In 2016, I directed The Elephant Man at Springs Ensemble Theatre. The play was a hit and I still have people come up to me and talk about the way we staged the play and how it helped tell the story of John Merrick. I worked with an incredibly talented ensemble, including my favorite musicians The Rogue Spirits, and feel we made strong connection with the audience and were successful in our retelling.
Here is my director’s note from the play:
The Elephant Man is one of the first plays saw when I was in high school, over 15 years ago now, and it was always one of those plays that sat with me. I’ve always had a fascination with how we as people treat each other and especially how we treat individuals who are different than ourselves. This play in particular touches on so many different elements with the relationship between Merrick and Ross (who do we take advantage of?), Merrick and his patrons (do we commit acts of charity out of altruism or selfishness?), Merrick and Mrs. Kendall (how do we express our sexuality?), Merrick and Bishop How (what does God have to do with it?), and, most importantly to me, Merrick and Treves (how do we reconcile what we can’t control?). Bernard Pomerance has created an excellent script full of mirroring and deep meaning, but with unique problems for our space.
First of all, The Elephant Man is a very commonly produced play that many theatregoers have already seen. Bradley Cooper finished his run on Broadway as Merrick in 2015. Before Cooper, plenty of other well-known actors have taken their turn, including John Hurt who was also in the 1980 David Lynch film with Anthony Hopkins as Treves. Also, the size of the cast provides limitations in our space. Without doubling up roles, the play would require 20 actors in our 26×27 foot space. Then, there are locations spanning from London to Belgium, inside and outside the London Hospital, and other places in London. Finally, I wanted this to be something original and interesting, not your typical Elephant Man. So, we had to simplify. Bri, my coproducer, assistant director, and scenic designer (we always wear a lot of hats at SET) collaborated to make the world our characters create the play in.
We decided to create a play within a play. Our actors are playing a group of Americans in the late 1890s who frequently tour the countryside with melodrama (and perhaps a faked side show or two). When they heard the story of Joseph Merrick, referred to in the play as John, they decided to create a show about what they think happened in the London Hospital. What you are witnessing is their stop in Colorado Springs around the year 1897. They are joined by SET’s favorite time-traveling musicians, The Rogue Spirits who provide a musical backdrop for the story they’re telling.
I hope you enjoy this production and that you come away with questions and insight into how you would respond both to Merrick and if you were Merrick. We are all flawed and flawless in our ways, and we often spend time trying to fix things that aren’t broken and will all have to face our mortality at some point. The Elephant Man helps bring those questions to light and helps us find the answers within ourselves. Enjoy!
Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.
—Poem used by Joseph Merrick to end his letters, adapted from “False Greatness” by Isaac Watts