One of Canada’s finest playwrights is back with a powerful new play that explores the relationship formed in a Washington State penitentiary during the 1960s between Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis and Charles Manson. Recently we spoke with Mike Melski about his new work - which debuts this coming Thursday night in Halifax - and what audiences can expect during the run.
What inspired you to write Creepy & Little Manson?
I've been compelled by the Manson story for a long time. Professionally, I wanted to do something very different from Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad, The Fly Fisher's Companion, and Eighteen. I needed to challenge myself with something very different. My career began with very dark material like Joyride, Heartspent, and Black Silence, so I was looking forward to going back there for a change. When I realized Alvin Karpis was a Canadian, I felt like there was a connection to my home country there that had never been explored in all the narratives about Manson. And no one had looked at him as a younger man before the worst of his crimes. How did he become that way? I don't believe anyone is born evil, and nothing in genetic science has proven that. Alvin Karpis – who was the last public enemy number one, and also a contemporary of Dillinger and Al Capone - is a fascinating character in his own right. As a key figure in the Ma Barker gang, he's the one who introduces Charlie to the idea of family. So, as all these connections started to happen, I knew I had to write it.
What kinds of challenges were involved with putting it on the page?
I knew that casting Manson would be the biggest challenge, and it was. I had someone in mind who I thought would be great but it turned out he was unavailable. Then I auditioned a lot of people and no one really owned it. At the eleventh hour, Cheryl D'Eon at Cassidy Group mentioned a young actor she had in her roster and I said 'sure, put him on tape', I was getting depressed about it all. Then I saw Alex Purdy's audition and thought there was something there. It wasn't until we got into rehearsal that I realized how gifted a young actor he is. Other challenges? Every production has its own unique ones. Our production uses a synthesis of light, sound, music, shadows and projections, so it can be difficult to bring all those elements together in harmony. But I'm confident in the excellent team we have assembled that it will be magic. A small but important theatre like Eastern Front doesn't have a substantial marketing budget, but we're all getting the word out as best we can.
Why Karpis and Manson?
Another reason I wanted to write this show is that I wanted to explore the relationship between creativity and madness. By giving young Manson these guitar lessons, Karpis would spark his desire to be a great musician, and inadvertently, this would catalyze the most infamous mass murder of the 20th century. Why do thwarted artists, such as Adolph Hitler, become killers? Is the impulse to create closely tied with the impulse to destroy? What roles do media and fame play in at all? These seem to be fascinating and important questions about human nature, and worthy of investigation.
What kind of research was involved?
It was a four year writing process. I read and watched everything that was out there - books, interviews, documentaries, historical records to make sure I was getting the facts right. That said, it is a definitely a work of fiction, but based on those facts. Creative licenses were taken, but I feel that this play honors the essential truth of the characters. Many times, actual words spoken by the real people appear in the script. Dr. Ridgeway is a composite of many of the psychologists who examined young Charlie, and the real analyses are used in the play.
What did you learn during the process?
I guess I learned never to be in production on a play and in post-production on two feature films at the same time! It's been exhausting, but it was unavoidable due to scheduling, the NSFilm madness of last year, etc.
When did you know it would work on the stage?
At the Stages/Magnetic North reading in Spring 2014, we had three actors read it for a public audience and the reaction was very powerful. So that is the moment I felt it was going to ultimately work. Since then there have been many more rewrites and revisions, but essentially the story and arcs and structure have stayed true to that initial first draft reading.
What can audiences expect during the run?
Expect the unexpected. It's darkly funny, touching, and sometimes terrifying. Your sympathies and identification points will be challenged. You're not going to just passively watch this show, you're going to have an experience. When Charles Manson is on a stage 20 feet away from you, it's definitely not Netflix. We like our monsters to be monsters and banished to deep dark basements. This play brings the monster out of the basement and forces you to realize that the monster was once a human being. Someone at the first reading wrote: "I must say that we were COMPLETELY captivated by this reading. There are SO many fascinating layers to this script. It is tense and shocking with important moments of tenderness and kindness. The script and performance really linger in/on my mind." So I'd say that's what to expect - and some great 60's music as well.
What are your thoughts on the current state of theater in Nova Scotia?
It seems to be healthy, with a lot of great companies doing great work. I've been lucky to stay in Nova Scotia so far and still be able to do theatre and film.
What about the province's film and television sector?
That's another story. It's bleak. I think everyone on all sides of the issue knows the 'modification' of the tax credit was ill-advised and catastrophic. The new incentive fund is helpful and I managed to make my last film through this stream. We're all hoping to hear that government will continue to work with us to make the changes necessary to bring service productions back to NS and make it more realistic for NS filmmakers to get our projects off the ground and not have to leave the province.
Creepy & Little Manson
March 31-April 10
Neptune Studio, Halifaxwww.easternfronttheatre.com