Lou DiPilla III: The Critique Compendium Interview

Lou has been involved in theater for over 45 years in the Pennsylvania/New Jersey area.  He has performed almost every job there is in theater: actor, director, sound and light technician, set designer, builder, and Artistic Director. He has been involved  in close to 100 productions during his time on the boards.  His favorite acting  roles are Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, Dracula in Count Dracula, Fagin in Oliver, Henry VIII in Anne Of The Thousand Days  and Ben Franklin in 1776. Lou has also performed in several independent films in addition to corporate training videos for various companies.

Since his retirement in 2009, he has been concentrating on film and commercial work in addition to writing. His play “A Cosa Nostra Xmas” has been chosen as part of a “Night of One Acts” with the Bridge Players Theater Company in November. Frankenstein marks his second gothic drama adaptation to be produced following his Dracula in 1998. He is currently working on a film script for a horror mystery he hopes will be produced in the future. In his “spare time” he enjoys playing his guitar and volunteering for the BookMates program where he and his wife Cheryl read to students at two elementary schools.

Mr. DiPilla graciously consented to a phone interview on October 8, 2020. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Critique Compendium: Why did you decide to write an adaptation of Frankenstein?

Lou DiPilla III: I had years ago done an adaptation of Dracula. I couldn’t find a script that I liked. You can’t make changes to them due to the license agreement. So I decided to write my own.

I had written other things. I’d edited Shakespeare plays. You can do that because they’re in the public domain.

I gave Dracula a shot. They produced it at Bridge Players (Theatre Company). I was pleased with the outcome.

After that someone suggested doing Frankenstein. (Laughs) The mother of all gothic novels.

I play guitar. I was going to do it as a musical. I wrote some songs, but ultimately, I needed an orchestrator so I stopped.

I began Frankenstein in 2003 as a straight play. I worked on it a little and then put it aside. I’ve been able to put more time into it over the last three years.

I submitted it to (Burlington County) Footlighters.

You don’t know how a play is going to come out until it’s performed. It was a real learning experience.

Actors will bring their own experiences to the show. It’s about collaboration.

Critique Compendium: In the book, Captain Walton wrote that he lived in a paradise of my own creation. Did you feel that way when you were crafting your play?

Lou DiPilla III: (Laughs) Yeah, it was fun. So much fun. So rewarding.

Most of my career has been acting. I’ve been acting since I was 19. As an actor you think about your character and their wants and needs. However, you’re only doing that for one person.

The director gets to add a framework, but the actor is the primary driver. Actors should have an advantage when writing. They’re used to looking at characters. Sam Sheppard for one. He was actor and then he started to write.

An actor is able to use his actor’s skill for each individual character.

I was in paradise of my own choosing. 

If you’re a good actor you can be a good writer. Your mind is used to thinking in a way that you’re breaking down a character, the motivations and interactions between characters.

I’m enjoying what I’m doing. It’s a labor of love.

It’s great to see something you put on paper, acted out.

I may want to change things for another production after seeing it. You’re constantly trying to improve the product. I’m happy with the cast. (Director) Gaby (Affleck) has done a great job. I’ve got a lot of confidence in Gaby.

Critique Compendium: Mary Shelley wrote the novel your play is based on in 1818. How did you go about making Victorian prose into dialog more relatable to modern audiences?

Lou DiPilla III: I tried to go there; to write it as Shelley did. I used some of the terms of that time. Of course, I simplified things, I tried to put it in my own words; the common words and phrases from the era I left there.

I changed the things that no one would understand.

In Shakespeare, there were references that no one would get. If they were not germane or didn’t add anything, I removed them. That’s egotistical, isn’t it? (Laughs.)

For instance, in Frankenstein the Monster goes to Justine’s house for a mock tea party. He asks, “Shall I be mother?” I had to explain that. In Victorian England, Mother was the one who poured the tea. That’s an example from the period that people might not know.

You’re not going to see the Arctic. There are some other things you’re not going to see from the novel. That’s the point of the adaptation. You boil it down to the essentials to entertain the audience. That’s the most important thing.

The second priority is having the audience think about the play and what it means, how it relates to their life, if at all, after they have left the theater. Who is the villain? Why? Could they have done things another way?

I hope I did that. In this adaptation I wanted to dig deeper than he’s a monster that kills people.

Critique Compendium: You directed A Streetcar Named Desire at Burlington County Footlighters during the winter of 2019. Did the challenge of working with dialog that wordy have any effect on your writing Frankenstein?

Lou DiPilla III (Laughs.) No. I had the power to change it. If I changed something in Tennessee Williams…well  …You can’t do that.

I want people to understand. I want to give them a chance to reach and stretch. On the other hand, I’m not doing Pinter. (Laughs.)

Critique Compendium: Gaby Affleck will be directing Frankenstein at Burlington County Footlighters’ Back Stage this fall. Ms. Affleck directed you in The Explorer’s Club during the fall of 2017. What is it like to have her directing something that you wrote?

Lou DiPilla III: It’s interesting. This is the first time in theatre that I’ve written something someone else is directing.

When I thought about it, I decided to ask Gaby if she would do it. “I think you could do it,” I said, “it’s your genre.” She has the chops to do it and the knowledge and talent to do it.

I have worked with her as an actor and set designer. She makes it fun. She makes people work, too.

Gaby has the talent and technical ability. I feel safe putting Frankenstein in her hands. 

Critique Compendium: Victor Frankenstein said, “Sir Isaac Newton is said to have avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth.” What truths can we learn from the story of Frankenstein?

Lou DiPilla III: There are a lot of things we can learn from Frankenstein that relate to today’s world. Look at what’s happening in the country these days. Just because someone doesn’t look like you, doesn’t mean they’re different from you. Just because someone might seem to you unattractive on the outside doesn’t mean they’re ugly inside. Looks can be deceiving and often are.

Are monsters created, or are they born? Is the way Adam (the Monster) acts forced upon him, or is it his nature? It’s the whole nurture versus nature argument.

Are cloning and other scientific advancements worth the risks? Should the person who creates take responsibility for what they do? Victor certainly took responsibility for what he did.

The show begins with how Frankenstein was conceived in 1816. There was a volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. It affected weather around the world. It caused many famines. Europe had a cloudy rainy, summer. It has been referred to as “The Year Without A Summer.”

With the weather being constantly cloudy, rainy and cold the inhabitants of the Vila Diodati in Switzerland spent most of their time indoors.  To break the boredom the writers had a contest to write a story that would scare the others.

Shelley’s doctor (John William) Polidori wrote, what later became the first vampire story published in English. Mary Shelley of course wrote the beginnings of Frankenstein.

Hopefully the audience will get an insight as to why Mary (Shelley) wrote the story.

Critique Compendium: Who is the villain of Frankenstein?

Lou DiPilla III: I’ll leave that up to the audience. There could be a few villains in the story for different reasons. Tell me what you think when you see it.

Critique Compendium: One of the story’s themes is the role of science in society. Why is it still controversial today?

Lou DiPilla III: There are so many things unfolding. Science never stops.

In the novel it was reanimating life. Today there is genetic engineering, GMOs, artificial intelligence, it just keeps moving along.

Are we doing things without understanding the consequences? Should we look closer into what are the possible ramifications?

Victor gets so caught up in the zeal of creating that he doesn’t realize what he’s doing. His reasons outweigh the negatives.

I don’t know who said this, but, “The intent to do good isn’t the same as doing good.”

Critique Compendium: You also wrote a theatrical adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1998. The novelist told that story through the perspectives of multiple characters. How would you compare writing that script versus a story narrated by two characters that included long speeches by “the Monster”?

Lou DiPilla III: I took into account what the Monster said in his speeches. I tried to have his dialog with Victor show what they feel.

In Dracula the story was told through letters. They described everything; provided background. I turned that into the character dialogue.

I try to “show and not tell.” Theatre is a word driven medium. But you don’t need to “beat people over the head.” That’s where the actors come in, too. Their inflections and pauses can change a line’s meaning and how the character is understood by the audience.

Critique Compendium: You performed with your daughter Lauren in Tesia Nicoli’s Red Wrench at the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters in the spring of 2019. What was it like working with her on stage?

Lou DiPilla III: It was great. We’ve been on stage quite a few times, all three of my daughters. Lauren has worked as my Stage Manager many times. In Streetcar she was.

In the scene where I was in the bed dying, she said “I’m not acting, I’m being myself.” I think it’s more intense when you’re related.

It can help your acting by dialing into that. Some nights were tougher than others.

Critique Compendium: What artists have influenced you?

Lou DiPilla III: It’s interesting. If you asked me that 20 years ago, I would have had a different answer.

Zero Mostel is one. He did a lot of comedy and a lot of drama. I saw him in Fidler. I sat in the last row of the orchestra at the Forrest Theatre. During an important scene, I could see the whites of his eyes from the last row.

In the 70’s, he came to the Forrest Theatre to do The Merchant based on The Merchant of Venice. I remember my wife and I stood in the lobby. It was seven thirty…then seven forty-five…then someone came out and said the show was canceled.

I found out later that night he died at his hotel in Philly that afternoon. I had a ticket to his last show.

Frank Langella, the Broadway and movie actor, is another one. He brought Dracula back.

Before him, all Draculas were monsters. There was always an element of sexuality to the character, but actors focused on the horror. Frank brought out the sexuality.

He’s a good working actor. His presence and talent are amazing.  I learn something every time I watch him.

Anthony Hopkins can do anything from Shakespeare to Silence of the Lambs. Whenever people ask him why he’s so good, he says, “I just learn my lines and find my spot.” (Laughs.) Maybe he’s not telling us the whole story.

Critique Compendium: You and your wife Cheryl perform volunteer work with the BookMates program. Tell us about that.

Lou DiPilla III: It’s a great program. Cheryl and I are both retired. We wanted to give back.

There’s a Literacy problem in the country today. Kids are supposed to be read to in order to develop their learning skills. They need many hours of being read to from birth to about school age. A lot of kids don’t have anybody to read to them. They don’t develop a love or appreciation for reading. It stunts their intellectual growth.

Some come from homes where there’s not enough time to have a child read to. Some kids get some, but not enough. Other kids from an emotional standpoint need adults to engage with them. We provide that too.

We’ll go into a school. We do two kids in one school and two in another school. We go for an hour every week during the entire school year. We read things they like or things we recommend.

The kids hear the spoken word. It’s something they haven’t experienced and they enjoy it.

We do that once a week. We haven’t done it this year due to the pandemic. We’re hoping it will happen very soon. Probably on Zoom or another platform remotely.

Older people and younger people read to the kids. They develop a bond with the child. The kids get the hours of reading exposure to books that they need to develop, and hopefully continue with a lifelong love of reading.

This will be our fifth year doing it. It’s very rewarding for us. It a great program for the children.

Critique Compendium: Captain Walton wrote Mrs. Saville asking, “Do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose?” Do you feel like you’ve achieved a great purpose by writing a theatrical adaptation of Frankenstein?

Lou DiPilla III: Thank you for thinking that. I don’t know if I can say that.

I enjoyed it. I’m hoping people enjoy it and get something out of it; give them a night where they can think about something other than the pandemic. Just enjoy a story and get out and have some fun.

This is one of my creative outlets. It’s like therapy to sit at computer, write and do research. I’m enjoying it. If other people get joy out of it, that’s fantastic. It’s nice to have people appreciate it.

I’m happy as long as I had an effect on you one way or another.

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