Clifford Chase and the “real” Winkie

Happy Ending alum Clifford Chase just won’t stop making our dreams come true. He’s already fulfilled one of our bigtime childhood fantasies in his 2006 novel Winkie, which chronicles the coming to life of a beloved stuffed teddy bear (see cuteness above). Only Winkie proves to be a fantasy we can hold onto as self-respecting, literature reading adults, because Chase’s telling is ultra smart and elevated–it’s poignant, dangerous and heartbreaking in all the fun and devilish ways a rule-breaking novel should be. Entertainment Weekly gave Winkie, which is now out in ten languages, an A, and Book Forum called it “a cast study in everything a novel should be.

And now Winkie has literally come to life, his toy marble eyes right before our lucky human eyes, in the stage production of Clifford Chase’s Winkie, playing now through April 10 at 59E59 (both the name of the theater and its address in Manhattan. Chase, who’s also the author of a memoir, The Hurry-Up Song, and whose writing has appeared in publications ranging from Newsweek to The Yale Review to McSweeney’s, has agreed to write a couple posts for us about his most recent adventures. Here he’s going to lead us through the dream weaving that was the transformation of Winkie The Book into Winkie of the Stage. Click the jump for the author’s account, and stay tuned for another blog visit from Chase in the days to come.

Seeing my novel Winkie adapted for the stage by the Godlight Theater Company has been a lesson in the possibilities in theater and the nature of essence in a work of art. The novel tells the story of my teddy bear running away and eventually being arrested and charged with terrorism. Matt Pelfrey’s excellent script recreates the narrative as an MSNBC mockumentary–very different from the book, yet very much in the book’s spirit. But what really amazed me was that, even though Matt eliminated nearly all of Winkie’s past as a toy (that is, both my childhood and my mother’s since the bear had also belonged to her), the story holds together and retains the novel’s core feeling. Take a look at the production trailer to get an idea of our process.

At one point Godlight’s creative director Joe Tantalo asked my opinion on how Winkie himself might be portrayed on stage. (We had already agreed he shouldn’t be an actor in a bear suit.) Joe thought he should be a plain teddy bear manipulated by an actor. I voted for a hand puppet. I was so wrong, and I’m glad Joe didn’t listen to me.

In fact, the portrayal of Winkie is, for me, the most powerful part of the play. This is where we get into the advantages of theater over fiction. Joe volunteered his own childhood teddy bear for the production, and he made the decision that Winkie would be operated by the same actor who plays Clifford Chase. This establishes in a single stroke what it took many pages in the book: the special relationship between the little boy and his bear, and how that feeling persists even into adulthood.
Winkie and Nick Paglino
Add to this Nick Paglino’s brilliant performance–speaking for the bear with utter conviction, manipulating his stuffed arms in gestures of astonishing subtlety–and Winkie truly comes to life before your eyes. Like the fictional bear’s willing himself to walk and talk (and eat and shit), the amount of emotion that Nick is able to invest in this lifeless object with button eyes is a small, uncanny miracle.

[Clifford Chase’s Winkie is playing at 59E59 through April 10. Tues-Wed 7:30; Thu-Fri 8:30, Sat 2:30 & 8:30, Sun 3:30. Tickets are $25, and you can get them here.]

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