Inside the Playwrights Project – José Casas

Jose Casas3
José Casas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

It’s Alive!

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the grandfather of modern science fiction. Her tale of the creation of artificial life and consciousness spawned a long line of descendants. That family tree includes James Whale’s iconic adaptation of Shelley’s novel, Metropolis, 2001, Blade Runner, and HBO’s Westworld series. When playwright José Casas joined The Playwrights Project at Florida Studio Theatre, he decided to adapt Shelley’s classic as a production for young audiences, in a contemporary American setting with Latinx dialogue. We recently spoke to Casas about his shocking plans to bring a new Frankenstein to life on stage.

What does Frankenstein mean to you?

I always felt bad for the Creature. He’s not really a monster; he’s somebody else’s creation. He ultimately pays the price for the sins of his creator.

How is your Creature different?

In my adaptation, he’s less of a monster and more of an “Other.”

So, your Creature is much more human, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Yes. The girl who creates him feels like she’s an “other,” too. A lot of us feel that way.

I understand you’re working on a Latinx adaptation. Does that mean it will be bilingual?

Yes. 99.9% of my work is bilingual. In my version of Frankenstein, the dialogue will be in both Spanish and English.

What’s the dramatic logic behind bilingual dialogue?

It’s really character logic – and that’s a reflection of who we are in this country. My Frankenstein is an American story. And in today’s America, people speak Korean, they speak Spanish, they speak English…they use sign language. I’m not using language to signify: “These people are different.” It’s a way of saying: “This is who we are.” I’m looking at the connective tissues of the spoken word. Language can be a great way to build bridges, especially with young audiences.

You described your Frankenstein as “an American story.” Can I assume you’re changing the setting and time period?

I am – and I think my use of language makes that necessary.

Why is that?

If you’re writing a bilingual play, your dialogue should reflect the cultures behind the different languages. I never want to use Spanish for Spanish’s sake; there should always be an organic reason in the lives of the characters. So, in my adaptation of Frankenstein, I’m taking the story out of the Bavarian Alps and setting it in contemporary East L.A. It’s a mixed neighborhood. You’d hear Spanish, English…many different languages. You’ll hear that in my play, too. But I’m just being true to life.

Aside from language, what other changes did you make?

I’ll tell you my biggest change…in my adaptation, the scientist who brings the Creature to life is an elementary school girl, not a guy. I’m changing gender as well! It’s a very important concept, and it transforms the tone of the story.

Without giving too much away, how does an elementary school girl reanimate dead tissue? And why?

Well, she’s creating it for a science fair. (laughs)

Of course! And where’d she learn her skills?

Oh, she’s very intelligent. And the girl’s parents are scientists, too. They’re stationed at the North Pole and can’t take her with them, so she’s been staying with her abuelo – her grandfather – and he’s an artist. So, the garage doubles as his art gallery and her laboratory. It’s a very important space, especially in the scene when she reanimates the Creature.

I’m assuming it’s an electrifying scene.

Oh, it will be! There will definitely be electricity. But I’m also reframing that scene, in terms of culture. There’s a Chicano/Mexican holiday called Dia de los Muertos – The Day of the Dead. On that day, we give thanks and honor our ancestors. It’s a very colorful celebration, with parades and altars full of marigolds. It’s the day when this world and the next world come very close together. It also happens to be the day that she decides to create life. It’s a nice dichotomy of life and death.

Speaking of life and death – it looked like the pandemic had killed live theater. How did you feel when The Playwrights Project gave it new life?

Happy, astonished, grateful, relieved – I felt so many things! I think what Florida Studio Theatre is doing with this project is really fantastic. I didn’t realize the full extent of this project until I got into it. It’s not just theater for young audiences – it’s drama and comedy for the Mainstage, sketch comedy, Cabaret – you name it. It’s such a positive thing, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for professional playwrights. Theaters are closing down and canceling seasons. But this project says: Theater will come back — and we want you to keep creating. We’re still looking for real stories that touch people. Let’s look beyond this thing, stay positive, and keep writing. I think that’s wonderful.

José Casas is a playwright, director, and actor, and also an assistant professor of playwriting at the University of Michigan. He’s working on two Theatre for Young Audiences plays for FST’s Playwrights Project. These include a contemporary Latinx adaptation of Frankenstein and a currently untitled play about a young female boxer in training with her father.