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An Interview With A. S. Peterson: Frankenstein (Part II)

In case you haven’t heard, A. S. Peterson (aka Pete Peterson) has written an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein for the stage. In Pete’s own words, “this is not your mama’s Frankenstein.” Show up to the play and you’ll find an eloquent Monster, theological questions of creation and death just as abounding as questions of scientific progress, and a Victor Frankenstein indelibly shaped by the drama of his family.

I recently had the great pleasure of visiting Studio Tenn’s second read-through of Pete’s play adaptation—his own tenth draft—and I was blindsided by the depth and beauty of the story, the characters, and the symbolism woven gently into every moment of the play.

What follows is the second and final part of an interview with A. S. Peterson—in it, we talk about the transition from novel-writing to playwriting, the hidden treasures within the covers of Frankenstein, the endangered art of theater, and much more. Enjoy!

Drew: I noticed the Monster has a cadence reserved only for himself—when he opens his mouth, it feels more poetic than other characters. And of course that’s unexpected when we’re used to thinking of the Monster as this groaning beast of a creature.

Pete: In the book, Victor warns people about the Monster: “Be careful; it is eloquent and it lies.” So while we imagine the Monster to be this course, vulgar brute, nothing could be further from the truth—I mean, the Monster learns how to speak by reading Paradise Lost! So he immediately possesses both a fluency of the English language and a rich theological framework through which to reflect on his existence.

It was a lot of fun to inhabit that voice as the writer. A lot of his lines are iambic; I purposefully kept that cadence in there.

Drew: Tell me a little bit about the process of making a play, from start to finish.

Pete: The theater company, Studio Tenn, commissioned the play. And when I wrote my first play, I thought it would basically be like writing a novel, except that people would speak it out loud. I was sorely mistaken!

Not only is it spoken out loud, but it takes place in three dimensions, it’s not performed the way you hear it in your head, it involves a whole community of people, it has to be between 90 and 120 minutes long in the form of a two-act structure—it’s a very different art form. That’s scary and exhilarating to me, because I believe art functions best from within limitations. So for someone to come up to me and say, “hey, I want you to tell this story. Here are your limitations,” I get excited about how to make that happen.

I go to work and write a couple drafts. My long-suffering wife Jennifer is the first audience; we’ll sit at the kitchen table and read the whole thing out loud, doing the voices the best we can. The reality of a play is that you don’t know what’s wrong with it and what’s right with it until you hear it read aloud. So I’m deeply grateful she’s been willing to endure that with me.

After a few drafts, I’ll arrive at something I’m comfortable enough with to send to the director. At that point, what I’ve sent feels like a mostly final draft to me. The director will then schedule a reading with a handful of actors where we’ll all sit down and give it our first pass, and that’s when we inevitably discover the play is nowhere near done! The first reading we did a couple months ago was entirely different from what it is now.

Every time we read it out loud, I go back to the drawing board and start rewriting. We’re on draft eleven or twelve now, and we’re about to go into a workshop for the show, which means we’ll read it together, then edit it, then read it again until it settles into its final form.

I appreciate the constant collaboration of playwriting—novel writing is a solitary act, but with playwriting, you’re in dialogue with all kinds of different perspectives. And I’ve been blessed to work with an amazing team of people at Studio Tenn. I trust them, I admire their sense of storytelling, and when they disagree with me I know it’s for good reason.

Drew: Do you ever feel like a play is truly finished?

Pete: No—like with anything, you get to a point where you have to abandon it. Books are the same way. With The Battle of Franklin, we were making tweaks to it right up until the day it opened. And even during the performances we made slight changes. The second year we did that play, we gave it another edit, cut some scenes, and so on. If we do it a third time, we’ll probably do all that over again.

And that’s the unique thing with theater—it’s never the same way twice. That’s part of its gift. It’s a very living art form.

Drew: What does theater have to tell us about art and spirituality? What can we learn from theater as an art form about the way God made the world?

Pete: Oh man. This is one of my favorite topics.

The transience of theater does not bode well in a culture of instant gratification. A. S. Peterson

Drew: Here in Nashville, we give music a lot of attention, but I rarely hear conversations of this nature about theater.

Pete: Yeah, it’s frustrating to me that theater is so removed from many people’s radars. There are reasons for that. Not only is it expensive, but it’s impermanent. The Avengers has been in movie theaters now for a few weeks; there’s no pressing need for me to go see it. And even when it’s gone, it will show up on Netflix, whose entire business model is to render movies ubiquitous.

On the other hand, live plays will only be performed for two weeks. And if you’re busy those two weeks, or if you only just heard of the play by the time it’s closing, you’re out of luck. It’s a difficult art form to stay engaged with unless you’re very intentional about it. The transience of theater does not bode well in a culture of instant gratification.

But man, I love theater. I love that there’s a parallel between theater and the Incarnation of Christ. In the Old Testament we were given the law by God; it was written and we were told to follow it. Then when we get to the New Testament and God is incarnated in the person of Jesus, it’s as if the law stood up and said, “Here’s what I look like in three dimensions.”

That’s how theater is. As a writer, when I write something, I think I know all there is to know about it. But when I give it to the theater company and it stands up and becomes three-dimensional, it does things I didn’t expect. It looks different than I thought it would look. It takes on a whole new layer of meaning.

I’m fascinated to think about that in context of the actual Incarnation. What was it like for the apostles to see the actual Word of God walk around in the flesh? They knew God in a way no one has ever known him, before or after. And we have their testament now in written form, but we still can’t understand it in the same way they did. We will one day—that’s our great hope.

Drew: It’s as if in a certain sense, by virtue of having been born after Jesus, the play is closed to us. We missed it in live action.

Pete: All you can do is read the reviews.

Drew: Right! Exactly.

Pete: There are some great reviews out there.

Drew: Lots of them.

Pete: But the revival is coming.

Drew: Here’s a thought: the idea of art imitating life is a generally helpful notion, but would you say that theater has an especially privileged role in imitating life? It is the most direct imitation there is, isn’t it?

When you see an actor start weeping, or being beaten on stage, it has a much more immediate effect on you than if you were to see the same things taking place on a movie screen. It's inescapable—you feel complicit in whatever is happening on stage because you're in the room with these people. A. S. Peterson

Pete: It is and it isn’t. Lots of people think about theater as essentially a live movie, but there’s very little real comparison between cinema and theater. Cinema is not just filmed theater, and theater is not merely acted out cinema.

What I mean is that when you go to a movie, you can sit in front of the sixty-foot movie screen, watch the story unfold, and remain distanced from it. When you go to the theater, you have an easy time knowing it’s fake—set pieces generally serve the purpose not of replicating real life objects, but of referencing them loosely—

Drew: Wow. So in some ways theater is more abstract and distinct from actual life than cinema.

Pete: It’s very abstract in one sense. But then when you see an actor start weeping, or being beaten on stage, it has a much more immediate effect on you than if you were to see the same things taking place on a movie screen. It’s inescapable—you feel complicit in whatever is happening on stage because you’re in the room with these people.

Drew: I know there’s a lot of discussion around the issue of becoming desensitized to violence in movies—do you think there’s a chance for us as a culture to be resensitized to life through theater?

Pete: The Battle of Franklin is about the bloodiest battle in the Civil War. We depicted no violence in the show, but people had visceral reactions to it. What makes it hard to watch at certain points is the sense of violence you’re experiencing. You hear fists beating on wooden doors, people screaming, gunshot sounds, none of which are coming from the safety of speakers. It’s right in front of you in a way entirely unique to theater.

Frankenstein will be performed at Jamison Theater in The Factory at Franklin, August 31st—September 9th and tickets are now on sale. Click here to purchase tickets.


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