Back in the late 70’s, I was cast in the stage version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show here in Toronto – I made a great Magenta – but due to some differences of opinion between the director and myself (he thought I should be pulling an extra after-show shift…and I didn’t) I withdrew from the show, dignity and virtue in tact! BUT…that first taste of high camp and horror/humour has fueled my appreciation of grindhouse movies and stage shows. A few years back, I saw the production of Bat Boy at the Bathurst St Theatre and was just as entranced by the audience’s reaction to the play as the actors themselves. All the ooo’s, aaah’s and yikes from the seats were as funny as the action on stage.
I now have the pleasure of working with the new master of said “genre” live theatre, DAN SPURGEON, who arrived in Toronto last month after years of helming critically acclaimed productions in LA and New York. He has a wicked glint in his eye, a wry sense of the absurd and he recently sat down with me to share his love of live theatre, his award-winning camp send-ups of 70’s classic cult films and plans for his upcoming production of THE BABY at Toronto’s Storefront Theatre (see end of story for details).
DAN SPURGEON, writer/director
Welcome to Toronto, Dan. What prompted this move from LA to Toronto?
Actually, I’ve visited many times and had Canadian citizenship since 1989 via my mom. My husband, Drew Blakeman (Exec. Producer of The Baby) and I were considering moving to Toronto from New York a decade ago, but after the US dollar collapsed against the Canadian it wasn’t an option. LA was second choice… it turned out to be a great second choice based on what I was able to accomplish there, but we’ve had our eyes on moving here for a while. As far as why we left LA and the US… well, both are facing enormous problems that appear to be getting worse rather than better, and we decided that it was time to revisit the idea of moving up north. A year later, here we are!
Over the past 5 years, you built a successful theatre company, The Visceral Company, in LA – what challenges did you experience working with stage actors in a film town?
In LA, everyone’s an actor. Or at least, they think they are, despite many having no craft, discipline, training, or talent. There’s a general feeling in that city that theatre is no more than just a film without a camera pointed at it – many people don’t understand that under the surface, they’re very different mediums. I’ve dealt with actors who whispered on stage, who didn’t understand they couldn’t paraphrase a playwright’s words, and one performer who was very upset that her character costume wasn’t something she’d personally wear. If you request a monologue audition, you’d have to specify that it be memorized, and if you don’t mention “previous stage experience required” your inbox will be flooded with folks who may not know what a play even is. Plus it’s a given that if you’re working with pros, you always run the risk of losing them to a better-paying project with higher exposure at any time, and often with little to no notice. Thankfully, we seldom ran into that issue, and were only caught fully off guard by one exit – we were lucky enough to get the real pros most of the time, I guess.
You also worked for some time in New York, a real theatre town. What did you learn from your time working with the Shubert Organization and directing for Cobblestone Productions?
In theatre terms, I’m from the street. I don’t hold a drama degree, I took several years of classes but ultimately got sick of performing before I was allowed to study directing. So I just kind of did it myself. In the final semester of my film degree in San Francisco, I was strongly drawn back towards wanting to create theatre, so my final project was in fact producing and directing a play. We moved to New York shortly after I graduated. My time at Shubert provided me as much guidance as school ever did, both practical and artistic. I got to see the inner business workings of the highest professional level of theatre, and even more importantly, I got to see all kinds of shows – Broadway, off-Broadway, Off-off-Broadway, readings. I also did script coverage for creative projects. Getting to see what worked and what didn’t, what stirred me and other audience members and what left us cold, was absolutely invaluable in figuring out the standards I would set for myself and my work. In the same way, Cobblestone, a tiny nonprofit company, simultaneously taught me practicality, and how to apply these professional standards within time, space and budgetary constraints.
As an artistic director and writer, you specialize in the horror, thriller and sci-fi genres, especially plays with a comedic edge and a touch of the absurd. What attracts you to those dark, macabre and bizarre themes?
I’m drawn towards big, operatic emotions and an intensely heightened sense of reality. After horror and thriller stuff, I’m most fond of musicals and futuristic sci-fi – all these genres share that sensibility. Comedies tend not to share it to the same degree, so the ones I like tend to have a darker, sharper edge that brings out bigger performances. I have a real soft spot for cheaply made, shoddy, “exploitation” films that have a lot of heart. The Baby (LA stage stills, below) is a love letter to the sleazy, grindhouse cinema I devoured on VHS as a teenager. Beyond that, it’s kind of tough to explain my personal aesthetics – it’s like someone asking me why I like sushi more than pizza. I just do, it’s part of what makes me me. In Toronto, there is a huge underground “goth” and horror genre cult following – do you anticipate your upcoming production of The Baby (based on the 70’s cult movie classic) will attract these audiences?
The Baby is certainly designed with a certain sensibility, but I’d say it’s less “goth” than “punk rock.” The original film is generally labeled as “horror,” but I think it defies such simple categorization. While the show has elements of horror, drama, and comedy, it’s primarily “camp” – albeit camp done with excellent actors. My biggest inspiration for this project have been the films of John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble), Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) and Herschell Gordon Lewis (2000 Maniacs, The Gruesome Twosome) – so any fans of those kinds of “midnight movies” should find plenty to like about The Baby!You’ve won numerous awards for your stage adaptation and direction of The Baby including the Encore Producers Award/Best of Fringe selection (Hollywood Fringe Festival 2013) and LA Bitter Lemons named The Baby one of the Top 10 LA Theatre productions for 2013 & Best LA Premiere of a Play (honorable mention). Having done research into Toronto’s theatre scene, how do you feel (or hope) the critics as well as the public will receive The Baby?
This show began as an experiment, and I wasn’t even fully convinced it worked until I started seeing the audience reaction. Many of our fans in LA thought it was the best show our company ever did. So, hopefully Canadians aren’t radically different in taste and they enjoy it just as much! As far as critics go, I’ve learned not to listen to them. I hope they like the show, as much as I hope every patron enjoys the show… but I also know that opinions are opinions, no matter how informed they might be, and it’s very rare that you can please everyone. I’ve seen a few reviews that hated Book of Mormon, and even more that hated Kinky Boots. What I’m hoping is that everyone, critics and public audience alike, at least enjoy the uniqueness of The Baby, the general weirdness of the story (including a truly surprising twist ending), and a performance and design aesthetic that one very pleased and enthusiastic Hollywood Fringe attendee referred to as “Technicolor vomit.”
At one of our shows a few years ago, a young woman came up to us afterward and told us that she had never seen a play before (not uncommon in the US, sadly), and that she liked it so much she had to go see more plays. That’s a better review than any critic could ever give us.You’re working with the Storefront Theatre (pictured below) who will be staging this latest production of your award-winning play. Do you already have plans for your next production, and if so, can you give us any hints as to what that play will be?
Oh, I always have a bunch of ideas in my pocket – probably more than I’d ever be able to bring to fruition in my lifetime. My original show Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite – a puppetry-laden anthology from the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft – has enjoyed successful runs in New York and LA, and is being produced this October by the Molotov Theatre Group in Washington DC (concurrently with The Baby, so I unfortunately won’t be able to attend). I’ve found some people that are very interested in the idea of that show, so I think Toronto might see it in the next year or two. Beyond that, I try to keep myself open for whatever interesting notion screams to be picked up and run with.
I’ll be posting more news on The Baby and it’s cast over the coming weeks but in the interim, please mark your calendars for the run Oct. 15 thru Nov. 1 at Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor St West (between Ossington & Dovercourt). You can buy tickets now from http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2253620
Showtimes: Tuesdays – Saturdays @ 8pm, Sundays @ 2pm
The Baby website will be launched shortly: www.TheBabyLiveOnStage.com