Creating the Ultimate Shakespeare/Horror Mashups & the Necessity of Taking Risks at the Fringe & Beyond – In Conversation with “Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre” on now at the 2016 Toronto Fringe
Interview by Ryan Quinn
RQ: I’m here with three members of the team from Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre – Scott Emerson Moyle, fight director and Lord Capulet; David Kingsmill, playing Escalus and the Chorus as well as being the production manager; and Matt Bernard, the writer and director. Do you want to tell me a bit about the show?
MB: Yes! So the tag line is that it’s a comedic-horror mash-up of Romeo and Juliet. It’s the tale of two star-crossed lovers with the added element of a chainsaw-wielding maniac, kind of taken from old horror movies. So that’s thrown in to see how the story would change, and how it would alter the fates of Romeo and Juliet.
RQ: How did this come about? What was the process?
MB: My comedy troupe Bain and Bernard did shows for the St. Lawrence Shakespeare festival, it was part of their Sunday series, and we would always parody whatever Shakespeare show they were doing. So, we’ve done Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Nightmare (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Desdemona Anyway). So, when we were heading back in the car from our last one, the question came up of what to do next. After doing Hamlet, I thought there’s nothing else you can do after that, but we realized we hadn’t done arguably the most known Shakespeare show, Romeo and Juliet. So the idea came up of doing Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre, and we talked about it for a while, threw some ideas out there, and that was two years ago. We were sitting on it for a while, not sure how to approach the project, but we eventually had to pull the trigger on it, do it for Fringe, and see what we could create.
RQ: What do you think it is about Shakespeare and campy horror that makes them fit together so well?
SEM: The pitch I’ve been using is that the show I’m doing for Fringe is Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre is exactly what you’re picturing when I say the title. They are two really iconic sets of visuals, and two very iconic story archetypes. They’re so incredibly different that jamming them together seems to not make sense, yet somehow you can completely picture it.
MB: It’s like Snakes on a Plane in that way. Everything you need to know is in the title.
DK: Also, I think when you say “star-crossed lovers”, Romeo and Juliet is the first thing you think of. When you say “chainsaw”, Leatherface probably pops into their head immediately. So it’s two incredibly iconic things featured in the same room at the same time.
RQ: I feel like there’s a certain reverence for 80s horror that we often casually dismiss.
MB: Well, yeah, the 80s is when horror films kind of came into themselves. There was a horror movement in the 60s, but then in the 70s and 80s, that’s when the slasher flicks came in. They started getting really gory, so that’s the prime time for it. We’re taking prime horror and prime Shakespeare, and it actually fits really well.
DK: It was a time when horror was based around being horrifying, not around being a shock spectacle. These days, I think if you look at something like Saw, yes it’s horrifying but the film exists to shock you by killing people in the most brutal ways we can think of. It loses some of the actual horror element and I think it goes beyond horror into something totally different. Something like Hostel takes that further still.
RQ: Suspense and disgust?
DK: Yeah, and I think suspense is certainly a part of horror, but disgust doesn’t have to be. I mean, look at Psycho. What was it, eighty-three stabbings of Janet Leigh in the shower and you never see one connect? It’s all the mind’s image filling in blanks. I think that’s something seminal of that time, as well.
RQ: Do you think horror films from the 80s said something about us in the same way that Romeo and Juliet said something about us when it was written?
MB: There was certainly a lot of chasing in those movies, everyone was chasing someone or something. I mean, I’m not sure because those movies do scare the hell out of me. They do their job.
MB: Oh yeah. For inspiration, I had to watch all these horror movies and I was hiding my face behind my hands! I was terrified! I’d take notes and shut it right off at the end. They really work on me. So this was a very terrifying show to write.
SEM: It might not even be a very period-specific thing. I mean, Romeo and Juliet comes out of 16th Century dueling culture and people actually looking for ways to be idiots for love. But, the reason we still do it is because it’s enduring. We all know what it is to be in love and not have circumstances support that. It’s complicated. The horror thing might be pretty enduring as well. We’re scared of isolation, and a lot of horror movies are about being alone. We’re scared of the unknown, and that’s what horror gives us.
RQ: Is there also a connection when it comes to fate? Just by virtue of being a character in a horror movie, or a character in a Shakespearean tragedy…
SEM: You are on notice. You’re not getting out alive.
DK: I read once that people write fiction as a means to experience things they normally don’t. We don’t normally experience duels. We don’t normally get chased around by a psychotic killer. We don’t normally fly a rocket to Mars. Whatever it happens to be, it’s a way to experience something beyond the normal. So, I think the manifestation of a story is the product of its time, but at the center is a wish for vicarious experience.
RQ: What do you think makes Fringe perfect for a show like this?
MB: Fringe is all about the entire community coming together in one spot. Seeing the tents go up, seeing shows all around, it’s a whole two-week celebration of throwing together a show. I think this show is perfect for Fringe because we’ve got a large team on this and everyone is bringing everything they can to the table. So for two weeks everyone works on this together, and then we all go away.
DK: It’s a space that gives you permission to try something a little crazy. The professional theatre world is becoming more and more of a place where audience members aren’t willing to take risks. Producers and companies aren’t willing to take on the risk of a show that isn’t a proven commodity, that’s doing something really different. Fringe is all about embracing that risk. You just do a thing, whatever that thing is. It can be an improvised musical, it can be a mash-up of Shakespeare and horror…
SEM: Wasn’t there someone reading a phone book last year?
DK: Something slightly crazy like that, yeah. It’s great. Normally you can only get away with that if you have a level of, I suppose, celebrity.
SEM: Yeah, major theatres would have a hard time marketing this as part of their season, but because it’s Fringe, everyone is getting really excited about it. It’s a space to get weird.
RQ: Is there a way to support this kind of work for the rest of the year?
SEM: (laughs) Canadian Stage should pick us up.
MB: There’s kind of a rise in “geek chic”, or an appreciation of it. There’s a theatre company in Washington that sent an email saying “We do this kind of pop culture stuff, and we’d like to do the show”, so I’d like to see more of that in Toronto. Instead of doing classic theatre all the time, doing more fun, pop culture things to address millennials. They’re the future audiences, and they grew up with video games.
DK: There needs to be a place for things like this, otherwise theatre is going to stagnate. I saw a production of Pippin in London five or six years ago that was entirely set within a video game world. After about a third of the show, he leveled up and became more powerful before going back into the dungeon… things like this. It was so spectacularly nerdy. And they got away with it because it’s a well-known, already accepted musical. I think what I’m looking for in the theatre world is for me to be able to write a video game piece or something like that with absolutely no ties to an existing license, and still have it looked at. I think that needs to happen. We need to get to a point where popular culture merges with theatre, not just in the sense of being avant-garde but by wrapping the two things together.
MB: I think when non-theatre people hear the word “theatre”, they picture someone holding a skull, or the masks. So, there’s always going to be a sense of traditional theatre, and people exploring ways to change it. Hamlet done in the post-apocalypse… things like that. Switches on the classics. But I think there will be a rise of new material that doesn’t take on classical theatre elements.
SEM: We’re starting to see genre stuff come into its own in theatre. At Storefront a couple of years ago, they did Dark Matter. It was a hard sci-fi, Battlestar Galactica take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This year at the Humber River Shakespeare’s sonnet show, where you direct a new short play in a day, I was handed a science fiction play about three martians coming to Earth. People are writing genre fiction for theatre now.
MB: It’s hard to do in theatre.
SEM: So hard!
MB: This is actually the first Fringe show in the “horror” category. It wasn’t in the pull-down list. Just things like dramatic, comedic, physical theatre, dance, and so forth.
SEM: We should have marketed this as a dance show.
DK: I think part of the problem with it being such a niche type of theatre at the moment, is that when something succeeds well at it, then it can become an accepted type of theatre. Like, look at The Woman in Black in London. It’s probably a little less scary now than when it opened, but it’s still terrifying. If you say “horror theatre” in London, everyone immediately thinks of that. It’s the only horror show, as far as I’m aware, that has run for any length of time on the London stage. I mean, I’m British, so I do have the most experience in London, but I think that’s something that happens here, as well. When something niche succeeds, it becomes the poster boy for it a little too hard, so we can only hope it will trickle down. Sometimes it does. I mean, who would have written a science fiction play before something like War of the Worlds or Journey to the Center of the Earth came along in fiction? I think fiction tends to precede theatre by a bit, and speculative science fiction, as we know it, hasn’t been around long. A hundred and thirty years? We’ve always had mythology, but until you get to H.G. Wells and his kind, you don’t get that kind of fiction. Theatre just needs to catch up with them a little bit, and maybe we’ll see more of it.
MB: It is hard to do genre fiction like horror or sci-fi onstage because so many of the elements are done in post, or with a lot of dedicated time. Though, isn’t that kind of the fun of live theatre? Recently, I was watching Total Recall. You see the new one with Colin Farrell and it’s all bullshit. It’s all CGI. So I went back to the Arnold Schwarzenegger one and there’s some great prop work! That’s fun to do in theatre as well! Our costume designer Gwyneth Barton should really also be credited for special effects. She created gore rigged into the costumes. We can’t use liquids because it’s a Fringe show, but it’s so thrilling to see actual spines and ribs and stuff. Practical effects are really thrilling, and a huge part of the puzzle of bringing genre-based stories to the stage. I really wish we could have used blood. Next time you see this show, there will be much more blood.
SEM: Can I just say, as the fight captain and guy who would have had to help clean up all that blood, I’m grateful for the “no blood” rule. Not only selfishly, but because limitations breed creativity. The scariest horror movie you’ll see is The Changeling, and they did it by never letting you see the horror. It’s this tiny, low-budget Canadian horror film. Their big special effect is a wheelchair that can roll down the stairs by itself. They blew their budget on that thing. And yet it’s terrifying because you never see the monster. Or, look at Jaws. If they had shot it as planned with an animatronic shark, it would suck. It’s awesome because their shark broke.
RQ: You just see the barrels coming across the water.
SEM: Yeah, and lots of shark-cam. All that… It’s so iconic and it’s bred from that limitation. I think in terms of how the fights in our show work, that lack of blood made us focus more on storytelling in those violent moments. That’s always the challenge. You can choreograph spectacular fights all day and night, but it’s easy to lose track of the story in that violence.
DK: The deaths in this are spectacular, but it’s not spectacle for its own sake. It’s the end of someone’s story in the show.
MB: (laughs) Regardless, blood next time.
RQ: Before we finish up, this show is a mash-up of Romeo and Juliet and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I wanted to name some other Shakespeare shows and see what horror movies you’d mash them up with, now that you’ve done your research.
SEM: I love this game.
RQ: Let’s start with Hamlet.
DK: When I think of horror and a play where everybody dies, that mask is the first thing that pops into my head.
SEM: I’d say Psycho because it’s an isolated dude with a really weird relationship with his mom.
RQ: That is…uncanny. What about A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
DK: Cabin in the Woods, possibly.
SEM: Or Sleepaway Camp.
DK: Actually, I change my vote to Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. Those fit together really well.
SEM: Oh yeah, people only seeing half the story, and conflict coming from the dissonance. And they play the horror in it really straight, that’s what makes it funny.
MB: Or Friday the 13th, in the woods. The lake, the summer camp, that atmosphere. I’d like to mirror some of the deaths from that. Isn’t there a drill through Kevin Bacon’s neck? That would be great for the lovers.
RQ: Julius Caesar.
MB: I’d say something with zombies for that.
SEM: It is a play about an uprising where the people in power lose control and it all goes to shit.
DK: 28 Days Later.
SEM: The first half of Julius Caesar is kind of Dawn of the Dead where the power structure is crumbling and the second half is Day of the Dead where it’s all gone to shit and they’re hiding out and trying to keep it together.
RQ: There’s been a major paradigm shift and now everyone’s zombies. Alright, last one, The Winter’s Tale.
DK: What has a zombie bear in it?
SEM: Isn’t The Winter’s Tale kind of a genre mashup on its own? It’s kind of magic and kind of not. It’s kind of self-aware storytelling but there’s a point where things get real. You know what? Cabin in the Woods. That idea that there’s a sort of magic, and a higher power pulling all the strings behind it. Cabin in the Woods has the shadowy organization, The Winter’s Tale has Time come out halfway through and say “Hope you’re enjoying it! It’s been all me so far, it’s all me for the rest of the show. You’re not going to see me again but it’s all me. We’re moving the play ahead sixteen years, see you later”. Such a small amount of screen time for such a big power player in the story.
RQ: Thanks so much for your time, and have a blast with the show!
Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre
Presented by Bain and Bernard Comedy as part of the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival
By: Matt Bernard and William Shakespeare
Director: Matt Bernard
Cast: Warren Bain, Scott Garland, Sarite Harris, Michael Iliadis, Brittany Kay, David Kingsmill, Scott Emerson Moyle, Rylan O’Reilly, Rebecca Perry, Victor Pokinko, Nicholas Porteous, Jeremy Lepalme
Matt Bernard – Writer/Director, Rebecca Perry – Producer, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford – Dramaturge, Scott Emerson Moyle – Fight Choreographer, Kayla Brattan – Stage Manager, David Kingsmill – Production Manager, Andrew Clemens – Lighting/Sound Design, Gwyneth Barton – Costume Design, Akiva Romer-Segal – Graphic Design, Kayla Brattan – Assistant Stage Manager, Caitlin Cooke and Lacey Juk – Assistant Stage Managers
Nothing is more terrifying than love. When a chainsaw-wielding maniac is added into Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, it turns Verona upside-down! Find out who is (literally!) tearing our star-crossed lovers apart in this comedic horror mash-up. “Bain & Bernard have become a favourite feature at the [St. Lawrence Shakespeare] Festival.”- Ian Farthing
July 3rd at 7:00 PM
July 5th at 3:15 PM
July 7th at 9:15 PM
July 8th at 2:15 PM
July 9th at 11:30 PM
July 10th at 5:15 PM