Actors Discuss Bringing 'The Exorcist' From Screen to Stage

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Things are about to get biblical at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, with "The Exorcist," beginning performances July 3 for a July 11 opening. The play is based on the book by William Peter Blatty, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for the popular 1973 film. The world premiere comes courtesy of acclaimed director John Doyle, known for his innovative stagings of Stephen Sondheim's "Company" and "Sweeney Todd," and playwright John Pielmeier, who previously examined issues of faith and the supernatural with "Agnes of God."

"The Exorcist" stars Brooke Shields as Chris MacNeil, an actor and single mother whose 12-year-old daughter begins to exhibit signs of demonic possession and Richard Chamberlin as Father Merrin, the priest brought in to save the girl. Rounding out the cast are a list of stage veterans, three of whom sat down to speak with Back Stage. They are three-time Tony nominee Harry Groener as Chris' director Burke Dennings; Manoel Felciano, who earned a Tony nomination for his performance as Tobias in the Doyle-directed "Sweeney Todd," as Father Joe; and Roslyn Ruff, Obie winner for August Wilson's "Seven Guitars," as Carla, an amalgam of several characters from the book.

What was your initial reaction when you heard they were doing a stage version of The Exorcist?

Harry Groener: When I tell people about it, it's funny, they all say, Oh, it's a musical? But no, it's not the musical, it's the play. I was really excited by the prospects, but also there's a danger because it's "The Exorcist" and we have that iconic movie, so you're curious as to how this is going to be done. But I think Mr. Doyle is working this stuff out.

Roslyn Ruff: When I got the breakdown it actually said: This is not a musical. I was really intrigued by the idea because I don't get asked to do a lot of new stuff. My friends call me Period Bitch because I do a lot of period stuff. And I crave to do new things.

Manoel Felciano: I was intrigued by the movie, so like Harry said, the big question was, How? As soon as I saw that John's name was attached to it, I thought it was interesting. It's interesting to see what John Pielmeier has done because we have these two exigent versions of this story. A novel, and then a movie with a very strong vision of a director [William Friedkin], but based on a screenplay by the same author who wrote the novel. So now we're in the third incarnation of this story and John has added his own stamp and some new things all of which I think help the story in terms of its new environment which is the theater stage rather than novel or film.

When you booked your roles, did you go back and watch the movie?

Ruff: No. I read the book. I think we've all re-read the book. It's been so long since I've seen the movie, I don't really remember it.

Was it a conscious choice to not go back and see the movie?

Groener: It sort of was with me.

Ruff: Me too.

Groener: I didn't feel like I needed to go back. There was nothing from the film as I remember that I could really take and use in this incarnation. It's a different incarnation, a different set of rules. A whole different thing all together. I remember it scared the bejesus out of me when I saw it. I don't know whether it would now because we've had so many horror films since then that use the technology in a way that I guess that I didn't want to watch the movie and be disappointed. I wanted to just have it be a memory of how it really scared me and I didn't want to—

Felciano: See all the wires?

Groener: Right, I didn't want to see all the wires. I wanted to leave it the way that it was in my mind, and I knew that I didn't need to see it for research.

Felciano: I had actually seen it a few years ago for some anniversary, the director's cut, which was re-released in the theaters. I have a particular fondness for Catholic horror.

You've all played roles that other people have originated. Do you worry about stepping into something that isn't an original creation?

Groener: No. You're just borrowing it and you're just doing it your own way and then you let it go and let somebody else borrow it.

Felciano: I do think ignorance can definitely be bliss in some instances. The fact that I didn't grow up with dreams of being on Broadway and run home and listen to cast recordings of things and still don't, has only served me when I've actually had to interpret some of this material because I don't know how someone else did it. That allows you to put your own stamp on something. That's what I always tell young kids that are studying musical theater, just don't listen to cast recordings. You have the sheet music and you have lyrics, what more do you need?

You could steal some things from the best.

Felciano: Your own idiosyncratic individuality is inevitably going to be more interesting than you puppeting somebody else's performance.

I don't know if you're aware, but apparently some strange things happened on the film set of "The Exorcist." Anything unusual happened to you during rehearsals?

Groener: Actually yes. It's a tiny, tiny thing, but the other day we started to work on a section and I couldn't find those pages. And I go, Where the hell are these pages, they were specifically the pages working on this scene. At the end of the rehearsal, I'm going through the script and there are the pages, but they are stuck within, in the loops, but they're in the script, but they're not together. I don't remember anywhere myself taking those pages we haven't gotten there yet and moving them.

Felciano: Satan rearranged your pages?

Groener: It was so bizarre. I said to John, Here we go!

Ruff: John Pielmeier and I got trapped in an elevator at our apartment building where we're staying. It was the same thing, we looked at each other, like, Here we go!

Felciano: I bike to work and I got two consecutive flat tires on two consecutive days. What are the chances of that?

What can we expect in terms of special effects or unique staging?

Felciano: We actually don't know, to be totally honest. Everything hasn't been revealed to us yet.

Groener: We do know that there's not going to be any head turning

Ruff: Or pea soup.

Groener: John Doyle feels that he can do more with your own imagination and to use what the theater can do and not try to compete with what a movie can do technically.

Felciano: I think it's going to be more exciting because people will go in knowing that in this theater, you can't do all the things you could in a movie. So I think once it all comes together people are going to be blown away by what you actually can do with just lights and sounds and storytelling and human beings and costumes and voices and language.

"The Exorcist" plays July 3–Aug. 12 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Conte Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com.