The Turn of the Screw: A Classic in Brand New Form at Catastrophic

Afsaneh Aayani, Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers and Adam J. Thompson in the Catastrophic Theatre production of The Turn of the Screw. Photo by T Lavois Thiebaud

When Henry James wrote his gothic horror story The Turn of the Screw in 1898, there was no multimedia available to extend the tale beyond its novella form.

But now there is and creative director and multimedia designer Adam J. Thompson, working with Catastrophic’s Afsaneh Aayani, have come up with a new way to tell the story of the young governess who travels to a rural country estate to take care of two orphaned children.

Set in Victorian times, the story goes on to tell of the mysterious ghosts the governess starts to see around the grounds as her charges — a girl and a boy — undergo concerning and problematic changes in their behavior.

The multimedia approach takes in puppetry, live cinema and sound design that adds to the aura of the haunting tale. Thompson said he has always loved the story. “The story is about the nature of truth and how different people can have different interpretations of the truth and I think in this contemporary moment there’s a lot of conversation around truth and where we get our information and where we get our information creates different ideas ab out truth for each of us. It just felt like a really relevant conversation.”

The cast includes Brittny Bush, John Dunn Karina Pal and making her Catastrophic debut, Annie Wild. Aayani and Thompson are co-directing.

With expertise in directing and multimedia, Thompson said he uses a lot of live camera and live cinema in his theater work. The camera is about seeing and the discrepancy between what is in the frame and what is outside of the frame and so when you put a camera in a theater space there’s things happening around the camera and there’s also what the camera is seeing.

It’s that question of multiple iterations of the truth. The story is written from the first person point of view of the main character, so I thought it would be interesting to tell the story almost with the camera standing in for the first person point of view, but then around it you’re seeing all these other things happening and that’s a more objective view of what’s happening in the story.”

Asked what he thought James would have thought of this treatment, Thompson said: “Funnily enough, Henry James tried to write plays before he wrote novels and they were all panned terribly, but he always wanted to work in the theater.

“So I think he would actually be thrilled.”

In its original form Turn of the Screw was published in the magazine Collier’s Weekly, it was serialized over 12 installments. Catastrophic will present it in one 90-minute, no intermission setting. “An aspect of the story is really concerned with building tension so we didn’t want to provide any sort of release valve for the audience to be able to leave and reset and come back in,” Thompson said.

“We really wanted to make a space where the show begins ,you’re kind of stuck there with us on the journey and we build the tension and only at the very end when we finish are you allowed to escape.”

Thompson, based in New York City, chanced to meet Aayani while working on an opera about Frida Kahlo and got to talking about Turn of the Screw. Thompson said he was intrigued by the idea of using puppets in the play as a way of showing how people can be manipulated by others, pulling their strings, since one interpretation of the story has been that some characters are controlled by others.

They then approached Catastrophic Theatre who were thrilled to entertain the project, Thompson said.

There have been many film and theater adaptations of James’ story and Thompson attributes at least some of its success in how ambiguous the plot is. Does the governess really see ghosts? James himself was a spiritualist, Thompson said, so perhaps that’s how he saw it, but it is far from definitive. And over the years different groups have interpreted the meaning of the story in far different ways, he said.

“In subsequent eras there were psychoanalytical readings and feminist readings,” Thompson said. As rehearsals started, Thompson said he told the actors there have been more than 50 interpretations of Turn of the Screw.

Asked who he thinks this treatment will appeal to, Thompson said: “I think if you like ghost stories.” He said it’s been staged “environmentally” meaning the action happens all around the audience — without ever calling on audience members to participate. “The seating is around the edges and then in the middle of the space there is also seating so the performances ae stages all around the room and they kind of move around where people are seated.”

Throughout, the process has been a very collaborative one with the actors and crew involved, he said. “We have as a group really attacked the piece together.”

Asked when it is set, Thompson responded “yes and no. It’s set here and now and then within that setting it kind of travels to Victorian England and back again.

“I think if you’re interested in less traditional interpretations of theater … you could really respond to the form and the explorations we are doing.”

Performances are scheduled for November 17 through December 9 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays with a special Monday performance Monday, November 27 at 7:30 p.m. at MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit No one under the age of 10 permitted for this performance. Tickets pay-what-you-can.