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.

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