Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Sunday Read: Mack Gordon on ITSAZOO and "Debts"

The Horror of Inevitability
In order to be subversive and challenging, you've got to scare a few people away.
by Mack Gordon

With pupils so wide you can't identify its iris, Rosemary descends the stairs to an unknown sub-basement in “Rosemary's Baby.” Danny Torrance rides his big wheel down the hall in the Overlook Hotel while Stanley Kubrick's steady cam follows. Nosferatu's shadow approaches while the mirror gazing backwards sees nothing. This is horror to me: slow, threatening inevitability.

In 2009, Vancouver theatre company ITSAZOO Productions approached me to talk about their next project. They wanted to do a site-specific play at Halloween that blended the tales of Edgar Allan Poe with the aesthetic of 1980's slasher flicks.

I knew them well and I knew their company well. I'd seen most of their shows and understood their formats. In “Grimm Tales,” Hansel and Gretel lead the audience around to several different vignettes reenacting the famous stories of the Brothers Grimm. In “Robin Hood”, Alan of Dale is our host. “The Road to Canterbury” features a bumbling tour guide/historian. One host presents several tales in their entirety, wrapped together by a common thread.

My favourite horror films are the ones that subvert the genre. ITSAZOO's site-specific shows worked so well that they had become a genre unto themselves. In honour of my task, I wanted to flip that genre on its head. So, my initial goal with the project was one of form. I wanted to present the stories of Edgar Allan Poe episodically as opposed to stand-alone. I wanted to, scene after scene, introduce a host and then eliminate them. I wanted the action of the play to be the audience's tour guide.

I had this skeleton of form entrenched in my head as I opened several word documents and began my vigorous training: the endeavour up the mountain of research. The unabridged Edgar Allan Poe is 1200 pages long. I highlighted every single line I liked. I collected each line under an organizing principle: “Event,” “Action,” “Visual,” “Dialogue,” “Conversation,” “Philosophy,” “Theme,” “Templates for Monologues,” “Names,” and “Mood.” I chose the six tales that I would feature: “The Telltale Heart,” The Oval Portrait,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” “The Masque of Red Death,” and “The Facts of M. Valdemar's Case,” and boiled them down to their essences. I watched as many horror movies as I could fit into my life (including all of Roger Corman's Poe series). I took even more vigorous notes. I mapped out the Roedde House Museum and the path that I wanted to tour the audience through. And with all this in mind first, I finally started to craft my story.

We had two workshops and planned for a Halloween 2010 premiere. The funding never came. We had multiple companies/sponsors read the script and tell us that they didn't believe our show was possible! No one was willing to take the risk of funding a show so “ambitious.” We weren't willing to bend on our goals. I am so thankful for ITSAZOO's commitment to experimentation. They never once suggested that I tone down the more difficult aspects of “Debts.” If I wanted something, they instead went to work on figuring out how to get it done.

Innovation is a funny thing. If it's immediately recognized by the majority as being innovative then it's probably not actually innovating. In order to be subversive and challenging, you've got to scare a few people away. You've got to make a few people mad. You've got to have a few people leaving your show scratching their heads.

In 2011, we were denied a few more grants but a company finally took a chance. The Vancouver Foundation believed we could pull our show off and they gave us our capital. From there we were able to collect several other generous donations and the show finally went into production.

The first incarnation of the show called for a talking pig, after all.

I don't fault any of the granting agencies that said we couldn't pull “Debts” off. It was hard. We had limited time and limited resources to, essentially, make magic happen. The first incarnation of the show called for a talking pig, after all. Some of our 'set pieces' (the film term, not the theatre) didn't work. Some of them worked magnificently. The show as a whole started calmly and built to the slow, threatening inevitability that I had envisioned. It surpassed that and dropped audiences into chaos and took them on an hour long thrill ride that was half carnival haunted house and half sophisticated theatre piece.

But like I said, it had some kinks to work out. Watching the finished project I realized some drawbacks in my writing – the themes were overt, the plot obscured. We didn't have the time to get comfortable and add a lot of nuance. Our audiences were too big for some of the tiny spaces we used. But overall, when Halloween ended and the show went back into its boxes, we were tired and happy.

But I think we all hoped we'd get another chance. A chance to do it even better: to fix up the technical flaws, to know what challenges we'd be facing in the space before the two days of tech time, to polish, to catch our breath, to think.

The Vancouver Foundation cannot fund the same company two years in a row but now that we'd shown we could pull “Debts” off, the BC Arts Council trusted us with their grant. Now we have the opportunity to make the show even better; to present our story with a more effective subversiveness. Audience sizes are more limited. Plot points have been scrubbed. Technical issues have been fixed. I suggest you get tickets quickly because they sell out fast. I feel confident in saying that, this year, “Debts” will be an experience no one will ever forget.

Debts runs from October 17-November 3

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