It’s no secret that I am a fan of Jakop Ahlbom’s Horror, a fiendishly effective work of physical theatre that I wrote about here. I was fortunate enough to be able to meet the company just before a performance they were giving in Linz, Austria – and what a friendly bunch they were. The opposite of scary. Then they got on stage and freaked out a theatreful of innocent spectators, and I was like: awesome!
Anyway, I talked to them about Horror, and here are some of their backstage stories. The company are: dancers Gwen Langenberg (GL), Silke Hundertmark (SH) and Reinier Schimmel (RS), and actor/performers Sofieke de Kater (SdK), Maurits van den Berg (MvdB), Judith Hazeleger (JH), Luc van Esch (LvE) and Yannick Greweldinger (YG). You can catch them all in Horror at the Peacock Theatre, London, from 23 May to 10 June 2017.
How did you start working on Horror?
GL: By watching a lot of horror movies!
RS: Jakop is a film fan, so he already has an extensive movie collection at home. He had this big pile of DVDs and we would swap them, and go away and watch them, and get together to discuss them.
JH: Oculus was the first film we watched together. It has this flashback structure that we used in the piece. And a closet…
YG: My character was influenced by Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead 2, who plays a naive, happy-go-lucky guy. He doesn’t see the danger, so of course he’s one of the first to get into trouble.
LvE: The first movie I watched was Nightmare on Elm Street. What I liked was that you don’t know what is meant to be real and what is fantasy. Like in Oculus, where you don’t know which memories are real or imagined. I thought that would be a good theme to put on stage.
YG: In a theatre, everything you see is real – which makes the fantasy seem even more magical or more mysterious. Because it’s actually happening, right in front of you.
GL: Yes, I remember! In the rehearsals, Sofieke was like: I want to eat myself! I want to eat humans!
Did you work in a particular way because of the horror theme?
RS: We worked with the stage set from the very first day of rehearsal. That’s unusual in theatre, but Jakop often works that way because for him the set design is really a player in the piece. For Horror we really needed it because of the illusions and tricks. They only work within the set.
MvdB: Jakop works with physical and visual theatre. So we worked a lot with physical reflexes, the three primal responses to fear: fight, flight, freeze.
SH: My role is like a character type in the horror genre: the Final Girl. I’m central to the story but at the start I’m more like an observer, watching it unfold. I’m a dancer by training, but I was watching the movies more clues about how to act physically. With my face, my eyes, my posture. It’s very physical, but without big movements. It’s more on the inside.
RS: Because Horror is quite extreme, there’s a danger that it will become parody. So we worked hard to go for extreme feelings but still keep the integrity of the intention, in a more subtle way. It’s a fine line between going for a big effect and keeping it believable.
SH: You do have to go to extremes, but you also have to keep hold of the poetry. The inner vision.
MvdB: We realised if we imitated the movies too much, the audience would just remember the original movie, and we could never compete with that. So it’s good that we don’t have the dialogue, otherwise it would be too literal. Of course, we use our faces and bodies to create effects – but in the end, they have to happen in the mind of the audience.
Where is the fear? It’s an interesting question!
GL: In normal life I am the one who’s most scared of ghosts. And in the performance I am the ghost, and everyone is afraid of me. I enjoyed that feeling, I admit!
RS: Of course in acting, Gwen isn’t scary just on her own – we have to play being scared of her too. Our fear makes her scary. Then there’s music. I mean, I can walk towards a closet, acting like I’m scared. But without the music, I’m really just walking towards the closet. Then you add the music, and it’s a whole different level.
SdK: One thing I find scary is transformation. When someone is seems to be an innocent character, but that same person then does terrible things. That’s more scary to me than ghosts. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I can really believe that.
Horror stories really try to get a reaction from the audience. Are you conscious of that when you’re performing?
JH: Sometimes, for sure! You hear a scream. Or a gasp.
YG: There are some moments of slapstick or humour, you can always hear the laughter. Even if it’s nervous…
JH: And there’s always one point where a woman screams. Every time!
What about you as a group? Do you feel the fear with each other?
YG: Well, sometimes I have to remind myself that we can be in danger. I mean, the axe is real, the scissors are real.
You mean, they’re not just stage props?
YG: So, sometimes that could be a bit scary. But it’s more about taking care. Actually, about trust. Because really, we’re like one big family.
MvdB: Yeah, I mean we’re not like Jack Nicholson in The Shining when nobody knew how much he was acting and how much he was actually mad. When we swing that axe, it’s not method acting!