Always a favorite, 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' hits Prime Stage Theater
The goal of Prime Stage Theatre is to “bring literature to life,” according to founder and artistic director Wayne Brinda. The forthcoming production of Stephen Chbosky's “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” checks all the right boxes even if it's a departure from the company's penchant for producing stage versions of classical literature.
“It's a book that speaks to a lot of people,” Brinda says. “A lot of people have said this book has saved my life, this book is me. A lot of people have personal connections to this book. With the idea of bringing literature to life, that's what literature should be doing.”
When “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” was published in 1999, Chbosky was just happy to see his book in print. He had no idea that 18 years later his coming-of-age story would still be selling about 2,000 copies per week. Or that he would direct a film version in 2012 in Pittsburgh. Nor could Chbosky have fathomed he'd write the script for the recent blockbuster “Beauty and the Beast” or direct “Wonder,” a film starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Mandy Patinkin that's slated to be released in November.
But what means the most to the Upper St. Clair graduate cannot be listed on a resume.
“Usually once a month I'll get a letter or a message from someone who says the book really means a lot to them, or changed their life,” Chbosky says. “It's a wonderful thing.”
“Perks” is often compared to “The Catcher in the Rye,” J.D. Salinger's seminal coming-of-age novel published in 1951. The protagonists, Charlie Kelmeckis in “Perks” and Holden Caulfield in “Catcher,” are both embarking on journeys that change their lives.
“For me that's kind of where it ends,” Brinda says. ”Holden Caulfield goes to New York and has all these experiences in New York City, where Charlie is having all these experiences in his high school. I think that, in some ways (‘Perks') is much more personal.”
The film version of “Perks” featured many locations in Pittsburgh. Notably there was the scene when Emma Watson's character, Sam, stands in the bed of a truck as it speeds through the Fort Pitt Tunnels as David Bowie's “Heroes” plays. It might seem difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce that scene on stage, but Brinda says it will be represented.
What will really bring home the story, however, is the cast. Many of the young actors are fans of the book and Brinda says auditions were very competitive. Director Jeffrey M. Cordell also instructed those auditioning to share “how and why the book was important to them,” Brinda says.
“They weren't just coming to audition for a show,” Brinda says, “they were coming to audition for something very special. It's a special experience. … The way the cast works together and is discovering the book and putting the production together is really a unique process. It's a very theatrical approach to the book that will allow the emotional connections people have with the book to come across.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.
Playwright got to live her dream, twice
Fans rarely get to work on their dream projects.
Hailey Rohn is the exception. Rohn loved Stephen Chbosky's “Perks of Being a Wildflower” when she first read it as a ninth grader. When it was filmed in 2011, Rohn, then a student at Peters Township High School, was cast as an extra.
“There were a few kids, a few young people, a few extras, we kind of adopted,” Chbosky says. “She was one of them. We put her in a whole bunch of scenes, she's all over the movie. And then when she went off to Penn State, just like the character Sam (played by Emma Watson), (Rohn) wrote me and asked if I minded if she did it as a play.”
Chbosky said he would be honored and helped Rohn gain the rights for “Perks” from Lionsgate. His only regret is not being able to see the production that Rohn wrote and directed.
Rohn's script is being used for Prime Stage Theatre's production of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
“ (Rohn) really captured a lot of the material, a lot of the book,” says Wayne Brinda, the artistic director for Prime Stage.
Rohn, who now lives in Washington, D.C., answered some questions via email, during a trip to Russia, about her “Perks” experiences.
Question: When did you first read “Perks” and what was your initial reaction to it? How old were you?
Answer: I first read “Perks” in the 9th grade, the same age as Charlie. I also had close friends that were seniors, so from the start, I fiercely related with Charlie. Like so many high schoolers, his story, thoughts and anxieties mirrored so many of my own, it reminded me that I was not alone. I still have my very first copy with underlines and notes I made ten years ago, and every time rereading it since, and it's fascinating to see how 9th grade me reacted to certain poignant lines.
Q: You worked as an extra on the film. What was your reaction to seeing the book come to life?
A: The film was set at my school, actually, so I had many opportunities to be an extra. Seeing the book come to life felt unreal, like I had fallen into Charlie's world, seeing the cast perform ‘Rocky Horror,' cheering at the football game or in the cafeteria. I'm actually sitting right behind Emma Watson in the final scene in King's, and even though I heard the same lines repeated over and over, each time I got chills from their power. Getting to act as a member of that world was so special, and even though I was just an extra, it was very special to be part of making that world come to life.
Q: When you directed and adapted “Perks” at Penn State, was there anything in the play that was different from the movie?
A: Yes. I adapted the script directly from the movie script, but so much of the movie is visual, I had to change a lot to make it fit for the stage, especially in the small space that my theater club performed out of. The most notable to me personally is the voiceover. Charlie's letters are all a voiceover in the movie, him narrating his writing while we see related scenes. The letters are so personal and so moving, that I wanted Charlie on stage, writing his letters directly to the audience. Though many of the monologues are broken up by action on stage, Charlie is always physically present to tell his story (actually, he's physically present on stage the entire show!)
Other changes were to make it easier for the stage, for example, making the scenes longer and less choppy, and adding in dialogue to take the place of things in the movie that we as movie goers are shown visually, but cannot see on the stage. An example of this would be Sam's SAT scores, we can't see her envelope in the theater, so a few lines were added to give the audience more information.
Q: As the playwright, what elements of the book did you deem absolutely essential?
A: Honestly, this is hard to answer without the book in front of me, as I went through the entire book with sticky tabs and marked every single line that I thought was essential and needed to be added in.
One thing I absolutely wanted to make clear was the transition from things happening to Charlie to Charlie doing things. Throughout the book, he grows so much, and I wanted that to be reflected in the stage play as well.
Q: What about “Perks” lingers now that you are an adult?
A: I think it's the idea that none of us are alone in our stories. No matter how lost or alone any of us may feel, there will always be people who will understand and support you, you just have to look for them.
— Rege Behe