October is upon us and, with it, the rapid approach of Halloween. While people adorn their homes with spooky decorations, work on costumes and queue up favorite scary movies, area theater companies have been hard at work preparing eerie shows to celebrate the season.
Taking a break from cauldron-stirring duties, Xpress spoke with the directors of four such productions to learn about what horror-minded audiences can look forward to this month, as well as the significance of telling such fictional tales at a time when the very real COVID-19 pandemic sets a high bar for terror.
Masters of gore
For nearly two months, local playwright and director Jamieson Ridenhour watched a different slasher film each night as research for his latest production, Bloodbath: Victoria’s Secret.
Though no stranger to writing psychological and otherworldly tales, gore was new territory. “I do a lot of supernatural stuff, but I’d never done a slasher,” Ridenhour explains. “I thought it would be a good challenge to try and do one live onstage.”
Debuting Friday, Oct. 15, at The Magnetic Theatre, Bloodbath tells the story of a former low-budget horror “scream queen” who hosts a New Year’s Eve party. Also in attendance are several people from the actress’s past. Soon thereafter, bodies start hitting the floor.
“One of the most fun things about writing it was getting to create this fake filmography for this fake actress and make up ’80s slasher films that I wish I could have seen,” Ridenhour says.
While audiences at The Magnetic will have to use their imaginations regarding those fictional titles, they’ll be treated to a visceral experience onstage. Helping Ridenhour realize his vision is Nicki LaRue, who trained at Tom Savini’s Special Make-up Effects Program at Douglas Education Center in Monessen, Pa. There, she learned from the pioneer who brought realistic gore to such horror classics as Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th.
“What I wanted to do was to not do the theater fakes where somebody falls behind the couch and you raise the knife and then they come out all bloody or whatever,” Ridenhour says. “If we kill somebody, we’re going to kill them onstage. You’re going to see it happen, and it needs to look real.”
The writer/director notes that the incorporation of LaRue’s skills is one bright spot to emerge from the pandemic. Bloodbath was originally to premiere in 2020, but statewide indoor capacity restrictions prompted The Magnetic to temporarily close. In the interim, the show’s costume designer moved away, and LaRue was hired in that role. While chatting with Ridenhour, LaRue mentioned her time at Savini’s school and was quickly promoted to handle the production’s makeup effects. Together with their cast and crew, Ridenhour hopes to add to his reputation as a strong advocate for horror and a proponent for genre stories as a positive force.
“The darkness of the world doesn’t go away if you turn away from it, and I think one thing that horror does is it teaches us how to face it and overcome it,” he says. “And there’s a lot of research showing that people who watch horror movies are actually more empathetic and better adjusted to deal with negative things in the world.”
The Magnetic Theatre is at 375 Depot St. Bloodbath: Victoria’s Secret runs Friday, Oct. 15-Saturday, Oct. 30, with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. For more information, visit avl.mx/ai4
Evil in London
Home to the popular, long-running outdoor drama Unto These Hills, Cherokee’s Mountainside Theatre plays host to another classic tale this month with Dracula: The Failings of Men. The show comes courtesy of Atlanta-based Havoc Movement Co.
Co-founder Jake Guinn established Havoc in 2018 as a way to spotlight the stunt and circus-level movement work that wasn’t being featured in Atlanta. He and his colleagues also began producing original work to fill the void for these talented but underserved performers.
“There are some highly skilled individuals out here who never get an opportunity to do a narratively focused piece,” he says. “So we started creating those opportunities.”
The latest such work is Dracula: The Failings of Men, inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel.
“We thought that it was a great opportunity to showcase the skill sets that really define the company,” Guinn says. “High action, impressive circus work — these are the kinds of things that can be used as motivations for the narratives in the piece.”
Originally scheduled for a fall 2020 run, the yearlong, pandemic-induced delay allowed Havoc’s writing team to go through 22 revisions of its script before landing on the version they felt wholly confident about. The final draft has attendees walking along with Ada Van Helsing as she battles the forces of evil in 1897 London.
“The audience follows the storyline from place to place. And as you move deeper into the theater, the story dives deeper into its darkness and gets scarier and meaner,” Guinn says. “It starts in this very light, bright place and then moves down through the theater, into the real depths of this monster story.”
Though this telling of Dracula amplifies the bloody and scary aspects of the source material, Guinn stresses that it’s a story about triumphing over monsters, which he feels are the types of tales that need to be told in 2021.
“We all feel attacked right now,” he says. “We all feel like we’re in this very dark place and that we’re fighting against something, and seeing a hero overcome that gives us a good example and a good role model for maybe how we can tackle things ourselves.”
Mountainside Theatre is at 688 Drama Road, Cherokee. Dracula: The Failings of Men continues through Sunday, Oct. 31, with performances Thursday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit avl.mx/ai3
To be (and not to be)
Movement is likewise essential to Montford Park Players’ take on Living Dead in Denmark and a key factor in Deanna Braine Smith being tapped to direct the show.
The company’s production manager staff of fight choreographer, Braine Smith says she never had directorial ambitions. But the various elements of playwright Qui Nguyen’s zombie-infused remix of Hamlet convinced her otherwise.
“I proposed the show because I selfishly wanted to choreograph it, and I thought it would be a good fit for our theater. It’s very Shakespeare-influenced, but it’s got the nice twist of having some really strong female leads,” she says. “When it came time to choose a director, our selection committee nominated me. And since half of it is fight stuff, I figured I could kind of cheat my way into directing my first show.”
Plentiful rehearsal time is being devoted to the production’s battle sequences, as several cast members are new to performing fight scenes. These bloody showdowns take place within a post-apocalyptic landscape, Braine Smith explains, but one that includes certain Shakespearean elements.
“It’s a whole bunch of anachronism,” she says. “The goal is to make Montford look like a wasteland, so it’s very Borderlands, very ‘[The] Walking Dead’ and also pulling in some of that traditional Hamlet, Denmarkian vibe.”
While rehearsing and performing outdoors has helped alleviate the risk of transmitting COVID-19 among the cast and crew, the Montford Park Players have remained vigilant throughout, and Braine Smith has noticed a greater sense of camaraderie and ownership of the production as a result. She notes that her collaborators are thrilled to “sling swords around” and “get covered in blood and gore,” and hopes that the material’s craziness can help attendees forget about their daily woes for a couple of hours.
“Things are so stressful right now — we just want something positive,” Braine Smith says. “The show has a lot of humor and gives you that aspect, while also showing that things could always be worse. People could be trying to eat your brain, so it gives you that step back and escape to be like, ‘OK, I can deal with this. No one’s trying to murder me.’”
Montford Park Players perform at Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre, 92 Gay St. Living Dead in Denmark runs Friday, Oct. 15-Sunday, Oct. 31, with performances Friday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit avl.mx/9al
Off with your head
Humor also defines the production of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at Burnsville’s Parkway Playhouse. Director Daniel Moore describes the show as “100% a farce” of the Washington Irving 1820 story and a “pantomime comedy” similar to something that Chicago’s revered The Second City might enact.
Written by John Heimbuch and created in collaboration with Jon Ferguson at Minneapolis’ Walking Shadow Theatre Company, the play features what Moore calls “a very open script” that encourages those who perform it to make it their own via revisions and improvisation. Such guidance resonated with the director, who has no interest in rehashing a familiar story that’s been told the same way numerous times.
“I was excited when I read it to see that the story’s really not explained. We just get to experience Ichabod’s time in Sleepy Hollow with all of these absurd characters,” Moore says. “And I won’t give too much away, but we’re not even certain if these characters are really there or if we’re trapped in this sort of dreamlike place outside of time.”
A longtime genre fan, Moore worked his way through the entire horror section at the video rental store his mother managed when he was a teen. While that background is evident in the play’s production design, he emphasizes that it’s merely a springboard for the material’s humor.
“There’s a lot of darkness, some fog and some classic horror movie stinger sounds,” Moore says. “Everything but the words are going to be pretty spooky. Once you hear what they’re saying, you’ll lose that.”
The Parkway Playhouse cast has remained masked during rehearsals, and opening night will be the first time the actors will see each other’s faces onstage — all of which Moore feels has enhanced the production’s comedic elements.
“With this being such a big, over-the-top, melodramatic performance, it’s really forced the actors to not rely on their face and, to a degree, their voice,” he says. “And so it really incorporates the body — the physical comedy — and it kind of just pushes them in that direction without anyone having to be the catalyst for that.”
Though The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the most purely comedic of the four local October productions, offering a particular brand of escapism, Moore is keenly aware of the power and dangers of staging a legitimate horror show during the pandemic. Well-versed in the genre’s metaphorical potential, he sees great promise in telling scary stories during these dark days, as long as the subject matter avoids getting overly specific.
“It may not be the best time to do a plague play, but when you can take that plague or whatever it is and transform it or personify it into a killer or a headless ghost or something else, you get to breathe that sigh of relief, like, ‘OK, well, this is absurd. This will never happen to me. This is fun,’” he says. “I think it really just depends on the line you’re straddling as to what’s the catalyst of the fear.”
Parkway Playhouse is at 202 Green Mountain Drive, Burnsville. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow runs Saturday, Oct. 9-Saturday, Oct. 23, with performances Friday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For more information, visit avl.mx/aiq.