Carrie White is going to the prom again, and this time the audience is invited to literally join her at the dance.
Director Brady Schwind has reconceived the musical Carrie as an audience-immersive theatre piece, which premieres at La Mirada Theatre in Southern California March 12 and continues through April 5. The space has been reconfigured to accommodate an audience of 250. "It's intimate but epic, because that's what I think the story is and what it requires," he says.
Schwind has been fascinated by the show since he was a teenager in Texas and read about it in Ken Mandelbaum's book, "Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops." He then found a bootleg recording of the score, and "fell in love" with the music. Many years later he saw a video of Terry Hands's RSC production, which became the legendary Broadway production that ran five performances in 1988. He was also in the audience in 2012 when Stafford Arima directed an Off-Broadway production that received mixed but respectful reviews. "I really liked how the material had been reevaluated and changed for that production," says Schwind. "And I immediately thought of doing Carrie as an environmentally immersive production. I think Stephen King's story has endured because the horror of the piece is rooted in the memory that we have of our own high school experiences. And because we all have memories to bring to this piece, I thought it would work as immersive theatre."
Schwind brought his idea to composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford and book writer Lawrence D. Cohen — who also wrote the screenplay for the 1976 Brian de Palma film — and they were eager to reexamine the material yet again. "They are still in love with the show, and they are very open to new ideas," says Schwind. Together they explored the material for two years, with the previous productions serving as a catalyst for this new incarnation.
"Terry Hands saw the show as a Greek myth, but he wasn't interested in the high school stuff," says Schwind. "Stafford had the idea of making the show a parable about high school bullying. He was not as interested in the supernatural aspects. But I feel the show is about many things and you have to hit on all of them. You have to make the audience care about these characters, and you must find plausibility in over-the-top situations.
Look Back at the Original Production of Carrie
"It's a horror piece and a visceral piece, and the audience wants to feel frightened. They want blood. They want it to be an overloaded sensory experience, because that's closer to the feeling that we all have in high school. I wanted this to be a Greek tragedy and a horror story and entertaining and fun. You should root for Carrie till she kills you."
At La Mirada, part of the audience will be in seating units that move throughout the piece, following the actors along. They'll also have the opportunity to get out of their seats and go to the prom. "We're hoping to dissolve the fourth wall so that the audience becomes one with the cast and characters by the end," says Schwind. Those who prefer to watch from a safe distance will also be accommodated. "To me, immersive theatre is about creating an environment in which people can choose their own adventure."
If successful, producers Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman (On the Town, Clybourne Park) plan for more productions. "It's a grand experiment," says Schwind. "I think some of the ideas we're playing around with have never been done before with a linear book musical. The audience will tell us what we've created."