Features Essays Published 13 October 2012

Horror Theatre: Coping Without Cutting

Tom Richards is the co-artistic director of Theatre of the Damned, for whom he is directing The Horror! The Horror! at Wilton’s Music Hall between the 24th October and the 7th November as part of the 2012 London Horror Festival, which runs at Wilton’s and the Etcetera Theatre, Camden from the 15th October to the 7th November.
Tom Richards

Lighting

One might naturally think, if one’s goal is to concentrate focus at a particular point, that a spotlight would be the tool for the job. In fact, they are very rarely a good solution in horror, because they are liable to break the dramatic grammar that subliminally underpins the viewer’s belief in the play-world. If Carol wishes to achieve a spot-like effect, she would be far better advised to do it through a practical or quasi-practical. How convenient that at the time of night when the scene takes place, the moon should happen to be shining through the window in the upstage wall at just the right angle to illuminate just what she wants to be seen and nothing else! What could be more natural than the candle David, the dashing leading man, is holding lighting his face while his body blocks the rest of the stage off from its glow? Electric torches, where the script allows for their use, are infinitely flexible. Matches and cigarette lighters have the wonderful ability to spontaneously go out and require replacement or re-ignition, creating a brief moment of uncertain darkness, a void which our imaginations rush to fill (and a gap for agile stage managers to make surprising changes).

Ladies in the dark. Photo: Anna Söderblom

In fact, it almost seems as if lighting alone could solve all Carol’s problems for her. Inevitably, there’s a snag. All these tricks (and many more besides) rely on very low ambient wash levels, if not actual blackout (practicalities aside). That may not appear to be much of a problem at first glance – of course horror is apt to take place in the dark – but the reality is more complex. Brief periods of low lighting draw an audience in, and set them on edge, but if overused the trick can quickly become wearing and disengaging. Alice and Bob will only strain their eyes for so long before they start to feel tired and under-stimulated. Carol must exercise judgment and restraint in deploying these devices to ensure they work properly when she really needs them.

Sound

The blind, it is said, acquire remarkable hearing. An audience deprived of visual stimulation – most obviously through a blackout but perhaps equally though more subtly through a stage devoid of action – becomes sensitive to even the slightest sounds. Ordinary noises become unsettling; frightening ones grow yet further in power. A theatre space equipped for surround sound can be a particularly useful resource, but even in smaller studios with only basic equipment a director and sound designer should think hard about the possibilities. Maybe an extra speaker can be placed under the audience or in the technical box or dressing room. Maybe the theatre’s standard two-speaker set could be more effectively used if it were moved behind the audience. Focus need not be only visual.

Peter Cushing, the master of horror acting.

Casting

Certain actors – not necessarily the most skilled in other aspects of their craft – have what is sometimes called presence, the gift of commanding constant attention. Christopher Lee and Vincent Price are two of the greatest horror performers of all time not through a capacity for detailed, nuanced characterisation but because it is simply impossible to take your eyes off them. Peter Cushing was the very greatest because he had both magnetic presence and naturalistic skill in spades. Carol has to be careful with actors of this ilk, of course. They will gather focus on themselves whether that is where she wants it or not (think of the story of Richard Burton sweeping the floor). But used judiciously, these actors are a powerful tool of focus manipulation.


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