Interview: WildClaw Theatre, Part 3: Scott Barsotti

Today, as part of our Lovecraft Birthday Celebration, we’re talking to Scott Barsotti, writer for Wildclaw Theatre and author of The Revenants:

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IFP: Tell us about your current project. What is it called?

SB: WildClaw is currently putting together the 2nd annual DEATHSCRIBE Festival of Radio Horror Plays. This is an event that solicits writers internationally to submit 10-minute horror plays that are intended for radio. We then rent out the historic Music Box movie house in Chicago, pack the place, and have professional actors, directors, and foley artists create the nightmares right there on stage, for everyone’s listening pleasure. Last year’s festival was a great success, and we more than doubled the amount of submissions this year, so we’re very excited about this year’s installment.

IFP: How did you get involved with Wildclaw Theatre? What roles have you played in it? In which productions?

SB: I got involved with WildClaw initially through a chance encounter with Charley Sherman, the Artistic Director, in 2007. He told me all about WildClaw‘s vision to create horror onstage that wasn’t tongue-in-cheek or needlessly campy, but that was taken seriously, well-produced, and was genuinely scary. He was speaking about a style of theatre and an audience that I felt was grossly underserved in Chicago. I’ve been a horror fan my entire adult life and had been working in my own writing at creating horror plays that could appeal to serious theatre artists, doubling as character dramas. It just so happened that I had this play, The Revenants, a relationship drama which involved zombies. I pitched Charley the play and WildClaw ended up producing it earlier this year, and I joined the company shortly thereafter.

IFP: What do you want to tell the audience with Wildclaw Theatre?

SB: We think horror is more than a niche genre where ideas get sliced and diced and artistry gets buried under gratuitous violence and one-liners. We feel that horror is empowering, and gives actors, designers and all artists license to make bold choices, and gives audiences the chance to see horror up close and personal rather than filtered through the eye of a camera. Horror has a great stage tradition that we’re trying to bring back, and our aim is to continue to build our audience out of horror fans and everyday theatergoers alike.

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

SB: To me, horror has to work both viscerally and intellectually. Great horror does not lie in effects and editing. It lies in thoughtful acting, writing, and directing. It lies in suspense, in tension and release, and in atmosphere. What better medium is there to achieve this than live on stage? There’s nothing quite like the energy in a packed theatre where everyone is creeped out, and the danger is right there in front of them. That energy is pretty exhilarating.

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

SB: Besides WildClaw, I’ve worked with many of Chicago’s storefront theatre companies, primarily Curious Theatre Branch, an ensemble theatre that specializes in new work generated from within the ensemble. One of my favourite theatre experiences was a Curious production: performing in Jenny Magnus’ Round and Round: a sexfarcetragedy at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008. I’ve had many of my plays produced and I’ve been fortunate as both a playwright and actor to get the chance to work with a lot of outstanding companies.

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

SB: There are two big differences for me: 1. Theatre happens night by night, and moment to moment, rather than being set in stone like a film. The actors are live in the flesh, and the audience changes each night and their reactions feed different performances from the actors. You can see a play twice on two different weekends and see an entirely different show each time. 2. A play is viewed by an audience subjectively, meaning that their eyes can wander wherever they please, and they can direct their own focus. A film is viewed by an audience objectively, meaning the director shows them something specific with each shot, based on their vision. Each method is ultimately interpreted by each audience member individually, but the way in which they see the story unfold is the biggest difference to me.

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

SB: I would say it’s taking something inactive and abstract (fear) and making it active and dramatic. So much horror literature takes you inside a character’s mind and exposes their deepest fears (and likewise, ours), but that isn’t always so easy to do on stage. Everything has to be active.

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

SB: Well, I don’t know if it’s a challenge, per se, but one of the most crucial elements when staging horror is: you’ve gotta have evocative production design. Sound, lights, set, costumes, makeup…these things literally set the stage for the actors to do their thing and create the world of the play. This is different from special effects. I suppose one technical challenge relates to audience expectations. Film has taught certain audiences to think one cannot have horror without crazy effects. Breaking down this expectation is a challenge, but a challenge we’re happy to face. That said, we don’t skimp on the effects; believability is always the goal. We just have to be a little bit more creative design-wise when we’re, for example, eviscerating someone on stage (as we did in The Great God Pan) or having Brown Jenkins burst through Walter Gilman’s chest with his heart in his teeth (as in Dreams in the Witch House). Charlie Athanas is one of our resident designers, and one of his favourite things to hear is, “Oh, you can’t pull that off on stage.” He gets this big grin on his face.

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

SB: Any time I finish a new play and resolve myself to putting it out there and having others read it. That’s always a good feeling. Terrifying, but good.

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

SB: Nyarlathotep. Sure, he’s kind of a demagogue, but I like that he can pass for a human, and the way he infects peoples’ minds with nightmares is pretty badass.

IFP: What is your favourite Lovecraft/Mythos story?

SB: I actually, sadly, haven’t read enough Lovecraft, but of what I have read Nyarlathotep is my favorite. He’s such a powerful figure to me, and the narrator’s descriptions of the chaos that descends in his wake and how Nyarlathotep causes madness in his followers and detractors alike is so haunting. It seems very much true to how peoples’ hearts and minds fall into darkness, especially the way that the people in the story urge others to see Nyarlathotep’s demonstrations, even though what they have witnessed themselves has affected them horribly.

IFP: Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

SB: I’ll be working with WildClaw on DEATHSCRIBE. Besides that, I’m working on finishing and promoting my newest plays, Brewed and McMeekin Finds Out (which are both comedies with a dark edge that are inspired in some way by horror). I’m also working on an adaptation of a classic horror short story, but for now I’m keeping that under wraps.

IFP: What is your dream project?

SB: I would love to write a series of stage adaptations of big horror titles, but for the most part, these aren’t in the public domain. So for now, it’s a dream…hopefully, someday, I’ll have enough clout to get the rights to a few.

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Bio: Scott T. Barsotti is a playwright and performer originally from Pittsburgh, PA. Scott’s plays include The Revenants, McMeekin Finds Out, and Brewed, and have played in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and this fall in Pittsburgh; his work has been seen at the New York International Fringe Festival, the Rhinoceros Theater Festival, and Collaboraction’s Sketchbook, and has been produced and/or developed by WildClaw Theatre, Curious Theatre Branch, Dramatis Personae, Collision Theatre Company, Chicago Dramatists, and The Route 66 Theatre Company among others. Scott is a Company Member of WildClaw Theatre and Curious Theatre Branch, as well as an Artistic Associate of Illegal Drama and Collaboraction. Scott has an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He and his work can be found in the e-realm at http://scottbarsotti.wordpress.com. He usually wears a hat.

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IFPInterview: WildClaw Theatre, Part 3: Scott Barsotti