The Twilight Zone is one of the most famous shows in US TV history. Although not quite the original US ‘anthology show’ – indeed, it started off as an episode of precursor CBS anthology show The Desilu Playhouse – it is the best known.
A science-fiction, fantasy, psychological-supernatural horror anthology show created by Rod Serling, it ran for five seasons from 1959 to 1964. Each standalone episode depicted characters dealing with paranormal, futuristic, Kafka-esque, or otherwise disturbing or unusual events that are said to have taken place in ‘The Twilight Zone’.
Famously, of course, each story typically featured a moral or surprise ending. I say famously, but there are few people who could probably tell you even one of those endings without prompting, since it’s one of those shows that’s famous without many people actually having seen any episodes of it – or of its numerous remakes, of which a new one is being developed even as I type.
At a push, people might remember its later theme tune and title sequence:
They’ll have forgotten the original one completely, mind.
They might also remember creator Rod Serling’s frequent on-screen introductions and conclusions to episodes.
But individual episodes? Not so much.
For the most part, The Twilight Zone has entered the realm of the meme – a shorthand for the weird and unexplainable, and stories with weird aliens and stings in their tails. Although, to be honest, that’s more The Outer Limits people are thinking of. Indeed, you can reduce the ‘stings’ of all 156 episodes down to just 10 minutes if you try really hard.
Adapting The Twilight Zone for the stage
Which makes adapting it for the stage, as The Almeida Theatre in North London has done, potentially both easy and hard. Easy, because if no one can remember the episodes, no one’s going to be fussed if you either simply stage one as written or divert from it and change it in some way; hard, because you’ve little to latch onto.
Indeed, the question is what you’re actually going to adapt. Director Tom Brennan explains some of the technical issues:
So the TV show was like a kind of theatre, and in turn the theatre show is based on TV. It’s a strange transference of forms. There are certainly many questions that arise when thinking about the legacy of the show and its new manifestation on stage.
- How do you do a pre-commercial break cliff-hanger onstage?
- How do you create a high-concept perspective twist with no camera?
- What is the best form for building tension?
- What is the best form for creating a sense of the paranoid, the mysterious, the genuinely strange?
But at a more basic level, even if you think of each episode as a play, it’s still a play that’s only 50 minutes long and that relies on filmic rather than theatrical techniques for the most part. And which can be pastiched as a mere twist.
John Landis and others showed us one way of doing it back in 1983 with The Twilight Zone: The Movie. That simply took three classic episodes of the show, added in a new one, and then created ‘bookend’ scenes around them.
What does writer Anne Washburn do at The Almeida? Well, let’s just say not only is a bit different to that, it’s also a bit more North London.
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