The Business of Misery

Dramaturgy Fellow Series with Lexi Silva

As is the case with most dramaturgs (and human beings, generally), I have an impulse to make connections. I think the research that scaffolds those connections is important, even if I have come to a realization that the stage adaptation of Misery should be assessed and supported as a standalone work. Sure, it is necessary to acknowledge that the play occupies space in a greater Misery-verse, but many of my questions are concerned with how modality impacts storytelling. I think that Misery (2012) packs a greater punch on stage than serving as fall fanfare. I think that creating thrills on stage is a huge undertaking dependent on both performance and production to find that perfect balance. I appreciate that Misery, perhaps surprisingly, has prompted a greater dialogue about what theatre can do.

For many, Stephen King is a household name synonymous with the horror and thriller genres. King’s long-standing legacy as a giant in the industry of thrills, however, had humble beginnings. His early and challenging start as a writer began with relentlessly submitting short stories in hopes of being published while teaching high school English to support his family. In the winter of 1972, King got the idea for a short story about a girl with psychokinetic powers inspired by the story of a poltergeist in a suburban home. The resulting novel, Carrie (1974), became his first published work and launched a career spanning 30 widely successful novels and at least 60 film adaptations. Misery (1987), King’s twenty-third published novel, has been adapted successfully from page to screen, then once more to stage. The sheer number of film adaptations (many of which are highly successful) proves that King’s brand of thrills translates well through the cinematic lens, with Misery being no exception.

Misery, King’s twenty-third published novel, has been adapted successfully from page to screen and stage. William Goldman, screen writer and playwright, adapted King’s novel for the 1990 film adaptation, directed by Rob Reiner and starred James Caan and Kathy Bates, whose portrayal of Annie Wilkes earned her an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award. Approximately twenty years later, Goldman authored the stage adaptation. Premiering on stage in 2012 and making its way to Broadway in 2016, the stage adaptation of Misery featuring Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis was met with tepid reviews from the likes of The New York Times. Fortunately for Goldman, his play was met with more success on Broadway than Carrie: The Musical (1988) which was notorious for being the biggest Broadway flop until Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark (2011).

What happens, though, when horror takes the stage? How does liveness interfere with the suspense inherent to the story and genre? How might the technology of theatre reimagine the magic of film? Or does it have to? And, as ever, how can a team of theatre-makers meet, subvert or build upon the expectations of audiences who are familiar with prior iterations of Misery? These dramaturgical questions continue to pop up and unfold during the rehearsal process. Luckily, I’ve had the pleasure of working with dramaturg Mark Perry whose ideas about the play have both propelled and supported these lines of inquiry. I recommend you read his dramaturgy note [link Mark’s note here]. Spoiler alert: I haven’t answered these questions yet and do not answer them in this note.

When I first learned that PlayMakers had programmed Misery, I asked director Jeff Meanza if he intended to lean into camp or comedy, to which he politely replied “No.” I think my impulse to conflate horror on stage with camp, or comedy, speaks to a held belief that the practical effects of theatre may seem more like tricks than cinematic special effects, thereby undercutting the potential for genuine thrills. There’s also the fact that this show runs through October, clouding my brain with images of haunted houses, Rocky Horror showings and the foreboding apparition of SPIRIT HALLOWEEN stores in

desolate strip malls across the country. PRC’s production of Misery, however, is interested (as ever) in creating an honest representation of the story and the characters in it. Mark Perry, Production Dramaturg for Misery, just walked into my office here at the Joan C. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art (honestly great timing, Mark–I was really getting into the weeds) and we briefly spoke about Annie Wilkes’ speculated psychiatric diagnoses, to which he observed that the matter of a diagnosis is not information that is necessarily playable on stage for an actor. He said, “You can only play the objective, so working to settle on a diagnosis becomes passive” (paraphrased). Though specific to the situation, this comment set off a lightbulb: perhaps the challenge of this show, for me, is making the leap from supplying research and asking questions to presenting information that translates into action for the cast and creative team. That is how I can move from a space of dramaturgical thinking to one of dramaturgical doing.

There’s still the question of how we meet, challenge, or even exceed the expectations audiences have for such a familiar story. It seems impossible to separate the image of Kathy Bates from the representation of Annie Wilkes; however, I think an answer to most of the questions outlined above is to truly treat this production as something entirely separate. We can begin answering those questions by treating this production as something truly separate from anything other than the source material. That material remains but is filtered through the uniqueness of the people involved, the medium of the stage, and PlayMakers’ own place in the world.

I am feeling rather like Paul writing his “esoteric, pseudo-autobiographical character study that no one will want to read”. Maybe, this is the Misery’s Child I need to write before I get my Misery’s Return. Hopefully, the journey to my next draft is a little less painful.