With Van Helsing’s Dracula, producer Sarah Mann revamps the classic tale into an immersive circus-dinner-theatre experience.
Note: Since originally posting, this article has been updated with a review and additional photographs, which can be found after the interview.
Here is something different. Not only does Van Helsing’s Dracula offer a new spin on an old story; the very format of the show is pretty much unprecedented in Los Angeles. We have dinner theatre, and we have had a paranormal circus or two, but circus and dinner theatre combined – with vampires? The Southland’s closest comparison is Vampirates dinner theatre in Buena Park, which includes an aerial act among its stunts and action; even with its circus-like atmosphere, however, no one would mistake that for an actual circus.
Filling this circus-dinner-theatre void is Madmann’s Playground, a company launched last year by Sarah Mann. Van Helsing’s Dracula is its debut, with four performances scheduled this October and November at Vatican Banquet Hall in Van Nuys. The experience features elaborate circus acts backed by live music, while the audience enjoys a three-course Romanian-style dinner.
To learn more about this novel approach, Hollywood Gothique sat down for a chat with Sarah Mann, who explained why Dracula was the perfect choice to introduce the public to her circus-dinner-theatre concept.
Van Helsing’s Dracula: Interview with Sarah Mann
This interview was conducted via Zoom while Van Helsing’s Dracula was in rehearsals. It has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Van Helsing’s Dracula is a new event in Los Angeles, so for people who are seeing this pop up in their ad feed and wondering what it’s all about, how would you describe it to the uninitiated?
SARAH MANN: Madmann’s Playground is a new circus dinner theater experience in L.A., so it is a multi-course meal with a fully produced circus show. The show has actors that will be fully narrating the show, so it’s not super abstract as if you were watching a ballet per se. It’s told like a play, but then the play unfolds through circus.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: How did you come up with this idea for a circus dinner theater. I’ve seen circus, and I’ve seen dinner theater, but I don’t think I’ve seen them together.
SARAH MANN: I grew up in Seattle, and there’s a company in Seattle called Teatro Zinzanni that I didn’t actually see until I had left Seattle and then come home for the holidays. Teatro Zinzanni is pretty well known in Seattle; they used to have a branch in San Francisco, and they also have a company in Chicago. When I saw them, I thought about what type of experience I would want to produce and create in L.A. I thought, “Why doesn’t this exist in L.A.?” So I figured I would bring it.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: For folks who are a little bit unfamiliar with this… I guess dinner theater is self-explanatory, but people who don’t know about circus tend to think of it as high-wire acts and juggling, and that’s probably not been fully true for at least twenty, twenty-five years. We’ve had a kind of growing respect for circus as a theatrical artistic art form, so I assume that’s the direction you’re headed here because it’s tied in with narrative.
SARAH MANN: Yeah. If you think of Cirque du Soleil, as most people’s idea of what modern circus looks like, it’s contortionists, acrobats, dancers, singers, musicians, juggling, Cyr Wheel, Rola Bola, all the aerial apparatuses, and whatever you can think of – any of those sort of specialty skills. Most traditional circuses in general tend to follow the map of one act after another after another, so you’ll see the contortion act and then you’ll have an aerial act and then you’ll have the juggling act and then the acrobats. For the purpose of trying to make a cohesive story, the acts are not delineated like that with Madmamn’s Playground. It’s very much a a story where each scene has moments of everything, so one scene for example will have aerial, but it’ll also have hula hoops, or it will have like plate spinning mixed with contortion mixed with acrobatics and handstands. So it’s depending on what each scene called for or what made sense to further the storyline.
Van Helsing’s Dracula: Why Not Carmilla?
Written by Katie Rediger and Corrin Evans, Van Helsing’s Dracula presents a “poetically sapphic” reinterpretation of Bram Stoker’s tale, performed entirely by women, in which an invitation to dine with Countess Dracula lures Van Helsing into a psychologically seductive trap. The gender-bending elements seems closer to J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, prompting our curiosity about opting for an all-female Dracula instead.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Let’s talk about your choice of subject matter. You could do a circus dinner theater about anything, so why Van Helsing’s Dracula?
SARAH MANN: I’ve been sitting with the idea of doing a circus-dinner theater for many years, and I wasn’t exactly sure what story we were going to go with. I felt that, in order to introduce this to Los Angeles, where this is a new idea, it would need to be a story that people already knew the general characters or the themes, so that it would peek their interest, and they’d say, “Yeah, I’m down to go see that.” My boyfriend loves Dracula and there was a BBC three-part series that we started watching, and I immediately knew that something Dracula-related was going to be the first show. The idea that Dracula is a shape shifter, that Dracula could be in the air, that Dracula could be a contortionist, could be…who knows, right? Dracula takes many forms, and so in that way it made a lot of sense to have Dracula as kind of the ideal circus character.
Personally, I’ve always been drawn towards darker stories and darker characters. I didn’t want to make Madmann’s Playground necessarily a family-friendly experience. I wanted to cater it to adults. Darker themes are more sensual; they’re more interesting to really delve into. All of those things combined when I saw this BBC three-part series. I went, “That’s absolutely what I need to do!”
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: That answers what I was going to ask next, which is why you chose Dracula instead of Carmilla if you’re going for the sapphic vampires.
SARAH MANN: I’m familiar with the story, and the reason I went with Dracula was to pick a character that is more widely known. Also, I wanted to create a new story, so it’s based off of Dracula, but I wanted to do a completely new version of the story, so even though we do have the same characters – Van Helsing is the main character of the show – and we do have similar themes to what Dracula stories entail – the dark versus light, good versus evil, and that love story component – it’s definitely a new story. I didn’t want to have to deal with getting the rights or taking a story that already existed and trying to make it work on stage. I wanted to have a new spin that, while there are some connotations with the original Dracula, people wouldn’t say, “That missed the mark on the story that I know,” because we’re taking it a completely different direction. It would be this brand new experience for the audience.
Van Helsing’s Dracula: Developing the Story
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Once you had the premise in mind, how did you go about building the story for Van Helsing’s Dracula? I’m particularly interested because of the circus element. Are you writing a story, and then does that lead to the circus acts, or do you have an act in mind and say, “I’m going to have to figure out how to make it part of the story”? Like Alfred Hitchcock saying, “I want to do this scene of this guy dropping dead in the United Nations,” so then the screenwriter has to figure out why and how.
SARAH MANN: The way that it started is I saw this three-part series and I saw for the first time ever a female Van Helsing, and I said, “I want that. I had never thought that it would be possible. Why – I don’t know. So I knew who I wanted to play the host of the story regardless of what story it was. I had an actress in mind, and we started talking about how this could work. I knew from the get-go that I did not want to be in charge of creating the story. I like to have my hands in the creative process, but I myself am not a story writer. I wanted people who do that for a living to actually help guide the story and create it, so I had reached out to Katie Rediger, who is playing Van Helsing. She’s a poet and actress, and after multiple conversations with her, we decided to bring in Corrin Evans, who’s a Hollywood director, writer, and intimacy coordinator. I gave the two of them the assignment of “I want you guys to pitch a story to me.” They came back to me with the story. I looked at it said, “Okay, this could work for circus. We may need to change some of these things because I can’t see any sort of act that could happen with this part of the story.”
We sort of morphed it, and then once that happened, I reached out to my father [Hummie Mann], who is a two-time Emmy award-winning film composer, to create all original music for the show. Then once I received the music, we had an idea of “I want Dracula to be an aerialist. I want these different elements in the show. I wanted contortion. I wanted acrobats. I wanted plate spinning. I knew there were certain elements I wanted to include.
From there, I just started looking for performers. Once we had the performers, we got into the rehearsal space and I said, “Okay, here’s the first scene; here’s what needs to happen.” So it’s definitely been a collaborative effort of me coming in and framing each scene and each act. There’s four acts in the show, and I think somewhere between 13 to 16 scenes in total. As a group, we’ve just collectively gone, “Does this make sense for your character and your character arc?” It’s been a lot of trial and error, but I definitely had a framework of where I wanted the show to go and how I wanted it to look, based on my own choreographic experience.
Van Helsing’s Dracula: Vampire Circus Acts
Death-defying acts add their own scary thrills to any circus. But how dangerous can things be inside a banquet hall?
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Ordinary circuses have an element of fear but different from Dracula: “Are the performers going to fall off the high wire?” Do you have that aspect in here to amplify the undead horror?
SARAH MANN: I think in general with circus there’s always sort of “is this going to work?” situation. As much as I would love to have more death-defying elements, doing this as a popup has limited what we can or can’t do for the time being. We do have the aerial components; we are going to take them up as high as we can, but we are limited to whatever a freestanding rig is able to accommodate. There’s people standing on each other’s shoulders. There’s different contortion elements that are kind of crazy. So we’re doing what we can within the limitations of this popup experience. Ideally in the future I would love to include a lot more of the death-defying acts, but obviously there’s a lot of liability involved with that, so I need to make sure that the venue is okay with those restrictions. I have to abide by them…you have to keep everybody safe.
Van Helsing’s Dracula: Circus in a Banquet Hall
Does fine dining mesh with aerial artists flying overhead?
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: You mentioned popup, which brings a question to mind, which is I really cannot visualize the venue this is taking place in. I’m wondering where are you going to put an elegant dinner in the middle of circus, so what is this place like?
SARAH MANN: Vatican Banquet Hall is where we’re doing Van Helsing’s Dracula. It’s this beautifully redone banquet hall. Imagine you’re going to a wedding, and it’s this dance floor down the center of the space and then tables on either side, and the show is going to happen all the way down the center aisle, so you’ll get the idea of a 360 show as if you were in a circus tent. I definitely didn’t want it to feel like a theatrical proscenium setting, where the audience is sitting here and the performers are over there. I wanted more of an in-the-round feel, to bring that traditional circus feeling to you.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: So is the dinner going to be between act breaks, or are we going to be eating while Dracula’s eating, so to speak?
SARAH MANN: A little bit of both. The show is broken up into four acts, and the food will be served in between acts, so there will be a long enough pause where you can start eating. Depending on how slow of an eater you are, you might be eating while the next act starts or while it’s still progressing. But there are definitely breaks built in for that reason.
Van Helsing’s Dracula: Taking a Bite Out of Other Piratical Paranormal Vampire Circus Dining Experiences
Although circus-dinner theatre is new to Los Angeles, there have been attractions that sound similar to Van Helsing’s Dracula. In addition to Vampirates, the Count’s Den in downtown L.A. has staged several vampire-dinner plays such as Bite and Bite: Surprise. Last year there was the horror-themed Paranormal Cirque, and this year there is The Vampire Circus at the Montalban. Although aware of their existence, Sarah Mann has not seen any of these; still, she thinks there existence is a good sign.
SARAH MANN: I wouldn’t say that my show is going to be anything like those shows, because it is coming from a theatrical-dance background. I really am pushing the narrative. For me it is really important that the audience understands the through-line and the arc of these characters. It isn’t so much what you would expect when you think of a Dracula show. Our show is taking it a completely different direction, and it’s catering probably to a different crowd, even though I think the vampire community in L.A. and the Halloween people in L.A. – it’s definitely catering to them – but I’m also keeping it a broader experience, so that it will cater to the theatergoers, to the people that like to go see dance, to the people that like to go see cirque that aren’t just focused on the Halloween aspect of it. But it is a Halloween-y thing.
I’m excited to see more circus that is on the darker side of things, because I do think that there’s such a theatrical, mystical element when you go into that. There’s absolutely a place for circus when it comes to families and kids, but to get it to appeal to adults is just something fun and different, especially for all of the Halloween junkies. What’s better than having a zombie fly at your face?
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: It sounds as if you’re embracing the artistic aspect of circus in a way that the people I interviewed from Paranormal Cirque did not. When I brought it up, their response was “No, no, no – we’re entertainers, and we don’t want anyone to think we’re showing off how artistic we are.” You seem more willing to embrace that label.
SARAH MANN: Yeah, this is definitely an artistic experience. The way I keep explaining it to people is it’s as if you’re going to see a ballet or an opera but it happens to be Dracula with circus. It is really about the artistry behind it, and it’s not just an act for an act’s sake. As much as I love traditional circus, it’s just a different spin. I think for the price point of what Van Helsing’s Dracula is, it is going to cater to a completely different group of people, because it is pricier, with that three course meal. So I am trying to cater to the theater-goers who also get dinner beforehand. It’s what you would normally spend to see a show at the Pantages, to see a show at the opera house, to see a show at Music Center. So it’s something different that I I don’t think has been done in L.A.- I have yet to see it. I’ve continued to try and find what else is out there that fits the model that I’m trying to build, but it’s been hard to find – which I think is good, but I think it’s also hard for people to fully grasp what it is that Madmann’s Playground is, because it is something that’s new and hard to explain. It’s not comparable to what is currently in L.A.
Van Helsing’s Dracula: Dinner with Drac
Performances of Van Helsing’s Dracula are scheduled on October 21 and November 4, 11, and18. Doors open at 6pm, with cocktail hour before the show; show and dinner service start at 6:30pm. There is no intermission, but there will be pauses during the show for food service and restroom breaks. Vatican Banquet Hall is located at 6913 Van Nuys Boulevard in Van Nuys.
Van Helsing’s Dracula is mildly interactive: performers may move among the audience and engage with them at their table between acts but will not pull them on stage. The show is intended for adults; minimum age is 16. Tickets range from $225 to $325, which includes dinner and non-alcoholic drinks; cocktails cost extra. Designed by Chef Anne Apra, dinner includes such themed options as Romanian Ratatouille, Hungarian Hot & Sweep Paprika Hendl, and Dracula’s Char-Grilled Robber Steak-on-Stake-Skewer. The menu can accommodate dietary restrictions, including vegan and vegetarian options.
With luck, Madmann’s Playground will go on to become a regular event in Los Angeles. Three pop-up experiences are in the works for next year, and there are plans to open a permanent venue in 2025, where weekly dinner shows will take place. For more information, visit madmannsplayground.com.
Review: Van Helsing's Dracula
Bottom Line: Great show, great food, not so great cocktails earn a 4-Star rating.
Van Helsing’s Dracula Review: Introduction
To fans of traditional Gothic Horror, rendering Bram Stoker’s immortal vampire in a circus-dinner theatre production with an all-female cast may seem an eccentric choice, and yet Van Helsing’s Dracula emerges as a sophisticated synthesis of poetry, dance, and amazing aerial artistry. Backed by a mesmerizing live score, the intensely physical performances are choreographed almost like a ballet, and the story is rendered in deceptively archetypal duality (Purity/Corruption, Love/Lust, etc.), which hides a deeper complexity beneath the surface. This approach yields a form of horror that has little to do with suspense or jump-scares; the fear evoked is that of losing a loved one to a rapacious, unstoppable seductress who offers immortality in exchange for subservience to her dark powers.
Telling this sanguinary story in a swanky setting with circus acts sounds contradictory and even self-defeating, but it makes sense when you realize that but Van Helsing’s Dracula is aiming for a sort of lush, macabre artistry – think Cirque du Soleil by way of Anne Rice – and the aerial work serves a narrative purpose roughly analogous to songs in a musical. In this case, however, the drama builds to emotional moments that are expressed visually instead of verbally – a sort of athletic aria that ascends physical heights instead of sweeping up the notes of a scale. Thus, these seemingly contradictory elements coalesce into a fascinating female spin on the Dracula story, which is ultimately about learning to embrace one’s inner vampire – what Jung called “The Shadow Self.”
Van Helsing’s Dracula Review: The Performance
After taking your seat at a dining table inside the Vatican Banquet Hall, the story begins with Van Helsing (Katie Rediger) descending a staircase and expounding upon the beauty of her relationship with her unnamed Lover (Lala Araki), who is described as a creature of almost angelic purity. Things go awry after they receive an invitation to dine at the castle of Countess Dracula (Frankie Tan). The Lover soon falls under the vampire’s spell. Van Helsing is at first distraught and then outraged by her Lover’s quick capitulation to the dark side. It’s a love triangle in which the stakes are not merely happiness but Life, Death, and Immortality.
Perhaps as a way of justifying the its title, the play is narrated, in poetry, by Van Helsing herself. She is the only one who speaks, the only one with an inner life we can access through her words, and although we can see for ourselves what is happening, we hear only her interpretation of events. Thus, the other characters become almost externalizations of aspects of herself, which she must understand and confront if she is to succeed in saving herself and her Lover. This may be a bit of a stretch, but it is also possible that the play’s title is a metaphoric pun, hinting that “Van Helsing is Dracula” – not literally of course, but suggesting the two characters are not the polar opposites usually depicted.
However deeply one wants to dig for metaphors, the story never bogs down in pretention or unwarranted affectations of artistry. It flows through the performance space like a river whose beautiful surface belies the turbulence. When their feet remain on the floor, the performers ebb and flow with the currents. When they ascend above the audience, they amaze with their apparently effortless finesse. These show-stopping moments, albeit nicely integrated into the narrative, are strong enough to justify inclusion on their merits as spectacle alone. Certainly, they will convince even the most skeptical audience members that telling the Dracula story with circus acts is not the misguided mistake it might might have seemed.
Van Helsing’s Dracula Review: Dining & Drinking
Van Helsing’s Dracula includes a three-course meal, featuring dishes from Romania and Hungary. Bread baskets with pita, toasted crostini, and rustic sourdough rolls are waiting when you arrive; a Harvest Salad with tasty balsamic vinaigrette follows soon afterward. The three entre options (chosen in advance when you purchase your ticket) are Dracula’s Char-Grilled Robber Steak-on-a-Stake Skewer, Romanian Roast Chicken, and Vegan Hungarian Hot & Sweet Paprika Hendle; all are served with Romanian Ratatouille. For desert the choices are Red Wine Poached Pear and Dracula’s Goblet (Pomme & peach puree nectar). Everything tasted excellent, though when it comes to the entre and dessert, we can vouch only for the Hendl and Dracula’s Goblet, respectively.
Cocktails were another matter. We sampled three: Death by Blackberries, Moscow Mule, and a Vodka Martini with a lemon twist. None were more than tolerable. How a bartender fails to make a Moscow Mule delicious is a mystery, but the real disappointment was the martini. Given the circumstances (a mobile bar in a banquet hall), we are willing to overlook the indignity of serving a martin in a plastic cup (for which the waitress apologized quite sweetly), but this vodka had been neither shaken nor stirred; in fact, it was barely acquainted with ice at all, arriving at room temperature. We swirled in some ice from our drinking water, but that was not enough to save a drink that tasted as if it had been made with generic supermarket vodka.
Bottom Line: The cocktails are not worth the extra expense. Stick with the non-alcoholic beverages included with the lovely dinner, which is worth every dollar of the admission price.
Van Helsing’s Dracula Review: Conclusion
Van Helsing’s Dracula is a high-end experience with a hefty ticket price, but you get a lot of blood for your bucks, including a sumptuous repast. Unlike other horror-themed circus shows (e.g., The Vampire Circus and Paranormal Cirque), this truly is a theatrical production in which the circus acts exist not merely for their own sake but rather to support an engaging narrative performed in an unconventional way.
By the nature of its presentation, the characters of Dracula and The Lover are drawn in broad strokes, relying on the physical appearance and acrobatic prowess of the performers to make an impression. Frankie Tan is particularly intimidating as the Countess, but both she and Lala Araki do amazing aerial work. As Van Helsing, Katie Rediger acts as our window into this weird world of vampirism, while her poetic narration (which Rediger herself wrote) provides a window into her conflicted soul. The only other characters are the members of Dracula’s harem, who express a sort of group identity through physical movement as they aid and abet their mistress.
Despite the fangs and blood-drinking, Van Helsing’s Dracula is not a traditional horror show – it is more interested in eliciting gasps of awe than screams of fright. Nevertheless, it delves into dark mysteries, mysteries of the soul and mysteries of the heart, and unlike other versions of the tale, it encourages its characters and its audience to embrace their inner heart of darkness. Because, to paraphrase Jung, recognizing the dark aspects of the heart is the essential for self-knowledge.
Van Helsing’s Dracula continues at Vatican Banquet Hall on November 4, 11, 18, at 6:30pm. The address is 6913 Van Nuys Boulevard in Van Nuys. Tickets start at $225. For tickets, visit visit Eventbrite.
Credits: Produced by Corrin Evans & Sarah Mann. Directed by Sarah Mann & Katie Rediger. Story by Corrin Evans & Katie Rediger. Poetry by Katie Rediger. Choreography & Act Creation by Sarah Mann & the performers. Music composed by Hummie Mann; orchestrated by Jarryd Elias; performed by Alison Bjorkedal (harp), Dylan Price (keyboards), Chihsuan Yang (violin) & Jarryd Elias (percussion). Costume Designer by Kelly Maglia. Lighting Design by Derek Jones. Sound Engineering by Chris Sousa & Justin Harris. Production Coordinator, Abby Relic. Menu by Chef Anne Apra. Tabel Design by Mikaela Liewer.
Cast: Katie Rediger as Van Helsing; Frankie Tan as Countess Dracula; Lala Araki as The Lover; Rachele Donofrio, Taylor Marie, Alicia Salvadori & Carolina Saverin as Dracula’s Harem. Understudies: Jennifer Harrison & Sarah Mann.
Van Helsing’s Dracula: Photo Gallery
Images from the October 21 debut performance.