genre conventions to tackle the social issues of the day, particularly science fiction. Like much sci-fi, Rod used a central metaphor to deal with a real problem, issue or concept. Similarly, Margaret Atwood describes her novel The Handmaid’s Tale as “speculative fiction” rather than science fiction. She even challenged herself to only include events that have actually happened in history. So there’s no fantasy here, just a reordering of reality in order to reframe it, to refresh the audience’s senses and perceptions of the world and to ask them what they might want to change. And although some stories in The Twilight Zone are pure fantasy, they often deal with thematic territory that was socially or politically potent to American audiences. Serling’s tales are certainly thrilling, but they were also interested in exploring notions of morality, love and meaning. As Rod Serling’s daughter writes in her book As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling her father had an intense “crusading moralistic streak”.

But although the fictions of The Twilight Zone were born of the particulars of post war angst, somehow many of the central themes remain relevant.

  • Our fear of the foreign terrorist, the alien culture that we do not understand.
  • The fear of apocalypse (if not nuclear, then ecological).
  • Our fear of disappearing, being forgotten in the wake of insta-fame.
  • Our fear of not fitting in, of being an outsider or ugly. (Our obsession with health, fitness and beauty)
  • Our fear of being unloved, betrayed by our neighbours and families.
  • Or being controlled, trapped, possessed by forced beyond our control (medication, media, the government).

These fears pervade our culture now. And so, what I keep thinking is Doctor, what comes next? If these themes and ideas are still potent, then have we not moved on? Have we not progressed into the future as we would have liked? As we would have predicted?

Which brings me to my problem Doctor.

I think, as I enter the rehearsal room, as I take my seat and open my script in front of me that I must have passed through a void. None of it makes sense. I don’t feel like I’m in the past, but then again, I certainly don’t feel like I’m in the future.

I must have witnessed 40 characters emerged onto the stage and yet there are only ten actors. I have come to the conclusion that between the outside world and the rehearsal room, there must be a crack in the space-time continuum. But then when I venture out into the world again, it seems to be cracking at the seams.

Doctor please help me, because I think, without my knowing, I have slipped into a between place, the upside down, a terra most incognita, a red room, I have found myself floating in stars, stranded in a void. I have ventured into…

 

 

The Twilight Zone lands on stage for the first time in its history on 5 December.
Click here for more information and to book online.

 

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