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Interview: Chana Porter

by Photo of Paul Hansen

The playwright discusses her new play ‘Phantasmagoria’ based on the Frankenstein legend.

Interview: Chana Porter

On the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley conceiving Frankenstein,  La MaMa is presenting Phantasmagoria; or, Let Us Seek Death!  A multi-media work featuring puppets, the drama centers on the famed 1816 rainy evening in Geneva shared by Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and several other literati. The authors challenged each other to write a ghost story.  One of the results of the challenge was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,  published two years later when Shelley was all of twenty years old. 

Phantasmagoria,  which deals with the events surrounding the origins of Frankenstein, was written by Chana Porter whose prior works have been produced at The Cherry Lane Theatre and Dixon Place, among other well known venues.  The Frankenstein legend is obviously a story that continues to fascinate.   I posed a series of questions to Chana about Phantasmagoria. 

How did you decided to write a play about the origins of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein?

Obie Award-winning downtown theater maker Randolph Curtis Rand approached me about his idea to swirl together Mary Shelley's life story with the original text of Frankenstein about five years ago.  I was in my mid-twenties. He had the intuition to find a young woman playwright who could really identify with Mary.

I loved the book when I read it is as a teenager, but I didn't realize that I had only read the 1831 edition.  The original publication (from 1818) is rather different. The most exciting entry point into the project for me was that there is an edition of the 1818 version that is coupled with Mary's original manuscript!   So I actually was able to look through her original rough draft which is incredibly modern, with hardly any punctuation.  It's downright vivacious, brutal, and much less moralizing than subsequent editions.  I created much of the script from that original manuscript, the energetic scriblings of a brilliant teenage girl.    

When I started to research Mary Shelley's life and her circle of friends (like Lord Byron and her husband Percy Shelley) I was really hooked.  What a sexy, dramatic bunch.  It's like that old saying about each generation thinking they invented sex.  Her circle was really trying to disentangle themselves from what they viewed as arbitrary tradition.  

Remember, they were just about a generation after the French Revolution and the American Revolution.  The unquestioned rightness of Kings had been exploded, so why not question the monopoly of marriage?   Mary's circle were experimenting with "free love" and exploring their various expressions of bisexuality.  But remember, at this time men could be hanged in England for gay sex.  Women could have their children taken away from them by their baby daddies.  Mary's circle challenged tradition, yet in some ways they had very little control over their personhood.  These issues around sexuality, monogamy, and personal expression really resonated with me.  

I understand that you are writing a series of science fiction novels.   What are your impressions of Shelley's Frankenstein which is obviously considered a major work in the science fiction genre?

I am!  I’m writing a series of eco-horror science fiction novels called Post Human Classics about alien-human symbiosis in a future pagan San Francisco. I started working on this series about three years ago, already two years into researching and writing Phantasmagoria. I think the main lesson writers (or would-be writers) can take from the continued success of Frankenstein is to see your half-imagined project all the way through.  Lord Byron proposed a ghost story writing contest for everyone who was summering at his villa in Geneva, yet Mary was the only one who wrote a full novel after the summer was over.  Your work certainly won’t become a classic or originate a new genre if you never finish it.

As I’ve reread and reread Frankenstein, I’m continually surprised by how strange it is. The eloquent, complex monster who is obsessed with Milton, the nesting structure of stories within stories within stories, how the last third of the novel turns into a travel diary as Victor Frankenstein avoids his loathsome task of making the Creature a bride.  The most lasting, interesting works of art perhaps don’t fit into a neat category. How emboldening.

My books, which are not yet published, likewise don’ t have a simple hashtag. Utopian eco-horror? Aliens who save the world, yet destroy humanity in the process? (It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.) Would I have been so bold in following the spark of my own imagination if not for living with the ghost of Mary Shelley by my side for the last five years? Perhaps not.  

This is the 200th anniversary of the genesis of Shelley's novel which obviously still continues to fascinate and intrigue.   In what ways do you think that Shelley's Frankenstein is still relevant?   In what ways, if any, are you influenced by the novel in your other writing?  

Frankenstein is a great gift to the world that continues to resonate in surprising ways over the past 200 years. Particularly as our relationship to technology continues to advance, we see more and more narratives about a creator’s responsibility to his creations. Some Frankenstein-inspired favorites of mine currently are Ted Chiang’s lovely novella about raising baby robots, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, which is a tender meditation on parenting and technology;  and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, which explores a plot line referenced in the original text —Dr. Frankenstein's fear that the bride of the Creature would not follow his agreement to leave all inhabited places, and “might quit him for the superior beauty of man.”

Finally, I’m quite partial to season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which features a creation of a monster from parts of demons, vampires, and technology as the season’s Big Bad. If you start looking, however, you will see Frankenstein references everywhere!

As far as my other writing, Frankenstein continues to inspire me to follow the internal logic of my creations. Particularly with writing my novels, I’m often slightly disgusted by what flows out. Oh man, I’m like, Who wrote this creepy thing? Me?! Then I take a deep breath, and keep going.

How did the use of puppets in the drama influence the writing of the script?

Our puppet designer Benjamin Stuber is a truly mad scientist. He brought this creation to life with his puppetry. Benjamin was invited into the production at the same time as I, so I’ve been writing to the tune of his gorgeous, scary drawings for the past five years. Our PR team is only letting us show pictures of a few puppets, so there’s a LOT of surprises in the show. Creepy, gasping, horrifying surprises! It’s truly delightful.

Benjamin’s concept is that we keep seeing the Creature in different ways to recreate the horror of Dr. Frankenstein being hounded by his creation across the globe. So there are so many different types of puppets, which all look different, and have a different relationship to scale. These puppets will keep you squirming in your seat.

What themes are your exploring in your script?

Can life come from death? Without freedom, can there be love? Is a better world possible? Are we responsible to our creations? What makes a monster, and what makes a man? Witness the birth of an artist, and her creation that continues to amble through our culture, long after her death.

The script also swirls with text from great thinkers and artists that influenced Mary and her circle at the time: Blake, Milton, Beethoven, Paine, lots of romantic poetry, ancient science philosophers and alchemists like Paracelus and Agrippa.

What are your future projects?

My next project is a workshop at Playwright Horizons of my play Leap And The Net Will Appear, about a woman who tries to be a good girl but secretly wants to be a lion. We follow Margie through marriage and children, on a twisted Eat-Pray-Love attempt to find herself through travel and cultural appropriation. Directed by Tara Ahmadinejad and with original music by Andrew Lynch.

I devote a lot of energy to the Octavia Project, a summer program for underserved Brooklyn girls that I started with science educator Meghan McNamara. The Octavia Project uses science fiction and fantasy as a springboard to teach intimidating subjects like computer programming, engineering, city planning, and architecture to brilliant, nerdy girls of color from Brooklyn. Learn more about us at www.octaviaproject.org .

Is there anything in general you would like to tell viewers of Phantasmagoria?

Be prepared, not for a history lesson, but for a visceral experience. On October 20th-November 6th, it's ALIVE!

For more information log on to http://LaMaMa.org/Phantasmagoria 

La MaMa is located at  66 East 4th St. in Manhattan.  Because of mature content, Phantasmagoria is appropriate for audiences 16 and above. 

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