INTERVIEW – Scott T. Barsotti, Playwright, The Shadow Over Innsmouth

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On Dec. 13, 2013, I attended a performance of Wildclaw Theatre’s “H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth”. This was my fourth outing to see a Wildclaw performance, and I was very impressed with the play (read my review here).

After the show, I was curious enough about the original story to immediately check a collection of Lovecraft’s stories out of the library. I was intrigued by the changes made to turn the basic story into a play.

Scott Barsotti, the playwright, was kind enough to answer some of my burning questions!

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Scott T. Barsotti

Scott – a member of the Wildclaw company – is a playwright, performer, and teacher. His plays have been performed across the country. Two other plays he wrote, “Kill Me” and “The Revenants”, have been performed by Wildclaw Theatre. Terror Dave Fuentes reviewed the performance of  “The Revenants” and interviewed Scott in 2012.

(Check out the review of “The Revenants” here and the interview with Scott here.)

I emailed Scott some questions and, as seems befitting a playwright, he sent back very comprehensive and well-written answers. No editing was required!

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SPOILER ALERT: These questions and answers address some of the specifics of the play. The play is still running through January 26, 2014, so run out and see it if you haven’t already! Then come back and read on.

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How did this particular work come about? Were you commissioned by Wildclaw to adapt the story? Did they pick this one in particular, or were they just looking for a Lovecraft story to do?

I’m a company member with WildClaw and there’s always a conversation going within the company about what we’re interested in working on. After we closed my play KILL ME in 2012 (which Dave Fuentes checked out!) I was talking to our managing director Brian Amidei (who plays Zadok Allen in the show) about what I wanted to do next, and Lovecraft came up. Turns out Brian and I had the same favorite Lovecraft story, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” When I lobbed that out there as a possible adaptation, Brian got this wry smile on his face and said, “we’d need to cast people who could stare for a really, really, really long time.” There was some immediate excitement about the idea of Innsmouth so I got to work on it right away.

Did you use any other of his stories as raw material for this play?

There are some lines peppered in that are taken from Lovecraft’s correspondence, and the character Professor Trask is borrowed from “The Rats in the Walls.” I think that’s all…

What are the biggest challenges in adapting a story to stage, especially a horror story?

Adapting any story is challenging because you have to make tough judgments about what’s needed to move the story forward and what needs to be cut out. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is not a particularly long story, and even so, a lot had to be cut. In many cases, making cuts actually helps to tell more of the story within the time constraints of a live show. The original story doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in it; we get long monologues from the station agent in Newburyport (who I gave the name Howard Barnes) and of course, there’s Zadok’s story. So the majority of the dialogue in the play is invented, or converted from narration into a conversation Olmstead has with other characters. A horror play presents its own set of challenges, mainly that many horror stories–and certainly Lovecraft’s–are full of introspection, they’re reflective, they’re intellectual and descriptive. A well-phrased bit of description can set the imagination loose in prose, but onstage we need actions and decisions rather than description. There needs to be momentum. So that requires a lot of problem-solving: how do you capture those inner moments? How do you show something in a few seconds that the author spent two pages illustrating? And certainly there’s the personal challenge that comes with adapting a story as well-known as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” finding ways to make it my own and to give the audience something novel when so many people are going to come in knowing the source.

The biggest difference from the original story is changing the protagonist from male to female. What prompted this change? Do you feel it accomplished its purpose?

I had been going back and forth about it, and then we had a reading of the first draft with a woman in the part and that just crystallized it for me. Olmstead was going to be Regina instead of Robert. There was so much that this decision opened up thematically in the story. The bloodline Olmstead traces in the story is his maternal line, and I loved the idea of the lead character being a driven young woman who never knew her mother. I read “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” as saying a lot about isolation, alienation, and Otherness; considering the time period of the story, an educated woman traveling alone through rural New England would run into some prejudices and have some of her own, Regina herself is an Other in this world, more so than Robert would be. There was also a little bit of a “why not” mentality; we at WildClaw like to create dynamic roles for women and there isn’t anything about Lovecraft’s protagonist that is particularly “male,” other than that he is a stand in for Lovecraft himself. Did the change accomplish its purpose? For me, absolutely; it got me thinking about the character in new ways and that was exciting to me, and I’ve had people who saw the show tell me things like they had an easier time empathizing with Regina or that the play felt more dangerous to them because the lead’s a female. You can psychoanalyze that all you want, but it does seem to be a change that has an impact, in no small part due to the strength of the actress in the role, Brittany Burch.

Another large change from the original was adding the backstory to Regina – almost drowning, using the drug, the visions. Why did you add that into the story?

I think those details help to fill out the character so that she’s not just a vessel guiding us through the plot, but she’s a real individual with a personal history and baggage. All of that for me is informed by Olmstead’s descriptions of his transformation toward the end of the story. Drowning, inhaling a liquid tincture for comfort, visions of relatives underwater, it all connects back to the sea. It reminds us that Olmstead has been connected to the water, and to Y’ha-nthlei, since childhood, since birth.

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Joe Sargent (Jude Roche)

Yet another change you made was Regina’s trip to Miskatonic to talk to the Professor, before coming back for her meeting with Zadok Allen and the final confrontation with the townsfolk. Was that to just add a change of scenery, or was there another purpose?

This change serves multiple purposes. A big benefit for me was that it requires Olmstead to take the bus more often, which thankfully gives us a lot more stage time with Joe Sargent.  Having a scene at Miskatonic and adding Professor Trask as a character offers different glimpses into Lovecraft for the novices out there, but also storywise provides a new source of information for Regina. I took some of the more anthropological information provided in the story by the station agent and Anna Tilton and gave those lines to Trask, so each new source she encounters is giving her different information about Innsmouth. Another big upside to having Olmstead continue on to Arkham is thematic; this way, she doesn’t happen upon Innsmouth and get stuck there, she makes a choice to return, she is attracted to Innsmouth even as it repulses her. By leaving and then returning it feels less like an entrapment in a bad place and more like a homecoming.

The final change I would like you to address is that the narrator in the original story escaped Innsmouth (before succumbing eventually to his fate). Regina didn’t.

This change was made to make the story more theatrical. The story’s conclusion is anti-climactic by design, the peak of the action coming when Olmstead hides in the railroad cut and sees the “undulating column” of fish people. He faints, awakens, and just walks away, but then there’s a whole other chapter where we learn what becomes of Olmstead later on. The gradual realization and acceptance that he will transform occurs over some years, which wouldn’t be particularly dramatic to portray onstage. This also informed the decision to give Regina more backstory, so we get the sense that the gradual change has already been taking place and affecting Regina, really since childhood. Also, not having her escape allows the story to be streamlined, the vast majority of the play stays in Regina’s present rather than jumping around in time. We don’t hear her come around to the idea of changing and returning to the sea “to dwell amidst wonder and glory forever,” she is confronted with the truth in the moment, we see her horror and her attempt to accept who and what she is.

Did you have much input in the actual staging / direction of the play?

I had a lot of discussions with our director, Shade Murray, during the process, both of us favor a very collaborative approach so the communication was always open right up until opening, it was a priority for us to be on the same page about the play’s atmosphere, themes, and tone. The only element of the show (other than the script) that I made specific directorial decisions about was the movement design–this was seen in the Innsmouth shamble, and also the stylized underwater movement. To say I had “much” input would be stretching it; I love being in the room for rehearsals but I sit back and trust directors to do their thing.

How do you feel this production went? At the very end, when the Deep One appears, the audience cheered. Were you surprised at the reaction, or was it something you expected?

That’s the reaction I hoped for! I try not to have expectations of how an audience will react, because every audiences surprises you with what they laugh at and what they gasp at. As a company, we always have a candid talk with cast members who haven’t worked with us in the past, we tell them this won’t be the performance experience they’re used to. People respond to horror in extreme ways, at certain moments you may get unexpected laughs, someone in the audience may pass out, or that there may be cheers and applause when you’re horribly killed onstage. And that’s ok. It’s great, in fact. We’re here to entertain and we’re doing things that people aren’t used to seeing in plays. We want horror fans to give live theatre a chance (and theatregoers to give horror a chance) and if we deliver Deep Ones and those Deep Ones get applause I think we’ve done our job. Actually, the Deep One masks were some of the first design elements we saw, our artistic director Aly Renee Amidei started working on them a long time ago, it’s awesome to finally see them onstage under the lights.

Is there anything about the story you would change, now that you’ve seen it?

I’m one of those playwrights who feels my work is never done. I’m always changing my plays. My zombie play THE REVENANTS has been produced seven times and the scripts for the first production in 2006 and the most recent one earlier this year were very different. Something I love about writing for theatre is the idea that plays are organisms. So the short answer is yes, I’ve already made little changes to the script.

Do you have anything else in the works right now for Wildclaw Theater?

WildClaw’s my artistic home. I always have something in the works for WildClaw. What specifically will be the next thing, I’m not sure, but it won’t be too far down the road.

What is your next project?

Raising my daughter. My wife and I just had a baby last month so at the moment that’s pretty all-consuming. If I have one piece of advice for anyone out there, it would be that having a baby and opening a play less than a month apart wreaks some pretty outstanding havoc on your nervous system.

To find out more details on Scott and his work, visit his website here.

The play is still running!

Wildclaw Theatre

WildClaw Theatre presents the world premiere stage adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. Previewing December 12th, then opening Friday, December 13th, 7:30pm at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 North Southport, Chicago, IL. Running through January 26th, 2014 with performance times Thursday thru Saturday at 7:30pm, and Sunday at 3pm.

Directed by Shade Murray, and featuring company members Steve Herson, Brian Amidei, and Ele Matelen, with Brittany Burch, Christy Arington, Mark Pracht, Jude Roche, Katey Kerman, Bob Kruse, Mary Jo Bolduc, Matt Farabee, Adam Shalzi, David Seeber, and Brady Johnson.

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