Interview: WildClaw Theatre, Part 1: Aaron Christensen

We continue our Lovecraft Birthday Celebration with a series of Wildclaw Theatre interviews, starting with Aaron Christensen, Ambassador of Horror for Wildclaw:

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IFP: Tell us about your current project. What is it called?AC: Our current project is our 2nd Annual Horror Radio Play Festival, DEATHSCRIBE, which has been enormously exciting. Last year’s festival was a tremendous success and we’re expecting this year’s to be even bigger and wilder. It all started off as a brainstorm of WildClaw ensemble member Brian Amidei, who thought it would be cool to produce little 10-minute audio “playlets” that we could use for podcasts. Then we thought it would be a cool notion to have a staged performance of these radio plays, complete with live foley artists and actors performing in front of an audience with microphones, etc. From there, things just kept getting bigger and more ambitious, until we found ourselves ensconced in the historic 750-seat Music Box Theatre with a live band, a celebrity panel of judges, a wealth of scripts from authors and horror fans from around the globe, and a packed house going nuts. It was an amazing night, needless to say. This year’s DEATHSCRIBE has already raised the bar, simply by the number of submissions that we’ve received – nearly three times as many as 2008. Some gloriously ghastly stuff here, rich soil indeed. Should be fun.IFP: How did you get involved with Wildclaw Theatre? What roles have you played in it? In which productions?AC: Charley Sherman, our artistic director, and I ran into each other during a staged reading of a Shakespeare play a few years ago. I was in the process of putting together my horror movie guidebook, HORROR 101, and he mentioned that he had written his college thesis on Dawn of the Dead. I knew right away that I wanted to get to know this guy better. Then, in the summer of 2007, just as HORROR 101 was about to be published, Charley approached me with the idea of forming a horror-centric theatre company, one that would focus on bringing serious horror back to the stage. My role within WildClaw has primarily been that of “Ambassador of Horror”, bringing Chicago-area horror fans into the WildClaw sphere and creating fans out of folks who would ordinarily not be caught dead (pardon the expression) inside a theatre. The biggest challenge has been convincing the horror folks that this is good horror and the theatre folks that this is good theatre. I think the one camp feels that “the theatah” is too high-falutin’ while the other worries that it’s going to be nothing but gratuitous gore-slinging. The truth is that we provide good theatre and good horror. Luckily, I’m fairly established in both communities, so I have pretty decent street cred, and the WildClaw product hasn’t disappointed. Additionally, I served as the host for DEATHSCRIBE ’08 and choreographed the stage violence for our spring production of Scott Barsotti’s zombie drama, The Revenants.IFP: What do you want to tell the audience with Wildclaw Theatre?

AC: There are plenty of campy, splattery productions that go on in town, but we want to do something more than that; “Theatre of the Fantastique” is our focus. Charley has assembled a strong core of actors and designers from within the Chicago theatre community. We wanted to create an opportunity for fans to have a live horror-themed experience, outside of a haunted house in October.

IFP: What do you think having a live theatre production (as opposed to television or film) adds to the horror genre?

AC: Horror and Theatre have a grand history together, dating back to the Greeks (Oedipus tearing his eyes out, Medea slaughtering her children) and a lot of Shakespeare is gory as hell! Then there’s France’s Grand Guignol on through to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd… The possibilities are there.

IFP: What other projects have you done? What was your favourite?

AC: I’ve been a professional theatre artist for over 20 years now and have performed in nearly 100 plays, so it’s less a matter of “favorites” anymore and just being happy that I’ve been able to sustain a career. I’m a big fan of Shakespeare, since it often allows you to play characters that are larger than life, not to mention the fact that you’re often settling your differences with sword fights and bloodshed.

Outside of theatre, seeing HORROR 101 go from concept to a published book was pretty extraordinary. It’s a collection of essays from horror fans from around the world, each talking about their favourite fright films, providing a multifaceted overview of both the horror genre and the fans that love it. I served as editor, as well as writing a few essays myself. We received amazing reviews from across the board, as well as being nominated for a Rondo Hatton Award earlier this year. Very rewarding.

IFP: How do you think theatre differs from television and film?

AC: Theatre relies upon the viewer’s imagination, thus making them an active participant, as opposed the more passive experience of watching a movie. In the end, it’s a completely different medium than film, which I think appeals to folks who are burnt out on the glut of straight-to-DVD crap. We’re offering audiences an intelligent, visceral experience, one that will appeal to the mind, the gut, the groin and maybe even the gag reflex. We wanted to create a form of entertainment that will give performers something juicy to sink their teeth into and audiences something different than they’re used to seeing on Chicago stages.

IFP: What do you see as the biggest artistic challenge in producing a horror theatre production?

AC: I think it comes down to changing both your and your audience’s expectations of what horror looks like, sounds like, etc. At this point, fans are so familiar with the visuals of gory cinematic special effects that they’re not going to sit still for a lot of drawing-room talk, but at the same time, we know it’s impossible to visually compete with the special effects and camera angles and aural jump scares of a film. So, we need our audiences to care about the characters and situation – which is essentially the challenge of any theatrical production. Thus far, our audiences have been very supportive and keep bringing their friends to the next show, so hopefully, we’re doing something right!

IFP: What do you see as the biggest technical challenge in producing a horror theatre production?

AC: Probably cleaning up the bloodstains every night.

IFP: Do you have a favourite play among the ones you have done?

AC: Of the plays that WildClaw has done, I think our production of The Revenants surprised people with how emotionally resonant the material was. People weren’t expecting to be moved to tears by a zombie play, you know? Meanwhile, Dreams in the Witch House had some very imaginative theatrical effects going for it, showing Lovecraft’s alternate universes through the use of sound design, floating ping-pong balls and a black light. Honestly, I’ve been very impressed with all of our shows in different ways, since we’ve shown the rich variety that makes up the horror genre as well as providing entertainment. People initially think of “horror” as strictly gore – we’ve demonstrated that it can be much more than that.

IFP: What play would you most like to do?

AC: I’m looking forward to doing a creepy monster show, something like an adaptation of Joseph Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (from which Howard Hawks and John Carpenter adapted their film versions of The Thing). I think, with some cool production design and puppetry, you could pull something off very memorable.

IFP: Who is your favourite playwright/author?

AC: In the sci-fi/horror vein, it’d have to be Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson. They’ve both tapped into nightmare scenarios in so many different environments, and they’re both masters of the long and short form of horror. I’m also a fan of Bentley Little, especially his short stories.

IFP: What artistic accomplishment are you most proud of in your life?

AC: Oh heck. Pride goeth before a fall. I’m just glad to be able to keep spreading the good news that horror is not dead – not by a long shot – and to be part of keeping it alive and thriving.

IFP: If you could be a Lovecraft/Mythos monster, which one would you be?

AC: Brown Jenkins is one gruesome bugger. Could be fun for a while, and I imagine the Old Ones would let me go on about my business without bothering me much.

IFP: What is your favourite Lovecraft/Mythos story?

AC: Probably “The Call of Cthulhu”. I really liked the HPL Historical Society‘s film version of it, as well, perhaps my favorite screen adaptation of Lovecraft’s works.

IFP: Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

AC: Well, we’ve got DEATHSCRIBE 2009 on the front burner right now, as well as our Zombie Bowling fundraiser in September. Beyond that, it’s all very top secret stuff, but we recommend people stay tuned to our blog/podcast BLOOD RADIO for updates, as well as news of the weird and wonderful goings-on in the world of dark pleasures…

IFP: What is your dream project?

AC: I think a staged Godzilla and Friends wrestling match would be pretty awesome, especially if Toho would be willing to loan us all of their authentic kaiju (giant monster) suits and a bunch of miniature cities to stomp into oblivion.

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Bio: Aaron Christensen (AKA “Dr. AC”) served as Master of Ceremonies for WildClaw‘s DEATHSCRIBE 2008 and choreographed the zombie violence for The Revenants. He is the editor of the Rondo Award-nominated film guidebook, HORROR 101, published in 2007 to unanimous critical acclaim and available wherever tomes of ill repute are sold. One of the Midwest’s rising enthusiasts of horror films/monster movies, Aaron has seen over 1800 individual fright flick titles (and counting), scouring the mainstream, foreign markets and fringe indies for that next big thrill. Fellow genre aficionados are welcome to join in the fun on MySpace or Facebook or on the official Dr. AC website, www.horror101withdrac.com.

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IFPInterview: WildClaw Theatre, Part 1: Aaron Christensen