Monday, October 20, 2014

The Woman In Black On Film

You might have heard about The Woman In Black because it was recently turned into a film. It featured Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter and Ciaran Hinds. It has more than two actors and some seriously gorgeous scenery. It got a Rotten Tomato score of 66% and did moderately well at the box office. It's got its flaws (I'm not a fan of the movie ending) but it's a wonderfully atmospheric film. To get a feel for it, watch the trailer below.

I read recently that there's actually a sequel in the works. It's called The Woman In Black: Angel of Death and it's slated for release in 2015. It takes place at Eel Marsh House during World War II - some Londoners end up at the old house to escape the Blitz and run into the home of The Woman In Black. The first trailer was just released. 

Did you see the movie? What did you think? Will you check out the sequel? 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ghost Lights and Haunted Theatres

Working on some surrounding material for The Woman In Black got me to thinking about how it's kind of funny that a theatre is performing a ghost story, as theatre folk are notoriously superstitious. Like most things, a lot of the superstition is rooted in practical sense. For example, many theaters have what's called a "ghost light." It's basically a bare light bulb on a pole that's left out on stage. The story is that it's supposed to keep ghosts away - I guess ghosts don't like light? The truth is, it's more likely that it started as a safety measure - when you enter a dark theatre, it's pretty darn dark, and in a traditional theatre there's often an orchestra pit so you do run the risk of falling off the edge and breaking your neck.

The Dragon Theatre ghost light in action

All good theaters have a resident ghost or spooky story. There's an old theater in London that has two seats in the balcony bolted down in the open position so that the resident ghosts have permanent seating. Which brings me to my personal theatre ghost story. Years ago when I was in college I worked at a theatre in St. Louis. This was my first summer as a "professional" theatre worker. The theatre was an old church that was built in the late 1800s and had been converted into a theatre.

The Grandel Theatre in St. Louis

I was helping out on the St. Louis Shakespeare production of The Kentucky Cycle, a Pulitzer Prize award winning play by Robert Shenkkan that is actually a play in two parts and spans about 200 years of American history. I was helping the Technical Director (TD) after rehearsal hours to get the set painted and complete so we'd start work at around 10p and would paint till about 2am. One night as we were painting, I mentioned that the wedding dress was really pretty. The TD said "what wedding dress? There's no wedding in the show." And I replied that I'd seen a woman in the upper balcony walking around in a wedding dress while I was up in the balcony working on a prop. The TD laughed and said "oh, you met one of the ghosts then." I rolled my eyes and kept painting and said I didn't believe in ghosts - I figured they were having a bit of fun with the new girl.

I hadn't met the whole cast yet and the next night they were doing a full run so I decided to scope them out to find the prankster in the dress. None of the women in the cast or on the crew remotely resembled the woman in the wedding dress. That evening as they ran the show we noticed a problem with the lights - several of the lights that were supposed to be hitting the front of the stage were aimed too low and were hitting the audience instead of the stage. As I looked up to figure out what row of lights it was, I saw a man up in the front of the balcony, on or near the light pipe where the mis-aligned lights were, so I figured it was a lighting guy working on the lights to re-aim them. At the end of the run during the post-show notes, the lighting came up and I mentioned that I'd seen a guy up there. The Master Electrician and the TD looked at me and said "what guy?" I said "I dunno, some guy in work boots and pants and a plaid kind of shirt was sitting up there on the pipe." And the TD replied "ah, well, you've just seen the other ghost then. He likes to sit up on that front pipe and when he's done, every single light on the pipe has dropped like there was a weight up there that knocked them down." They all proceeded to tell me that the woman in the wedding dress was allegedly killed on her wedding day while heading to the church, and the gentleman was supposedly an old handyman that used to live at the church. They said the ghosts were never malicious, they'd just pop up from time to time walking around and hanging out and doing their thing.

I'm still not sure I believe in ghosts but I know that I walked by a woman in a wedding dress one night at rehearsal.

The Dragon Theatre was a travel agency before we moved in, and then it was abandoned for several years, so I don't think that it's got any tragic stories or ghosts. Now excuse me while I go knock on some wood, go outside, spin in a circle three times, spit, curse, and knock on the theatre door to be let back in just in case I just angered our resident Woman In Black.

Anyone else have a theatrical ghost story to share?


Friday, October 10, 2014

This One Is Different

In roughly thirty years as an actor, I've done many different types of theatre: from Greek tragedy to musical comedy, from drama to farce, improv to operetta... you name it.

But I have never done a show quite like The Woman in Black, and I'd like to take a moment before the show opens (tonight!) to discuss some of the things that have made the experience of working on this play truly unique.

First of all, it's a ghost story. And when you think about it, there are surprisingly few ghost stories for the stage. Sure, there's the occasional ghost in Shakespeare, but those stories – with the possible exception of Macbeth – aren't the sort of spine-tingly tales you'd tell around a campfire on a moonless night. Ibsen's Ghosts (entirely ghost-free, if memory serves) and Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit are even further from the mark. The closest comparison I can think of is the adaptation of The Turn of the Screw that Dragon produced in 2010 – another minimalist interpretation of a classic novel.

Because this is a proper ghost story – “a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy,” as one of the characters describes it – Tasi and I have had the opportunity to explore a range of emotions that stage actors are not often called upon to portray. There's not a lot of otherworldly terror in Chekhov or Neil Simon; drumming up a believable facsimile of blood-curdling fear is usually the domain of film actors.

We've also had to hone another skill that more often falls to film actors – especially the stars of CGI-laden special effects blockbusters – namely, the ability to react to things that aren't there. The bare-bones, highly theatrical style of The Woman in Black requires Tasi and I to create much of the play's atmosphere – marshes, graveyards, etc. – with nothing but our words and actions. This is not an unusual acting task, but The Woman in Black carries it a bit further than most plays. One of the play's characters, for instance, is a Border Terrier named Spider who exists on stage only because Tasi and I interact with a dog-shaped figment of our imaginations. The experience has given me more respect for movie stars who routinely play scenes opposite computer-generated animals, aliens, and robots that aren't added until post-production, long after the scene is shot.

Tasi and I rehearse with Spider's body double, just to get a sense of her size and cuddliness. I'm fairly sure I've never rehearsed a scene with a teddy bear before.

Also, in adapting Susan Hill's novel for the stage, Stephen Mallatratt relied heavily on sound effects, not just to establish mood and setting, but also to tell crucial parts of the story. It was not until our first tech rehearsal, last Sunday, that Tasi and I began to hear the terrifically creepy and sometimes terrifying sound cues produced by our sound designer, Lance Huntley. For the previous five weeks of rehearsal, we had simply been reacting to nothing, or to stage manager Kristine Gilreath calling out “From out on the marshes comes the sound of a child's cry.” (Another way in which The Woman in Black is unique: I have never heard a stage manager read so many stage directions aloud, nor with such panache.)

As the various elements of the show have come together this week, it's been a reminder of the power of live theatre to conjure worlds, to evoke powerful emotions, all without the benefit of expensive CG effects. I look forward to seeing the reactions of audiences as we tell a story unlike any I've ever told before.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Who Is Stephen Mallatratt?

In the mid-1970s, Stephen Mallatratt, while working as an actor in Alan Ayckbourn's company in Scarborough, wrote An Englishman's Home. It was, recalls Ayckbourn, a near-perfect first play. Like his better known peers - John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Ayckbourn himself - Mallatratt's writing was addressed and stamped by his experience as an actor.

Playwright Stephen Mallatratt
Mallatratt, who has died of leukemia aged 57, went on to achieve fame and fortune as the adapting dramatist of Susan Hill's novel The Woman In Black, premiered in Scarborough as a stocking filler over Christmas in 1987.

The Woman In Black, a beautifully wrought, classic thriller for two actors, the successor to Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, is now the second longest-running West End play - after The Mousetrap. It has been translated into a dozen languages and produced in 40 countries.

Although never a "brand-name" playwright, Mallatratt's craft and professionalism made him well-known as a core member of the Coronation Street script-writing team from 1985, and as the author of such fine television series as his 2002 version of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga and last year's Island At War, set on a fictional Channel Island.

When Ayckbourn invited Mallatratt to Scarborough, he was still under contract to the Ipswich theatre, but he paid out his employers. Mallatratt originated roles in such Ayckbourn modern masterpieces as Confusions, Absent Friends and Bedroom Farce; other Ayckbourn proteges of this glorious past half-century at Scarborough were the playwrights James Saunders, Stephen Lowe, Robert Eaton and Tim Firth.

Mallatratt moved on to Bristol. When the Old Vic closed its collaborative operation in the nearby Little Theatre in the late 1970s, he and Neilson were among the outstanding group of actors who took the place over; others were Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite, Pam Ferris and George Costigan.
Mallatratt returned to Scarborough in autumn 1985 and acted in Ayckbourn's production of The Bront√ęs Of Howarth by Christopher Fry. When Ayckbourn took a sabbatical to join Peter Hall as a National Theatre associate, Mallatratt stayed on as the stand-in resident writer for stand-in artistic director Robin Herford.

Herford commissioned a play about witchcraft in Heptonstall that became the not too dissimilar precursor of The Woman In Black. The rest is history; Herford's only regret is that Mallatratt was about to hit "an even longer stride" as a dramatist.

(Taken from The Guardian's 2004 obituary for Stephen Mallatratt)