BY CARY GINELL
Dark Heart of Poe continues its run this weekend as it moves from the Elite Theatre Company, where it was performed in the round, to the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, where an expanded version of the show will include letters from Edgar Allen Poe’s life, which will be interspersed with dramatic readings of Poe’s classics, including The Raven, The Tell Tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, Annabel Lee, and The Masque of the Red Death. Our conversation with director Andrew David James about the production concludes.
VCOS: There are some parallels between Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen Foster, who, like Poe, also had a tragic life, lived around the same time period, had troubles with publishing, and did not get paid appropriately for his work. They were contemporaries and their lives were really very similar.
ANDREW: I’ll tell you, Cary, it’s fascinating. Someone once said that the world heats up at certain times. Radio and television were invented by multiple people at the same time, and I think that’s also true with music and art. Stephen Foster is one of my favorites of all time, and you’re right. The desire to get stuff published and the need to eat was exactly the dichotomy that both Poe and Foster struggled through, trying to make careers in the art world at a time when there was no protection for artists.
VCOS: Tell me about how Austin and Travis fit into this production. How did you find them, and what about their specific talents attracted you to them?
ANDREW: The first thing I noticed about them was their love for Poe. They both have a huge love for the genre, for what his writing has meant to young children, and for what his place is in the literary world. Poe essentially created a new genre: romantic gothicism. It’s interesting, when you look at Travis and Austin, in that they both kind of exemplify those traits. Austin is just a tour de force when it comes to emotion. He loves everything that has to do with the intricacies of how people feel and what they think. And Travis is so fascinating when he kind of gets into something. He’ll sit there and watch all the little stuff that someone does. It’s so interesting to see how much depth and feeling both of these actors can put into a role. So we talked about that. We developed a friendship over a few shows that we’ve done together, and that shared love of Poe really is what that sprang from. But obviously, both actors have a talent set that I knew would be fascinating to watch in any setting, and they were willing and excited about working in the round, which is something that we wanted to do. To be honest, that scares a lot of actors.
VCOS: How did you determine who got what part in the stories?
ANDREW: It’s actually changed over the years – considerably so – initially, I kind of did it to the pieces that I felt suited their talent, and Austin has done an amazing job. There’s something about his acting style that is – to me – so natural. He could read the phone book and you could sense some meaning from it. Travis has this depth of commitment. I gave Travis The Raven because it’s the most iconic poem Poe wrote and can sound completely cliched if it’s not done right. I think he does the best version of The Raven that I’ve ever seen. The same thing goes for Austin in The Tell Tale Heart. There’s something about playing that man who’s insane and who is trying to justify his actions, which Austin does so well. So their talent level kind of dictated what they originally got. But over the years, we’ve switched lines back and forth and worked together to put them in the roles that they had an affinity for, but also that suited their talents.
VCOS: Do they go through some sort of routine before a performance to get themselves psyched up?
ANDREW: They do. It’s actually interesting. We don’t have a huge crew so the actors have to do a ton of work. So Austin and Travis will sit back stage and go over some of the pieces that they’ve done for so many years in a row a couple of different ways, just to keep them fresh. But my favorite bit in their routine is the effects that require costumes. It’s very much like a ballplayer suiting up before a game. Austin will have to wrap Travis in the full contraption that we use for one of the effects, and they do that together, instead of having one of the costume mistresses help them. It’s a very fascinating thing. My brother is a physical therapist and it always reminds me of the way he wraps the athletes’ ankles before they go on; there’s kind of a ritual to it that I love.
VCOS: I know your budget is restricted but if you could add anything to the show, and not have to worry about the cost, what would it be?
ANDREW: That’s a great question. The thing that immediately comes to mind is that I’d like for more people to be able to see it. So I would spend those dollars on marketing! (laughs) But seriously, I would love, someday, for us to have the kind of effects where we can do The Pit and the Pendulum. And the kind of thing that would create a little more of the gothic setting and put you into that era of the 1850s and what people were reading after Poe died; that feeling that Jack the Ripper is coming in the next generation and how we got there. I think that the setting is very important and we’ve never really been able to fully create that, although this year, we’ve gotten a lot more support than we have before. People donated some money so it’s certainly a new day and we have a little bit more of a budget than we had before.
VCOS: Maybe some day you will actually be able to erect a brick wall on the stage for The Cask of Amontillado.
ANDREW: I tell you, I would LOVE that. I would just absolutely love to be able to do that! Up till now, we do it with the imagination, but I think having those kind of tools for actors make you salivate a little bit.
VCOS: So are you planning on doing this again next year, or will it be “nevermore”?
ANDREW: Nevermore! Exactly! It does take a lot out of us, and we were talking about this the other night. We were sitting around and said that no matter how hard it is, it’s always so rewarding when we finish. And I think that’s really the heart of Poe. It’s played across the ages, so the short answer is that if you are asking if I were planning it on – no – if you asked me if I’d do it – probably yeah, it’s going to be a part of our lives for a long time.
Dark Heart of Poe continues at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center tonight and Sunday. A special two-hour presentation takes place at 11:00 pm Halloween night at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. For ticket information, dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.