Dallas — On Saturday, House Party Theatre opens its first full production since two of the group’s founders, Sarah Hamilton and Chris McCreary took off for graduate school in northern states this fall (most states are northern, to us): Claire Carson’s Shadow Woman. Hamilton and McCreary are still involved, and original company members Carson and Brady Stebleton have joined the leadership team at House Party Theatre as Directors of Operations.
House Party has made its name on original plays and underproduced works in the canon, performed in unconventional spaces such as bars, breweries, galleries and, true to the company’s name, private homes. The next one is no exception: the lake-level space at the Bath House Cultural Center, which has a concrete floor, low ceilings, limited technical capabilities and a very wide playing space with not much depth. That works out for the world premiere of Shadow Woman, which plays with horror movie tropes.
Carson, who is, like most of the company, a Southern Methodist University graduate, was last represented in full production with her play Hypochondria, performed by the SMU-related and now-defunct group The Tribe at the Margo Jones Theatre in 2016. She has also written several short plays for HPT’s ongoing Thirsty Thursday series.
Shadow Woman is directed by Jenna Richanne Hannum and features Bella O'Brien, Dakota Ratliff, Stan Graner, Kent Van Dover, Nick Riley, Hannah Weir, and Gracie Odette Cuny in the cast. It deals with a teenage girl living with her father, and her cat, and the supernatural force haunting the family from the inside out. We asked Carson a few questions about it and her influences in the horror genre.
TheaterJones: Shadow Woman sounds like it's playing with tropes of the horror genre. Did you grow up watching horror movies? Which ones and which kind, and of which era?
Claire Carson: I did grow up watching horror movies! My grandparents showed me The Shining when I was maybe 7, The Birds at 9 and I watched The Exorcist at a sixth-grade sleepover, so I started young (maybe too young) but with the good stuff, the classics. In high school I became more excited about self-aware horror like the Scream movies and Jennifer’s Body (a completely underrated film!). Shadow Woman very much plays with these tropes.
Which films and/or works of literature are referenced in Shadow Woman, if any?
Stephen King is my ultimate writer-crush and a HUGE inspiration. I’ve always been amazed at his ability to bend genre and mesh together humor and heart and horror and truly bring to life the complexity of the human mind. So, I set the play in Maine as a bit of a shout-out to Stephen King and his prolific output of stories. In many ways Shadow Woman is my love letter to the horror genre. There are very few overt references in the play, but there are several Easter egg-allusions to various films/novels for the horror buffs.
Tell me about the development process for the play. Where did you get the idea, how did it change through readings/workshops, and is the final product what you initially envisioned?
I just really love the genre. I think it’s fun to feel scared, feel your stomach drop, and then be surprised by laughter and all the other feels that accompany a good story. I enjoy it for the reason I enjoy riding roller coasters and sitting in a theatre watching a beautiful performance—it’s cathartic. So I knew that was the direction I wanted to take my next play. Initially I had no idea about what the content of “Horror Play” (as it was then labeled in my Google drive) would look like. I free-wrote a lot, which is usually how I start a script, and played around until something clicked, until it started “flowing.” The 2016 election went down right around the time I was really getting started on Shadow Woman and that changed the trajectory of the story slightly, because suddenly I was experiencing a different kind of fear that related to my gender and my beliefs. Feeling more fear in being female.
We began workshopping SW by sitting around Sarah [Hamilton]’s dinner table listening to actor friends read it out loud. This was before the script was even close to finished. Hearing your words outside your head, out loud and with intention clarifies so much. Each time a new set of folks would read it I’d have an epiphany—“OH ____ HAS TO DIE” or “No, no she can’t do that.” I’m also lucky to be srounded by crazy-smart people who gave me some really good notes along the way.
The final product is not what I initially envisioned, because I don’t write with budget, technical needs or any sort of logistical rationality in mind. I try to write outside the limitations of theatre and what is easy and trust that the director will fulfill what they can to the best of their abilities (which Jenna has done a beautiful job of). It’s been a fun challenge to work with [director] Jenna [Hannum] and Katie [Ibrahim] (associate director and stage manager) to figure out how to compact and realize these sort-of grand spectacle moments I’ve written.
To me, the movie Scream signaled a change in the slasher genre for a new and smarter brand of horror filmmaking by directors influenced by the greats of horror/thriller movie-making, away from the slasher formula—while spoofing it. Was there a film or filmmaker that changed things for you?
Get Out by Jordan Peele! Socially relevant horror! It’s such an important film and a terror that demands to be felt. It put an audience behind the eyes of a black man in 2017 and allowed white America to experience just a little bit of the anxiety of what it might feel like to be black right now, while also telling a really fascinating and unique story, while being visually stunning. That movie is a game-changer.
How do you create that kind of suspense on stage, the kind that sometimes works best for film because of multiple cameras?Going into this, nobody on the creative team knew if we would be able to achieve the same kind of suspense-effect you mention, but were hopeful we could create something equally jarring using sound, stillness and relying on the amazing insight of the brilliant Dean Wray (fight choreographer and movement wizard). Part of it was accepting that suspense will play out differently on stage and being patient in an attempt to find those moments by trial and error. Jenna talked a lot about "building a bubble" in rehearsal, meaning creating a certain amount of tension and I think audiences can feel that on an even more intense level when it's happening right in front of you.
How is the underground space at the Bath House working out? It looks like it holds several tech challenges.
Jenna has made some really interesting and exciting staging choices. For example, the audience moves during intermission and we have two playing spaces. I can’t think of another theatre or venue that would have suited that as well as Bath House Underground. The size of the space and the rustic value it brings really complement the script. Working in non-traditional venues always presents the challenge of no booth and having to be inventive with lighting and sound, but we’re all fairly experienced with DIY theatre, so it’s been a really exciting space to work in.
What does it mean to have a company putting stock in emerging playwrights like you?
It’s much more safe to produce established work—plays that already have a fan base. To produce new work is risky and the fact that House Party Theatre took that risk with my script and consistently seeks out fresh work and new content hopefully encourages other theatre companies to do the same and writers to keep writing.
Who are your playwriting and theater influences? Which theatermakers’ work influenced Shadow Woman?
There are certain playwrights whose work helped me find my own voice. Sarah Kane helped me understand theatrical poetry and realize that I could combine my love of both into something stageable. Sarah Ruhl and Enda Walsh are also big influences and have shaped the way I go about constructing plays in general, but, at the risk of sounding like a bad theatre person, most of my primary influences for Shadow Woman were cinematic and musical. I listened to a lot of music when I would experience a block and that always seemed to help get me to the next point in the story. Timber Timbre, Lesley Gore, and Nick Cave were all exponential in the creation of this script and you will hear a lot of their music in the sound design.
Anything you want to add?
It’s been really special to work with Katie and Jenna on this project. The vibe was always completely collaborative—each of us chiming in and bouncing ideas off each other. It can be a struggle as a female to find your voice while orchestrating a production and a group of people, but working with these two supportive women has been empowering, inspiring and something I'll remember warmly for a long time.