RAISING THE DEAD
RAISING THE DEAD: Teller, Todd Robbins and Shade Rupe discuss their one-of-a-kind spook show, PLAY DEAD
Teller certainly needs no introduction among the Fantasia crowd. Best known as one-half of the duo Penn + Teller, his magical and surprisingly touching modern spook show Play Dead, created with autobiographical elements from co-writer and star Todd Robbins’ life as a magician, lecturer, actor and author, premiered in Vegas last fall and garnered rave reviews at New York’s Players Theatre this spring. Shade Rupe, who genre fans know as the multi-tasking raconteur behind the books Dark Stars Rising and as a coordinator on the late Ken Russell’s whirlwind North American tour two years ago, filmed the theatrical performance to create a fantastic, dynamic document of this captivating one-man show, and this film version has its World Premiere at Fantasia tonight.
Spectacular Optical was honoured to have Teller, Todd Robbins and Shade Rupe discuss the themes, tricks and practicalities of putting together this one-of-a-kind show.
How did the film version of the play come about? There seems to be a bit of a revival of filmed theatre performances for theatrical and television these days. When I was a kid, plays on TV were common, but I haven’t heard of this format for a while until recently.
Teller: I was pretty excited to hear about “The Tempest” and Danny Boyle’s “Frankenstein” being in the theaters. Perhaps we’re part of a wave of change.
The original purpose of filming was just as a document of an incredibly cool theater experience. But as we moved through editing, we realized that we had something that had its own life. A point of view on a theater event that had never been seen before.
In the live show off-Broadway in New York, the audience spends several long periods in the dark: sometimes just total darkness with strange tactile sensations, being touched by spidery things, moist things, monstrous things; sometimes with luminous specters in the aisles. We decided in the film to let the filmgoers glimpse some of these secrets and enjoy the terror of the show from an insider’s vantage point.
But aside from that there’s the format of the Midnight Spook show itself, and how many artists are fighting to preserve older means of entertainment, whether it’s radio serials, vinyl records, celluloid, or what have you. I think we’re really starting to worry that if we don’t do something this stuff could become genuinely extinct. How much of the audience do you think had prior familiarity with the concept of the midnight spook show, and what did you hope to impress upon them about this format?
Teller: To be frank, very few classic spook shows were any good at all. With a few notable exceptions the whole point was to let teenagers make out in a dark theater. Play Dead is what happens when a couple grown-up guys take some of the aspects of the spook show and riff on them in a new way, with scary/funny ideas, original magical and grand guignol, and a deep passion for the haunting, disturbing, and grotesque.
Robbins: Our intention was never to create a performance piece that was an homage to arcane forms of entertainment, but instead use the forgot power of these forms to entertain a contemporary audience. Play Dead has bits and pieces of many genres of the past, but it is a creature that is unique unto itself.
Shade, how did you get involved?
Rupe: Teller’s filmmaking partner Ezekiel Zabrowski recommended me. About six weeks before the show was closing Teller emailed and asked if I could shoot an archival recording of the show which was closing at the end of July, something for himself, and not for broadcast. I LOVE Play Dead. I can’t use the past tense because I know more shows are being planned. I attended opening night, wrote a phosphorescently glowing review for Fangoria.com, and truly experienced a life moment with the show. I suggested we shoot the show more like a possible Showtime production. Teller agreed, I brought in a co-producer who brought in a camera crew used to following live action, including a friend from high school, Ian Vollmer, now working in New York, and the man who would two months later shoot my T IS FOR TRICK entry for THE ABCs OF DEATH contest, Vasilios Sfinarolakis. We rented some very nice HD cameras, had no rehearsal time though the co-producer and Ian did manage to see the show. It all had to come together very quickly, and Fantasia was occurring during the final days of the show so there was quite a bit of time-juggling to work out.
Teller, what was it for you as a kid that turned you onto magic and illusion in the first place? Was there a pivotal moment, or performance you saw that did it for you?
I was 5.5 years old and got terribly ill with a heart problem. During my recuperation I sent away for a magic set advertised on TV. That hit psychological bedrock. Something about apparently doing the impossible right in your face still sets my heart racing.
What was the writing collaboration process like between you both?
Teller: The show originated with Todd’s “Dark Deceptions” in the New York Fringe Festival, which evolved into “The Charlatan’s Seance,” which I was lucky enough to see at a theater where I was directing my horror-thriller version of “Macbeth,” That began a conversation between Todd and me. We then sat down and rebuilt the show from the ground up, over the course of three major workshop runs in Las Vegas.
Robbins: It was a long and complicated, but very satisfying process. I would spend a week or two in Vegas writing with Teller, and we would also grab whatever time we could whenever he came to NYC. We took all that I had done before, starting with a show called Dark Deceptions in the NY International Fringe Festival and all that Teller had done along the lines of seances with his partner Penn, put it on the side and began creating this show with a blank page. We drew upon our experiences as we went along, but for the most part we came up with imagery and thematic content that we wanted to see in the show, and then found a way to make it all work and fit together.
Teller: The tricks were hard — if you’ve ever tried to do horror/gore effects live, you know the challenges (especially since Todd was determined to wear the kind of white suit you see evangelists in, and get it drenched with blood each performance). Even more difficult was figuring out just how invasive we could make the show without doing actual harm to the audience. We had one episode, described in the show, in which an audience member brought onstage for a creepy trick with human ashes actually broke down and cried. That night Todd wrote me, “I knew the material we are dealing with is potent. I didn’t realize it is nuclear.”
Throughout, we had amazing support from our New York producers and Harrah’s in Las Vegas. They had faith that a mystifying, thought-provoking screamfest had a place on the New York theater scene.
What was the criteria for selecting what historical people would figure in the show?
Robbins: The show is a combination of autobiographical material from my life, and profiles of people that had a strong relationship with dead while they were alive. What we ended up with was an evening a ghost stories about real people, some good and some not so good, and you get a sense that they are gone, but they are not far away. And if they came back, why would you think that would be a good thing?
Todd – was your personal connection to Dorothy Bembridge real?
100 percent. At the time of her murder her will was at her lawyer’s being revised to leave me that lovely Victorian house. It was never finished and signed, so the house ended up with the local historical society
Are there any mediums living today that you feel rival the talents of Eusapia Palladino? I mean regardless of whether or not you believe in it, but a medium that’s at least as impressive in their alleged abilities?
Teller: The fake mediums (and they’re all fake) of today are really a pitiful lot. They’re indescribably bland and boring, unless you happen to be bereaved and vulnerable. We’ve chosen our villains from the days when such criminals at least had style and verve (and in the case of the Boston Medium who challenged Houdini — her name was Mina Crandon — an inclination to strip naked in the dark and turn a seance into something bordering on an orgy.)
Todd, I like how you said that if you took the pain out of the show, connecting the audience with the memories of real loved ones that had passed, that it would become “like the Haunted House at Disneyland”. It gets very poignant and stays in that emotional space for a long time – What made you decide to go that route?
People have very little idea how vulnerable loss makes them. As I say in the show, “It’s a wound that never heals.” There are those that will take advantage of this, so we wanted to get there first and show our audiences in a safe way what can be done with this vulnerability.
Teller, what appealed to you about that route, especially considering your noted atheism and skepticism about the supernatural?
Teller: To atheists and skeptics, life is a lot more precious than it is to those who tell themselves they’re going to live forever. Our show just says what we honestly feel, in the form of tales and tricks.
Todd, what are your own feelings about the supernatural?
Robbins: There are many things in our world we don’t understand, and that is a beautiful thing to accept. But the problem is that there are many people out there that will come up with easy answers to these mysteries. I have no use for these people.
Were there any really unpredictable audience responses throughout the show’s run?
Robbins: Constantly. When I spoke to someone in the audience during the show, I never knew exactly how they would react. It would take everything within my bag of tricks gleaned from being a performer for forty years to get the participants (and the audience in general) to travel along the path I wanted them to take. One of the interesting aspects of the experience is finding that people would believe that which is false and deny that which is true.
Teller: I didn’t expect sophisticated New Yorkers to go completely wild in the dark. But they did. Screaming. Grabbing total strangers. And having sex. We had infrared monitors on the audience every night for their safety, but that also meant we could see what the audience could not. Every night the stage manager’s report catalogued for me who was doing what with whom and how far they got before the lights went on. One matinee we had a bunch of Catholic School boys — and, well, need I say more?
Todd said in an NPR interview that even though the audience know it’s fake, they react as though it’s real. Why do you think that is?
Teller: The theater, where all is false and fun, is a perfect place to let yourself go. Out go the lights and you, as homo sapiens instantly want to howl and do naughty things.
What purpose does morbidity serve for us? I often ask myself this question. People ask me why I do certain things, and I’ll chalk it up to a ‘morbid sensibility’, but I often don’t have much of an explanation beyond that! Have you figured out an answer to this?
Teller: Haven’t you made love in a cemetery? Those cold stones let you feel your hot blood. Facing fake death makes you feel more alive.
Now a practical question: how many cameras were there, and how distracting was it to keep the spontaneity of the performance with cameramen running around?
Teller: We had five cameras and two infra-red feeds which Shade Rupe, who directed the shoot, placed cunningly so as to capture the show without intruding. The people there were all paying customers, so it was obligatory to let them have the full experience. Mind you, it’s very difficult to be too distracted by a camera when a nude female demon is gutting an audience member and flinging the guts at you.
Shade, you are primarily known as a film writer (Funeral Party, Dark Stars Rising), is filmmaking something you want to do more of? Any immediate plans in that regard?
Rupe: I’ve always had an idea to make films and have made short experimental films though I definitely fully treated Play Dead as a televised film project. I had no idea how well it would turn out until I started hearing feedback from Zeke, Teller, and editor Emery Emery, who also edited The Aristocrats, that someone special was coming forth, and it turns out that my visual storytelling sense combined with the incredible elements Todd and Teller had created have now fortunately blossomed into the finished film version. The fun thing here is that the entire show was edited by Teller and Emery in Las Vegas, and I have not yet seen the show. The Fantasia premiere will be my first experience with the show. I saw Play Dead eight times before we shot, each time in a different seat in the theater. I shot the footage with the idea of replicating the live theater experience as much as possible without people being able to touch you in pitch darkness or have the person next to you screaming in your ear.
What were the biggest challenges in filming a live stage production?
Rupe: Although I’m certain just plain dealing with staying out of an audience’s way may be the biggest for most folks with live productions (and one that doesn’t seem to bother very high-end productions—I’m always seeing the cameras flying around in those) for my crew it was: 1) How do we stay out of the way of the audience in a small 200-seat shoebox theater? 2) How do we keep ALL the lights off, including the camera lights, and keep the cameramen’s eyes glued to the eyepieces for 90 minutes with no light spill? 3) How do we follow action in the dark and know where to point the cameras when the lights come back on? Of course I’m whittling down the difficulties to just a few answers, but we did our best and fortunately the crew was great and knew how to pick up and follow a voice when the lights returned. They moved with me, they were quick, and took direction very well. I directed the live shoots from backstage using monitors and a mic tied to earpieces for the cameramen. For a first feature live performance recording gig I was really ‘thrown into it’ and personally I feel the baptism by fire was a great high and produced some nice results.
We were able to do maybe an hour’s recording of some of the glow-in-the-dark effects but with so little research time and with so little knowledge I’ve heard this footage was unusable, though showing these bits with the two mounted and one handheld infrared cameras apparently have turned out quite well. I’m very thankful I was allowed to go in and do a personal direct shoot of one particular bit in the show where a woman’s arm appears from sand pouring from Todd’s fingers. Teller did a signature trick many years ago called Shadows that belongs to him fully where a single rose in a vase projects a black shadow on paper on an easel. Teller takes a knife and clips each leaf off the shadow of the rose, causing the actual rose to lose that same leaf. It’s a genius presentation, pure poetry, and this trick in Play Dead gave me similar feelings. It was wonderful to put so much love into this one bit where I was able to shoot unhindered by obstructing an audience member. I hope it shows
How much of the credits on the film are for the play itself rather than the crew for the film?
Teller: The credits at the top are the live show credits. At the end we see who produced, shot, and edited it, along with thanks to the amazing people who helped. I have to say a special thanks to our friend Shade Rupe, that Zelig of horror mavens. He championed the show in his writings, then orchestrated and co-produced the New York shoot. He directed the filming in the theater and has continued to be our key advisor and strongest promoter.
Do you plan to tour the live show more?
Teller: Hell, yes. Likely London in the spring. Sometime soon in Toronto. About 2 years down the line in LA. And more is under discussion.
PLAY DEAD: The Film has its World Premiere on July 27th at 9:45pm in the Salle JA DeSeve with Teller, Todd Robbins and Shade Rupe in person. More information on the film description page HERE.