It seems that lightning does strike more than once. In 2014, Lit Live, a local nonprofit theater company, won raves for its production of Dark Heart of Poe. The VCReporter named it the No. 1 Theater Production of the Year. Lit Live’s next flash of inspired theater is And Lightning Struck: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Creation by local playwright Robert Weibezahl. The play had its world premiere at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center on Feb. 9.
Founded by Steven Hayes, Kaelia Franklin, Brenda Miller, Pat Lewis and Kristine Mikita, Lit Live is dedicated to bringing great literature — such as the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Frankenstein and other bedrocks of school curricula — to the stage. As the company explains, “Our sole purpose is to bring educational, theatrical experiences to young people. In plain English, our goal is to put great literature on stage for students, specifically in middle and high school.”
Lit Live’s mission was born out of It’s a New Day, a nonprofit group in Simi Valley of which Hayes, Lewis and Mikita are members. It’s a New Day mentors and helps raise funds to support young local musicians and musical programs. Lit Live became a reality when Hayes, the executive producer of It’s a New Day, approached Kaelia Franklin with the idea of creating a theater version of the group. Franklin, who has been involved in local theater since she was 12 years old, recalls, “There was no question in my head that I wanted to do it.”
Lit Live debuted its inaugural production, Dark Heart of Poe, at the Elite Theatre in Oxnard under the direction of Andrew James. Conceived by James and adapted by local playwright A.D. Hasselbring, Dark Heart of Poe tells the tale of “heart-breaking love and loss.” According to the production’s literature, it stretches “beyond the bounds of a typical drama . . . to spark the imagination and embolden us through our shared experiences by staging iconic works that have entertained audiences for more than 150 years.” It was a hit.
And Lightning Struck stays true to the example set by Dark Heart of Poe. When they began looking for their next project, the producers of Lit Live looked at Mark Twain and other classics. “We loved the concept of doing shows that are new or have not been done often,” recalls Franklin. “So the question came up: ‘How do we relate putting great literature on stage with doing something new?’ ”
The possibility of doing Frankenstein was tossed around, and Brenda Miller approached her longtime friend and local writer Robert Weibezahl about doing an original script. “I have always been fascinated with Mary Shelley,” says Weibezahl, “She was so young, only 18, when she wrote Frankenstein.” He recalls that he and Miller, both “Shelley fanatics,” “prattled on about everything we already knew about her.” But then came the challenge of constructing a play about Shelley and her creation — meaning her life, her book and her creature.
Weibezahl reread Frankenstein and noticed that the book has two prefaces: one written by Shelley’s husband, the renowned poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in 1818 and another written by Mary Shelley in 1831. Weibezahl had found his starting point. He created the fictional scenario of a publisher visiting Shelley and asking her to write her own preface. Shelley is made to relive key moments of her life — falling in love, defying her father, meeting her circle of famous friends, including Shelley and Lord Byron, dealing with tragedy, finding the inspiration for Frankenstein and living with its legacy.
Filled with pathos, insight and poetry, the collaboration of cast and crew in Lit Live productions is electric. They do have one thing wrong, however: It isn’t just for young adults. Lit Live truly is for anyone and everyone who wants a deep dive into the creators of our most beloved works of classic literature — and the inspiration that set those works in motion.
Lit Live’s next production is The Diary of Anne Frank, premiering in April at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley. For more information, call 583-7900 or visit www.simi-arts.org.