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How to Make Horror and Sci-Fi Theater Work

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Sat, Jan 4, 2014 at 6:00 AM

click to enlarge Drew Blakeman and Dan Spurgeon - AMELIA GOTHAM
  • Amelia Gotham
  • Drew Blakeman and Dan Spurgeon
One man is dragged, screaming, down a portal to hell. A boy takes a baseball bat to his abusive father. A mysterious body stuffed into a trunk provokes the most unsettling metaphysical questions. Happy holidays.

Perhaps not every theater company, in casting about for the perfect yuletide show, settles upon on a spot of family murder and fiery carnage. But for the Visceral Company, tucked into a cozy Hollywood black box just off Santa Monica's theater row, the The Mystery Plays, with its doomed quests for redemption and yearning to understand how people survive life's horrors, could hardly have been a more appropriate choice.

The show, a critical success that closes Sunday at the Lex Theater, caps off an impressive season for the young company, one encompassing various shadowy puppets, 17 emissaries from a southern gothic novel, four creatures from another dimension and a rather large number of axes. For this is not the territory of romantic comedies, family sagas, or high-minded explorations of the American character. All Visceral shows hail from different realm, one that's rooted in great affection for pure genre -- horror, science fiction and thrillers to be precise -- and that takes seriously the idea that small budgets and the strictures of live theater are no impediment to staging high quality fantasy.

"The Visceral has been presenting increasingly wonderful and unique productions, clean and crisp with their own dark aesthetic," says Zombie Joe, a man who knows from dark, as the animating force behind NoHo's legendary Zombie Joe's Underground.

Largely sidestepping the bloody melodrama of grand guignol, and rarely relying on the schtick of full camp, artistic director Dan Spurgeon and husband and producing partner Drew Blakeman, with whom he founded the company in 2010, instead try for something even harder -- a genuine experience.

"Very heightened realities and the fantastic coming out of the mundane," Spurgeon muses. "Putting the genre aside, that's what attracts me."

"We've always been very vocal that theater must first and foremost entertain the audience," Blakeman adds. "It has to do that before it can hope to enlighten, educate, and inspire."

Despite the early hour and a terrifying lack of coffee, Blakeman and Spurgeon sit amiably fielding questions from the Lex's lobby couch, dressed in nearly matching black t-shirts and that disarmingly charming habit of finishing each other's sentences that comes to long married couples (the pair have been together for 21 years, since meeting in "a sleazy pick-up bar in San Franscisco").

Their vibe is relaxed, but it's an auspicious moment for their company. After recently taking up residency at the Lex, Spurgeon and Blakeman have just announced, for the first time, a full, six-production season upfront, along with a planned reading series and perhaps a few opportunities for other collaborations. With only four seasons under its belt, the company has garnered a reputation for artful staging, taken home home several award nominations as well as a few top honors and amassed an even more enviable commodity -- a following.

"We have people come to one [show], and then they've come to every one after that," Spurgeon says. "I've had actors say to me, 'It's such a change looking out into the audience, and it's a full house and we don't know anyone there.'"

click to enlarge Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite - THE VISCERAL COMPANY
  • The Visceral Company
  • Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite

The choice to focus on horror, science fiction and thriller genres may have satisfied Spurgeon and Blakeman's own dark sensibilities, but it also abetted their mission to connect with audiences that normally shy away from live theater. Skewing genre, for instance, is a good way to skew younger and more diverse, as well as tap into tight-knit communities. When Sacred Fools staged Neverwhere in 2012, fantasy icon (and author of the book from which their production was adapted) Neil Gaiman not only attended the show, but -- perhaps more importantly -- also tweeted about it to his 1.9 million followers.

Though such shows remains dramatically underrepresented in the L.A. theater landscape, Visceral is part of a wave of small theater productions finding success with a fresher take on genre fare. Writer/actor/director Jaime Robledo has made numerous forays into this arena, most recently with his adaption of the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? this past fall at Sacred Fools. "Audiences don't pay their money to sit there with their arms crossed," Robledo says. "They want to go on a journey and be taken where they've never been taken before...It's so satisfying because you get to do things in a completely sideways way and tell stories that are not necessarily being told."

"It's a lot of magic tricks when you get down to a lot of it, because it's about misdirection," Spurgeon says of his staging philosophy. Isolated lighting, spooky palates, meticulous set designs all set the right mood, but at 99 seats and below, Spurgeon also can wield intimacy -- the theatrical element of theater -- as one of his best special effects. For instance, their production of Ghost Light, a tale he concocted about four college kids trapped in a haunted theater, turned on low-fi jolts that tickled viewers out of their traditionally passive role.

click to enlarge Playing with the ouija board in Ghost Light - THE VISCERAL COMPANY
  • The Visceral Company
  • Playing with the ouija board in Ghost Light

"One reason it worked so well was keeping everyone in the dark in that tiny space," Spurgeon says. "And when we slammed the door, not only did you get the clump, you felt the air pressure change in the room, which doubly puts you off. It makes you realize...there's actually something happening right here next to me."

Much of the rest of the magic, says Spurgeon, who as a director is known for his generous way with actors, can be chalked up to the mysterious alchemy of collaboration.

"If the script calls for a brightly lit room, but it's really intense what's going on in that room, then it's about finding actors that can bring that intensity," said Spurgeon. "Material that's really good will bring out the best in everyone else."

"One of the great things about working with Dan is...his clear vision with his craft," says actress Devereau Chumrau. Currently starring as a young lawyer with a tragic past in The Mystery Plays, Chumrau also emerged as one of the standouts in Visceral's recent evening of shorts based on H. P. Lovecraft stories. "Dan provided a clear idea of what he imagined my character and intention to be...even down to the idea of physical gestures to help paint the picture of things."

click to enlarge Devereau Chumrau and Alex Taber in The Mystery Plays - JEREMY ANDORFER
  • Jeremy Andorfer
  • Devereau Chumrau and Alex Taber in The Mystery Plays
Theater runs, as they say, "in the blood" on both sides. Blakeman's mother was a singer and erstwhile supernumerary with the Washington National Opera, while Spurgeon's wrote a textbook on theater in the 1960s. Originally from small town Oklahoma, Spurgeon spend almost a decade in on the east coast producing, directing and serving as artistic director of the now-defunct Cobblestone Productions. In 2007, the couple lit out west harboring no specific intentions to start their own company, but L.A. proved the perfect staging grounds to realize a long-held desire to open a storefront theater.

"New York had just become unlivable for us," Spurgeon says. "Just due to expense and the difficulty of disappearing spaces -- less and less theaters are available because all these old buildings...were being torn down and condos were being put up. On the small [house] level, it's getting harder to do theater in New York."

Harder still, evidently, was imagining not doing it.

"We enjoy it," Blakeman said. "It keeps us off the streets."


Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter:

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