We hate getting to the end of a book we like. Either we don’t want it to end, or we don’t want to be reminded that it was all only in our heads. Good stories and good characters are like french fries; we always want more than will fit in the bag. Some folks actually do something about this terrible situation. These book junkies extend the stories and characters in a variety of ways, and it’s actually the most natural thing in the world: as we know, work that is truly great transcends its original form. The Get Lit Off the Page series explores ways people extend literature into other forms.
If you haven’t already heard of Wicked Lit (the main – but not only – series of theater offerings from Unbound Productions), you’re probably just not that into Halloween (or you don’t live in Los Angeles). These are the guys who do classic horror stories as immersive theater in a cemetery. Yeah, those guys. Artistic Director Paul Millet was nice enough to answer my questions right in the middle of what is surely their most intense season. The current show runs to November 11, but I’d get my tix now, if I were you. This is the kind of show that sells out.
Read the scary stories somewhere cozy, then get outside in that cool autumn air (ha ha – it’s like 100 degrees in LA right now) and live thru the scary stories surrounded by dead people. It’s the perfect fall weekend.
Eric Larkin – Was there a single, life-changing moment you first thought – “We should do immersive theater based on classic literature“? Or did the company slowly morph into what it is now, with Wicked Lit, History Lit, Mystery Lit, and so on?
Paul Millet – The idea of creating a theatre festival that featured new adaptations of classic horror stories developed over the course of time beginning in late 2007 and continuing into early 2008. The “game changing” moment came when we learned through our colleagues at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills that Greystone Mansion was available for a Halloween event in 2009. We jumped at the opportunity to produce the first Wicked Lit at Greystone that year and subsequently realized that making Wicked Lit an immersive site-specific production was the way to go moving forward.
EL – Why bother doing physical, immersive shows using stories that people can just read? You can lose a lot of the “looking inside the mind” thing that written stories provide, but what do you gain?
PM – We do love the idea of “theatre of the mind” where the audience uses their imagination to visualize what’s happening. We have often presented staged readings to create this effect.
But the experience becomes much more visceral when you place your audience in a location and surround them with the world of a story. For instance, at Mountain View, we always use the cemetery for part of or all of one of the plays. In each case, the story takes place either entirely or partially in a cemetery and by placing your audience in that particular environment they are compelled to react to the same stimuli and situations as the characters because they are in fact living in the same world as the characters. When you experience Wicked Lit you are actually in a location surrounded by whatever danger or peril the characters are dealing with.
EL – Are there any specific, recurring challenges in adapting literature to this kind of theater?
PM – The challenge is always finding a way in. Finding a way to create a compelling piece of theatre from a compelling piece of literature. Because what makes for a great story may be different from what makes a play great. So you look for a hook. A concept. A question. Something drawn from the text that will jump-start the play. When I adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, it started with a question: Why? Why did Montresor do it? And in answering that question my adaptation was born.
EL – You’ve done everything from Rashomon to The Yellow Wallpaper to Sherlock Holmes, and now even something based on one of the oldest books, the Egyptian Book of Thoth. How do you choose what to do? I imagine conversations like, “This would be cool, but it would be too difficult. That has already been done a million times”, etc.
PM – It first must resonate with the writer. A story must draw you in and cause you to ask questions about it – and not simple questions, but questions that reveal a passion for the story, the characters and situation that goes beyond the superficial, because that is the beginning of the adaptation process. We have developed numerous plays internally at Unbound and, starting in 2014, began accepting submissions from playwrights whom we have reached out to. In every case, it starts with the writer being drawn to a specific text for a specific reason.
In terms of how we select the plays for each Wicked Lit, we consider several factors. Is it a good play? Is it something we haven’t explored before? How will it fit within the venue? How does it relate (or not relate) to the others we are considering? We basically strive to feature an evening of diverse plays that differ in tone, cultural background, use of space and setting, and that create opportunities for a wide spectrum of actors.
EL – Immersive theater can be unpredictable, especially when done in an unusual location, like a haunted manor or a cemetery. What’s the weirdest or most surprising thing that has ever happened during a show?
PM – After most performances we offer a backstage tour of parts of the venue. We call it the Backstage Experience. We share insight into how the show works and offer stories from both the current year and previous years. At the end of one of the Backstage Experiences last year a woman approached one of my co-producers who was leading the tour. They were in the Mural Galleria, which is the largest and oldest part of Mountain View Mausoleum. She remarked to Jeff (my co-producer) that she had seen a couple on the mezzanine level under the rose window watching the show earlier and that they were pleased that the space was being used in such a manner. Jeff, suspecting that she was referring to something beyond our physical word, asked her about her sensitivity and she told him that she indeed was a “sensitive” and that she often worked as a consultant with the L.A.P.D. on homicide cases.
What she did not know was that the location of the couple she described was directly in front of the tomb of Cecil Bryan, the architect of the building and his wife. He had designed over 80 mausoleums across the U.S. and considered Mountain View to be his crown jewel and hence wanted his final resting place to be there under the rose window.
EL – Can you imagine doing something in the environment of The Last Bookstore? Not just a reading, but a real, walking-around, lights-n-sound kinda thing. We don’t have quite as many dead people as the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery, but we’re pretty sure we have a few.
PM – Sure. We have met with folks from The Last Bookstore a few times in the past. We have not found the right story to adapt for the store yet, but it’s definitely something we would be interested in.
EL – Wicked Lit 2017 includes (adaptations of) Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing, Thoth’s Labyrinth, Margaret Oliphant’s The Open Door, and Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom. Is there something that ties these particular stories together? And what’s waiting in line behind this show?
PM – The Frame for this year’s show, Liliom, centers on a quartet of characters trapped in a sort of purgatory state as they wait to move on to wherever they are supposed to go. The three plays all have a similar connection in terms of unresolved issues from the past haunting those in the present and preventing forward progress or freedom from those very ties in the past.
We have several ideas for next year both in terms of Wicked Lit as well as other projects ranging from science fiction to possible Christmas fare. Stay tuned to find out more!
We’re in the season for this sorta thing, so get on it while you can: tix for Wicked Lit 2017 are right here.
Read the scary stories somewhere cozy, then get outside in that cool autumn air (ha ha – it’s like 100 degrees in LA right now) and experience them surrounded by dead people. It’s the perfect fall weekend.