Let's get one thing straight. The source material for this play is one very, very lousy movie. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), was made famous by getting thoroughly razzed on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it makes anything by Ed Wood look like John Sayles. Undaunted, Brian Koch (who recently had a speaking part on Grimm—nice work, Brian!), who can usually be found keeping time with Blitzen Trapper, has taken a bizarre, disjointed, amateurish horror movie and turned it into a play that opens Thursday at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center and plays till May 5. We talked to him about his inspiration, musical guests, and the enduring influence of Mystery Science Theater.
Culturephile: So you wrote, directed, and star in this adaptation of Manos: The Hands of Fate. What was it about this movie (besides it's hilarious awfulness) that made you want to adapt it to the stage?
BK: I'm not exactly sure what it is. There are tons of bad movies in the world and people are always suggesting movies that I should adapt. Usually the movies people suggest have some particular thing wrong with them. The story is lame, the acting is bad, or there's some cheezy special effects, but typically a lot of the other elements are done really well. But Manos is unique in that just about every aspect of the film turned out pretty poorly (Birdemic is worth mentioning here). There was always something about Manos' collective badness that stuck like a splinter in my brain. I would always return to watching the MST3K version on repeat. It's so sparse that they had a lot of room to play. What they accomplished was a kind of real alchemy. I suppose if anyone can be credited with my idea for making it a comedy it's them. But I started thinking and dreaming about turning it into a stage play as far back as 2000. I never followed through until 2006 when I directed it at Theater! Theatre!
Are you and the fellows in Blitzen Trapper big MST3K fans? Is there a "concept" album based on Manos in the works?
Our two guitarists, Eric Earley and Erik Menteer, are fans. Eric and I used to watch movies at my house in Salem all the time. We'd go get coffee and donuts at midnight and watch MST3K for hours. No concept album in the works, but I think the musical score that Eric, Kevin and Charlie are playing is really special. I've always thought that the score, however strange and incongruous, is the strongest aspect of the film, and they're playing large parts of it really faithfully.
So your bandmate Eric Earley, among others, is supplying music for this production. Will this be in the form of mood music or will characters break into song? Is this a musical? Is there choreography? If so, can you elaborate?
Eric's playing piano, Charlie Hester (the Parson Redheads) is playing bass and keyboards, and Kevin Robinson (Viva Voce) is playing drums and manning the sound station. They're playing a score. It's not a musical, though there are a couple songs and some choreography but I really don't want to say any more than that.
Could Manos be another Rocky Horror Picture Show?
The makers of Rocky Horror probably never dreamed in a million years that it would mutate the way it did. You create something, and at a certain point it's out of your hands. I will say we've got a fair amount of drag, live music, camp, and absurdity in our show... So who knows?
Will there be "characters" in Manos who sit down front and make smart-alecky comments ala MST3K?
No. I'm paying homage to MST3K in many of the bits we do but ultimately it's still a play and not a live riff. I love the live riffing though. Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax are both keeping that alive. But theater is a different animal.
Is this a deadpan version of Manos? Are you telling it with a straight face, or do the characters get to have some fun at the expense of a truly ridiculous story? Are they in on the joke?
Our primary focus is on having fun and finding the laughs however we can. The show was one thing in my mind but the cast is totally hilarious, and they have definitely helped evolve the show into something even better than I was hoping for.
Was it necessary to show the cast members the movie?
No. I let them decide on their own.
How in the world did you track down Jackey Raye Neyman Jones (as a child actress she starred in the original Manos as daughter Debbie) and was she aware that Manos was such a cultural touchstone?
Jackey has a blog in which she writes about her life, her art and her memories and musings about Manos. I had heard that she lives in Oregon, and so I found the blog, reached out to her, and pitched the idea of her reprising her role as Debbie. To my delight, she agreed. A fun fact is that her voice in the film was dubbed by a middle aged woman who did all the female voices, and now, 47 years later, she's getting to do the voice she never got to do. She definitely follows the progress of Manos' various cultural manifestations. She also painted a portrait of the Master (leader of the polygamous cult) and his demonic dog that will be featured in the show and raffled off at the end of the run.
Speaking of Manos' cultural manifestations: We'll be doing talk-backs with Jackey after the show, but opening weekend we'll also have Ben Solovey, who recently did an HD restoration of Manos, as well as Rachel Jackson of Seattle puppet theater company Vox Fabuli, creators of Manos The Hands of Felt. Other talk back guests will be announced through our website.