Haunted: An Interview with Adam Z. Robinson
The Book of Darkness and Light theatre company are currently touring Haunted, a one-man stage show, based on two classic ghost stories, ‘The Upper Berth’ by F. Marion Crawford and ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W.W. Jacobs.
David Schuster caught up with actor and writer Adam Z. Robinson at The Carriageworks in Leeds.
How is the tour going?
It’s going really, really well. We’re about halfway through the tour now, and on the second show it all just clicked into place, and I thought ‘Yes, I know what to do now!’. Before the tour I had a certain sense of trepidation, most of the previous ones, such as ‘Upon the Stair’ and ‘The Book of Darkness and Light’, have been original stories which I’ve written. ‘The Upper Berth’ and ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ are well known, and which I’ve adapted. But from the very first, the audience reactions were amazing, jumping in all the right places. The feedback comments have been exactly what you want from a supernatural tale; people saying it’s chilling and engrossing.
Your performance is an intriguing mix of storytelling and acted parts. How do you go about adapting the written stories to this format?
My first experience with adapting was A Christmas Carol, we’ve toured that a few times now and you begin to get a feel for how many words are needed. For our productions, about ten thousand words is around ninety minutes on stage. I always remind myself that I’m asking people to sit in an auditorium and listen to me. So, I go through the text taking out anything which might be slightly superfluous, or which doesn’t move the narrative along much. Ideally, what I don’t want to do with a classic tale is chip away at each line. I’d rather find whole parts that, whilst they work beautifully in the original, might not translate so well to the stage. ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ I had to change very little but, ‘The Upper Berth’ I had to trim considerably as the original story has two climax points. On stage you really want to build towards a culmination just before the end.
“I still get cold sweats”
Haunted is a Book of Darkness and Light production. Tell me a little bit about the founding of the company.
We started in 2015 in Leeds as part of the Light Night arts festival, as there was an opportunity to apply for funding. I’ve been a writer all my life, have always been interested in Gothic horror, and I thought it would be great to something live with a violin player and some actors. Luckily, we got the grant, but I quickly realised that there wasn’t enough to pay actors, and so I thought I’d do it as a reading. So, with the wonderful Ben Stokes, who was our first violinist, we put on five performances in one evening for Light Night, to a total of sixteen hundred people! I still get cold sweats thinking about it! Ben and I then thought, if we enjoy doing this, there was no reason we shouldn’t do a tour. So, I wrote three supernatural tales, which we took on the road. Then we were asked to do a sequel to the first show and toured that to thirty theatres across the country. We’re very lucky to get Arts Council and theatres partner funding. Every year we are doing more and more exciting things!
The stage set cleverly uses the same few items to depict two completely different scenes, the steam ship of ‘The Upper Berth’ and the living room for ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, whilst sound and lighting are coordinated with your lines. Does that require a lot of dress rehearsals?
Hahaha! That’s a good question! Well, the rehearsal period for Haunted was very, very economical. You could say! For one reason and another we had less time to rehearse than we initially planned. But what we do have are the unsung heroes; the Technical Stage Managers, Steve Watling and Charlotte Woods, who I’ve worked with many times before. They are at the back of the room, and the sound and lighting cues are timed to specific points in the text of the script. It’s really lovely to have that safety net, even if I change a line slightly halfway through or forget a line, I know that they’ve got my back. I’m glad you enjoyed the simplicity of the set. We brought a load of our previous sets together, as I’m a big fan of recycling and using stuff from previous productions in new ways. On the first day of rehearsals, Dick Bonham, the Director, and I just plonked it all down in a rough arrangement. Then, it was Dick’s idea that with a little bit of shifting and tweaking; move that throw, shift the chess board, you actually can, with a little bit of suspension of disbelief, see a living room where there used to be the cabin of a steamer. The timing, we tweak as we go along. I love this about live theatre. Steve and I will have a conversation and perhaps say “Actually, you know that sound cue, I think that should come in on that line, rather than this line”. It sounds like a small thing, but suddenly that changes the whole atmosphere, sometimes of a whole scene.
“A strange comfort”
The two short stories which form the basis for the play, ‘The Upper Berth’ and ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, are both from the turn of the nineteenth century. Is there a particular appeal to tales from that era?
The Victorian and Edwardian eras were a golden age for Gothic literature, and the stuff which I write certainly apes and harks back to that classic period. Although there are many, many excellent contemporary ghost stories, and indeed one of our plays is set in a radio station in the 1990s, I just love that period of literature, there’s a cosiness to it. I use that word ‘cosiness’ a lot in relation to books from those eras. There’s a familiarity, and a distance in time from it. The very brilliant M.R. James talked about how it’s good to have a chilling story set in the past. There’s a strange comfort in that distance; we can be scared, but the fear is, again in the words of M.R. James, ‘that pleasing terror’, rather than ‘I’m actually frightened for my life sitting here’. That’s what we’re trying to go for with Haunted, that pleasurable fear, so that people jump, but then laugh.
Do you sense that there’s a current renaissance of public appetite for psychological horror?
Horror is an incredibly diverse, broad church. Certain things, films for example, will push the genre into the mainstream spotlight for a while. It’s difficult for me to be objective as I’m an evergreen fan. But what I would say is that, in really tricky times, people turn towards horror and gothic as a way to express their feelings about the turbulent times that are passing, and often, like myself, for comfort. We are living through incredibly challenging times right now, to say the least! So, there’s no surprise to me that there’s a resurgence of interest.
Finally, to paraphrase the show, I have to ask: Have you ever seen a ghost?
Hahaha! No, though I’d love to see one. I’ve been obsessed with ‘true’ anecdotal supernatural stories since I was a kid. I really love them! I believe people when they say they’ve seen a spectre, but I am something of a sceptic. That said, I’ve had some experiences that I regard as unaccountable: Once, on a ghost walk in Edinburgh, there was a point where we were plunged into complete blackness in a cave. At that moment I genuinely felt like someone had aggressively shoved their face towards mine, not physical contact, just the feeling. I’ve never experienced that before, and I can’t really explain what happened. But I’m hanging on for that one day when a ghost pops up and says “Hey, we are real”!
Tickets are still available for the final dates of The Book of Darkness and Light’s production of Haunted
Full details here: thebookofdarknessandlight.com