Royce Wood brings Edward Gorey improv to the Bovine Metropolis Theater
It's going to be a Gorey October at Bovine Metropolis Theater. Edward Gorey, that is. Every Wednesday this month, the theater company will be performing an improv show based on a peculiar play titled The Helpless Doorknob by the macabre author and illustrator. But unlike a standard theater production with stage directions and dialogue, this play consists only of twenty illustrated cards that the actors will use as a jumping-off point for a Gorey-genre improv show that will be different every week.
We caught up with director Royce Wood to talk about all things Gorey and what it's like to perform a play with few directions.
Westword: Can you talk a bit about The Helpless Doorknob?
Royce Wood: It's an improvised show based on a play written by Edward Gorey. But the play is barely a play at all; it's a set of twenty illustrated cards with stage directions and the instructions to shuffle them and then perform them in any order. So what we're doing is we're using the cards and improvising off of them, inspired from the cards and using that to create an hour-long improvised show.
How does that work? Are you having rehearsals?
Yes, yes. Just like most improv groups or improv shows, we rehearse to work together so people will know how to work with each other and also to kind of figure out what works for the show. Edward Gorey, his work is very specific. It's a very specific genre and so a lot of what we're doing is we try out different things and I say, oh, that feels totally like an Edward Gorey story or oh, that scene didn't. I just sort of edit. I say, let's do more of that and less of that and then we just do more and more scenes and we sort of navigate to what feels right, and we keep doing it over and over again until it starts to come together.
What kind of directions are on the cards?
It's like "Angus concealed the lemon behind a cushion," "Adella flung Angela's baby from an upstairs window," "Alacea vanished from a picnic." It's just little one-sentence descriptions of actions that are going on, and the idea is that you can shuffle the cards and it sort of tells a story in any order. It's a very loose, vague story, but the implication is that the card before caused the next event, caused the next event. It's kind of loose, you kind of have to take a leap of imagination.
So will you be drawing cards during the performance?
Yeah, what we finally decided to do, we had some different ideas, but what we eventually decided to do is we've got the cards blown up to poster-sized and they're gonna be shuffled on an easel off to the side and at any point, any of the performers can go over to the easel and reveal the next card. So they're gonna be improvising, not even knowing what's coming next. It's very improvisational and it's a lot of sort of discovering. They'll do a card and they'll improvise some scenes based on that and sort of get tangentially further and further away and then at some point someone will go over to the easel and do the next one, and then characters from some scene start to meet characters from other scenes, and it starts to connect a little bit and sort of keeps going and going and going like that.
Are there costumes?
Yes, so much of Gorey's work is about the illustrations and the visuals, so I wanted to make sure that the show looked like a Gorey show. And since we can't really get a set and we don't really have any props or anything, I said, well, we've gotta have costumes so it visually looks like the people on the cards are coming to life. So that's the one thing we do have, we tried to approximate what the people in the cards look like.
How would you describe Edward Gorey's work to people who maybe never have heard of it?
It's very strange. People like to call it macabre or gothic and that's sort of right, but it misses part of what he's doing. There's a lot of Victorian nonsense, like Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland. It's kind of a dark, nonsense world where people try to do things but it doesn't really work, things don't really match up, there's this sense of menace, that there's this dark world out to get you. Things sort of don't resolve in the ways we would expect from a usual story. A lot of his stories just kind of trail off without a resolution. There's nobody else like him. You really just have to kind of get into the work, but hopefully we're doing a show that's able to be appreciated on some level without the audience having to be composed of Gorey experts. Hopefully it's still kind of a creepy, fun nonsense show.
Do you know if anyone has ever performed the play before?
Yes. There's a published version that's in a book of one-act plays and I'm pretty sure that's how anybody has ever found out about it. Edward Gorey wrote and directed little theatrical pieces at the end of his life, but I don't think any of those plays have survived, to my knowledge, except for this one. And so I know there's a group in Chicago that did it, and a group in New York that did it. And sometimes, when I was researching, you'll see little high school one-act festivals somebody will do it. But there's no directions about how to do it, so I don't know what they did. I assume that they kind of wrote a script based on the cards. As far as I know, no one has ever done an improv show with the cards. As far as I can tell, we're the first ones to take that kind of strategy.
How did you come across the play?
I read the play from the book of one-act plays that I had in high school and I actually did an extended essay, a project on this play for English where I read all of Edward Gorey's books that I could get my hands on and sort of tracked the different elements, because he's got a lot of different elements that repeat in a lot of his books -- like urns and bicycles and scarves and all these things. So I researched Edward Gorey and I wrote this paper for high school because I was really interested in this play and I was wondering, you know, how on earth would you do it? And then I sort of forgot about it for a while and then I don't know what happened, but it was like last January, I must've had a dream or something. Because I woke up and I was like, oh you could do The Helpless Doorknob as an improv play! I don't know what brought that on or why I was thinking about it or what. I was performing in Makeshift Shakespeare and Heirs of Hogwarts at the time -- an improvised Shakespeare show and an improvised Harry Potter show -- so I was thinking a lot about improvising within a genre, telling a story within a specific genre and having that be a structure for an improv show. And then I was thinking about that play and wondering how to do it and I said, oh, you could improvise an Edward Gorey genre show using elements from his books and sort of trying to match the feel and tone of his work using The Helpless Doorknob cards as sort of a structure or a gateway into that. So it's two things. We are doing The Helpless Doorknob play --as well as anyone can actually do it -- but it's also an Edward Gorey genre improv show.
It's crazy. Just watching them perform, there's moments where it's really hilarious, and then there's moments of like, I'm sitting in the audience getting chills because it's so creepy. It's this great juxtaposition between this comedy, this nonsense, and then this terror and going back and forth. It's fun.
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