Interviews with performers Max McLean and Karen Eleanor Wight
The Screwtape Letters was one of the surprise successes of Washington’s 2007-2008 season. Playing at Shakespeare’s Lansburgh Theatre, this adaptation of the Christian philosopher and writer C.S. Lewis’ novel packed them in for a month in Spring of 2008. The savvy adaptation by Max McLean and director Jeff Fiske, and spot-on performances by McLean and Karen Eleanor Wight, won widespread critical acclaim as well. (DCTS’ review of the production is here.)
After a highly successful run in New York, San Francisco and Chicago, Screwtape is back in Washington and has already sold so well that the run has been extended until January 10, 2010.
Max McLean is the President of Fellowship of the Performing Arts, which produces The Screwtape Letters, and has appeared Off-Broadway and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He is the narrative voice of the Listener’s Bible series and recently won Chicago’s Jeff Award (their equivalent of the Helen Hayes) for his performance of The Gospel of St. Mark. As Screwtape opens on December 20, he shared some observations with DCTS’ Tim Treanor
DCTS: You not only play the demon Screwtape, you have, along with director Jeff Fiske, adapted C.S. Lewis’ story into this theatrical production. Why’d ya do it? What was there about the story or the character which cued you in to its theatrical possibilities?
Max: Before Jeff and I met he saw my production of Genesis. He then sent me an email suggesting that I would make a good Screwtape. I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not. But that is how it started. Jeff wrote the first draft and we made dozens of drafts, mostly cuts & edits, to make sure it worked on stage.
DCTS: In narrowing Lewis’ Screwtape Letters into a play, sere there one or two insights that Lewis had that you and Jeff particularly wanted to bring to the audience’s attention?
Max: The arc of the story is about a hunt for the soul of a man recently converted to Christianity. Screwtape is committed to ruining this person’s life. He has enormous resources and intelligence at his disposal to accomplish his mission. That fact that he fails says something very good about Christianity.
DCTS: This show has gotten huge audiences. Did this surprise you? Do you have any theories as to why it’s happened?
Max: Screwtape has always exceeded our expectation. We’ve already added 9 shows to the current D. C. schedule. I can only speculate on why this is so. Certainly Lewis’ embers are burning brighter than ever. Secondly, the fascination with demons, spiritual warfare and how evil works plays a part. And then our commitment to follow the arc of the book closely and not try to invent a back story has certainly helped with word of mouth.
DCTS: What sort of feedback are you getting from your audience – beyond that they liked the play?
Max: What I hear most from house managers, ushers and friends who see the show is how much discussion there is about the play as they exit the theatre. It touches an emotional and intellectual nerve about the nature of temptation and how God intervenes that lies dormant within. Screwtape awakens it and people want to talk about it. They are enlivened [by] the theatrical experience and the theological insights.
DCTS: The play opens up with Screwtape giving a commencement address to the graduating class of his nephew, the apprentice demon Woodward. Of course, Lewis was an academic. Was he just being amusing here, or was he making a point about the moral standing of academics and the academy?
Max: We use brief portions of the Toast (written in 1961) as a means to set up the world of the play – that there are millions of highly skilled demons w/ lots of resources, training and intelligence ready and able to ruin your life. To accomplish that we used the first two minutes and the last minute of the speech. The actual toast was a 40 minute polemic against the English education system among other things. Lewis was on a bit of a rant.
DCTS: As you think about the character of Screwtape, does he have any feelings toward Wormwood? Is it possible for a personification of evil, like Screwtape, to want anyone else to succeed?
Max: Wormwood is useful to Screwtape. Wormwood takes a soul and Screwtape gets a piece of the action. The affection in the “Your Affectionate Uncle” benediction is purely utilitarian. It can and does turn against Wormwood when it becomes clear that he can not deliver. He is gone – eaten. There is no altruism.
DCTS: Throughout the play, Screwtape is assisted by Toadpipe (played by Karen Wight Greenberg). What, if anything, does Screwtape think about Toadpipe? Does she mean anything to him?
Max: Same as above. However I love having Karen on stage. She is so much fun to work with and she makes the play more accessible to the audience.
DCTS: The play emphasizes the role of pride in generating vice. Does that help to inform the way you play Screwtape?
Max: Absolutely. Screwtape loves the way he looks, the way he dresses and the way he talks. He’s the smartest guy in the room and knows it. I love accessing my venality to play him…for a good cause of course.
DCTS: I could be wrong, but it seems like Screwtape has an awfully nice office. Could you talk about what the stage design says about the concept of hell you and Jeff want to bring to our attention?
Max: Satan works with illusion. Like the Dylan song “sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace;” Or the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil “I’m a man of wealth and taste”; or the St Paul who describes Satan as “masquerading as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). It’s part of the allure to bring the audience into his trap. But it’s not meant to be a nice place.
DCTS: One of your Chicago customers wrote to us and said “Of course, McLeans’ stage presence was huge. He delivered his lines with a perfect cadence. The powerful delivery of Lewis’ sarcastic lines made many of us squirm in our seats.” What do you think of that? Should the audience be squirming a little?
Max: Squirming is good. Screwtape speaks to the audience as if the audience were Wormwood. However in the course of the play the audiences begins to see themselves as the patient, the object of Screwtape’s venomous attacks. When the audience feels that then I think the script is working and there is a little squirming.
DCTS: You’ve been also performing the Gospel of St. Mark. In talking about that work, you’ve said “I need to redeem myself for doing Screwtape these past few years.” Does performing as Lewis’ demon really leave kind of a bad taste in your mouth after a while?
Max: I said that as kind of a joke. I love doing Screwtape and Mark. I think Mark is a more accessible than Screwtape, and has a more powerful impact on the audience. I’d love to find a way to do them both in rep. The problem is that people aren’t as motivated to see Mark as theatre as much as they are Screwtape. In Chicago, Screwtape sold at three times the level of Mark. However Mark received the Jeff Award whereas Screwtape didn’t.
Karen Eleanor Wight reprises her role as Toadpipe, Screwtape’s wordless (but not soundless!) assistant. This is the role for which she won the DCTS Audience Choice award as favorite actress in a play, 2007-2008 season. A classically trained actor with a background in dance and improv, Wight left the tour in Chicago in order to give birth to a daughter, but has returned for Toadpipe’s further adventures. In addition to her work on stage, she found time to co-author a book, “The Substitute Teacher’s Survival Guide” (with Pat Simmons.) Here’s what she told Tim.
DCTS: I understand that you have recently given birth. Congratulations! It must be difficult to manage care for a small child while working on the road. How do you do it?
Karen: Thank you! I feel very blessed to have found a way to participate in this tour with my daughter by my side. (I suggested to the director Jeffrey Fiske that my costume be fitted with a pouch so she can be onstage with me as well. I figured she could help me mail the letters.) Luckily, I have a large extended family, so depending on the city, I can often find a relative or friend of a relative to watch mini-Toadpipe. Additionally, a couple of relatives have flown out to meet us on tour, and have babysat Annabel during rehearsals and performances. Here in DC, a relative connected me with an online site for parents and I was able to find a fantastic sitter for this sit-down run. Once the babysitting is covered for a new location, I have to figure out all the little details such as warming a bottle (use hot water from coffee maker,) how to get around the city with a stroller (After navigating New York City subways, this is a piece of cake.), and how to get things done in hotel rooms without all the perks of home like bouncers and swings (put baby in middle of bed surrounded by pillows.) Depending on the baby dilemma, I often have to get very creative and feel a little like MacGyver.
DCTS: How did you come to be involved in this production of Screwtape Letters? Did you have an interest in Lewis or his philosophy before you came to the show?
Karen: A friend of mine saw the audition announcement and forwarded it to me with the note, “This sounds totally right up your alley — a friend passed it along to me, but it’s way more you than me.” I was really fortunate to have learned of the audition at all! I am still finding ways to thank this thoughtful friend for passing on that email. From that point on, I attended a series of auditions and was cast in the role.
Before this production, I was aware of Lewis’ philosophy in a general sense – in that he was a Christian academic and novelist. As a child, I loved Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and read the book series several times along with watching the animated “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” on TV almost every year. When I discovered that the play I was auditioning for was adapted from a C.S. Lewis novel, I was intrigued. I immediately read and researched The Screwtape Letters as well as Lewis himself to better understand his views and perspective.
DCTS: Your Toadpipe is an immensely expressive character who does not use human speech. What training have you taken to teach you to communicate so effectively by movement alone?
Karen: The short answer: I believe it’s primarily a combination of my training in acting, improv, and dance that have contributed to my demon creature communication skills. But I must mention that I am not using movement alone to communicate as Toadpipe: I speak what Max calls “demoneeze.” The sounds I create help to express my emotion and support my physical choices–I can’t think of any particular training that assisted me with the crazy creature sounds…just natural silliness and abandon, I guess!
The longer answer: From my acting classes I learned that the more specific an actor can be, the better. Therefore, it’s vital that I know to whom I’m speaking, what exactly I am saying to them, and how I feel about what I’m saying. If I don’t know what I’m saying, how can the audience?
From performing in my wordless improv duo Imp, I have brought to Hell two concepts in particular: that stillness can be just as effective as movement, and that whatever choice you make, commit 100% to it. Nothing is as ineffective and confusing as doing something halfway.
Through my training in dance, I know to be aware of energy, space, and tension especially when trying to delineate one character from the next. Also, it is important to keep my movements clean, not messy, which helps convey the idea clearly to the audience.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a week-long clowning intensive I took with Christopher Bayes and a one day corporeal mime class with Christopher Eaves. Both experiences were incredibly eye-opening and challenging.
DCTS: As Toadpipe, you seem to be part secretary, part servant to Screwtape. Have you devised a backstory for your character and, if so, would you be willing to share it with our readers?
Karen: I have and no, I would not. (Demonic laugh.)
Toadpipe comes from family of demon creatures whose job it is to assist Screwtape. The position was passed on to me when a relative made a mistake one day and was kicked into the abyss by Screwtape. The relative before that one was eaten by Screwtape and the remaining bones were added to the wall. So, I work for Screwtape with the knowledge that making a mistake could be fatal. I work on instinct as I was not given any preparation before joining my boss in his office. I’m fairly new (in Hell years) to this job and so am still learning the ropes (or rungs.) I do not know my parents or my siblings (there are many) as we as creatures are left to fend for ourselves until placed into a position of employment. My hobbies include gnawing on bones, gazing into the abyss, and thinking about food.
DCTS: One of our readers told us that in a talk-back session, you revealed that you occasionally ad lib. Could you tell us about some memorable ad libs or improvisations in the show and how they worked out?
Karen: I tend to improvise a little every night when digging in the trap exploring the various utensils of torture and consumption. Through that, I’ll discover new ways to play with the instruments (knives, forks, prongs, etc), new ways to vocalize, and hopefully new ways to make the audience laugh. One new piece is an extending fork. Through improvisation, I now poke out an eye with this fork, bow the fork back, and launch the eyeball out into the audience “on accident.”
Another example is what we call my “monologue”. This little speech of mine happened spontaneously one night during a performance. I got so angry at Wormwood’s idiocy, that instead of my usual short reprimand, I went into a full-blown rant. By now, it has grown to a monologue which usually gets a great response from the audience.
There’s a part in the play when I’m up the ladder to retrieve a letter for Screwtape. I discover it’s a danger letter (red and black striped) and look to see if Screwtape has noticed its arrival. He hasn’t. One night, I decided to just put the danger back into the mailbox as if it never arrived. The audience laughed as they realized my sneaky plan, so I’ve kept it in the show since that time.
The Screwtape Letters plays thru January 10, 2010 at the Lansburgh Theatre.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.