The Twilight Zone On Stage: go behind the scenes with the West End play

We talk to the creatives behind The Twilight Zone West End play

With an original run on television from 1959-1964, TV revivals in the 80s and 2000s, plus a film, a radio show and references across all media (not to mention another TV reboot starting next month), The Twilight Zone found a new home in 2018 on the London stage. After a sell-out run at Islington’s Almeida Theatre, the show has now begun a run at the West End’s Ambassadors Theatre. SciFiNow spoke to the writer and producer about staging a legend.

‘I don’t feel like I ever discovered it, it was just always there,’ says writer Anne Washburn of the TV show. ‘In America it’s part of your ambient cultural experience. As we were coming up with the episodes to use, the question that I would ask people was, “which Twilight Zone episode traumatised you as a child?” That was my lead-in. I think most Americans would say of The Twilight Zone that at some point, when you’re a little bit too young, somehow seeing it and forever being slightly scarred by it.’

In Britain, of course, it wasn’t the same. ‘I grew up on books like Gary Girani’s Fantastic Television, and I read Starlog magazine,’ says producer Ron Fogelman. ‘I think it was Starlog 11, there was one of the first episode guides that I’d ever seen. It was green pages and it listed this show, and it had these amazing images. It was that deep sense of denial, frustration that you knew something was there that was so perfect for you and that you were denied it because there was no opportunity to see it. It was that long waiting, yearning to see a show that I’d only heard about and read about, and then finally seeing it when, in the early 80s, it was broadcast here for the first time, late night, and seeing something that was quite incredible, but is very underestimated here.’

The slightly unknown quantity of the show in the UK was one of the reasons that Ron was so keen to stage it in London.  ‘Everyone knows the theme tune, it’s shorthand for all things that are eerie. Everyone knows the expression. It’s used on national news, so if anything strange happens in the world today – and, let’s face it, pretty much everything is strange in the world today – you will find journalists using the term ‘Twilight Zone’, and yet we don’t really know – at least most people, probably outside of your readership – just what it really all means, the storytelling that it all emerges from, and just how important Rod Serling’s series has been to the landscape of genre in film, literature, TV, and now, we hope, stage.’

Described as ‘an ingenious mixture of morality tales, fables and fantasy’, The Twilight Zone play is Washburn’s adaptation of eight original episodes from the show, based on stories by creator Rod Serling as well as frequent contributors Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Washburn worked in close collaboration with director Richard Jones to bring the stories to a 21st century theatre audience.

The first stage of the process was securing the rights from CBS, something which took Ron three years. ‘That was a case of making sure, quite rightly, that we were the right people to go with in terms of looking after the show and taking it to the theatre.’ Having found the right theatre to launch the show in, they needed to find right creative team to carry it to the stage. ‘We spoke to the Almeida about working on the show together, and the first thing was, who would be the right kind of people to bring on board to work on the project? In looking at all the different names that were out there, we settled on Richard Jones – who’s a seven-time Olivier winner, who’s got incredible range, from dealing with world-class opera, he’s working on a Czech opera for the Royal Opera House right now, to amazing theatre. We knew that we had someone very interesting with Richard. [Almeida Associate Director] Rob Icke had worked on Mr Burns, Anne’s previous play. The idea of putting Richard and Anne, who’d never worked together before, just seemed like an interesting combination.’ The prospect was an enticing one for Anne: ‘The Almeida called me up and said, “are you interested in working on The Twilight Zone with Richard Jones?” and I thought both of those ideas sounded very exciting.’

There followed a lengthy process of translation from show to stage. ‘First I watched every single episode,’ remembers Anne. ‘Then sort of narrowed it down to thirty, and then Richard and I sat down together in CBS’s offices in New York and watched these thirty episodes. We narrowed it down and wrote things on index cards and sort of roughed out a structure. ‘

Washburn has a keen understanding of the cultural importance of television: ‘I think in America it’s incredibly important because we are such a disparate culture, and such a disparate collection of cultures, anything that unifies us is important. I know that every country and every culture is dealing with television in a different way, but I think for us it’s been really crucial – I almost hate to say it! It has a real value as a cultural touchstone.’

While the television show is an undoubted classic, this does not automatically guarantee a successful stage play. The reviews would suggest, however, that they found the right formula to make it work. ‘What Anne and Richard came up with is a play that involves choreography, it involves music, it involves a lot of score,’ says Ron. ‘There are eight of the original stories in the show – some of them are very faithful to the original script, one of two of them we’ve found an interesting way of representing the story. This is all interwoven in an interesting way. It’s got the mechanism of a Swiss carriage clock. We’ve got an amazing set designer called Paul Steinberg, we’ve got a world class choreographer called Aletta Collins, and every plot move, every movement, is choreographed so that scene changes and everything else are elegantly delivered, and that’s part of the experience and part of the joy that the audience has is seeing that in motion. Hopefully they won’t notice just how much hard work the cast and the production team have actually put in to delivering that – the audience’s job is to enjoy the show and enjoy the storytelling – but the work that goes behind the scenes has been incredible.’

What is it about The Twilight Zone that has given it this longevity? For Anne, there are a number of factors: ‘I think one is the visual charisma, which is why Richard Jones, who is a very charismatically visual thinker – and also just kind of a mad genius – is such a beautiful person to be working on it. He doesn’t try to recreate the visuals of the show but the dynamism that he brings to that is sort of an equivalent to the visual dynamism of the show. Then I think the parableistic nature of it. I think it was such a great combination of lurid fantasia and genuine moral seriousness. I mean, Rod Serling really got into this thinking he was throwing his career away, honestly, and thinking he was throwing away his right to be regarded as a serious writer, but he was so compelled by it and wanted to do it, so he sort of said ‘fuck it’. I think he really thought it was a way that you could tell serious stories and touch upon serious topics indirectly. He brought a seriousness to it, and I think that that has been part of what’s made it last. It just feels a little more comprehensively thoughtful.’

‘The buzzword in theatre is ‘urgency’,’ explains Ron, ‘When you bring a play to an audience, is there a real purpose? What’s fascinating is just how relevant these stories remain, how powerful they still are today. Looking at the time, America had just come out of the era of McCarthyism, it was a time of change, civil rights, and the show was very much focused on things like prejudice and racism and man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. Things that concerned that group of writers at that time are just as relevant today as they were then. Anne did a beautiful job of looking to see how to adapt in a responsible way but at the same time to make sure that an audience of 2019 will be able to enjoy it but also feel challenged by it, in the same way that audiences at the time it originally came out on television would have done.’

The show had an incredibly successful sell-out run at the Almeida. ‘Forty-eight percent of the audience were first-time visitors to the Almeida, which I think is a record for the theatre, and many of them were coming to the theatre for the first time, and that was part of the show that was genuinely exciting.’ The show is making its West End debut at the Ambassadors Theatre. ‘The reason why we’ve chosen the Ambassadors Theatre, is that the atmosphere and the audience are an essential part of the show, and the design of the Ambassadors is perfect,’ says Ron. ‘It’s intimate, it’s just the right size. The audience will be able to feed off each other as much as enjoy the show itself.’

This isn’t the first time that The Twilight Zone has been recreated, and it’s not going to be the last. This repetition is important to Anne Washburn. ‘I think that’s the whole point of stories. I think our first impulse towards storytelling is children will see something they think is interesting, or disturbing – usually the same thing (kids!) – and they sort of recreate it, and they recreate it over and over and over, and they come up with different variants. And some of it they feel has to be the same way every time, and some of it they are interested in changing. I feel like, as a culture, we work with these things in exactly the same way. If something’s fascinating to people, they kind of need to wrap their brain around it by messing with it. As long as a story has genuine potency, I think people are going to want to make it their own, or to shift into a different way of thinking about it, both because they find that satisfying, to rethink it, and because that’s also such a potent way of communicating with other people, to take a story they already know and to give it to them in a slightly different way. It’s such a deep way of talking with each other.’

The Twilight Zone is currently playing at the Almeida Theatre. Find out more here.