By Chris Longo
The assignment: spend 24 hours inside of London’s stage adaptation of The Twilight Zone. Be a fly on the wall of the fifth dimension; a casual observer of the middle ground between light and shadow, science and superstition. It’s all exciting until it becomes daunting; I am an enthusiast of the touchstone anthology series, but I am no Rod Serling. Nevertheless, I’m sitting at a cafe inside the British Academy of Film and Television Arts building, and I feel theatrical in the West End. I begin a mock intro narration in my head as my first interviewee arrives.
Lunch scene. The present. You’re looking at Mr. Ron Fogelman. Occupation: Producer, the stage adaptation of “The Twilight Zone.” Mr. Ron Fogelman is a screenwriter at heart, and a relative newcomer to the world of theatre, but on this day he comes as a disciple of sacred texts. In just a moment, he’ll reveal how he secured the stage rights to an American television institution and his motivations for importing it abroad. Questions remain: What compelled him to bring an iconic series from screen to stage, and why is he the right man to carry on its legacy? If he should succeed, Mr. Fogelman will receive gratification that can only be procured after taking a final bow in… The Twilight Zone.
A hallmark of original run of The Twilight Zone was Serling’s knack for establishing a calming normalcy before ripping open a portal into the unknown. I can sense the oncoming tension: as a journalist and fan of The Twilight Zone, it’s in my DNA to remain skeptical about whether the production will do the series justice. Upon meeting Fogelman, I’m put at ease. We barely finish exchanging pleasantries before we launch into the summit of his vast Twilight Zone knowledge. His first order of business is to address why we’re sitting here, in London, talking about a series that changed American television.
“In America, The Twilight Zone is considered the Old Testament,” Fogelman says. “It’s the most influential television show, I think, in the history of TV for so many reasons. It never achieved the same status here as it rightfully had in America.”
When the anthology series premiered in 1959, England had only two channels and took on American imports like I Love Lucy and, later on, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. Fogelman, a Brit, fell in love with The Twilight Zone in the early ‘80s when the series first landed on British television. It gained a cult following as late-night programming.
“It’s exactly the kind of storytelling that British audiences love, traditionally, and the idea of bringing it to the stage and cutting past those prejudices of it being old or black and white and bringing that storytelling to an audience in a new way, that’s what was exciting,” he says of beginning the process to adapt The Twilight Zone for stage. Over the course of an hour-long lunch, it becomes clear that Fogelman has a command of the production and its lauded source material that could instill confidence in the staunchest of reboot and revival skeptics, the protectors of Rod Serling and the Old Testament.
Given the series’ underground, yet still beloved, status in the U.K., it was an unorthodox pitch when Fogelman approached Rupert Goold, the artistic director of London’s Almeida Theatre, with the idea to reimagine the series for stage. The prestigious venue, built in 1837, has a loyal following and is more likely to host Tennesee Williams or Shakespeare plays. “Quite surprisingly, they immediately got what we were trying to do,” Fogelman says.
The partnership with the Almeida kicked off a three-year process during which Fogelman and his producing team convinced CBS to grant the rights to use The Twilight Zone brand. “It took some time for me to convince CBS that we were the right people to go with,” he says. “They were right to put us through our paces.”
They also courted the blessing of the estates of Serling, and Twilight Zone screenwriters Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson (who is best known for his sci-fi classic I Am Legend) to adapt original episodes for stage, as selected by American playwright Anne Washburn, who was coming off a critically acclaimed Broadway run of Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play, and Olivier Award-winning director Richard Jones. (We spoke with Washburn about the adaptation process here).
Whether it was on the strength of The Twilight Zone brand or the Almeida Theatre’s devoted local followers, or some combination of both, the first incarnation of the play, which launched in December 2017, cashed in with a sold-out run. The demand for tickets and the Almeida’s rigid schedule led to a transfer to the larger Ambassadors Theatre in London’s West End for a run that began in March 2019. On the day I visit, they’re only weeks away from opening night. While there is no major overhaul to the play, Fogelman explains that they’re constantly tweaking the production and rewriting based on their experience at the Almeida.
In an era where IPs are mined like gold by producers, Fogelman’s drive was his affection for the original material, but he knew that could only go so far. “We really wanted to create something that had purpose for the stage,” he says. “This is really about storytelling. This is not about trying to cash in on a brand.”
The creative team spent two years writing, rewriting, and workshopping the play. Washburn and Jones sat in the CBS offices and watched the entire series, eventually narrowing it down to 20 to 30 episodes that could potentially be adapted for the stage.
Ultimately they decided on eight original Twilight Zone stories for the stage: “And When The Sky Was Opened,” “Eye of the Beholder,” Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?,” ”Little Lost Girl,” “The Long Morrow,” “Nightmare as a Child,” “Perchance to Dream,” and “The Shelter.”
“There are some episodes, which are terrific, which we could not do on stage,” says Washburn. “There was one episode that I thought you could not do on stage, which is ‘Eye of the Beholder’ but which Richard [Jones] kept holding on to it and found an alternative way of bringing it in.”
Instead of running off episodes like a TV marathon, they interweaved the eight stories, adding a level of suspense even for Twilight Zone diehards. The sets and props are all practical and lo-fi. As Fogelman put it, they wanted an “anti-CGI production.” It’s all tied together by narration from Rod Serling himself, using audio from the original episodes.
“It felt crucial that he be there because I feel like it’s not just that he created the whole show, and engineered so many of the episodes,” Washburn says. “A huge part of what has made the show last is the gravitas he brings to it, both in terms of how he supervised it and his presence. There’s something about him which is simultaneously exciting and gray. He has both moral heft and something kind of weird and saturnine.”
After we wrap lunch, our next stop is rehearsals. On the tube, Fogelman and I continue to discuss how the legacy of The Twilight Zone grows with each passing year. We wonder aloud about the Jordan Peele-produced reboot and if it will bring a level of quality that surpasses previous attempts to revive the series.
“What’s gonna be fascinating for the Jordan Peele show, and he’s a master craftsman in his own right as a storyteller, is that you’ve got someone holding up that lens to look at the way we are today,” he says. “It’s time for us to do that.”
As our train approaches the Highbury & Islington station, Fogelman informs me that the rehearsal space is the Sunday school hall of Union Chapel, a working church and concert venue. We’re buzzed into the chapel and I follow Fogelman through a series of creaky doorways. Every door seems like the kind you need a secret knock for. I am not a tall man, but I strain my head walking through narrow, claustrophobic hallways with arched, low-hung ceilings. I am relieved that my expectations of witnessing rehearsal in a large, mostly empty theatre are not met, as I prefer portals into the unknown. I lag behind as I gaze at the Gothic revival relics inside the church, which was built in the 1870s.
We reach the Sunday school hall and Fogelman carefully pries open the door. Quietly, we shuffle in. The actors are finishing a scene from “The Shelter,” and well over a dozen people from the production team sit at tables, making notes of every movement.
For the actors, it’s an unconventional production. Each actor plays multiple parts. Since the stories are interwoven, they have precious little time to get into the right headspace before a scene.
“It’s hard with a show that’s so fast-paced and scenes changing so quickly,” says actor Adrianna Bertola, who returns from the Almeida run.
She continues: “It’s like switching over TV channels. When you start rehearsals it does prove quite hard to try and switch between characters really quickly but be authentic to that character. You never really switch off. You always have to be on for like two and a half hours. You just have to be… I was gonna say ‘in the zone’ or some awful pun like that. Everyone kind of helps each other because we all know how much each of us has to do to keep things running smoothly in a show like this.”
Bertola, Oliver Alvin-Wilson, and Neil Haigh all returned from the first run and helped assimilate the new cast members. It was the audience during the Almeida run though that helped provide a roadmap to making the proper tweaks to the show.
“Richard and Anne have kind of learned what the audience likes and what worked and what didn’t,” says Bertola of what’s changed for the West End. “Everyone from cast and creative side of things has taken something from last time. Maybe it works in the rehearsal room but it didn’t work up there or maybe the other way around. So I think everyone’s just learned a lot from the audience.”
Nearly every actor I speak with that day eventually brings up “The Shelter” as one of the play’s most powerful and resonate stories and the one that drew a visceral reaction from the crowds. The episode originally aired on September 29th, 1961. Lamont Johnson directed the Serling script, in which Larry Gates stars as a suburban doctor named Bill Stockton who built a fallout shelter with enough room for him, his wife Grace (Peggy Stewart), and their 12-year old son, Michael. When the government announces an impending UFO threat over the radio, people in the neighborhood realize Dr. Stockton is the only person on the street who took the necessary precautions to save his family. The episode turns ugly as Stockton’s neighbors give into fear and mob mentality.
“The great thing about ‘The Shelter’ is not that it isn’t preachy, it is preachy actually, but it’s just such a great tense setup,” says Washburn of including the episode in the play. “It’s just such a clear discussion. And it’s completely plausible, it’s utterly plausible. It’s exactly what happens. I would say it was very much in our heads, and again it was the whole question of what’s real and what isn’t real felt present.”
“The Shelter” is top of mind for Fogelman when I ask him what stories in the play could move a British audience that might not be familiar with The Twilight Zone.
“Some people accused me of being in league with the North Korea regime because when the play was first launched at the Almeida, that was the time when all the conversation about North Korea and nuclear rivalry was beginning to resurface again,” he says. “I thought that this was all in the past. And then, suddenly, it’s right in the forefront again. At that time, the story felt even more prescient than ever. But that wasn’t intentional. I don’t know anyone in North Korea.”
Fogelman continues: “[The episode] did it in its own style, but it was looking at civil rights, it was looking at racism, it was looking at greed, it was looking at all the things that sort of were wrong and not functioning in society at that time.”
Sixty years on, similar fears persist. “It’s a little outdated in that I included a black couple in it, which wasn’t the case in the original,” Washburn says. “In the original episode, it’s much more of Italian and Jewish foreigners as the focus of it. Yes, [the political climate] was absolutely in our heads.”
Drawing a parallel to fears that stoked Brexit, actor Matthew Steer says the scenes from “The Shelter” will deeply unsettle audiences: “It’s scary, it’s terrifying. Could we be that person? Could we gang up on [our neighbors], break down their door, and spout stuff we subconsciously thought about them for years?”
In Mark Dawidziak’s excellent book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in The Twilight Zone, the author finds a hopeful subtext in the episode from Serling. “For the human race to remain civilized, the humanity we share ultimately must prove stronger than those very human frailties that constantly are working to divide us,” Dawidziak writes. “Serling believed we could find that strength. He gave us nightmares as a way of pushing us toward that dream.”
Whether it’s on a ‘60s TV set or in a weeknight performance at a central London theater, stories like “The Shelter” have a timeless throughline. Part of what made the writing of Serling, Beaumont, and Matheson connect was their ability to transport us into their world. Episodes of the original Twilight Zone often opened with idyllic settings emblematic of the white flight of the 1950s and ‘60s: front porches, barbeques, local watering holes, friendly neighbors, and community writ large. “An ordinary scene, an ordinary city. Lunchtime for thousands of ordinary people,” Serling establishes at the beginning of “Perchance to Dream,” an adaptation of Charles Beaumont’s short story. “This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street in the last calm and reflective moment – before the monsters came,” Serling says in the opening of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” It was telegraphed misdirection. The show’s monsters, invaders, and demons were usually in our own backyards and looked just like us.
“It’s the 60th anniversary. We’ve gone from black and white to color. Fashion’s changed. But have we really moved on as a species since that time?” Fogelman questions.
The stories selected for The Twilight Zone play reflect the frightening reality that history will repeat itself as long as we let it. For the stage production, the burden of legacy is light only because the words of Rod Serling are and will always be relevant. Where the play will stand on its own is if it leads audiences to view the material through a new dimension.
“Doing the stage version allows us to delve deeper into what the actual themes of each of the episodes are,” says actor Alisha Bailey. “And you can do that with theater, you want to give the audience a sense of what the stories are about, like a feeling almost. And I think the sound, lighting, even the set design lends itself to giving the audience that experience.”
Based on their ticket sales data for the Almeida run, 48 percent of the people that attended that play were first-timers to the theater, which indicates a healthy mix of Twilight Zone fans and traditional theater-goers.
“I hope very much that they enjoy the show, but I also hope it also sends people off to look at the original series as well,” Washburn says. “And for Americans who are visiting and watching, I hope it’s a different way of considering it. I hope it’s a way of considering it as part of the American psyche. Not just the American experience. I feel both it captured a huge part of what the American psyche is and then it also, in a little way, created the American psyche.”
Fogelman becomes most animated with excitement when he recalls how fellow Brits, who might not have been aware of the series, have reacted to the play. During one Saturday performance, he was sitting next to a couple he guessed were in their mid-80s. The older couple told Fogelman they go to the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theater and frequently attend shows at the Almeida. They admitted they knew very little about The Twilight Zone coming into it. “I sat there expecting them to really hate it,” he says.
“What was fascinating was that I could tell that he was really enjoying it. And halfway through the man said, ‘This is really good. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen The Twilight Zone. Do you watch it at all?’ I declared that I did. And then the man turned around to his wife next to him and said, ‘What did you think, darling?’ And then she, with a truth in her eyes, put up her thumb and just raised it in front of a grin.”
Chris Longo is the deputy editor and print editor of Den of Geek. You can find him on Twitter @east_coastbias. Images courtesy of Matt Crockett.