At Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris, it was not uncommon for audience members to faint or vomit during performances, or to scream so loudly that actors would break character to yell, "Keep it down out there!" The chapel-turned-theater served as the center for naturalistic horror plays between World War I and World War II. The idea: To get the audience worked up into a terrified lather for the fun of it. One of the most popular plays was Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous (Crime in a Madhouse), by Andre de Lorde, about a young girl trapped in an insane asylum who falls victim to the violent, demented actions of three sinister crones.
Call it the Saw of the 1920s.
Rebecca Schaffer directs a production of Un Crime opening this week in the spooky basement of the Zootown Arts Community Center. She's a known figure in the Missoula theater scene, most recently director of last holiday's hit Ringing Out and starring in the University of Montana's Arabian Nights. Oddly enough, she is not a horror buff. The last scary movie she recalls seeing is the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
"For my entire life I've watched on average of about six movies a year," she says, laughing. "I'm totally not desensitized to any of it. Every time I see something I'm either inspired or terrified or devastated, which is maybe why I have such a penchant for theater."
Schaffer first learned of Un Crime when she spent two weeks this summer in Blue Lake, Calif., at the Dell'Arte training program, which specializes in physical theater. She had two choices: take a workshop on masks or a workshop on the Grand Guignol. Masks are more up her alley, but the French horror movement intrigued her. "I loved it," she says. "I think I loved it so much because it's about creating a reaction in the audience that's building and building until you just drop them at the end."
American actors tend to be most familiar with Constantin Stanislavski's psychological realist approach to theater. You find your character's motive and let that guide your emotions. Instead of taking that route, Schaffer wanted to use the "naturalist" approach to theater, where actors portray emotions in extremely overt ways. It makes sense, since Un Crime isn't a play of thoughts, but rather a play of emotions meant to give the audience a visceral experience. Schaffer tried several physical tactics with the actors to effect that sense of horror. She used rasaboxes, which are boxes drawn on the floor labeled with eight rasas, or "flavors," including fear, revolt, erotic love, rage and laughter. "You jump into the box and you take on the most extreme expression of that emotion that you possibly can," says Schaffer. "By embodying it physically you start to feel it inside and then everybody around you does. It's really uncomfortable to watch."
In another attempt to manifest terror, Schaffer had the actors rehearse a scene in complete darkness. There was a long silence that seemed heavier when the lights were out, and then Ann Peacock, who plays one of the crones, took a large sharp breath as she awoke from sleep. Without the lights on, that sound seemed more startling.
In another scene, Schaffer took the idea of a power struggle and physicalized it. The play's doctor and nun, played by Jeff Medley and Tricia Opstad, respectively, have a contrary relationship. Schaffer had them balance a broomstick between them on their palms and move around as they spoke to one another. "I think in power struggles advancing and retreating is important," Schaffer says.
Missoula's Un Crime is a production of Viscosity Theatre, a new company dedicated to physical theater and "devised" performance. In the spirit of collaboration, Schaffer and the actors worked on the script together, piecing together several English translations and taking the original French version and translating it on Google to find the mix they wanted. Some lines have been changed entirely and the ending is different from the original.
Schaffer also has plans for how to get the audience into the spirit. Audience members put on lab coats to evoke the sense of being in a mental hospital. There will be an absinthe bar open where people can imbibe and dance to French techno music an hour before the show. (The absinthe is made by the Ridge Distillery in Kalispell and catered by the Badlander) It's just another tactic to get everyone in the mood for a little bit of horrific fun. Perhaps without the puking and the fainting.
Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous continues at the Zootown Arts Community Center Thu., Dec. 6, through Sat., Dec. 8, and Wed., Dec. 12, through Sat., Dec. 18, at 8 PM nightly. Absinthe bar opens at 7 PM. $15/$12 advance at viscositytheatre.com. $5 per absinthe drink.