Kathe Koja is a creative force of nature. She just returned from a guest appearance at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs and is in the midst of launching the concluding novel in her acclaimed “Poppy” trilogy (“The Bastards’ Paradise”). Her latest Young Adult novel, “The Ballrooms of Mars,” has just been turned over to her agent. And she is also working on a new project about one of her literary favorites, Christopher Marlowe. In between all of this, she’s been creating a new production of “Dracula” with the immersive performance troupe “nerve,” of which she is the Artistic Director.
The company’s previous performances (most recently “The Heights” based on “Wuthering Heights”) have earned nerve a solid fan base for their unique, participatory brand of theater. One thing we can count on when it comes to nerve—the production will be unlike anything else performed under a similar title. For example, in this “Dracula,” everything happens in real time at a dinner party hosted by, who else, Dracula. It’s also worth noting that this production features nerve favorites, but in gender-neutral casting: Marisa Dluge is the enigmatic Dracula; Chris Jakob is handsome young Jonathan Harker; Steve Xander Carson is the siren Lucy Westenra, and Rachael Harbert is Dracula’s unnerving servent, Renfield.
What’s on the menu? You’ll have to secure a ticket to the show, coming in January of 2016, to find out. (Be warned—these shows tend to sell out early.) Fortunately, Ms. Koja has taken time out from her insane schedule to give us a peek into the dark world of “Dracula,” with just enough specifics to whet our appetite for more.
Patty Nolan: Your immersive performance group, nerve, uses the tantalizing theme “go deep, go dark, go nerve.” Please tell us how you use darkness to reveal unlikely truths.
Kathe Koja: Darkness might seem to obscure what’s happening, but I find it’s always pretty revelatory: it brings out the awe in us, the fear in us, the excitement of exploring the hidden or unknown. It seems to conceal, but it really shines a light on what we want, what we need, and what we’ll do to get it. Especially when we think no one can see us.
PN: Your script adaptation of “Dracula” uses Stoker’s own words, but as with previous productions based on classics, you are interested in an aspect of the story that others have overlooked – the essential hunger that drives all living things. What can you tell us about how “appetite” shapes the story you tell?
KK: I have one rule when adapting any text: nothing gets added, all the words are the original author’s own. But in the ordering and recreation of the story, I can do as I please, and to me the heart and the point of DRACULA is appetite. Not for blood (the taste for blood is actually fairly common if you think about it, gravy is blood too, right?) but for what makes life possible: what makes us able to continue living. Human or vampire, you have to feed yourself on something, every day.
PN: Bram Stoker’s novel is epistolary. How did this shape your adaptation for the stage?
KK: Not at all, really. My version of, and vision for, this story is completely immediate, everything’s happening to Jonathan Harker as he sits at that long empty table.
PN: Your cast of characters skips over what are generally considered to be two primary “Dracula” figures, Van Helsing and Mina. What is it about the other characters that you find more compelling and more relevant to the particular aspect of the story on which you focus?
KK: I can’t tolerate Van Helsing’s bullying, self-aggrandizing piety, so he was never going to be part of this adaptation. (Side note: a story of mine, “Anna Lee,” appeared in an anthology of Van Helsing tales, and I didn’t like him much there, either.) The pairing of Dracula with Lucy Westenra and Renfield – the apex of appetite, of desire, and of devotion – creates a dark triangle for Jonathan Harker to enter and confront. Here, Lucy and Renfield are both quite content to be who, and what, they’ve become, and offer themselves as helpful examples to young Mr. Harker.
PN: We love how you use gender-neutral casting to force us to rethink the essential nature of the characters in “Dracula.” We’d like to know, from the actors, what it is specifically that their character is hungry for.
Chris Jakob: “Jonathan Harker seeks fulfillment, purpose, completion. At the end of the day, like many of us, he longs to ascend: to be free of the bullshit mediocrity of a blasé yet comfortable lifestyle. Potentiality becomes potent.”
Rachael Harbert: “Renfield is a repulsive fellow who is now (usually) quite content in solitude, as long as he has his beloved collection of flies. Since his passing into salvation, he starves to serve Dracula: absolutely nothing could bring him more pleasure. After all, he owes it to him.”
Steve Xander Carson: “Lucy is finally allowed to make choices about her own life. As long as she lived she was looked at, coveted, and kept. Now she has the freedom to decide, to pick and choose, transforming from prey to predator. She’s hungry for control of her own ‘life’, and is continuously searching for what it is she truly desires.”
PN: You are inviting patrons for the immersive performances of Dracula to dress in black attire. Is any other preparation suggested?
KK: We trust our patrons to bring their curiosity and willingness to be present to everything that happens in the dark. And please be prompt for our 9 p.m. start! We would hate for you to miss dinner.
Editor’s note: We would hate for you to miss this show. Book early, as some dates are already filling up. Shows are scheduled for the weekends of January 22-23, 29-30 and February 5-6, 2016 at 9 p.m. All performances take place at The IZZY, located at 2572 Michigan Avenue in Detroit and tickets are available for pre-order through the nerve website.