From the moment we walked into the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery in Alta Dena we were ready for great theater. We were here for Wicked Lit, on a beautiful, chilly fall evening in Southern California, a creepy cemetery at night around Halloween, how is that not perfect? For those of you that don’t know what it is: Selling out every year, Wicked Lit has become the flagship event of Unbound Productions’ annual event series. Wicked Lit presents immersive theater adapted from classic literature. Having been to one other Wicked Lit performance of “The Tell-Tale Heart” a few years ago, I knew the show would be well done. But this reporter was completely blown away at how totally immersed we were from the moment we got our programs to the moment we left. For three hours we were a part of something special, an interactive theater experience that has raised the bar for theater incredibly high. Wicked Lit took me inside all of the plays both physically and emotionally and I felt like I was a part of the story (as opposed to watching from a fixed seat) from beginning to end; a theater experience I have never had before.
As soon as we arrived we were immediately introduced to the plays we would see this evening. The frame for Wicked Lit 2015, that linked all of the plays together was a pre-play called “The System.” While waiting for everyone to get there we were entertained by actors playing doctors, nurses and other guests of the asylum, around the central gathering area. “The System” was introduced as we were invited to see the art work of the “patients that lived here at the asylum” and learned that the plays we would be seeing were to be performed by the patients themselves as part of their therapy. “The System” was the doctors way of helping the patients and this play conceived, written and directed by Debbie McMahon, got us all prepared for a night we wouldn’t forget. As with all Wicked Lit shows the audience members must be able to do some walking and stair climbing. Being at this strangely beautiful location probably makes the set building incredibly challenging, but yet in many ways more simple than a normal stage. The audience follows the actors into various rooms and hallways in the mausoleum, into the cemetery and the surrounding areas. That along with the creative lighting, fog and audio does more to set the stage for the macabre than most big fancy theaters ever could.
Before we were taken off in our separate groups, I got to meet one of the producers, Jonathan Josephson, to thank him for this opportunity to experience Wicked Lit and find out a little bit more about it.
Zombie Examiner: Jonathan, when did Wicked Lit first begin, who started it and what inspired you?
Jonathan Josephson: “Jeff G. Rack, Paul Millet and I founded Unbound Productions in 2008 – it was initially Paul’s idea to adapt classic horror literature into short plays and he gathered Jeff and I together (previously, Jeff and I had never met). Paul wanted to create a theatrical event to celebrate the Halloween season. The idea of making immersive and site-specific shows came later.” Jonathan said.
ZE: The Mausoleum seems like the perfect location for your shows. What do the owners here think of Wicked Lit? What other locations have you done shows at?
JJ: “The managers of the mausoleum support our mission of producing immersive experiences adapted from classic literature, and they love the darkly macabre as much as we do!” Jonathan shared, “Wicked Lit 2009 was at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. We produced History Lit at the Pasadena Museum of History and Wicked Lit installations (just one short play) at Strub Mansion at the historic Mayfield School, the LA Mark and the Millennium Biltmore Hotel downtown.”
ZE: How do you decide what shows to do? What made you decide to do a show where the audience moves along with the actors?
JJ: “Jeff, Paul and I pick the plays from pieces that we have written as well as plays that have been submitted to us through playwrights we know and have relationships with. We build the evening of Wicked Lit so that it fits in the space very well (minimal sound bleed, etc.) and also to reinforce theatrical diversity. To us that means having a variety of points of view, styles, tone and range of characters in terms of gender, ethnicity and other details. We don’t want to have three tragic stories set in the 1200s or three modern day sardonic horror comedies, we always want to have a variety of voices, sounds, and terrors to complete Wicked Lit.” Jonathan said.
ZE: Are your actors a repertory company or do you cast each show independently? Are the directors part of your group or do they come from different places too?
JJ: “We cast every show independently,” Jonathan said, “While there are many actors with whom we have worked with many times, we have open auditions for each production. Jeff, Paul and I have directed many of our productions, but we have also welcomed in numerous guest directors to work with us, including Jaime Robledo, Debbie McMahon, and Darin Anthony who directed for us this year. Debbie also directed for us last year and Darin directed one of our staged readings in 2013.”
Since there were three plays, the audience was split into three groups. My group was first taken into the back of the mausoleum and surrounding grounds to see “The Ebony Frame” which was adapted by Susannah Myrvold from the short story written by Edith Nesbit and was directed by Jaime Robledo. Leading us into the mausoleum, which was the main character’s house, we were being told what to do by a very cranky housekeeper, so we followed along, feeling what the actors felt, the love, happiness, confusion, sadness and the insanity. Without giving away the story too much we understood what poor Henry was going through, understood his frustrations, and yet wanted him to be happy. We were all saddened for him at the ending and wished that Mildred could have just gone away. Why does true love never work out quite the way we want it too?
The second play for my group was “The Grove of Rashomon”. “The Grove of Rashomon” is a re-imagining by Jonathan Josephson, of the short story “In a Grove” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and was directed by Darin Anthony. This play took us through the cemetery along side a mother trying to find out the truth of what happened to her daughter and samurai husband. The superb acting, beautiful lighting and effects, pulled us right into the story and we felt what the mother was going through and watched what happens if you try to find out the truth by talking to ghosts.
Our final play and my favorite (I admit, I do love Edgar Allen Poe) was “The Fall of the House of Usher”. This version was adapted by Paul Millet and directed by Jeff G. Rack. Using the inside of the fabulous mausoleum as the house was the most perfect stage for this play as is possible. Even as we entered the mausoleum we could feel and see the house “looking” at us. Wicked Lit’s use of lighting and audio is so amazing that the house actually felt alive, even amongst the dead! As an audience we were lead about by what turned out to be the ghost of Nathaniel, who tells the horrible story of his friend Roderick and the house that that has ruled the Usher family for generations in a very perverse and twisted way. It was beautiful, sad and haunting and I felt the house watching us even after we drove away. That was how immersed I felt after the evening of theater was over. Thank you Wicked Lit for a night I will never forget!
Wicked Lit needs their patrons help to keep presenting such amazing theater. “Wicked Lit is a non-profit theatre company and we fund raise to support all of our organizations initiatives.” Jonathan Josephson shared, “In addition to our full productions, we also present free staged readings, smaller productions and enhanced staged readings at a variety of venues, and this year we kicked off an education program at Muir high school which has been pro bono. The overall annual budget for Unbound Productions is roughly $250,000.”
So what can you do to help keep Wicked Lit going? First off go to see the plays.
You can buy individual tickets, make donations or become a member of Unbound Productions.
All the information you need can be found at: Unboundproductions.org
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