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Covid Halloween: Could Wicked Lit have found safety in a cemetery?

In the ninth installment of Covid Halloween, Unbound Productions co-founder Jonathan Josephson discusses the future of the Halloween Theatre Festival, and Hollywood Gothique makes a case for staging an excellent, unproduced script.

The Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival – once a consistent contender for the best seasonal scare show of the year – seems to have been fading away over the past few years. In 2017, the company behind Wicked Lit, Unbound Productions, lost one of its founding members, Jeff G. Rack. The 2018 production offered only two short plays instead of the usual three, both staged inside the Mountain View Mausoleum, never setting foot in the nearby cemetery which had been used to great effect in previous years. The following year, Wicked Lit was reduced to a one-night fundraiser. In the past twelve months, their only notable event was last December’s staged reading at a Noise Within Theatre.

So it was an open question whether Wicked Lit would even attempt a comeback in Halloween 2020, with Coronavirus cases spiking across the country. The production’s one possible advantage was its immersive nature: staged in real locations instead of an airtight theatre, it could avoid the risk of crowding people together within an enclosed space. Unfortunately, this was not enough to save Wicked Lit.

Covid Halloween: Jonathan Josephson Interview

To learn more about the safety potential of staging Halloween horror theatre in real locations, we checked in with playwright Jonathan Josephson, founding member of Unbound Productions, who informed us that Unbound Productions did indeed conduct internal conversations and site visits geared toward presenting Wicked Lit in some form this Halloween.

“We knew we probably wouldn’t be able to produce on the scale of our typical show, but perhaps something closer to last year’s Wicked Lit fundraiser or our summer installations was on the table,” says Josephson, referring to the small-scale, off-season productions sometimes used to work-shop plays that later return for Halloween. “We had started to formulate social distancing plans for audiences and cast – having multiple entrance points, keeping audiences in smaller groups than is typical for us, changing performance times and number of performances per night and week, and a host of other things. But none of it could work under current restrictions and health guidelines.”

Being unable to jump the safety hurdles is sad but not surprising, even though Wicked Lit has at least one leg up on the theatrical competition: many of its plays (such as “The Lurking Fear” seen at top) have been staged on the lawns around the mausoleum or on the grounds of the graveyard across the street, and Covid-19 transmission is much less likely outdoors, where breezes disperse respiratory droplets and aerosols. Instead of a miasma of noxious air spreading Black Death (as a long debunked theory once held), could an outdoor cemetery setting actually be safe for theatre-goers?

“Producing outdoors is a major advantage to navigating the pandemic situation, and the immersive nature of how we produce does provide a lot of flexibility to how we build our productions,” Josephson explains. “But between country restrictions, personal health limitations, and additional complexities that came up as a result of basically all live performances being shut down for at least the rest of the year, producing something this year was not going to be possible.”

Wicked Lit: Alpha Takahashi in “The Grove of Rashomon.”
Alpha Takahashi in “The Grove of Rashomon,” one of many plays staged in Mountain View’s cemetery.  Photo by Daniel Kitayama

On the plus side, some of the ideas developed for Halloween 2020 could someday see the light of day.

“We’re hoping to take our plans from this year and formulate them into plans for the future,” says Josephson. “We have some really exciting ideas; we just need to be able to 100% ensure the safety of our audience, cast and crew. Until we know that’s possible, we’ll bide our time.”

But how much time? After the diminished productions of 2018 and 2019 and this year’s hiatus, will Wicked Lit return to the size and scale of its heyday, or is it fated to take a smaller form in the future?

“The main reason for the scale-down for Wicked Lit over the last two years were requests and limitations placed by Mountain View,” Josephson explains, referring to the location Wicked Lit has used since 2010. “We’re exploring, and have been exploring, many new venues that will allow us to produce shows on variable and wide-ranging sizes and scales. The most important thing for us is that we can produce a show that is exceptional – strong scripts, great actors, breath-taking design, and unforgettable immersive experiences. We may produce future shows for audiences of 1,000 or audiences of 10, in person or virtually. We have a lot of ideas. We needed this year to deal with a lot of unexpected challenges, and let’s face it – traumas. But 2021 will be something special and, we believe, exceptional.”

Reason for Optimism: Wicked Lit Staged Reading

We find reason to share Josephson’s optimism based on last year’s staged reading at A Noise Within in Pasadena. The December 15 event was equivalent of MTV Unplugged: an opportunity to see performers render the material without the bells and whistles. Within the confines of the John & Barbara Lawrence Hall, a smallish rehearsal space about as far removed as possible from the Mountainview Mausoleum and Cemetery, Wicked Lit proved that it could adapt to different formats: unassisted by special effects, lighting, costumes, or makeup, three sets of actors sizzled their way through a trio of one-act plays: From Beyond, In The Grove of Rashomon, and The Unholy Sisters. The first two had been fully produced in the past; the third awaits its hour of glory on stage – an hour it richly deserves.

Wicked Lit Staged Readings Review
Stage reading of “The Unholy Sisters” at A Noise Within

Trey Nichols’ adaptation of Lovecraft’s From Beyond had been produced twice before, first as a sort of work-in-progress at an off-season version of Wicked Lit in the summer of 2015, then as a fully realized production for Halloween 2016. Notable for the spectacular special effects at the climax, the play seemed a poor choice for a staged reading, but the streamlined presentation flowed very smoothly, perhaps because Eric Keitel and Richarge Large eased back into their roles so well. On our first encounter, we had not found the comic relief character, Officer Littlewit, at all amusing, but Richard Mooney made him funny this time. There were also additional chuckles thanks to the nature of the performance, as when Keitel, his character supposedly handcuffed for police interrogation, had to turn a page of the script to continue a scene.

The script, recently published in Wicked Lit, Volume II, has been pared back from the 2016 production to something closer to the 2015 version. Overall, the narrative thrust seemed clearer, with the narrative framing device (a police interrogation) less obtrusive – or perhaps the actors simply did a better job of re-roasting the old chestnut of a skeptical detective dismissing a witness with an incredible story as delusional. We still don’t buy the twist ending, which if memory serves, was altered and somewhat improved for the 2016 production. Still, a great performance.

In the Grove of Rashomon, adapted by Jonathan Josephson from the short story “In A Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (which served as the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon) is as close to J-Horror as Wicked Lit ever got. A period piece set in Japan, it’s a mystery with supernatural overtones, as a desperate mother (Sachi K) searches for her missing daughter, summoning the spirits of the dead as witnesses in her quest. Dramatically, it is one of Wicket Lit’s stronger efforts: the supernatural elements are creepy, but the play invokes more empathy than terror, which was voiced – literally – by Sachi K’s mournful screams whenever paying the price for seeking help from beyond the grave.

The Unholy Sisters was the true highlight of the evening. Susannah Myrvold’s play, loosely inspired by the infamous witch hunter’s manual, “The Malleus Maleficarum,” features some of the best character interaction and the funniest dialogue of any Wicket Lit adaptation. Reduced to its simplest description, the story sounds like an extended drug joke (whenever the trio of witches imbibe a potion in order to “fly,” they might as well be eating hash brownies), but the result is actually an engaging tale of female revenge against a faithless lover, which turns the tables on the source material, changing the witches from demonized villains to relatable protagonists.

In the end, the staged reading was no match for full production, but rather like Wicked Lit’s off-season workshop version of From Beyond, it offered an early glimpse of a play bound for a bigger and better presentation. The Unholy Sisters is the best reason we can imagine for the return of Wicked Lit; something this good demands to be seen in a full-blown production, with all the production value the Wicked Lit team can bring to it. Fortunately, Josephson has told us that this play is on top of Wicked Lit’s priorities list.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.