Thursday, November 14, 2013

Visions of Terror: The Woman In Black Presents a Challenge for Actors, Audience

B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero

In a small English town at the turn of the 20th century, a young lawyer, Arthur Kipps, is confronted with a mystery, involving a local legend surrounding a mysterious apparition of a woman. Who is this Woman In Black? Is she a ghost, and is there really a link between this ethereal figure and the deaths of area children, or is the whole story just a figment of the townspeople's imaginations? THE WOMAN IN BLACK by Susan Hill is a tale of mystery, terror and suspense that has become a modern classic, adapted into several films for TV and the screen, and by Stephen Mallatratt into a famously long-running play in London's West End.At the Chapel arts venue just off of South Skinker Blvd, members of the cast and crew with Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) are working diligently to bring this thrilling story to the St. Louis stage.

On this particular evening, actors B. Weller (Kipps) and Jared Sanz-Agero (the Actor) are here with director Rachel Tibbetts and Stage Manager Mollie Amburgey rehearsing and working on their accents and movement for the show. The production presents a challenge for all involved.For Tibbetts, part of the challenge is in the venue. "The thing is we don't have a backstage, so we have to be kind of creative", she says.Because there are no wings for scene changes and the Chapel is a small performance space, the plan is to use as much of the space as possible for performance, including the audience area."I think it works really nicely", says Tibbetts "because of the play within the play concept, in that having the actors head out into the audience really helps".

The play's structure is also somewhat unusual. The story is told in flashbacks as a play within a play but with something of a twist. Weller explains that "[as Kipps]I've brought my horrible story to an actor, with the hopes of him giving me advice of how to tell the story, so as we go through telling the story, the actor becomes me, and then I play all the other characters."Sanz-Agero, as the Actor, plays the younger Kipps as the action of the story unfolds.

While Weller is no stranger to playing multiple roles (he has done so often in the past), there are some unique issues with this particular show that make the rehearsal process challenging for both actors."Actually" says Sanz-Agero, "this is the most difficult part I've ever played in my life."He explains that it's the first show in which he's had to perform in a non-American accent, among other issues: "It's a British accent, and it's not just a little bit of an accent. My character speaks for 2/3 of the show. My monologues go on for a page and a half. And it's, make sure you don't drop that dialect. On top of that you're acting with invisible things, and miming with little invisible dogs, which is always a pitfall for any actor" in terms of making it look believable.

"Never work with invisible animals," jokes Weller, to which Sanz-Agero adds "or invisible children, and we work with both in this!"Weller compares the mime aspects of the show to green screen acting in films, and Sanz-Agero agrees, also emphasizing the fact that the actors almost never leave the performance area."Everything has to happen onstage and there's a lot of acting of heightened emotions of total terror that most people don't do."

The dialect in this show is another fascinating aspect of the rehearsal process, as the actors discuss how to pronounce specific words (such as "again") as well as presenting a consistent accent.The cast members have worked with a dialect coach, Pamela Reckamp, to help them develop believable accents. To add to the challeng, Sanz-Agero points out that "this is a dialect that no longer exists. This is like 100 years ago where they probably spoke a lot clearer". Also, according to Tibbetts ,"[Weller] in particular plays several different characters, so his voice changes with each character."

The actors approach their roles differently, with Weller taking a more instinctive approach with little pre-rehearsal research, and Sanz-Agero reading the book, watching several of the movies and looking up videos on YouTube. Their end goal, however, is the same: a convincing, truthful performance. "I actually find that, generally speaking, a play's a play" says Weller when asked about the horror genre and if it requires a different approach. "You just play whatever part you're handed. It doesn't really matter what type it is." You "go after your objective" agrees Sanz-Agero.

The production is a part of SATE's current "Season of the Monster" that includes plays of various genres that highlights aspects of the monstrous to varying degrees in everyday life, according to director Rachel Tibbetts.Comparing this show to the previous production in the series, NINE/SKETCH, Tibbetts says "I think both pieces look at what a monster is much different ways. But I think with this piece, yes it's a ghost story and it's creepy but I think really what drives it is the sadness from the loss of these children, and that's where a lot of the terror comes from, too."

B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble's production of THE WOMAN IN BLACK runs from October 30th through November 9th at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Dr. Check out SATE's for more information.
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