Charles Stites' New One-Man Show Straitjacket Is Fun – Scary Fun

The veteran Austin actor loves frightening audiences, and now he's turned Jack London's novel The Star Rover into variations on a theme of horror

Charles Stites in <i>Straitjacket</i>
Charles Stites in Straitjacket (Photo by Kenny Gall)

Charles Stites is putting himself in a straitjacket. Voluntarily.

But don't be worried. This is no mental health crisis. On the contrary, the veteran Austin actor is experiencing a burst of creativity and is confining himself to take on the role of Darrell Standing, the protagonist of Jack London's 1915 novel The Star Rover who is strapped into such a jacket while serving time for murder at San Quentin Prison. The character deals with this punishment by astral projecting himself into his past lives, which allows London to tell a variety of stories in different times and settings.

"I was riveted by that as a narrative structure," Stites says, and it struck him as a terrific vehicle for a one-man play. He could explore and portray multiple characters – even more than he had in his solo adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau seven years ago.

Now, Stites has completed this new dramatic adaptation – retitled Straitjacket: Variations on a Theme of Horror – and as he's preparing to open it at the Vortex, he shared some background on its development.

Austin Chronicle: After you successfully adapted, produced, and performed Moreau, were you worn out by the experience?

Charles Stites: Oh, I wasn't at all tired. My appetite definitely was whetted for more after Moreau.

AC: How long before you settled on The Star Rover as your next project? Did you come to it with lessons learned from doing Moreau?

CS: The Star Rover came into my hands within a few months after completing Moreau. I knew that would be the next piece right away. While writing Moreau, certain themes or statements emerged in the story: the man-made nature of religion; the desire to tear down gods we ourselves have made; my belief that if humankind's existence is a part of a grand design, then that design is either inept or cruel.

Almost as soon as I finished the project, I saw Moreau as the first of a trilogy of stand-alone plays linked thematically. Straitjacket, which is the second installment, can be enjoyed as just a set of macabre stories within a larger macabre story, but it is also a meditation on the horror of what an eternal life would be, or at least my own horror at that idea.

AC: What's the biggest challenge you set for yourself this time around?

CS: The biggest challenge is that I play 23 characters in Straitjacket and act out four different stories. There are more moving parts this time around, several worlds to populate and color in, rather than a single one.

Luckily, I have a lot of support this time around with Bonnie Cullum and the team at the Vortex, so I'm not going it alone off the stage. I've known Bonnie since I was 18 when I saw her production of Vaclav Havel's Temptation at the Mexic-Arte Museum six times. It's an honor to be working with her and the other great artists at that theatre.

AC: You call this "the most rewarding" piece you've created or performed. How so?

CS: Straitjacket made me mine all my resources, personal and artistic. For instance, it took a lot longer to write this piece than did Moreau. I've been working on it, off and on, since 2015. I made five or six aborted attempts to write it before I found the true beginning of the story. The writing of it tried my patience. Likewise, performing it did the same. Differing stories require differing speeds and attacks. I've had to take my time as an actor a bit more with this piece.

AC: And you call the show fun and scary. Do you like to link those two qualities? Do you find fun in the horror genre generally?

CS: I love being scared by art, being disturbed by it. As a kid, I read Poe stories and Grimm's Fairy Tales. My book of Grimm's eventually fell apart from the loving reading I showed it. And the Elizabethans made great horror plays that I can't get enough of. There's a wonderful tradition of darkness in theatre to which I am drawn, that I want to be a part of. I like to deal with cerebral concerns, sure, but the spine needs tingling as well.

In my plays, I as the performer speak to the audience directly, I can see them. I love it when I look out and see people with wide eyes and open mouths, people leaning forward in attention. A guy telling me after a show in San Francisco how his girlfriend clutched at him for dear life during my show because she was so frightened, that's one of the greatest compliments I've ever gotten.

Oh yes, I find lots of fun in horror.

Straitjacket: Variations on a Theme of Horror

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd.
Sept. 2-11

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The Vortex, Straitjacket: Variations on a Theme of Horror, Charles Stites, Bonnie Cullum, Jack London, The Star-Rover, The Island of Dr. Moreau

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