Friday, October 31, 2014

For Halloween - The Raven

Since we're running The Woman In Black this Halloween evening, I thought it was fitting to pair it with this American classic. Happy Halloween!

The Raven - Edgar Allen Poe

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, 
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— 
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, 
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. 
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door— 
            Only this and nothing more.” 

    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December; 
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor. 
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow 
    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore— 
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore— 
            Nameless here for evermore. 

    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain 
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before; 
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating 
    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door— 
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;— 
            This it is and nothing more.” 

    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer, 
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore; 
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, 
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door, 
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;— 
            Darkness there and nothing more. 

    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, 
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before; 
    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token, 
    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?” 
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”— 
            Merely this and nothing more. 

    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning, 
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before. 
    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice; 
      Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore— 
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;— 
            ’Tis the wind and nothing more!” 

    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, 
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore; 
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he; 
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door— 
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door— 
            Perched, and sat, and nothing more. 

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, 
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore, 
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven, 
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore— 
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!” 
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 

    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly, 
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore; 
    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being 
    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door— 
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door, 
            With such name as “Nevermore.” 

    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only 
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour. 
    Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered— 
    Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before— 
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.” 
            Then the bird said “Nevermore.” 

    Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken, 
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store 
    Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster 
    Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore— 
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore 
            Of ‘Never—nevermore’.” 

    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling, 
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door; 
    Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking 
    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore— 
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore 
            Meant in croaking “Nevermore.” 

    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing 
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core; 
    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining 
    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er, 
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er, 
            She shall press, ah, nevermore! 

    Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer 
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor. 
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee 
    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore; 
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!” 
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!— 
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore, 
    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted— 
    On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore— 
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!” 
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil! 
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore— 
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, 
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore— 
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.” 
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 

    “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting— 
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore! 
    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken! 
    Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door! 
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” 
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 

    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting 
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; 
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming, 
    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; 
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor 
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!

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)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Who Is Susan Hill?

The play The Woman In Black is based on a novel by author Susan Hill. When I started reading, I assumed that the story was written in the early 1900s. It turns out that it wasn't - the book version of The Woman In Black was actually first published in 1983. I did a a little digging to learn more about Susan Hill and here's what I learned.

Author Susan Hill
Ms. Hill has written a number of novels - literary works, a number of ghost stories, children's books, detective novels, and even a memoir.

Born in Scarborough, England in 1942 her first novel, The Enclosure, was published in 1961 while she was still a student. She worked as a freelance journalist from 1963-1968. She was a presenter for BBC Radio's "Bookshelf" Program from 1986 - 1987. In 1996 she started her own publishing company, Long Barn Books.

Her books include I’m the King of the Castle (1970), winner of the Somerset Maugham Award; The Bird of Night (1972), winner of the Whitbread Novel Award and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (1972) ; and The Albatross, a collection of short stories, winner of the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. She was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2012 for services to literature.