Playwright and director Michael Melski is back on the stage in Halifax this week with his latest work Creepy and Little Manson. The play explores the real-life relationship between Charles Manson and legendary gangster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. The two formed a relationship over guitar lessons during Manson’s second stint in jail, before the crimes he’s best known for organizing. “This is Charlie before he became Charlie,” says Jeremy Webb, Eastern Front Theatre artistic director.
Melski developed the play over the last three years as the theatre’s artist-in-residence. It was first presented at the 2014 Stages Theatre Festival to glowing reviews, and celebrates its world premier tonight at Neptune Theatre’s studio stage in Halifax. It runs until April 10.
Halifax Magazine caught-up with Melski on a break from preparing for the pay-what-you-can presentation of the play yesterday.
What drew you to this story?
My father let me read Helter Skelter as a teenager and I have been fascinated ever since. The more I read into the story, the more I realized that no person is born evil.
One of Charlie’s famous lines was “You created the monster.” He said that during his trial. I thought let’s dig into that. As I delved deeper into it I found that there was a really interesting story in there that hadn’t been told.
I decided to jump in in 1961 when he got his guitar lessons from Alvin “Creepy” Karpis because those guitar lessons would catalyze Charlie’s desire to be a famous musician and would lead to the murders directly. I thought it would be a fascinating way to explore creativity and how it can evolve into madness.
What are some of the key theme of this piece?
There’s a humanity in the piece that I think is absent from most of the portrayals of Charlie, and criminals in general. Criminals are human beings. They’re flawed and sometimes they do terrible things, but we have to start with the supposition that they are people first. I really intended to bring that theme of universal humanity into the play.
What did you do in terms of research?
I read everything, I watched every video, I read every book, historical records, psychological analyses, trying to get a fresh perspective on this. This isn’t to say that Charlie wasn’t at fault and didn’t play a large role in his destiny, and that of his victims, obviously. But it’s a more complicated story than people might think.
That is to say: What is our obligation as a society toward the least of our society? Charlie was the least. His mother sold him for a pitcher of beer when he was a toddler. He was sent to reformatory at one point just for being poor, being a misfit. When you think about those things, Charlie didn’t really have a chance.
When you feed a child hate and rejection to the level that he was, what role do we play in creating that monster?
Did what you learned in your research keep you up at night?
Oh God. Yeah, it did. I had to go to the dark places that the story demanded. But you know I have written very dark material before. Brining that humanity into it was important for me. I allowed me never to slip too far into Charlie’s madness. I always kept two feet planted in reality. I was a writer doing a job.
What challenges do you encounter when writing a play based on real people?
You’ve got to get the facts right. It is a work of fiction and creative licences were taken but I think you can only take those creative licences when you’ve done your homework. I am very rigorous about the responsibility of writing about real people.
I wrote a play about Jonny Miles, the child coal miner turned marathon runner, I had to be just a rigorous with my preparation on that. Jonny’s family came to opening night. I knew I had to go there. Luckily, on this one, Charlie’s family isn’t coming, but even still theater is about truth. It’s about imagination, but it’s also about revealing the truth. I think and author has to honour that.
You developed this play during Eastern Front Theatre’s Artist in Residence program. How did that effect you work?
It was terrific. It’s my third world premier with Eastern Front. It’s a small but very important theatre. They nurture and develop new work and are willing to take the risk on a play like this.
It’s not something that you’re going to see in Halifax again any time soon. I sincerely hope there’s an audience for a play that explores these topics.
You’re well-known in both theatre and film circles. What are some of the big differences you experience when moving between those two worlds?
I’ve been very fortunate to have a career in both mediums. They’re very different skill sets but they’re very related.
It’s all about storytelling. You have to tell a story for the stage very differently from how you’d tell it on film. But they’re both about storytelling, character, dialogue, imagery. I’ve been doing both since I was in my 20s, so it’s not foreign to me.
I challenge myself. I make it a point to not repeat myself. It would be easy for me to write another [play like] Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad, or The Fly Fisher’s Companion. And probably after this I will have to write a comedy again.
To take a breather?
Yeah. Exactly. But you have to tell the stories that are important. I’ve been gifted enough to be in the position to tell those stories, so I also have an obligation to tell stories that matter. That’s what inspires me.
What’s your take on the Nova Scotia Film Tax Credit?
I managed to make my last film through the new fund. The new fund needs improvements, but it is a step in the right direction. It’s just that there are so many steps remaining to restore confidence in producers outside and in the province. We just hope government is going to keep working with us to improve the situation and stem the tide of people in the industry leaving.