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April 12, 2010

Op-Ed: Comics and Drama Meet!


By John C. Weaver, Ph.D., English teacher at Williamsport Area High School in Pennsylvania

Act 1: The Exposition (Conceiving a Production)
For the past 12 years, I have been directing plays at Williamsport Area High School, mostly Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet, among others. Last year, however, I conceived the desire to direct Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, about a university professor who sells his soul to the devil for 24 years of power, knowledge, and wealth. Despite his lofty ambitions, by the end of the play, all Faustus manages to do is pull a lot of pranks on the pope, a stable owner, a soldier, a man who carts hay, and so on. Several characters ask him to repent and return to God over the course of the story, but he ignores them and gets dragged to Hell at the end.
The story of a man who surrenders up his immortal soul for material gain has relevance for today, for how many people, including perhaps ourselves, have sacrificed their core values for a little bit of money, or property, or authority. I love the moral point of Doctor Faustus, but since my plays need to reach the students that act in them and the audience watching them, I spend quite a bit of time developing a vision for the show that is meaningful for the actors. If the actors buy into it, reaching the audience is a cakewalk.
Last year, while contemplating my production of Doctor Faustus, I was also writing a couple articles for GraphicNovelReporter about teaching Watchmen in the classroom. In the first piece, I mentioned that the earliest comics I read and enjoyed were black and white reprints of EC’s Tales from the Crypt. The article reminded me of how much I loved those comics, so I went back and reread them while I was also pondering how to mount my production of Faustus.
At some point, Tales from the Crypt and Doctor Faustus became mixed up in my head, and I could only see Marlowe’s play in terms of the over-the-top imagery in EC’s New Trend comics. The final image, of Faustus being torn apart by demons, I came to see as the dozens of endings of Tales where the living dead come to give the villain his comeuppance. (George Romero’s living dead films were also a strong inspiration.) Thus, a vision was born—my Doctor Faustus must become a living, breathing comic.
Act 2: The Rising Action (Bringing a Comic to Life)
How to present a stage play as a comic took a while for me to figure out. One idea was easy. In Marlowe’s play, a character named “Chorus” comes onstage periodically to give a preview of coming events. I changed the Chorus into a comic book writer who was onstage the whole show sitting at an artist’s desk, sketching out the play. A puppet master, he created the action with his pencil. By chance, Brian, my Chorus, is a Marvel Comics fan and has a number of comics T-shirts; he also is a budding comic book artist. Manga characters are his forte.
But to develop a comic book production, I needed more than a single character. After throwing out quite a few ideas, I remembered the 1982 George Romero/Stephen King collaboration Creepshow. Each short film was preceded by a comic panel that dissolved into live action, and then the last live-action frame reverted to a comic. My idea was to project comic book panels depicting the scenes of the play on a screen above the stage. One of the comic panels I definitely needed to have was the final one, where the demons come for Faustus, which is included along with others in this article. I envisioned Faustus as an EC hero/villain who is attacked by the living dead at the end, with the characteristic “Good Lord!” speech bubble in the final frame.
Having decided how to represent comics in this production, I originally thought to have students in the art department draw the comic panels that we would project. This plan I ultimately dismissed, because our art students are very busy on schoolwork and in putting together their portfolios throughout the year. Finally, I decided to take digital photos of my own actors and use Comic Life to get the look and speech bubbles of the comic, which turned out to be a better idea anyway. Because the panels looked like the actors, it was easier for the audience to identify the characters on the screen than actual drawn comics would have been. The speech bubbles used Marlowe’s own language. We projected the panels using PowerPoint.
To advertise the play, I had my niece, Sara Van Allen, draw a comic book splash page of Doctor Faustus, showing him being dragged to Hell. For the program, I laid out the panels I had already created like a comic book, rather than the prose synopsis I usually write for my shows.

Act 3: The Complication (Or, Had We But World Enough and Time)
To take the photographs for the comic panels, we had to wait until the last couple of weeks, when the costumes were mostly set. (In fact, costumes weren’t entirely completed until opening night.) I made storyboards of the photos beforehand and spent several days after rehearsal taking the pictures. The only backdrops we had were a black cinderblock wall and an ugly butterscotch curtain, both of which are clearly visible even with the distortions of Comic Life.
Two other things complicated the photos. First, and most important, is that I am a lousy photographer who used a cheap digital camera that kept going in and out of focus. My actors were troopers, though, and dealt with my artistic limitations. Second, since this is high school, some students were sick for quite a while, and others were on vacation and could not show up to rehearsal during the crucial week we took the pictures. I had about six fewer pictures than I wanted, so the production had a few dead spots with no projected comic panels. However, the idea was well-received, and the audience really liked the program that utilized the doctored photos.
Finally, merely to amuse myself, I added a PowerPoint that we ran before the show began, which scrolled the 1954 Comics Code rules against horror comics, illustrated with old horror comic covers. Given that the demons became the living dead in our show and that we used gallons of fake blood, the Comics Code’s rules against the walking dead and the excessive gore made me giggle each night.

Act 4: The Collaboration (Adding a Musical Score)
The summer before my show, I was having dinner with one of the high school’s choir directors, Erik Clayton, a talented musician and arranger. He mentioned casually that he would like to write incidental music for a play someday, so, recognizing an opportunity when I saw one, I asked if he would like to score Doctor Faustus. Erik agreed right away.
After I cast the show, Erik and I had a production meeting during which we discussed a direction for the play and its music. He grew up watching the 1980s Tales from the Crypt TV show, and we both loved the 1960s B horror movies, including Night of the Living Dead. Through our discussions, we decided the cheesy electronic music of those films would be best. He helped me fine tune my production, which led me to teach my actors to abandon realism and play the parts in an overwrought, exaggerated, B-movie style. Erik’s score was perfect for the show, and he played it live, which added spontaneity and dramatic immediacy to the production.

Act 5: The Climax (Or, Enough About Me)
So far, my goal has been to show how a 400-year-old play can be produced like a live comic book. But the fact is, this article cannot capture the brilliance that was Doctor Faustus. For all the flash of my ideas, this play was about the actors, who ranged from ninth through twelfth grade. All of them threw themselves into the production, and though I taught them entrances and exits and gave them acting advice ad nauseum, in the end, virtually none of my directing appeared in the finished product. They had made the play their own. It occurred in the high school’s Black Box Theater, which was the old wood shop, but now just a big open space. The actors were surrounded on three sides by audience, and they played to the crowd shamelessly, much to my—and the audience’s—delight. They looked them in the eye, sat on their laps, handed them props, and did dozens of things I never thought of.
Doctor Faustus was not about me in the end, and really, it was not about comics. It was about Jonah and Ryan, A.J. and Megan, Liz, Richard, Sarah, Kaitlyn, John, Jocelyn, Brian, Alex and Emma, Nate, Mike, Stefan, Evan and Tanya. Working as a team, each individual capitalized on the work of the others. They made me laugh, they made me cry, and they gave me the shivers each time I watched them. Then, after they cleaned up at the end of the last performance, they walked away, zombie makeup still intact, and Faustus dissolved into the night.

The Dénouement (An Epilogue)
No one can doubt the influence of comic books and graphic novels in early 21st-century America. We teach them in our schools, bookstores sell them by the score, and, most profitably, movie studios use them for inspiration.
So, to me it made sense to take the next step: use comics for perhaps our oldest performing art, one that dates back to the misty days of ancient Greece—drama. Using two different media in this way—along with a good dose of George Romero—allows both a 16th-century play and a 20th-century art form to cross-pollinate, and it yields a lovely hybrid that proves meaningful to both student-actors and their audiences.