Interview: Russel Anderson | WHAT BECAME OF HARLEY WARREN?

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Interview with Russel Anderson

What Became of Harley Warren? is a new play based on ‘The Statement of Randolph Carter’ by H. P. Lovecraft and is being produced by Re:Conception Theatre. We caught up with director Russel Anderson to talk to him about this strange production and their crowd funding campaign.

Starburst: Why the Mythos?

Russel Anderson: Basing a play within the Lovecraft Mythos was the suggestion of company member Andrew Scott. At first, in honesty, there was a little doubt about the feasibility of the idea: it is not necessarily immediately obvious how one goes about staging Lovecraft. But that is also a wonderful challenge: reading through various Lovecraft stories with the possibility of staging something in mind, various possibilities, ideas and interpretations start swimming to mind, many of them very exciting!

The idea of trying to produce a horror play was intriguing. It is not something done often and many forms of horror would be incredibly difficult to produce in the theatre. Lovecraft’s writing works on the principle of a building tension, a growing uncomfortableness which builds and builds until it has brought you to somewhere fantastical and horrifying, and the possibility of trying to replicate that sensation in a theatre environment was intriguing.

HP Lovecraft is a gentler sort of horror. What is the appeal?

Today, horror is often associated with guts and gore and things that many people don't necessarily want to watch.  The unfortunate downside of this is that the reliance on shock and graphic violence tends to remove a psychological element. With Lovecraft, the horror exists in what we don't see, or what we expect to see but are never shown. It is an atmosphere, a suggestion, an intimation rather than explanation. And it is recognisable human nature, in some ways, they could be thought of as warped parables – warnings of humans overstepping their reach due to our curiosity and need to understand the un-understandable. The danger of hubris. This is what makes it so attractive and challenging for theatre.

What makes the stage production unique?

Horror is an incredibly rare genre in the theatre, The Woman in Black and Ghost Stories are the only two major horror productions which spring to mind, so right off the bat the fact we are producing a psychological horror is fairly unique, particularly as we are constrained in considerations of set and stage-trickery. For example, jump-scares, a mainstay of film and television horror, are incredibly difficult in a small theatre space. This has meant that we have had to focus solidly on the writing, ensuring that we are successfully building a sense of unease and tension throughout.

What Became of Harley Warren?

The other element of Lovecraft, of course, is that his writing is very much grounded in a supernatural mythos, again, the supernatural is not something you encounter in the theatre very much. The incorporation of this, along with finding convincing, executable, and creatively satisfying ways to produce it has proved to be an enjoyable challenge. We’ve had to find ways to lead the audience to a point where they can accept the more fantastical elements of the mythos, moment-by-moment.

Our storytelling structure has really helped with this: the play is Carter relating his story to a detective. This has allowed us to play with the storytelling, the detective comes into scenes demanding explanations, or taking on the parts of supporting characters, so that what could be a fairly straightforward “a-b-c” structure is deconstructed by the characters during the play, and it allows a wider story to be told by only three actors.

Why a stage production?

Primarily because we are a theatre company. In seriousness, it was during a pitching session for potential productions that the possibility of Lovecraft was raised. The idea of attempting it was intriguing. There was, on my part, an initial question of whether it was possible to stage Lovecraft effectively, which, of course, then meant that I really wanted to try! 

One of the most difficult things was deciding which story to use as our foundation. We talked about a few (I would have loved to try The Rats in the Walls, but we felt that was too far a stretch at our current resource level), and at one point we were playing with the possibility of creating something based around elements from lots of different stories, but in the end we agreed that The Statement of Randolph Carter gave us a good, solid framework to build a play around, but allowed us plenty of room to take influence from Lovecraft’s wider writings. The great thing about the story, from the play-writing perspective, is that there is a lot of scope to explore the back-story, and through doing that we have been able to draw in those elements from the wider mythos.

What Became of Harley Warren?

Why go to Kickstarter to raise funds? How has crowdfunding changed theatre?

Crowdfunding is dramatically changing the way emerging artists of all genres are able to produce work. Until recently, companies were very limited in their options. Funding bodies only have a limited amount of capital to offer, so lots of companies are in competition for a small pot. This can mean that a large amount of creative decisions are made not because of a company’s true ideals, but because they feel it’s the best way to meet the funding criteria. Similarly, in commercial theatre there are certain plays that always do well; there are hundreds of productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for precisely this reason – it sells.

The obvious problem with this is that creativity suffers. In order to produce great work, you need to take risks, but all too often artists feel that they cannot take risks for fear of not getting funding, or not selling tickets. After all, we need to balance the budget.

Crowdfunding provides another route, one which perhaps allows more room for experimentation and risk. By asking for a low investment from a wider range of investors, often people who may have a direct interest in the project you are creating, you are making it easier for people to help you take that risk.

The other great thing about crowdfunding is that is gives potential audiences a chance to help the projects they would like to see – projects that might not exist under other models – come to fruition.

We had a couple of reasons for trying Kickstarter. Firstly, we were going to struggle to produce the performance to the quality we wanted, in the couple of venues we wanted for our first run. In order to be able to play both Oxford and Aylesbury, we would have to sacrifice the quality of set, props and costumes; to get the quality of set, props and costumes we wanted, we would have to sacrifice a performance run. And due to it being a small run this time round (what you might call the development-run), we would not be eligible to apply to most grant-giving bodies, which generally want to part-fund larger touring runs. So, we thought we would see what happened if we asked for help, and offered a little something in return. We have been amazed by the generosity of the responses we have had; if nothing else, it proves that people really are willing to help one another with little or no expectation of anything in return (the most popular reward chosen by our backers has been ‘none’).

Will you tour?

I would love to take this production on tour: I have called this run a ‘development-run’, and now that we know what the play is – the scale, transport needs, costs etc. – we are in a good position to plan out the practicalities of a future tour. It would seem to be a huge wasted opportunity not to. But it’s something that still needs working out!

What do you plan for the future?

Individually, our lives are all in slightly transitionary periods. I have recently begun a PhD in Drama, for which I will be producing a variety of experimental performances with Re:Conception Theatre. The other members of the company are currently either studying or applying to study various postgraduate degrees, so where our lives carry us in the next few years will be exciting to see.

As a theatre company, Re:Conception will continue to devise and produce original work, as well as continue to run successful productions – as mentioned, the plan is to tour What Became of Harley Warren? beyond this initial run. We’re not sure yet what our next production will be, though we’ve got our eyes on a particular H. G. Wells short story…

The What Became of Harley Warren? Kickstarter is running until March 7th. The play will be premiered at the Aylesbury Limelight Theatre on the 25th/26th April, as well as the 3rd to 4th July at the Old Fire Station, Oxford.

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