Things that go bump on the stage: IC’s October theatre lineup is spooky good

Joe Wise as Richard Burbage -- photo via Robyn Calhoun
Joe Wise as Richard Burbage in ‘William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead’ — photo via Robyn Calhoun

Humans love to tell each other stories. We sit around our proverbial campfires and spin yarns to keep the dark at bay. This time of year, though, the dark lasts longer; our fears are deeper. The nights are chill, the trees are stark. The earth is cycling away from the sun, and, as a society, we begin our annual love affair with all things frightening. If we want to hold back the dark, we have to up the ante. We can’t just trick ourselves into forgetting it, we have to push against it. We have to tell stories to rival the things that go bump in the night.

There is no better modern campfire analog than the theater. It’s where we go to huddle in the dark, to watch stories unfold. The shared experience of theater-going brings strangers together. It creates a closeness, an intimacy that’s hard to find elsewhere. It binds us to one another. This is true of movies, but even more so of live theatre. When we breathe together as one, not just with each other but with the performers as well, every exhale pushes back the night more firmly.

It’s strange, then, that scary stories hold so small a space in that world. Even in terms of movies, horror is a significantly smaller box office draw than other genres. The website, which tracks movie financial data, has charts of inflation-adjusted gross earnings for the last twenty years, broken down into genre. The top-grossing horror film (I Am Legend) earned less than any of the top ten comedies, and less than any of the top twenty action films. lists the top 100 movies of all time, adjusted for inflation; horror films make just two of the top ten, three of the top twenty.

In terms of the stage, that absence is felt even more acutely. Andy Nyman, co-author of the popular British play Ghost Stories, wrote an article for the Guardian last year bemoaning just this lack. To be sure, the mechanics can be hard to achieve, live. Not many theatres are open to the expense of showering the audience in fake blood, the way the off-Broadway comedy-horror hit Evil Dead: the Musical did. It can be challenging to achieve jump-scares when you can often see into the wings. There is less immediacy than a haunted house or corn maze … but, then again, those sort of attractions usually devolve into fits of laughter rather than any sort of lasting scare.

Stage productions take on a different sort of challenge than movies when engaging with the horror genre. They need to make things more personal, more direct. In Nyman’s opinion, “What a clever horror stage production does is to remind the audience that the sense of danger is as real to you as it is to the people on stage.” Several Corridor theatres are taking up that challenge this fall.

Jen Brown, who plays “attiring woman” Kate Braithwaite in City Circle Acting Company’s upcoming production of William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead (by John Heimbuch, Oct. 16–18 at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts), believes in the notion that horror should push back the night. “For me,” she says, “all of the monsters and blood and shrieking is about staring the dark in the eyes and saying ‘Yeah, I see you there. I know what you’re doing, and I’m not afraid of you.’”

Land of the Dead balances its frights with a healthy dose of comedy, but knows how to draw the line. Brown notes that, “There are moments of light-heartedness, of personal tension, of tenderness, of dread, of laugh-out-loud comedy, and of fright, … blended in all the right ways.” The show explores the effects of a zombie-like “plague” on the actors and staff at the Globe Theatre in Elizabethan London.

Conor McPherson’s The Weir, meanwhile, is set to open Oct. 16 at Theatre Cedar Rapids. This is a more subtle fright; harkening back to our earliest traditions, it centers around a group of people sitting in an Irish pub, telling stories. Director David S. Schneider says that, in preparing his actors for the production, he started by having them tell each other ghost stories. “The energy with the personal stories was just crackling, remarkable,” he points out. “We were all tuned in. … You have to experience it in a sensory way, get all of your faculties and your spirit behind it, and that, I think is what creates that communion around the fire-circle: ‘This happened.’ And we all need a safe space like that during the dark nights of life.”

In the play, Schneider states, “the stories progress from less personal to very personal; and the end result is that everyone involved is compelled ultimately to make some sort of decision.” It’s the realism and honesty that will haunt you on this stage. McPherson’s script is masterful. It is taut and tense but, as Schneider points out, “It’s less about being scared, and more about the validity of your own life experience. … We all are scared of something. It may not be ghosts; but it could be death. Failure. Loss. We all can be extremely lonely.” The Weir runs through November 1.

Injecting a lighter note is the Charles Busch Hitchcock parody Psycho Beach Party (Oct. 23 through Nov. 1 at Iowa City Community Theatre). While the play is, according to ICCT Board Member Adrienne Sullivan, “pure comedy,” it hangs its concept on beloved, classic, 1960s horror tropes. Sullivan notes that, “[h]orror and comedy are all about building expectation and then tension relief, whether in the form of screams or laughter, and both are hugely about anticipation and roping in your audience.”

Psycho Beach Party is a perfect foil to Giving Tree Theatre’s production of the actual Hitchcock thriller Dial M for Murder (written by Frederick Knott; opening Oct. 16). Although horror and thriller are subtly different genres, both catch you by the throat and (if they’re successful) don’t let go. Another closely-related example is Dreamwell Theatre’s production of the dystopian classic 1984 (adapted from George Orwell’s novel by Michael Gene Sullivan), set to open on Oct. 16.

This is the first season in my memory in which several Corridor theatres are choosing to dive into the world of fright. We’ve had scary shows produced in the recent past (Theatre Cedar Rapids did Sweeney Todd just a few years ago; Giving Tree Theatre recently closed the comedy-thriller The 39 Steps) but this month offers a multitude of options to choose from if you like to huddle together in the deep fall darkness and push back against the night. It would be wonderful if this were to become a Halloween tradition, to rival the mass of holiday plays and musicals that take the stage every December.

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