BY CARY GINELL
Today, we present the first installment of an interview with Andrew David James, director of Dark Heart of Poe, an amalgam of Poe’s famous short stories and poems, accented by other elements that help round out the life and character of one of America’s most acclaimed writers. Dark Heart of Poe, which stars Austin Robert Miller and Travis Winterstein, opens this Saturday evening at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard.
VCOS: Tell me about the genesis of Dark Heart of Poe.
ANDREW: Well, it started two years ago. The Elite Theatre was in its old space down at Heritage Square and we had main stage shows running and were looking for a way to do what we do best, which is theater, which also generates more fun than poker nights, outside fundraisers, and that sort of thing. So we came up with the idea of doing second-stage productions. I had actually been working on a piece called Unknown Poe, which had some of his lesser known writings. So we looked at it and figured out that if we did a one-act version of Poe we could get some excitement going and thought there were some devotees of the genre out there. So we adapted it and eventually, we got to what we now call Dark Heart of Poe.
VCOS: Had you always been a fan of Poe?
ANDREW: Yeah. I read The Tell-Tale Heart early on in high school. Up until that point I was less of a reader, but I kind of fell in love with his way of painting a picture with words. And that actually got me started in reading. It ended up pushing me out to where I ended up getting a degree in literature and composition in college.
VCOS: How did you envision the staging of the show?
ANDREW: Poe was designed to be completely adaptable. It can play in a 6,000 seat theater or a 60 seat theater. At the old space, our first show had fourteen seats. Then we would add seats in the back, but for the most part, it was in-the-round with a very small number of seats. By the time the season ended, we had thirty-two seats crammed in there, with people sitting behind pillars and everywhere, trying to watch it. So when we moved to the new space at the Elite Theatre – and it’s been done at a couple of other theaters as well – in each place, we’ve always tried to adapt to that seating arrangement. We let the language and the stories take over, along with the great performances of Austin and Travis, and really make Poe fit in whatever room we’re in.
VCOS: You’re doing it in two theaters this year. How are they going to be different?
ANDREW: It’s interesting. We’re doing it in a horseshoe, almost an in-the-round setting at the Elite Theatre in their second-stage space. So the one-hour version will be done at the Elite and on Halloween, we’ll do a two-hour version. But it will be done almost completely in-the-round; very intimate and very accessible. The audience will sit just a few feet away from the actors. At the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, it’s completely proscenium, and the actors are many feet away from the people in the balcony. So there is full theatrical distance and they have to play everything in standard theater form. So it’s very different for each show this year, which is an exciting thing that we have to adapt to. Our performers are essentially doing three different shows: the two-hour version, in-the-round, on Halloween, the one-hour version four times at the Elite, and then the two-hour version in proscenium at Simi.
VCOS: What do you add on for the two-hour version?
ANDREW: The addition of the extra hour of material comes from a couple of extra poems that we put in as well as a number of letters that Poe wrote. The one-hour version we kind of say is “all Poe, all the time.” It’s all the traditional favorites: The Masque of the Red Death, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven, Annabel Lee, and The Cask of Amontillado. There are no breaks in between the pieces. It’s just Poe’s wonderful words thrown at you in a very dramatic and fast-paced way. At Simi and on Halloween at Elite, we add the letters, which hearkens back to Poe’s alcoholism, his struggles with tuberculosis, his familial loss, with his wife dying early, and how that affected his writing. So one is just the great works of Poe that we all know. The two-hour version is more a portrait of the man and of an artist.
VCOS: Do the letters really shed a lot of light on what Poe’s life was really like?
ANDREW: Yeah, I gotta tell you, Cary, they are fascinating. There is absolutely some of the most amazing letters that I’ve ever read by any author. For example, I didn’t know that he corresponded with Charles Dickens. He’d sent a number of letters to Dickens back and forth; these two amazing, great artists. A lot of those letters I couldn’t even include because they’re all about money. Poe would send him this letter saying, “Can you help me get this book published in London?” and Dickens would write back and say, “You know I love your work, but the publishing industry over here isn’t any better than in America.” It’s fascinating because Poe really did go through these drastic highs and lows, and he said such poignant things in those letters. At one point, he has just left John Allan’s house to start life on his own, and he says, “I am young, not yet twenty – am a poet — if deep worship of all beauty can make me one — and wish to be so in the common meaning of the word. I would give the world to embody one half the ideas afloat in my imagination.” When I read that, early on in my adaptation, I fell in love with that statement; this picture of a young man, who was at the brink of a career, about to jump off into the unknown, and really had all the hopes and all the desires of every young artist we’ve ever met. And then we watch, as his letters change, and eventually, he starts to write about how everything he touched dies and how all the pain and all the loss that he has experienced put him in this macabre place. Yet, as a person, he remained very joyful. He would play with young children and they would say “Nevermore!” from The Raven and he would snap back at them, and they would run off and everybody would laugh. He was very playful, but then he would go home and turn into this very dark character and write the macabre stuff that he wrote.
In our next installment, Andrew James talks more about the production of Dark Heart of Poe, his young actors, Austin Robert Miller and Travis Winterstein, and the rehearsal process.