Why Horror is HARD…
There are universal challenges faced by those who produce live entertainment, especially those who do so in New York City. The rising cost of performance space. The financial commitment involved in facilitating a rehearsal process. Audiences with ever-shrinking disposable income and a myriad of alternate entertainment options. The psychological exhaustion of encouraging communication and mediating disputes in an art form defined by the necessity of collaboration.
Indie and amateur producers face yet more challenges - first and foremost, the question of how to keep actors, directors, and technicians motivated when no one is being paid for their time and talent. How to find, borrow, make, or steal that which the company needs, but which the company cannot afford to buy. How to walk the line between imitating professional theatre and presenting yourself as the cheap and fun alternative to same.
The past two years have given me plenty of time to reflect on the challenges of producing, but I found myself motivated to share with you some observations about the challenges that are unique to the production of live horror in NYC. Here are some of the reasons I’ve noticed why being Executive Producer at La Petite Morgue is the hardest job I’ve ever loved:
The Special Effects…
Sure, lots of shows use special effects, but I would argue that special effects are uniquely crucial in the horror genre. Hitchcock said, “There is no horror in the bang - only in the anticipation of it.” Creating suspense depends on the writing, directing, and acting, and if those elements aren’t top-notch, all the fake blood and squibs money can buy won’t make a play scary. But, I would argue that what Aristotle referred to as spectacle is more important in this genre than any other. The dramatic climax of a play needs to be satisfying for the audience. If the dramatic climax of a play is a violent murder, then the audience is likely going to want to see that murder - usually with as much detail and realism as possible. The Greeks may have been fans of off-stage violence and gore, but most modern audiences feel they need to see it to believe it.
|Universally acknowledged masterpiece? Yes. But some kid in the 4th row |
is rolling his eyes because he thinks that blood looks like Kool-Aid.
Pretend you’re directing a play. And that play ends with a brutal stabbing. You want your actor holding a knife that looks sharp enough to cut through human flesh. But if you ask an actor to hold a knife that is actually sharp enough to cut through human flesh, you run the risk of it actually doing that. Directors and producers have a responsibility to ensure that their actors are 100% safe - while simultaneously making the audience believe that those same actors are in terrible danger. Stage combat is complicated enough in the average play, but in horror, we add a variety of weapons, sometimes even guns, into the mix. For example, this year’s festival shows featured the following weapons: a knife, a box cutter, a letter opener, and a phone (bashed over someone’s head to knock him unconscious). You’d be surprised how much time I personally spent trying to add just enough foam padding to the bottom of the phone so that Blayne didn’t accidentally slip one night and give Ryan a concussion, but not so much that the audience would find themselves wondering, “Why does the bottom of that phone look like a giant marshmallow?”
Everyone in the audience knows, intellectually, that one actor is not actually slitting the throat of the other actor with a box cutter, in a room full of witnesses. They know it. And yet… when the stars align, and the effect works perfectly, they still see that happen. Intellectually, they know that what they are watching is not real. But seeing something happen has an effect on you, separate from the intellectual reaction your brain is aware of. And, if everyone has done their job properly, then with a little bit of blind luck, someone sitting in the audience can have a real, visceral, emotional reaction to something that they simultaneously know is make-believe.
It’s a beautiful thing when that happens, and it’s a shame that it can’t happen every time. But there are so many things that can go wrong. The blood looks too watery. The blood looks too red. Or - and this is an issue that plagued the Parasite cast - the blood pack just doesn’t burst when it’s supposed to. You can practice breaking a blood pack a hundred times, and get it right every time. And then you can go up on stage and do it the exact same way, and it just doesn’t break. Having more money to spend on special effects can mitigate the chances of technical snafus, but they cannot completely eliminate them. Horror films have the benefit of shooting, and re-shooting, and editing a scene until it’s absolutely perfect. Theatre happens live. Which means it will almost never be perfect. If you’re very, very lucky, then every once in a while, it will be close enough. And that is magic.
…And Other Issues Related to the Suspension of Disbelief
In the 2013 festival, one of the plays we produced was one I wrote. It was called Hold Still. It involves a painter who murders his subjects. Early in the play, his latest victim observes that it’s eerily quiet in his loft, and he explains that he has had his apartment sound-proofed, because he requires silence for his work. Later, when she begins to scream for help, he quips, “Sound-proofing, remember?” It’s the “No one can hear you scream!” moment of the play. And I thought it was pretty creepy - until the first performance, when I realized what a terrible mistake I had made.
It is never. Ever. Ever. Silent. In Manhattan. And when the actor is supposed to say, “It’s so quiet!” and then a car alarm goes off, somewhere in the distance, or a door slams on the ground floor, or two women in the stairway start having a loud conversation in Croatian… It is very, very hard for the other actor to reply, “Yes, I had the place sound-proofed” without bursting into hysterics, and/or causing the audience to do so. In New York City, someone can pretty much always hear you if you decide to scream, and you can pretty much always hear other people, doing something.
Maybe someday, we’ll find a performance space that actually is sound-proof, and the spooky silence of a play like With You or Bloody Mary won’t be constantly interrupted by sirens, raucous laughter, and/or someone’s iPhone. In the meantime, we have to trust the audience to meet us halfway, use their imaginations, and get wrapped up in a dark, quiet, creepy play about forgotten graveyards and isolated cabins in the woods, despite actually being surrounded by the most crowded, brightest, and loudest city in America.
Fear is Subjective…
Some fears are nearly universal. There are a lot of fears that are considered to be the result of evolution, hard-wired into our brains from years of survival. Being afraid of large predators, disease-carrying bugs, heights, and other things that can kill or maim you is really just good common sense - so those tend to be the most popular phobias.
But fear can also be highly subjective. One person’s panic attack is another person’s complete indifference. Some people find The Blair Witch Project terrifying - other people find it boring, or downright annoying. I’ve laughed at the up-staters who warn me to be careful walking through parts of Manhattan after dark - but it’s equally hilarious to take a born-and-raised Manhattanite out into the wilderness (where it is actually dark and actually silent and there is literally no one around for miles to hear you scream) and watch them completely lose their minds. Some people are profoundly unnerved by zombies, while others find them ridiculous and can’t help but giggle at their brainless undead moaning. Some people are terrified by ghosts and supernatural monsters, while others are more creeped-out by true-crime and biographies of history’s greatest psychopaths.
For example: Chelsea Holland is afraid of Big Bird.
You know what? I’m going to give you a second to wrap your minds around that sentence.
Chelsea Holland… is afraid… of Big Bird.
Yep. That’s right. Big Bird. You good? Okay, moving on.
If Chelsea ever writes a horror play in which Big Bird is the villain/monster/antagonist, I’m sure it will be a wonderful, brilliant, prize-winningly suspenseful masterpiece of the macabre. But, given that I watched Follow That Bird with near-religious enthusiasm every day between the ages of three and six, I am going to have a hard time feeling anything but affection for the big yellow guy. And I’m very easy to frighten. Ask anyone.
|"Why is Chelsea afraid of Big Bird?"|
"I think a psychiatrist would have a FIELD DAY with that question."
The bottom line is, even if our audience were full of ‘fraidy-cats, not every horror play has the potential to scare every person in the room. And our audiences are made up primarily of New Yorkers - a group of people who have taught themselves to play chicken with speeding cabs, scoff at the threat of street crime, and walk past a horde of zombies without batting an eye. (After enough trips through Times Square, you just start to assume that every weird thing you run into is just another viral marketing campaign
.) As a demographic, you people are famously fearless
, and generally, pretty freaking unshakeable
…and Laughter is Contagious
In our interview with Christopher Krovatin, the playwright of Tiperary mentions that one thing horror and sex have in common is that when things go wrong, it’s generally hilarious. Is it because of all the adrenaline involved? Is it because of all the tension and anxiety? Is it because those are situations in which people tend to take themselves very seriously? For whatever reason, there’s a thin line between fear and hilarity.
Even if nothing goes wrong on stage, you can find yourself suddenly faced with an audience full of people who are snickering instead of shivering. Some people laugh when they’re angry, or crying, or yes, even terrified. A fair number of people find that they sometimes laugh when they’re uncomfortable or nervous. And once one person laughs, another usually joins in. We have a natural urge to break the tension we’re experiencing, especially in a group setting. We have an urge to fit in with those around us, and we do so by mirroring the behavior of others. We really are just monkeys, after all.
So, laughter spreads quickly through an audience. It’s a beautiful thing in comedy, but in horror? When the bloody stabbing goes from brutal to campy, it’s generally considered bad. So, the challenge is bigger than just “don’t screw up”, the challenge is finding a way to make groupthink work for instead of against you, and find ways to make fear as contagious as amusement. I haven’t figured it out yet, but if you have any ideas, let me know.
That actually applies to everything I’ve mentioned above. If you have any ideas about how we at La Petite Morgue could be doing a better job of scaring you witless, we want to hear them. Your opinions matter, and maybe you have an idea we’ve never heard before. Leave a comment, or better yet, send us a play that requires no special effects, no onstage violence, and is universally creepy from start to finish - even with car alarms going off in the background. Yes, that’s probably impossible. But it’s important to have an ideal to strive for.