Monday, 13 July 2015

Vaulted Dramaturgy: Marty Ross @ Edfringe 2015

Vampires in the VaultA dramatic storytelling show by MARTY ROSS
Paradise In The Vault (venue 29)
11 Merchant St. EH1 2QD
8 – 15 August 17.55
Tickets £8 / £6 (2for1 on 10th. & 11th.)

After his acclaimed 21st. Century Poe shows at 2013 & 2014's Edfringe, live storyteller and playwright Marty Ross (BBC Radio drama; Doctor Who & Dark Shadows audio) descends once again into the Vault with a themed show alternating two vampire tales – dare you see them both?

His radically updated Poe shows saw him acclaimed as “a compelling onstage presence”, “a master craftsman who never turns down the pressure” with a gift for “insanely good storytelling” and “a great aptitude for suspense & terror”. Now he descends deeper into the dark with stories of vampirism, historic and modern, supernatural and disturbingly real.

In THE GORBALS VAMPIRE, Glasgow's very own urban legend of an
iron-toothed vampire in the city's Southern Necropolis inspires a
disturbing tale of innocence lost. Twenty years ago, Timmy disappeared in the graveyard, victim of a schoolkid prank. Now he's back, to tell the tale of where he's been... and how close he came to being trapped there forever.

In BLOOD & STONE: Lullaby For A Vampire Countess, Ross again draws on a true tale, in this case that of the Hungarian Bloody Countess Elizabeth Bathory, aka “Countess Dracula”, who in the early 1600s was imprisoned in her castle for bathing in the blood of her victims. This fictional sequel to the historical story imagines a servant listening to the Countess' protestations of innocence and being tempted to set her free.... (Marty Ross' audio drama version of this story was nominated for a 2012 Rondo Award – the horror world's Oscars)
*The Fringe*What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?Marty Ross: My Poe shows at the previous two Fringes had been well received, so
I wanted to do another show, but wanted to take a break from Poe, so
vampire stories seemed a natural progression and very suitable for a
setting in a church vault, plus I wanted to revisit the format I'd had
in 2013, of not just doing the same show every night but alternating
different stories, in this case two stories, The Gorbals Vampire and
Blood And Stone. Blood And Stone was already a well established piece
in my repertoire (and my audio drama version had been nominated for a
Rondo - the horror world's Oscars!) and it was inevitable I'd bring it
to Edinburgh - I just needed another story to go alongside it. And I'd
been obsessed by the urban legend of the Gorbals Vampire for a long
time - the Southern Necropolis, where the belief that an iron toothed
vampire was devouring children prompted an honest to goodness outburst
of mass hysteria in the early 50s, was just round the corner from the
tenement where I used to live with my Grandmother, the person who
inspired me to tell stories in the first place, so it just seemed a
perfect opportunity.

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?As a Scot, Edinburgh is close to home - I can go home to my own
family at nights and don't have to pay an extortionate rent - and
though far more brilliant performers than myself have lost their
shirts there, I did pretty well the last two fringes, broke even and
got a bit of recognition, and was established at a supportive venue,
so I thought 'why not?' And I'm haunted by the vague possibility that
there might be folk in the vicinity who enjoyed the last two shows and
might actually be in the mood for more.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
What I'm hoping for, as with all my storytelling shows, is that
there in the darkened theatre there'll be a kind of imaginative,
intimate compact between myself and each individual audience member --
that I'll put on a vivid show that's worth watching and listening to
as a spectacle in itself, but also that there'll also be another show
simultaneously created in every viewer and listener's mind's eye, a
private visualisation of the story unique to each audience member,
that they can carry home and dream about afterwards. I think
theatrical storytelling can carry to an ultimate point of finesse that
game with the audience's imagination that's so crucial in theatre
generally (and so lacking in media like movies or TV where, as it
were, all the imagining is done for you). I'm not out for overt
screams or folk jumping out of their seats (in that respect
storytelling theatre can hardly compete with the quick-edit visual
shocks and "Vwhwoom" soundtrack noises of cinema), but I think I can
play an intimate game with people's imaginations in a manner genuinely
'haunting'. The two stories themselves combine Gothic horror with what
I hope is real, resonant complex human drama - 'pure' horror just
isn't enough, I'm interested in the points where horror intersects
with a kind of terrible, tragic beauty. I think I'm evoking some
complex, troubled, troubling characters here to help me do that.

*The Dramaturgy Questions*
How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?Dramaturgy is a big question for me. Some storytellers are keen to
distance their storytelling from being seen as any kind of theatre or
drama, but for me storytelling is attractive as a medium precisely to
the point where I can make drama, and theatrical drama at that, out of
it. Which raises the whole question: at what point does a 'story'
cross over into being a 'drama' - where does the borderline lie? Like
a lot of practitioners, I suppose, I work my way through the process
by blind instinct and theorize about it afterwards, but I think of
'drama' as 'story' with a kind of gas mark 6 gathering heat under it:
a lot of traditional storytellers are very light hearted and laid back
and anecdotal in the way they tell even the most macabre stories,
keeping to the persona of 'your mate down the pub casually spinning a
yarn between sips of real ale', but I'm instinctively drawn to a
certain full tilt emotional intensity, and an expressionist way of
conveying it. And as part and parcel of that I often abandon the
traditional objective third-person perspective of traditional
storytelling for telling the story 'first person' through a character
in the story, and then directly portraying the other characters with
similar intensity. I did that with the Poe shows, taking my cue from
the fact that Poe's stories tend to be told first person - and by the
craziest character in the story: they're almost dramatic monologues.
And "The Gorbals Vampire" here is done first person, from the point of
view of its most traumatized character. On the other hand Blood &
Stone begins third person (it even starts with "Once upon a time"),
but even there, as the storytelling 'heats up', more and more of the
narrative is communicated through me speaking directly as the
characters: that third person voice discreetly shrinks back to a very
minimalist connecting tissue. So the real borderline between 'story'
and 'drama' might lie at the point that story allows itself to be told
by the characters within it. How can that be achieved? - that's where
'dramaturgy' lies in the storytelling medium.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
Even though I can only know it at one remove (at least), German
Expressionist theatre is a big reference point. Of course, I can only
know it indirectly, through play scripts, manifestos and critical
texts... and of course through things like the German silent cinema
and the later, somewhat watered down, version of that aesthetic in the
30s horror cinema: the work of people like Conrad Veidt and Peter
Lorre, films like 'Caligari', 'Orlacs Hande', 'The Black Cat' & 'Mad
Love': I love the extreme stylisation of things like that, a
stylisation that makes those productions belong to theatre as much as
to cinema. I'm a sucker for a good Hammer Horror and the best of the
more modernist horror films, but they're relentlessly moving towards a
more 'realistic' style (with the startling exception of Nicholson's
Kabuki performance in The Shining), and that aesthetic isn't as
applicable to the kind of thing I'm trying to do: so Veidt and Lorre
(who would do one man Poe shows - and said he found it more fulfilling
than virtually anything else he did in Hollywood!) are my heroes,
certainly by way of my fantasy of what they were like in those 20s
theatre shows I'll never actually be able to see.

More broadly, I suppose any form of theatre in which big, grand-scale
fantastical narratives are communicated by what in practical terms are
very simple resources is an influence, as for example Yeats' Celtic
reinventions of Noh drama: I know the dominant realist aesthetic
condemns Yeats' plays as a disastrous dead end, but that basic idea -
that you go into some draughty community hall in County Sligo, unroll
a rug on the floor and that rug becomes a whole fantastical world of
mortal and supernatural forces clashing is obviously more relevant to
what I'm doing than anything in the realist tradition.

Likewise, Greek tragedy is a big guiding light. I know that sounds
pretentious coming from a guy doing little penny ante horror shows,
but in simple pragmatic nuts and bolts terms the way Greek tragedy
uses a very small cast (certainly if you accept the Greek distinction
that chorus and actors are two different things), very simple ABC
narrative lines (as opposed to the baroque structures and subplots of
Elizabethan drama) and very elementary staging to convey narratives
that are grand scale in their passions and their clash of the human
and supernatural. And of course the Greek convention of having the
most violent action take place off-stage means that at its most crucial
hinge-points Greek drama becomes quite a straightforward storytelling
theatre. We don't literally see the King and his daughter being burned
to death by the poisoned dress in 'Medea', we don't see Pentheus being
caught and ripped apart by the Maenads, we don't see Jocasta hanging
herself or Oedipus gouging his eyes out: rather, some horror-struck
intermediary runs on-stage, says 'you'll never guess what happened' and
for the next five minutes the play becomes a piece of purest
storytelling as the off-stage scene is simply, powerfully, described
to us... and those are among the towering moments of western drama.

Another influence - and I keep this to last, because I have to be
careful about my terminology - is the theatre of melodrama. Careful,
of course, because in modern usage 'melodrama' is used as a synonym
for bad drama, fake drama, hokey drama. But if you do any research
into melodrama as a genuine theatre tradition, it's much more
interesting than that: whether embodied by the plays of Gothic writers
like Lewis and Maturin, or by the 19th century 'fit up' companies who
would perform what must have been largely improvised reenactments of
contemporary crimes in spaces 'fitted up' in market stalls etc., or
Dickens performing the murder of Nancy so vividly he took years of his
own life and (probably) the lives of his audiences, or Henry Irving
performing Eugene Aram so vividly he sent Bram Stoker (of all people)
into a fainting fit, or of course the French Grand Guignol.... --
you're talking about a genuinely popular, immediately communicative
form of theatre, stylised of course but valid in its stylisations...
and the theatre genuinely lost something when the academic
haute-bourgoisie, all those Court Theatre Granville Barker types,
kicked it out of the theatre so the realist aesthetic could reign

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
People tend to assume, because I'm also a playwright, that I write
a script, memorize it, and then that's what I perform: people often
compliment me on the 'writing' in, or the 'text' of, my shows. But the
way in which I'm closest to the oral storytelling tradition is that
there's no script - what I do is work out in my head the broad outline
of the story and then I get up on my feet and start improvising, day
after day after day, and when the improvisations start to slowly
cohere, I repeat and repeat and repeat until the improvisations are
memorised (I think of it as being like sculpture, wheras writing is
like painting: the hard work of being on your feet, battering away at
something very physically present in the room, rather than the
restfulness of looking at a blank canvas / page and filling it up at a
fairly relaxed pace)... but even then, in actual performance, the
words and gestures are never 'fixed', they never come out exactly the
same way two shows running, every show remains improvised to an
extent. In the latter stages, I'll work with a technician for the
final realisation, but this is the one place I can work in a very
uncompromised fashion - in radio drama, it's very collaborative - an
idea that's 'mine' will go through all kinds of reshaping in
collaboration with my director before it even gets commissioned and if
it is, then the actual writing involves a lot of give and take between
myself and the director, and then when it's produced I have to take a
back seat while the director and actors make it theirs. That can be a
rich and fruitful process, but it does mean that the finished play is
'by Marty Ross' only to a limited extent. Storytelling, on the other
hand, is my 'fuck you' medium, where I can realise what I have to say
and express it in a very uncompromised fashion: for better or worse,
you're getting what I have to say as a dramatist in a very undiluted
form - and the crucial collaboration becomes that aforementioned
collaboration with the individual imaginations of the punters who've
shown up.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
I've covered the essence of this above, but essentially the show is
nothing if the audience doesn't bring their own imaginations and help
me create the story. The story is not just my words and gestures...
the other half of the equation is the way their imaginations seize on
these as prompts for a show that's taking place in their own heads as
much as on the stage. A subtler, more complex interaction, maybe, than
straightforwardly making people laugh or scream... but that's the real
'collaboration' in this form of theatre.

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help?
Your relating of dramaturgy to comics is interesting to me. For one
thing, the real life Gorbals Vampire mass hysteria was blamed at the
time on the gory US horror comics of the 50s (and helped get them
banned for a time in this country) and my play starts with the main
character reading one of the great horror comics of my youth, House Of
Hammer, but more broadly I was a great comics reader in my youth and
have found my way back to certainly the ones in the horror genre in
recent years: the very tight-focused way the short stories in
something like the old DC House Of Mystery are told, and through a
sequence of vivid images, is an example to a storyteller.

I was actually chatting with a friend who's a professional comics
artist a couple of months back. I was talking about how 19th century
researchers into the old school Scots storytellers marveled at how
these crofters and fishermen could hold in their heads a repertoire of
maybe 60 or more stories, some of them saga-length... when in fact
they were often illiterate. And what the researchers worked out was
that the storytellers didn't memorize words - they memorized a string
of images, almost like a silent film before silent films existed and
essentially just improvised the words to describe those images in the
act of performance... although of course words that worked well would
inevitably stick in their memories over several 'tellings'.

And as a storyteller, I instinctively work in exactly the same way. In
the initial formative stages, I don't worry about words at all - I
work the story out in my mind's eye as a sequence of images, memorize
those, and then in at least the initial stages of rehearsal just use
whatever words pop into my head to evoke those images, although if you
rehearse it often enough the words stick too. But a story for me is,
first and foremost, a sequence of images. If you have those, you've
got a story.

And my comics drawing friend related that to the way good comics are

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