Eastern Michigan University alumna Christina Knight harangued David Culliton, her childhood friend, to appear in the stage adaptation of “Once More, With Feeling,” the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“Back in early 2021, she asked if the song, ‘What You Feel,’ was in my range. I said that it seemed to be, assuming she was simply asking me to record some music with her. Little did I know that she had just put a feeler out to me for (‘Feeling’),” said Culliton, of Ypsilanti. “I didn’t hear anything else until last summer when she told me that she was involved with this production, and they needed somebody to play Giles. I tried to insist that my schedule was much too busy. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, assuring me that the rehearsal schedule was more than flexible to my needs, which – to her credit – turned out to be completely true.”
Culliton, Knight, along with EMU alumni Casey Coulter and Bethany Wagner, are part of Something to Sing About Productions. They will perform “Feeling” for the first time at Detroit’s historic Redford Theatre on Saturday, July 16. Dearborn native Rachel Ogger will choreograph and direct the adaptation, as well as play Buffy. This adaptation is Ogger’s idea.
“All the (adaptations) I’ve seen so far have been almost black box, which is where you have a minimal set and a lot of the pieces are supposed to be abstract, so the audience is using their imagination,” said Ogger. “In this case, we have my father (Fred Ogger) designing and building the sets… We have more lighting tech. We’re going bigger with our tech and have a larger stage to work with.”
In Every Generation…
The TV series follows Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the latest in a line of young women called Slayers who battle the forces of darkness. She is aided by Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and Xander (Nicholas Brendon). These four characters remained throughout all of Buffy’s seven seasons as the cast underwent many changes.
“Feeling” originally aired Nov. 6, 2001, written and directed by “Buffy” creator Joss Whedon, who spent six months writing the episode. The music serves as a narrative tool, essential to character development. Hidden truths and dark secrets are revealed in the songs.
In “Feeling,” Xander inadvertently conjures a stylish, zoot-suited demon named Sweet (Hinton Battle) to see if his upcoming marriage to Anya (Emma Caulfield) would be happy. Thanks to Sweet, people find themselves bursting into song – and flame. Sweet claims Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), Buffy’s younger sister, as his bride. Buffy and company rush to the rescue. Not immune to Sweet’s influence, they all sing. Buffy sings about dying and being resurrected, revealing she was in Heaven and not Hell. As a result, the dynamics of everyone’s relationships change, particularly Buffy and Spike’s (James Marsters).
Zack Burton, of Roseville, will play Spike – a character he’s drawn to – in the musical adaptation.
“I’ve been cosplaying as Spike for many years and the feedback has always been wonderful, including from Marsters himself who seemed impressed by my attention to small details when I met him at Motor City Comic Con (in 2016)… People in my life associate me with the character so much so that more often than not I am called Spike in regular day-to-day life. So, when I was asked to be a part of the show I immediately said yes,” explained Burton. “James is my favorite actor, I’ve looked up to him and his work for a long time now, both in acting and with his music. I know that I can’t be Spike exactly as James was – he was absolutely brilliant in the role – but I’m sure my love of the part and for Buffy will show through and it will be something I can be proud of.”
Critically lauded, “Feeling” is considered one of the series’ best episodes. TV Guide’s ranked it No. 1 for the Top 50 Musical Moments on Television from 1990-2002, No. 14 on its TV’s Top 100 Episodes of All Time list, as well as the fifth best episode of the 21st century.
A community theater veteran, Culliton plays Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, mentor, and surrogate father.
“Giles is the perfect cross-section of my most favorite character types, which is to say father-figures and men with European accents. How could I say no?” he said. “In all seriousness, there’s so much I find both deeply compelling and deeply fun about Giles as a character. I really do love getting to play around with accents and manipulating my voice. Trying to recreate Head’s accent and capture some of his distinct intonation has been a delightful little challenge for me.”
From a character perspective, Culliton sees much of himself in Giles.
“I share his protective and paternal instincts, his will to question unjust power structures, and so, so much of his dorkiness,” he said. “Giles is someone who you can’t help but love, and I adore the way that influences his increasingly paternal relationship with Buffy throughout the series. In (‘Feeling’), that love is thrown into conflict. All of Giles’ greatest fears come to light: He’s overprotective of Buffy and loved her too much. His arc in the episode is devastating and culminates in a cathartic – and simply phenomenal – song (‘Standing’) that is a joy to perform. Giles is rife with complexities that are an actor’s playground, and I’ve had a blast in that proverbial sandbox.”
Culliton spoke about how his portrayal of Giles differs from Head’s, as well as the differences between television and live theater.
“I’m a mite more expressive. Anthony has this phenomenal talent for expressing so much with so little. You can hear rage boiling behind a slight raising of his tone and see sheer devastation behind a half-hearted smile. Due to both the medium of live theater and my own strengths as a performer, I’ve gone a rather different route,” he explained. “Anthony’s brand of subtlety typically doesn’t transfer well to a large theater where you don’t have a camera giving your face important close-ups. You have to play to the back of the house if you want the emotion to read, even in the quieter moments.”
Culliton continued: “While I’ve certainly tried to retain Giles’ pensive, stoic nature, I’ve brought some more emotional bombast to the character. He’s a little more visibly troubled and his angry moments are a bit harsher. Where Anthony performed ‘Standing’ as a melancholy, acoustic ballad, my rendition plays much more like a musical theater soliloquy. (‘Feeling’) is a piece that centers on externalized emotions. In bringing Giles to the stage, I felt it was appropriate to play up his devastation from the episode. He’s making a decision to leave Buffy – (whom) he sees as his own daughter – and I wanted the audience to be able to viscerally understand the turmoil that causes him.”
As a kid, Livonia resident Christina Knight found herself still playing pretend long after the other kids stopped.
“I liked to become people I wasn’t in real life and explore the possibilities of other personalities and lives. I discovered I had a knack for it,” she said. “It was just a hobby for a long time. I was originally planning on going to school for fine art, but I found myself absorbed in theater so deeply for so long that I had a thought: In my senior year of high school, I realized that I would be acting my whole life, regardless of what else I did. I should invest in what I’m good at and, most importantly, what I enjoy the most.”
In “Feeling,” Knight plays Tara (portrayed by Amber Benson on the TV Series), a powerful witch in her own right and Willow’s girlfriend. Buffy was the first TV show to feature a long-term lesbian relationship amongst the main characters, which was a milestone. In fact, Tara’s controversial song, “Under Your Spell,” explores lesbian romance. On the DVD commentary, Whedon stated the song is “pornography” and has “probably the dirtiest lyric I’ve ever written, but also very, very beautiful.”
“Tara is such a deep and nuanced character Amber played so beautifully, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little intimidating. I want to honor the wonderful character that she pioneered, but at the same time I don’t want to try to be exactly like her, as I feel that would dishonor the character and myself as an actor,” explained Knight. “I want to take inspiration from her performance, and there are certain things that I think need to be done the way she did because they’re just iconic that way, but I know that I have great things to bring to Tara as well. I neither can nor want to copy Amber because that would take away part of what makes our production unique with the cast we have. Amber’s performance is a guide, but I as an actor have to find my own meaning for Tara as well.”
Knight originally wanted to play Willow, but Ogger believed her vocal strengths were better-suited for Tara. Upon researching Tara, Knight wanted to sing “Under Your Spell.”
“As I started watching more Buffy and got to know Tara better, I became deeply interested in the character and her dynamic with Willow. The psychology of their relationship comes to a head in this episode and truly radiates through the rest of the series as the fallout of the events take effect,” she said. “Playing Tara in this crucial episode is a responsibility that I don’t want to take lightly, so I do everything I can to find Tara’s motivations and remember her headspace.”
Knight continued: “Tara’s finding more of her footing in (‘Feeling’). As much as I love Tara, she gets pushed behind Willow a lot and even when she plays a major part in the plot, she’s still only ‘Willow’s girlfriend’ in many people’s minds. I’m doing my best in my portrayal to establish Tara as the pivotal character that she is by giving her a stronger voice, one that stays true to the character, but that can stand alongside Willow and the others rather than act as just another plot point.”
By his own admission, Casey Coulter – who portrays Xander – isn’t a strong singer.
“If a song’s within my range, I can sing competently. I love dancing,” said Coulter, of Dearborn Heights. Coulter and Maria Ogger (the director’s sister-in-law, who plays Anya) perform the song and dance duet “I’ll Never Tell.” Playing Xander has been fun for Coulter, given Xander’s snarky, clever one-liners.
“Usually, I’m cast as comic relief often. It’s fun that you get to be goofy. A lot of my personality is goofy, so that’s no challenge,” he said. “I liked to think I put in a little bit of whimsy. I have a lot of energy, so it’s good to put that in, too, although I have to be reined back a bit; I can be too jumpy.” Playing Xander hasn’t been without challenges for Coulter, who’s openly gay. “Xander’s straight, so I have to sing about Anya’s body a few times. It can be uncomfortable, but I have to jump in and sell it. I’m always apologizing to Mariah – ‘I’m sorry I’m staring at chest’ – but she’s a professional. She says, ‘It’s part of what you got to do,’” recalled Coulter. “I’ve been rewatching the show, seeing how Xander talks, his mannerisms. I don’t want to carbon copy (Brendon). I’ve been taught acting is you as well as your character, so I have to put myself into it as well.”
Coulter commented on how Xander’s responsible for the events of “Feeling.”
“That moment’s a fun one to play, too, where he’s like ‘My fault’ and everyone’s mad at him,” said Coulter. “I like his goofy one-liners. He’s not lighthearted but has a positive demeanor about things; he’s focused when he needs to be. I’m enjoying getting to be the goofy side-character. He has his moments of ‘Hey, let’s get down to business.’ He doesn’t always know how he’ll help – he doesn’t even know if he can help – but he’s gonna try to help.”
Monroe-based teacher Bethany Wagner – a graduate of Ferris State University, Michigan State University, and EMU – was the last to be cast for “Feeling.” Wagner, who’s been in community theater since she was 8, portrays Dawn. “Rachel shared they were looking for a Dawn. Now, I didn’t think I looked the part, but I contacted her because I was interested in being involved one way or another… I pointed out I wasn’t a teenager and she said that was okay. We talked a bit more about what I was involved in… and she offered me the role and asked me to come to the readthrough. The rest is history,” recalled Wagner.
When the series began, Buffy was an only child. However, when Dawn was introduced in the fifth season after being foreshadowed since the third season, the characters accept her as part of the status quo and acknowledge she was there from the very beginning (but the audience doesn’t). She’s later revealed to be a magical energy force called the Key, whom a group of monks transformed into human form and sent to Buffy to protect her from the mad goddess Glory (Clare Kramer). Once Glory’s defeated, Dawn remains as a human being and is accepted by everyone. However, after Buffy and her mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) died in the fifth season, as well as her traumatic reaction upon learning she’s the Key, Dawn undergoes an identity crisis, struggling with self-harm and kleptomania by the time of “Feeling.”
“I spent time thinking about all Dawn went through and why she was acting the way she does,” said Wagner. “We (spoke about) why our characters are the way they are, and I gave a long speech about how Dawn felt lost after the loss her mother, her identity, and her sister. Then, she gets her sister back, but not really. She is left alone a lot of time and starts stealing as a cry for help. She wants to be noticed, even if the attention would be bad. She wants to also be accepted by the gang, but she isn’t.”
Wagner will play Dawn slightly differently than Trachtenberg. “I am trying to show Dawn’s reasoning a bit more for how she is. For example, there are times I am looking at Buffy, trying to get her to look at me, but she isn’t. I want to show the isolation that she feels,” said Wagner. “I feel like Michelle had a bit more anger. There is sarcasm – she is a teenager, but I wanted to be (more isolated). I think it really will show at the end of Act 2 when she has her short lament. I am alone on stage and go center, kneeling with the jewelry box where I keep the stolen items. I feel like Michelle did perfectly with her role, but I wanted to add a bit more. Things are different between film and stage, so some things had to be bigger, more obvious.”
During the episode when Dawn danced with Sweet, her clothes changed magically into a gown. Wagner spoke about that. “We wanted to add a few spins where we are going to attempt to have the costume change occur onstage during the dance,” she said. “There have been so many great things about doing this musical. First of all, it is a dream come true to be involved onstage with Buffy. This is also something I haven’t seen before. I have seen shadow casts, but never seen anyone put on a stage production. Honestly, the best part has been the people I have been working with. They aren’t just castmates, but they have become friends.”
“Now I Gotta Run, See You All… in Hell!” (or the Redford)
As July 16 approaches, the cast has been stepping up rehearsals. Currently, they’re doing full runs of the adaptation to get the lines, choreography, and blocking polished. “Rachel and I have been circling each other for years without ever properly meeting,” said Culliton. “I knew that she was quite well-established in local theater, so I was excited by the chance to finally work with her.”
Added Knight: “Rachel and I have been friends for years and when she wanted to put on a production of the musical episode, I was all in. A few of us, including myself, have been around since the inception of the group, and we’ve had a blast seeing it develop into what it is… This show has been such an amazing way to get back into doing what I love and I’m so grateful for it.”
Ogger added Lorne – the green-skinned, singing demon from Angel, the Buffy spin-off portrayed by the late Andy Hallett – to her rendition of “Feeling.” Lev Householder, of Pittsfield, will play Lorne onstage, as well as Lorne playing background characters. He will serve as narrator and emcee and even sing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” at intermission. The event will also feature a costume contest, photo ops, and a Q&A session with the cast and crew after the performance.
Wagner spoke about Buffy’s longevity. “People still love Buffy. First of all, it’s very quotable, which helps,” she said. “The focus is on the characters. It’s a group of young people that come together and, even though sometimes sadness happens, they can do anything. The choices they are make are real and there are consequences. Everyone can find themselves in one of the characters. Perhaps you are the younger sister, trying to find your place with your older sibling. Perhaps you are a shy girl who is growing up and finding her voice and her place.”
Wagner continued: “Maybe you are the goofball of the group and people don’t always take you seriously and you want to show you are more than that and you’ve grown up from the class clown into a strong individual. I believe even adults can find themselves in some of the supporting characters, such as Giles and Joyce. As a teacher, sometimes I do feel like Giles. However, I think about the fact that even in the final season, there is still growth happening. Buffy even says she is cookie dough and not done baking.”
The cast and crew are proud of their work they did on “Feeling.” Wagner hopes the original Buffy cast sees it. “I hope people come to the show and enjoy it. I also hope that if the cast sees it, we do them proud. I am so proud of all the hard work that everyone put into the show and can’t wait to show it to everyone,” she said. “I have always loved bringing stories to life on stage. Maybe to bring laughter, maybe to make a person think, maybe to tell a story that needs to be told. Either way, stories need to be told and acting is something that can be traced back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The power of theater affects people, that is why it is still occurring.” Tickets cost $14 ($17 at the door). For more information, call (313) 537-2560.