Eric Sanders is many things: a prolific playwright, a producer, and a lover of the horror genre. With his upcoming play, The Wendigo, he takes the old tale written by Algernon Blackwood and brings it to the stage. I sat down to talk with him about his career, his upcoming play, and his thoughts on theatre.
KTL: Eric, thanks for taking some time to chat with me today. Before we get into your latest play, The Wendigo, I wanted to talk about DEWEY’S NIGHTMARE: The Library Play Challenge which was a process where people were blindfolded, set loose in a library, had to pick a book at random and then had one week to come up with a play based on the book. Your play was called Mangina. I have to ask, was it about what it sounds like it’s about?
ES: The cool thing about doing Dewey’s Nightmare is that the books were all random and very arcane, really one-of-a-kind books. I wound up getting a yearbook from a small New Jersey State School from 1982 and I had to write a play based on it. I was trying to just absorb it all … and I saw a picture of this sad looking girl, sort of looking off into the distance. On another page there was this picture of a jock. I just pictured the two of them having an end-of-year conversation about a failed relationship. The twist is that he’s a hermaphrodite.
How that came out of seeing those two photos, I don’t know. I’d be horrified if they saw the play! Not that they would ever know it was based on their pictures. So yeah, that’s what Mangina is.
KTL: I’d never heard of a wendigo before so I did a little research and found out it’s basically a mythical creature of the Algonquin people that can possess a human being and turn it into a cannibal. Very X-Files. Why do you think ancient societies had such obsessions with monsters?
ES: I’m very interested in that. Some of my favorite writers are people who you could call “supernatural horror” writers, or “weird fiction” writers; H.P. Lovecraft would fall under that mantel, Poe is a good pre-cursor, Blackwood is one of the prime examples. For me, it ties into a sense of hoping that there’s something beyond the literal and physical. I think religion is a great example of this. The reason we’re preoccupied with things that don’t exist is because it’s really scary to think that this is it. All the matter and all the elements already are and all they can do is recompose themselves into different shapes but they can’t create anything new. We started out here with everything and we’re going to end with the same everything. Spiritually, that doesn’t feel like it’s enough. It feels like there needs to be more to the universe than what we can see and touch.
For me, it’s not necessarily religious, but the feeling evoked in a story about something impossible — the feeling that it gives me — is this overwhelming sense of awe and possibility, and that makes me feel really more full as a human being. Everyone knows it when they feel it.
It all goes back to that word awe. That is what Blackwood is most obsessed with. Creating a sensation of awe for the reader. And that word “awe” has really changed in meaning over the years …”awesome” … people use it all the time but let’s face it; a guy skating isn’t necessarily awesome. “Awesome” is really something overwhelmingly huge; mind-blowing beyond comprehension. And that’s what I’m going for with this production of The Wendigo. Putting something out there that will push you back in your seat and make you reconsider what you came in with. Shake the foundations.
KTL: The play is based on the book The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood who you’ve mentioned, and he’d originally written it in 1910. Have you kept any of the old-time feeling of the book, or have you modernized it at all?
ES: Ultimately we decided to set it in 1898 which is when the story takes place because when Blackwood wrote it he was writing about a period of time that occurred 10 years before. The story was inspired by some hunting trips he’d taken in the 1890s and so we set it in 1898 for the same reason. There’s something to be said for doing justice to the original intent of a story. Like if you take this latest version of War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s version … don’t get me wrong, it’s an incredibly impressive piece of film making; unbelievable technically. But to be a little cruel, it’s a little soulless. I’d seen the original movie, but after I saw this version I went back and read the book by H.G. Wells. If you read the original War of the Worlds (which is set in the London countryside) and then you watch this movie it’s not even close. They could have done a scene for scene reenactment of the original book and it would have been better than this post 9/11 dystopian nightmare that they made. Film makers do a great injustice when they try and impose their frame of reference on something that doesn’t need their frame of reference. So, as far as staging The Wendigo, If I wanted to write a new play I would certainly set it in a modern setting. But it feels a lot more visceral when you go right to the root of the original work and don’t try to make it entirely “new”. In our production they’re wearing somewhat period costumes, working on inflections, speaking the way they spoke, doing as much as possible to be realistic for the era.
KTL: You’ve written a lot of your own original work. As a playwright, what are the challenges of writing an adaptation as opposed to writing your own story?
ES: (Laughs) Everything! But first, on the flip side, the benefit of adapting a story is that the structure is already there. When you’re writing a new play you have to impose structure on theses freewheeling thoughts that are going through your mind and try to put them into 2 hours. Blackwood did a really good job of making the story work.
For me the most difficult thing was selecting which parts of the book worked on stage theatrically and which didn’t. Not everything in a narrative works in live theatre because there’s a different requirement. You need conflict, you can’t get as deep into psychology. You have to show, you can’t necessarily tell. That’s what I worked hard at — anything I could evoke theatrically from the original work while still keeping the structure. I tried to keep it more active and less wordy. A lot of time was spent giving the characters clear motivations and intentions and making that read to an audience. In a narrative Blackwood can do it for 20 pages, but we didn’t have that option. But I think we found a good balance. I’m pretty proud of where we went with the piece.
ES: I wanted to really bring what Blackwood wanted to bring. The legend obviously had shifted by being retold over the years. Blackwood made it totally unique. When it comes to the Wendigo Myth, there’s Pre-Blackwood and Post-Blackwood. A lot of the modern retellings – like for instance, Stephen King uses it in Pet Sematary – a lot of those are base more on Blackwood than on the original myth itself. He took this myth and spun off this new branch, and I’m on that Blackwood branch. My focus is to translate this Blackwood version into a theatrical setting that works both as a play as well as an introduction for people to the world of writers like Blackwood, Lovecraft and Poe. These guys, who truly were writing about “awesome” things and trying to blow your mind long before acid trips. There were some freak outs in some of these books — crazy crazy stuff – that is just so appealing to me. I’m trying to do justice to Blackwood who’s long dead – if he was alive I think he would like it.
KTL: The Wendigo is a tale of horror. How hard is it to create a terrifying atmosphere in live theatre … specifically an off-Broadway theatre where you don’t have the budget to turn the whole thing into, let’s say (an admittedly un-terrifying) Wicked?
ES: You have to do it through psychology. It’s the best way. Take Harold Pinter or Sam Shepard; there are elements of horror in their plays. Pinter unnerves me; two guys talking and drinking coffee in one of his plays can be unsettling. I think in theatre, a lot of times the potential of an occurrence is more effective and more powerful than when it actually happens. Tension is drawing out and sustaining a mood; the ominous possibilities are always much scarier.
In a movie you can say “here’s a monster; that’s what’s scary to me”. But the way you do it in theatre is set up a moment when something can happen that you’re not prepared for. You can occasionally pull off some moments like that but usually the lead up is more unsettling so you work to really draw that out and embrace the tension. For instance, what’s scary on a roller coaster? Going up or going down? Why is going up is so terrifying? And why is coming down such a release? That’s what you can do with horror theater. Sustain the climb to the top of the roller coaster and then drop them straight down.
KTL: Is there a temptation to go a little campy with something like this instead of doing straight-on horror?
ES: Not for me. I won’t go there. I can’t. Because I don’t have an ironic love for these things. Real supernatural horror is not ironic, and I don’t view it through the lens of TV lens or pop culture. If you read the source material of this play or any of this type of horror, it’s not a joke. You don’t have to like it but it’s not a joke. There may be moments of humor but not camp. I’m offended a little when I see things that are afraid to genuinely capture the idea of terror. Our modern version of irony doesn’t have a place in the world of horror. Don’t get me wrong, I write a lot of comedy too … but I keep that separate. There are so few productions that embrace this type of horror for real. Like Evil Dead: The Musical. I didn’t see it, but was it fun? I don’t know — I’m not really interested. But things like that prevent you from feeling fear.
KTL: So if your intention is to keep it straight, how do you keep people from laughing in the wrong spots? I’ll never forget that Blair Witch Project moment when she’s talking into the camera and her nose is running … half the audience was howling with laughter and I don’t think that’s what the film maker intended.
ES: You can’t stop the laughter. It’s a trap to even try. You have to embrace it. All you can do as a writer is provide some lighter moments, let the steam out a couple of times. I try to dissipate the energy so that ideally it doesn’t come out in the wrong moments. But if it does come out, it’s fine. I’m more concerned when I write something to be funny and people don’t laugh! If you think about it — if people are laughing then they are engaged and they like what they’re seeing. They’re watching it and they’re part of it. It’s one thing to heckle, but if you’re laughing, well, hey … you’re the audience member, it’s natural. I do it too. Sometimes you laugh when you’re most scared, so you mock it. It’s the wall you put up. So that’s fine. Laughing opens you up to be more sensitive to the things that are coming to after you laugh. Just like crying opens you up. I’d encourage people not to pent it up.
KTL: You’ve done a lot creatively. You’ve been a writer, a producer … what process gives you the most creative satisfaction?
ES: Reading … can I say that?
ES: Reading … I have been reading a ton of history lately in the past year and I think of reading as a participatory activity. You have to engage a book, it doesn’t read itself to you. Reading is a 50 / 50 game, it gives to you what you take from it. What I’m writing now is influenced by (but not directly based on) history. I’m moving into a section of my career that I think is going to be really potent.
KTL: I’ll see if they edit us out …
ES: I did it because I wanted to do a collection of plays about sex. And I mean, plays about sex. Partially because it’s a topic that when we think we’re talking about it we’re really not. We’re talking around it, or we’re substituting bawdiness for honesty … and I wanted to break it down. We put out a call for different playwrights, and I contributed a play as well. It was sold out every night.
We probably could have run for a lot longer but …. anyway that was really fulfilling for me. Because when people left they were talking, thinking, debating, arguing over topics that were introduced like misogyny, homophobia. Anytime you can make people talk and think, or provoke debate, that’s an added bonus to the show. It’s like reading a book — you want something to carry over, you want them to take something away with them. Every show. That’s my objective.
I hope that I always stay true to this. The goal behind everything I do, the main purpose, is to inspire people to think about it for for themselves. I’m not a politician. There’s the reason I write plays. Because I want to pose some questions to you, give you something to think about …. and you never have to thank me. You can take the ideas in the plays and never have to remember the play. That’s the thing about theatre in general, it can provoke conversations that without it, would not happen. The relentless questioning of society … that is what art gives us. Censorship of art puts us on the path to a less thoughtful society, a society that’s moving further away from morality and rationality. I think art is a necessary tool for rational human thought.
The thing is, we can’t have homogeny. We have to want the things we don’t want. It’s like the news. The point of the news is not to tell you what you want to hear, but to tell you what’s going on as best as it can. I’m just trying to tell you what’s going on, as best as I see it. You have to turn that energy into something positive or else it eats you up. This came up in The Wendigo. One of the themes of supernatural horror is that people are very limited in their ability to comprehend their universe. And instead of being bogged down by that, embrace that.
KTL: Free bonus question time! You get one last shot to just say anything you want – anything at all about the project or yourself or something random. NO pressure to be clever … just a last thought …
ES: My dream from when I was a little kid was to be alive when human beings made contact with something that wasn’t human — outside in the universe… something alien … let’s say ‘something that is not of this earth’. I want to be here when that happens. And I know I may regret that if it happens and there’s a massive plague. But if it’s going to happen, ever, I want to be part of it. Because that’s the culmination of the search for something more than us. It goes back to the supernatural and looking to things beyond what we know. And I would love to witness something like that — to know for myself that all of my fantasies and dreams were maybe somewhat valid and not just desperate attempts to create something out of nothing. Because I think there is something … and not some vaguely humanoid five foot tall creature with three fingers. It may be bigger than the entire universe, or smaller than an atom. Or it may be in a form that we don’t recognize, a form that we don’t even know how to recognize … or how to communicate with. If we ever get a shot (and again, I may regret it) I want to be around for it. Our earth, our solar system … we’re note even a pebble … we’re not even there in the scheme of things. And that’s awesome in the true old fashioned sense of the word. Awesome … something beyond this earth. It’s in The Wendigo. And I’m continuing that search through writing. Through imagination.
KTL: Wow, Eric, that’s probably the best answer to the bonus question that I’ve ever received. I dare say it was awesome, in the not-so-old-fashioned-but-still-pretty-complementary sense of the word. Thanks for playing! And thanks so much for giving your thoughts on your new production of The Wendigo. I’ll be reviewing the show in an upcoming column.
The Wendigo will be running in February from the 5-28, 2009 at the Medicine Show Theatre – 549 West 52nd Street (10th/11th Ave.) Tickets ($10) are available by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444, or visit www.smarttix.com