With a fantastic eye for detail and a reputation for an inventive aesthetic, Bo List is one of the most experimental and progressive directors in theater in Kentucky. If I told you how far Bo and I go back, you’d probably want to invent a time machine just for the sake of procuring proof. But Bo has especially been making waves over the past few years as a playwright, particularly with his adaptation of Mary Shelley’s seminal novel, Frankenstein. Just in time for Halloween, the show runs at the Woodford Theatre in Versailles Oct 10-12, 17-19, 24-26 and with extra performances Oct 30 & 31. You can buy tickets here.
Bo List is a Lexington-born (and returned) playwright, whose work has been produced in the Bluegrass, Florida, Tennessee, NYC and Chicago, IL as well as Edinburgh, Scotland. His adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN is soon to be published by Dramatic Publishing, and hopefully produced by a gaggle of theatres once they take a gander at it! (Images below taken from FRANKENSTEIN rehearsals.)
Tell us a little bit about your relationship to theater.
It is a very intimate relationship. I work all the time. I direct, write, teach, breathe it. I wish I had normal human hobbies like skiiing or American Horror Story. I am always working on a project instead, and I kind of love that.
How did you come to start writing plays?
I saw a story on TV that inspired me, about a young woman in a rural town who decided to live as a young man and was killed. I wondered what his life must have been like, how he must have viewed the world, and what led to his demise. The play, Pink Angels, was produced at the University of Kentucky in 1995, and a few years later the same story would be told (very faithfully, while my version took vast liberties) as the film Boys Don’t Cry. It was, for me, also a lesson in timing. Strike while the iron is hot. If I had invested myself more in my play earlier, it might have gotten farther along before that great film came along and told a similar story (better).
We are surrounded by Frankenstein! Everywhere you look, our technology is moving faster than our ability to wield it responsibly, from biological warfare to cloning to genetically engineered food, animals and people, to our inability to create or destroy or transport without abusing our enviornment with pollution. The majority of our population has, in their pockets, tiny telephone-computers that can access almost every library, gallery, and archive of wisdom, beauty, and information – and yet most of us only use them to send text messages and order pizzas. Victor Frankenstein was not the first to create something he could not control, and he is not the last – – we are all Frankensteins in one way or another.
Also – what a great story, written by such a forward-thinking, brilliant young woman.
Tell us some about how you tackled Mary Shelley’s novel and brought it to life as a play?
I read the book a number of times, as well as various theatrical and fiction adaptations. I watched a ton of film versions, and then set to work trying to do justice to both the book and to the vast collective impression we have of the story, as inspired by everything from Boris Karloff in the 1930s Universal film classic to Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder “Putting on the Ritz.” It took a year to write, prior to its premiere at Summerfest in 2011, and I have been rewriting it ever since. Now that it’s being published by Dramatic Publishing, I need to decide on the definitive version and let it rest.
What was the most challenging part of writing the play?
The language. Finding a way to honor Mary Shelley’s tremendous eloquence while allowing a modern audience to access it. In the end I concluded: Screw the audience. Let these characters sing, and the audience will catch up to them.
The most rewarding?
Writing can be very lonely. It’s a solitary endeavor, with only the voices of the characters to keep me company. And then, suddenly, I’m not alone anymore. I’m in rehearsal – seeing those characters brought to life by marvelous actors and by some wizard or wizardess directing. And then I’m not alone anymore! And all the work is worth it.
Were any characters or scenes particularly difficult to nail down?
Mrs. Shelley didn’t write much dialogue. I had to find/create some voices out of thin descriptions. The Creature was the easiest – – he talks the most in the book (ironic, since he doesn’t speak at all in the almost-definitive Boris Karloff performance). Elizabeth, Victor’s cousin/love interest, was hardest. I felt the need to expand her role so that a stronger female presence was felt in the story, so I did less transcribing and more creating in finding the right Elizabeth for this telling. The result is a bit more feminist than what Shelley had in mind, but I think she would be happy with the result.
Do you prefer to direct your own work or let someone else take the helm?
Oh, I definitely like collaborating and letting someone else call the shots. It’s hard to tell if it’s any good or not if I’m solving all of the scripts problems directorially. With someone else directing, there’s nowhere to hide!
Where else has this played?
This is the sixth production! The original was with Kentucky Conservatory Theatre/Summerfest, followed by productions at Atherton High School in Louisville, City Lit Theater in Chicago, Venice Theatre in Venice, Florida, New Moon Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee, and now the Woodford Theatre back here in Kentucky!
What does your writing process look like? Any rituals that ensure literary gold? Rewards system?
I write in coffee shops. A different coffee shop per different mood. I can’t write at home…it’s too quiet. I need some social noise around me. Libraries don’t work. It needs to be coffee. As far as rewards – – I like to work out before/after I write. Gets the juices going. But I tend to write too long into the night to get to the gym, and am too tired in the morning. So my writing lifestyle promotes an unfortunate amount of lethargy.
What do you do when you hit a roadblock?
Oh, I’m a coward. When I hit a roadblock I quit. Isn’t that terrible? I need to do better. I need to get good at driving over/around the roadblocks.
Favorite writing utensil?
My trusty laptop. I can’t write in a notebook anymore. I need to be able cut and paste and see it in printed form.
Advice for burgeoning playwrights?
Yes – write! Write good stuff, write bad stuff. Write whatever. Then hear it read out loud by someone else, then RE-write it. Get off your lazy butt and write. Now! Quit staring at the screen or page and write. Do it! (I have to tell myself this all the time. We ALL have stories inside us….the only difference is that published authors and produced playwrights and screenwriters take the time to train, discipline themselves, and jot it all down.
What other projects are you working on?
I’m working with a new group, AthensWest Theatre Company, on a production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt as director. We’re trying to get some paying work for our stable of talented professional actors and starting small but with a show with a big name and big passions in it. Doubt will play at the Downtown Arts Center February 5-15, with Leslie Beatty and Jeff Day in the cast. Good stuff!
If you weren’t a director/playwright, what would you do for a living?
Well, I teach for a living – at Sayre School as their Drama Teacher. I love it! But if I gave up theatre (which I think about all the time) I like the idea of returning to visual art or journalism. I used to write movie reviews, for the Memphis Flyer down south and that was swell. I’m also a legally recognized minister – – I would love to travel the country and marry folks. Is there money in that?
Worst job you ever had while trying to make it as a director/playwright?
I was the bodyguard for the Serta Mattress Sleep Sheep at selected Mid-South Sam’s Clubs. No lie.
Do you read reviews of your work? Why or why not?
Yes – they can be very helpful. And disspiriting. And encouraging. A review of Frankenstein helped me figure something out for a rewrite, and while the review was negative I still got something out of it.
Favorite experience so far in seeing one of your works brought to life?
I’m sure my favorite experience is always my next experience!
Most memorable backstage experience?
I was in Hair at UK 20 years ago. After the nude scene (which I did!) the backstage crew ran out of robes to hand to the actors leaving the stage. This always happened – – they were always one robe short, so someone (often me) had to walk naked down the stairs behind the stage, through a long hallway, and into a far away dressing room. During one performance one of the technicians brought his wife and small children backstage to see what a show looks like behind the scenes. And there was Big Naked Bo…
What’s in your pockets right now?
Two flashdrives, two Pilot Precise V5 Rolling Ball pens (the only kind I can write with…oh yeah, that’s another favorite writing utensil), Trident White gum, chapstick and…that’s it, not that I’m not also happy to see you.
You’re necessarily stuck on a cross-country road-trip with someone you just met yesterday. What do you say to break the ice at that awkward moment when you run out of niceties?
“So…boxers or briefs? No – I’m offering. Boxers or briefs?” And then depending on what they said, I would produce a pair.
Volcanoes or Earthquakes?
Oh, volcanoes. The rumbling, the lava, the gems. You know, I once had a job interview delayed because of a volcano – – and because of that delay I got to see the Mall of America, the movie Watchmen, and Debbie Reynolds sing with the Seattle Gay Men’s Chorus. All thanks to Mount Redoubt and the thousands of tons of ash it spewed into the air in and around Anchorage, Alaska. Definitely volcanoes.