The inescapable sights and sounds of The Twilight Zone are cherished and tightly protected intellectual property. Some 60 years after Rod Serling took us into the fifth dimension, CBS is rightfully selective about who is granted licence to a crown jewel of sci-fi and fantasy storytelling. We’ll soon find out if Jordan Peele is a worthy steward on the television side with his CBS All-Access reboot (if Get Out and the early reactions to his horror follow-up Us are any indication, the franchise is in the safest of hands). When it came to securing the rights for a stage adaptation, it took producer Ron Fogelman nearly three years to convince CBS they had the right plan in place to do the source material justice.
Though a departure from the usual fare at London’s historic Almeida Theatre, the venue took a chance on The Twilight Zone, which opened in December 2017, and it proved to be a hit. It as since undergone light revisions as the creative team readied the production for a March 2019 transfer to London’s West End at the Ambassadors Theatre.
Getting the initial production across the finish line was a drawn-out process that started with hiring seven-time Olivier winner Richard Jones to direct and American playwright Anne Washburn, who at the time was receiving critical acclaim for her off-Broadway production Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, to pen the book. Together, they sat in CBS’ offices in New York for two weeks for what amounted to a massive Twilight Zone binge watch.
After lengthy discussions about what could and couldn’t work for the stage, Jones and Washburn settled on eight stories from Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson: “And When The Sky Was Opened,” “Eye of the Beholder,” Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?,” ”Little Lost Girl,” “The Long Morrow,” “Nightmare as a Child,” “Penchance to Dream,” and “The Shelter.” Some classics, some deep cuts, and all thematic fits to the story Washburn wanted to tell.
I witnessed rehearsals in the final weeks before its March opening and was granted some time to chat with Washburn, the busy playwright who was opening a second production, the glowingly reviewed Shipwreck, in London that week. In an excerpt of our Q&A below, which was edited for clarity, Washburn discusses the writing process for the adaptation, the challenges of bringing a classic from screen to stage, and how the play will impact the legacy of The Twilight Zone.
As I understand it, this project was brought to you. How did you get involved with the stage adaptation of the Twilight Zone?
It was [producer] Ron Fogleman’s baby. They contacted [director] Richard Jones directly and he had seen a play of mine, Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, in New York, so he suggested me as a writer on it. And he was someone I was dying to work with and I was very interested in the idea of working with all the Twilight Zones.
I hadn’t really thought about The Twilight Zone. Do you know what I mean? It felt like an ambient part of life. I was really interested in the idea of trying to look at them, but it was also this huge challenge of whether it makes sense to put them on stage. How does one do that? Where is the intersection between this really filmic show and a life on stage? Which does make sense partly because of the original writers all coming from theatre. So many of the scripts have a heavily theatrical quality, and also the theater is a very spooky place. Because it’s physical and it’s ambient, and you’re trapped in the shadows, and there’s the offstage space. Who knows what’s going to emerge? There’s a very tangible spookiness. The whole question was really interesting. We started the project, I sat down and watched all of them. Which I had never done before, I had never done this marathon.
To me Twilight Zone was… like I had a lax babysitter, or something you watch with a group of friends, or it’s a sleepover at someone’s house. It was always like a late night, forbidden thing for me. Once I had watched them all, when we were sort of working out how to narrow them down, the question that I would ask anyone during that period time was, “Which Twilight Zone episode traumatized you as a small child?” And what was great is that no one had a moment of, “Oh what a funny question.” They immediately had an answer. Everybody had a Twilight Zone shaped scar somewhere in their heart. Which was yours?
Since it’s part of the play, we’ve been talking a lot about “The Shelter,” and how the paranoia sets in when people let fear divide a seemingly tight-knit community. That’s definitely one that took hold of me and shaped how I looked at the show. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is probably the scarier version of that story. How did you pick and choose which episodes felt right for the stage or the story you wanted to weave together?
We narrowed it down to about 20 or 30. And Richard Jones, the director, then watched those 20 to 30 episodes. CBS loaned us an office for a week and we just sat down and watched through them all once, and then we watched them through a bunch of times and categorized them. There are some episodes, which are terrific, which he could not do on stage. There was one episode that I thought you could not do on stage, which is “Eye of the Beholder” but which Richard kept holding on to it and found an alternative way of bringing it in.
Why were you skeptical about “Eye of The Beholder”?
Just because it’s so dependent on camera angle. And that reveal. And I also thought we all, as Americans, we know what the reveal is. That again is an intrinsic part of our culture. So it’s a matter of whether you’ve seen it or not. And then it’s this interesting thing of doing it here for the Brits who, most of them did not grow up with it in the same way. And they actually don’t know some of the most primal Twilight Zone stories, which is delightful.
I think we kind of categorized them like aliens and talking inanimate things; dolls, dummies. We sorted out a group of categories and then just followed our pleasure with it. So things would seem like they really could have a life on stage. Things like “Nightmare as a Child,” was not my favorite episode as a Twilight Zone episode. But it actually makes a very good stage piece. It just is robust in that way.
And once we had them, I jiggled them and I rewrote them. I re-jiggled them just because they were written for a different pace of attention. People now are just so fast on the narrative curve. You can give them things much quicker and I think if you look at the original episodes, they’d spent a long time looping around and preparing you for the shock and then taking you through it carefully because it was so new.
How did you approach finding a throughline that made sense? You use eight stories, but how did you make that feel like a cohesive piece?
It felt crucial to work with the narrator. And it’s especially crucial [in London], because they do know about The Twilight Zone here. You can say, “Do do do do do do do” and they know what that means. But [British audiences] don’t know Rod Sterling. He’s such a figure.
It felt crucial that he be there because I feel like it’s not just that he created the whole show, and engineered so many of the episodes. I feel like a huge part of what has made the show last is the gravitas he brings to it. Both in terms of how he supervised it, and his presence. There’s something about him which is simultaneously exciting and gray. He has both moral heft and something kind of weird and saturnine and, like, “I’m gonna open the gates of something a little wide and you’re gonna see something. Which hopefully you can handle and, if you can’t, it’s your own fault.”
When you began working on the project there was so much going on in the world. How did the social and political turmoil of the 2016 U.S. election and Brexit factor into how the stories were updated?
Well, I think we followed our own appetites. For example, “The Shelter” is the centerpiece of the show. It’s a little outdated in that I included a black couple in it, which wasn’t the case in the original. In the original episode, it’s much more of Italian and Jewish foreigners as the focus of it. Yes, [the political climate] was absolutely in our heads.
I mean, the great thing about “The Shelter” is not that it isn’t preachy, it is preachy actually, but it’s just such a great tense setup. It’s just such a clear discussion. And it’s completely plausible, it’s utterly plausible. It’s exactly what happens. People are fine, they’re fine, they’re fine, they’re fine, and then something happens, and they freak out. I would say it was very much in our heads, and again it was the whole question of what’s real and what isn’t real felt present.
What do you hope that people take away from this show and how could it help amplify the legacy of The Twilight Zone going forward?
I hope very much that they enjoy the show, but I also hope it also sends people off to look at the original series as well. And for Americans who are visiting and watching, I hope it’s a different way of considering it. I hope it’s a way of considering it as part of the American psyche. Not just the American experience. I feel both it captured a huge part of what the American psyche is and then it also, in a little way, created the American psyche.
Images courtesy of Matt Crockett.