The Raconteur's Alex Dawson has directed a stage version of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Anthony Burgess' unforgettable masterpiece about the rampaging and redemption of a one barbaric 'bad boy'--it runs October 15-30 at Middlesex County College and represents a true intersection of many of Dawson's artistic imperatives. As he describes it, the show is bound to dig itself undeniably into your brain. Here are his views on the show and his responses to our questions about this work and others:
"Belching smokestacks, colossal clock cogs, the ribbed wreckage of a crashed zeppelin, all underlit by the blazing Fires of Industry, Dawson's steam-punk* version of Anthony Burgess's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE features a soundtrack of Beethoven symphonies screened through the fractious filters of punk, thrash, and techno, then scribble scratched by a goggle-eyed DJ sitting atop a scaffolded clock tower that rises fifteen feet above the boards. Using an aesthetic he describes as "Quadrophenia meets Brave New World," Dawson collaborates with mod Finnish fashion designer Anu Susi, abandoning the sleazy seventies vibe of Kubrick's film for a sort of industrial elegance: tailored suits, swine snouted gas masks, huge buckled boots and, of course, the iconic bowler."
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE--is it the existing musical version or one of your own
The production is from the play (written twenty years after the book) by Anthony Burgess. It's not a musical per se, but there is plenty of music: a cross faded, beat juggled hodgepodge of new wave, folk, punk, techno, pop, and thrash (from Nelson Eddy to Rammstein), with Mott the Hoopla's youth anthem, "All the Young Dudes", serving as the perfect theme song (Bowie wrote it, not as a hymn to youth or glam, but as a "sequel" to Ziggy Stardust's apocalyptic "Five Years" --the "young dudes" are, in fact, bringing "news" of Armageddon).
What is the most intriguing thing about working on the stage? As someone who obviously has had hands-on experience with any number of the literary arts, why do you consider or even DO you consider yourself a playwright first and foremost?
I've always loved theater. I remember one time, in second grade, a group of actors did a presentation at my elementary school. They took us around the darkened gym in groups of ten and with only a handful of hats and some mouth-made sound effects (a submarine sonar, the short sharp screech of a spider monkey, etc.) they made us feel like we were exploring a jungle, then space, then the ocean. I think, in all my years of theater, I've been trying to recreate that sensation for other people.
Is there a burgeoning theatrical association with Middlesex County College that you have helped forge?
Nadine Heller, the newly appointed chair of the visual and performing arts department (she was the chair at Drexel just prior), had just moved into town, and her and her husband, a sculptor (in wax) of what can only be called minotaur nudes (barrel-chested and bison headed), began coming to the shop. We became friendly. They came to a couple events. She was extremely enthusiastic about what I was doing at the bookshop and we started talking about the ways we could bring some of those ideas to the college campus.
When you approach a work like CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which was first well-received as ANTHONY BURGESS's novel and then an iconic film directed by Stanley Kubrick, how do you strip away the previous adaptations to get at what you might find most unique about the story?
From the outset let me say, in no uncertain terms, we are not staging the film. When Stanley Kubrick wrote and directed the cult phenomenon, A ClockworkOrange, he clearly had his own vision, forcing Burgess's book through the groovy, free-lovin' (and occasionally incompatible) lens of swinging sixties London. To Burgess's chagrin, Kubrick also based his screenplay upon the novel's American (not British) edition, its crucial 21st chapter, in which Alex matures into an essentially upstanding adult, deleted at the insistence of the stateside publisher. This final chapter (addressed in the play's closing scene) brings to bear a vital leitmotif that the movie lacks.
In any case, what you have to do, of course, is find new ways to interpret the text and re-imagine the locations (my set is a mix of Victorian street, clock mechanism, and skateboard park). For the milk bar, Kubrick turned to fetishistic furniture-sculptor Allen Jones, who created the film's now iconic fiber glass nudes, crouched on the floor like Playboy Femlins. I, on the other hand, turned to local found-object artist Roy Chambers, who assembled a three foot cow skull from tuba parts, clock gears, a chrome Harley muffler, and a rusted shower head, (with "udders" made from brass spigots).
My interpretation (tailored suits instead of cricket whites, skater pads instead of codpeices, government issued gas masks instead of beaky Commedia dell'arte noses), pushed through the better suited (I think) lens of a comic book/video gaming sub-genre known as steam-punk (think Alan Moore), while certainly disturbing (and in no way declawed) is not odious in the way the film is. The production contains no graphic sex or violence (Burgess's novel is, after all, about adolescence, accordingly, I wanted high schools to attend) and, indeed, is almost elegant, in the way that, say, the murderous Three Penny Opera is elegant (my Alex, with his black suit and "flick-type britva" is very much a teenage MacHeath).
During a recent radio interview I was asked the following question, "In the age of Columbine, do you think schools will allow their students to see it?" Really? Is that what this is? The AGE of Columbine? But these Droogs (read "gang members") have more in common with skateboarders grinding handrails over at the mall. More in common with the rockers and mods of Quadrophenia, the Jets of West Side Story, than the high-schoolers of, say, Gus van Sant's Columbine-esque Elephant. Indeed, if we understand A Clockwork Orange as a satire, a fable, that the violence the Droogs commit is really a symbol for smoking, long hair, graffiti, truancy, chickie races, comic books, punk, whatever adolescents from various eras have done that the adult establishment didn't understand and, consequently, sought to control or halt, then we understand that the piece, with all its complex moral questions regarding "Goodness" and Freedom of Will, and its pointed criticism of behavioral psychology and totalitarianism, is really just about one thing: growing up.
Are you a very hands-on director or someone who delegates to long-time associates when putting together a new production?
Very, VERY hands on. In this instance, I was obligated to cast around 80% of the roles from Middlesex students, staff, and alumni. My main concern was finding Alex (who, in the audition notices, I described as Mack the Knife meets Ferris Bueller) among the MCC candidates. Like, say, Hamlet, A Clockwork Orange (the play) is essentially a one-man show with various characters (fifteen in total) orbiting the lead. I also needed someone with dance experience. The play has a strong element of movement with the Droogs clambering up ladders and over scaffolding and doling out a fair share of, shall we say, "balletic beatings". I found all this and more in T.J. McNeill, a brillant young Metuchen actor/dancer with Mick Jagger hips and the hopped up elocution of Robin Williams' cartoon genie.
What kind of impact do you want these productions to have on the audience?
With the shows I've proposed (The Shining, seriously, on stage next Halloween) I find myself sort of sharing a theatrical vision with Rushmore's wildly ambitious tenth grader, Max Fischer (who, in the movie, stages Serpico and Platoon). In the instance of A Clockwork Orange (and, I would assume, The Shining), the general reactions is, "Wait. What?!?" People seem intrigued by the trick of how the hell we'll manage it.
Do you think that in this economic climate that regional theater will have a resurgence, given that people are looking for entertainment closer to home these days?
Are they? Looking for entertainment close to home I mean? I'm not sure. The Raconteur itself suffers from what I call the Empire State Building syndrome. What New Yorker visits it? Yet if that same New Yorker goes to Paris, you can bet he'll scramble up the Eiffel Tower five times before dinner. In any case, I think there's a certain level of condescension towards NJ culture. And, as I've said before, the process of reconditioning suburban intellectuals and Central Jersey cognoscentes, who are sort of programmed to commute (Manhattan, natch) for anything cool, provocative, or accomplished, is quite an undertaking.