With exceptions made for the occasional Halloween presentation of Dracula, horror theatre is pretty much a thing of the past. Brian Amidei of Chicago, along with his compatriots in Chicago’s Wildclaw Theatre Company, are determined to resurrect the tradition for a new, modern audience. With stage adaptations of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House and soon, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Wildclaw is bringing fright back to center stage. Brian Amidei spoke with me recently about zombies, gothic horror and how Clive Barker inspired a new theatre tradition in The Windy City.
Brian, thanks for talking with me. I wanted to start off by asking you about the founding of Wildclaw Theatre. We’ve seen an upswing in horror’s popularity, and I was wondering what impact, if any, that had on the birth of Wildclaw.
That’s true, and oftentimes, interestingly enough, the popularity of horror is tied to when things get tough. Whether they’re economic factors or in times of war, horror gets popular because it becomes a cathartic release for people, which I find sociologically interesting. That, however, is not why we created Wildclaw. The Artistic Director, my friend Charley Sherman, many years ago – I think it was ‘94 in Chicago at the Organic Theater – adapted Clive Barker’s In the Flesh with Steve Pickering, and it was a big hit. I didn’t know Charley at the time but I had gone to see In the Flesh, and I experienced something that I had never experienced in live theater before: it was that horror movie feeling – That “sitting on the edge, want to turn away” – feeling, and although I’m an actor and a theater artist I’ve never experienced that in live theater. It just so happens that Aly Renee Greaves, who is also a company member, that was the first professional theater show that she had ever seen and she didn’t know Charley, or myself, or anyone involved, so fast forward 15 years or so and I’m now friends with Charley Sherman and am living with Aly Renee Greaves, and Charley comes up with this idea of starting a horror theater and we looked around the landscape of Chicago theater where there are well over 180 viable theaters, equity and non-equity, and we saw that no one else was doing it. Not only were they not doing it, they weren’t even trying to do it seriously. Every year these people would put out a show that would be some sort of slap dash splatter theater with a wink and a smile satire satire kind of thing. Nobody was trying to do it seriously, so that’s where the idea came from. We said, you know, “Nature abhors a vacuum.”
This is secondary, but we also realized that the arts world is in a difficult place right now, particularly in Chicago. There’s a theater-going community, but it’s a static community meaning that every one of those 180 viable theaters are vying for a piece of this same static audience. New people are not entering the theater-going population. The theatre-going world is the theatre-going world, but we realized that when a horror movie comes out, regardless of the quality of the horror movie, it usually is number one or number two nationwide at the box office, and there’s this thriving horror community that will drop twelve bucks every week to go see a horrible movie even if it is a horrible movie just so they can complain about it! This is a community that never goes to see live theatre ever because life theatre doesn’t offer them what they’re looking for in their entertainment. We thought that if we could tap into that audience then that’s a brand new audience out there and they would be ours exclusively, at least initially, so those are the two factors that went into us creating Wildclaw Theatre in 2008.
Are you seeing a lot of people in the theatre audience now that wouldn’t necessarily have been there before? Have you had a lot of people come to you and say that this is the first time they’ve been to the theatre?
We don’t hear that, but having done a lot of theatre in town we definitely see a lot of people who aren’t regular theatre goers. One of the greatest compliments that we’ve gotten is after our first show, which was Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, a woman came up to me and said I haven’t been to the theatre in ten or fifteen years because I didn’t like it anymore, but I haven’t had this much fun in the theatre before, and now I think I’m going to go see more theatre because of this show. That’s like the greatest compliment in the world!
Let’s talk a little bit about the kind of horror you bring to the stage. You’re working on Carmilla now, right? You’ve also mentioned The Great God Pan. Seems like you’re bring a certain gothic or classic horror vibe to the stage.
Our inclinations are toward the literary adaptations from the beginning of the genre. The Great God Pan, is often considered, besides the works of Edgar Allan Poe, to be one of the first or defining works of the genre. Before there was horror as a genre, The Great God Pan came out and reviewers thought it was sick, twisted or deranged, and it was banned in certain libraries. Carmilla predates Dracula. It was written by Sheridan Le Fanu 25 years before Dracula, and it’s a female vampire, so yes, we do like to do that, but we also like to do original plays. A year ago, we did Scott Barrsotti’s The Revenants which was a four character zombie drama. Before that we did H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House which is…well, it’s just twisted! Talk about the literary merits all you want, but Lovecraft is Lovecraft.
We’ve also done a yearly festival and we’re getting ready to do our third annual Deathscribe horror radio festival. We take submissions for about six months from anyone who can write a horror radio play, and then we sift through those and through a blind judging process we pick the five best. We get some of the best actors and directors from Chicago’s theatre world and we do it live, with a live band. This year we’re doing it at a brand new refurbished former vaudeville house which is supposedly one of the finest sounding rooms in Chicago these days, it’s called the Main Stage. So that’s a lot of fun. Another one night show we do every year, and it’s sort of a way to reach out to the horror community and to say, “Come on in. Try it yourself.”
Do you write your own plays or do you use pre-written work?
No, we create our own. Charley Sherman adapted Dreams in the Witch House and The Great God Pan. Scott Barsotti wrote The Revenants. We did pick up The Revenants. Scott wasn’t a member of the theatre company when we produced The Revenants, but the play was so good that he quickly became a member. We said, “This cat is talented! Let’s snatch him up.” Aly Renee Greaves adapted Carmilla. We decided there were certain things we needed in our shows: we needed to have that blood effect, we needed to have that “jump out your seat” moment, we needed to have that spooky moment where it just creeps everyone out but nothing really happens, and while you’re looking at relatively important things – you don’t need to have them all in every show but as a general framework they’re important – and there aren’t a lot of plays out there that offer those things, we look more to the horror genre, horror literature and graphic novels, and therefore a lot of that stuff hasn’t made the leap to the theatrical stage, or in some cases hasn’t in the last 100 years.
How is the reception from your critics? Are you getting a lot of press?
Its slowly building. There’s a lot of competition out there. We haven’t gotten any bad reviews over the course of five shows, they’ve liked it. I get some crap for this but sometimes I think that theatre takes itself a little too seriously and I think that what the theatre audience is getting from our show that they don’t get from other shows is that we’re just asking them to sit back and go for a ride, like a horror movie. When it’s all done, if we’ve given you anything to think about then that’s fine but that’s absolutely secondary. We want to scare you, take you for that ride and we want you to have a good time. I think that sometimes this is missing in theatre these days. Sometimes they take themselves a little seriously. Not that we don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take ourselves seriously so that you don’t have to!
Carmilla opens on January 14 at the Chicago DCA Storefront Theater.