Frequenters to the theater will tell you that performances rarely leave audiences screaming. A tragedy will shed tears, incessant laughter erupts during the latest satire, but horror seldom makes it to the stage. Supporting new work within the horror theatre genre is the London Horror Festival (LHF), a three week celebration of the more ghoulish—sometimes morbid—performing arts.
“I think one of the challenges of writing horror for theater is that it's different from writing horror on the screen,” say writers Ann and Shawn Fraistat. “Playwrights can't use the same bag of tricks. We can't control exactly where the audience is looking the same way that a camera can. It's more challenging to create realistic special effects.”
A short playwriting competition was included in this year’s LHF lineup, where Ann and Shawn were finalists. With over 200 entries submitted, writers could use a maximum of two characters to create a 10-15 minute performance, set in one room and to the brief, "It’s Not What It Seems." Those shortlisted—OF MICE AND MADNESS, ETERNAL LOVE, and CHEW—had their plays performed at Camden’s Etcetera Theatre, providing a small audience with a night full of twist endings. Each play presented gripping theatrics and eclectic methods of storytelling, an impressive feat when considering the finalists were all first-time horror writers.
“Our usual genre is comedy,” Ann and Shawn tell The Creators Project. “We love to marry comedy with different genres, such as noir. However, this piece is the first horror influenced piece we've written.”
Ann and Shawn utilized the audience’s close proximity to the stage in their one-man show OF MICE AND MADNESS, a story following Dr Griffin as he tells a scary tale to a group of frightened campers just after ridding them of their scout master.
To his friends and colleagues at work, Dr X seemed a perfectly ordinary fellow, a diligent researcher with a modest home and a beautiful fiancée. But there was much more to Dr X than met the eye—beneath that mundane exterior, a passion for forbidden knowledge burned deep within his soul, a passion born of a profound contempt for the idiots he felt himself surrounded by. The project that consumed the furtive Dr X was cracking the code of immortality. His latest serum seemed to hold promise. (Holds up a mug of hot chocolate.) It glowed in the dark, a sickly neon green. It even bubbled and smoked and smelled of dead flesh—all very encouraging signs.
An excerpt from OF MICE AND MADNESS by LHF2015 finalists Ann and Shawn Fraistat
ETERNAL LOVE writers Alexander Norman and Nigel Fullerton also came from a comedic background.
“When you’re writing comedy, once they’re laughing, it doesn’t really matter where the audience is,” explain Alexander and Nigel. “But horror is all dependant on audience and their emotion. It’s about building that tension and leaving something up to the imagination.”
Mixing themes of domestic abuse, madness and victimization, ETERNAL LOVE watches a mother interacting with her baby, forcing the audience to put the pieces together for themselves.
MUMMY slowly walks out of the room, clutching the knife in trepidation. Once the Music box has finished, we have a few seconds of silence. Then the door creaks open and MUMMY comes back in holding a bloody knife.
An excerpt from ETERNAL LOVE by LHF2015 finalists Alexander Norman and Nigel Fullerton
While each contender brought creepy diversity to the stage, former war reporter Sarah Hamilton won the evening by mixing fact with fiction in CHEW—a short about a young art student keen to help an ex-UN psychiatrist with a unique project.
“That’s kind of where the basis started,” Hamilton tells The Creators Project. “Combined with my experience as a reporter going around the world covering stories in Afghanistan and Iraq with British soldiers. And just a bit of old fashioned imagination, really.”
Sarah says CHEW, complete with an offstage banging throughout the performance, “allows the audience to use their own intelligence and fill in the gaps. I think that’s how an audience member has a more satisfying experience—doing a bit of work.”
For winning the competition, CHEW will be shown for three nights during the Etcetera Theatre’s Black Box Festival in January 2016. The London Horror festival runs until October 30th. Check out what’s on here.