As a child, I was obsessed with ‘choose your own adventure’ books. The already forming control freak in me loved the power I was given to supervise the narrative. After each section, I could choose which page to turn to, mostly taking the sensible (boring) options so as to not exhibit any form of silly ‘risk-taking’. So you can imagine my delight when I grew up and found the live equivalent of these books: immersive theatre.
A Midnight Visit is one such theatrical experience, described as “part choose your own adventure, part performance, part sound world, part surreal playground”. Inspired by the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe, it features over 36 rooms to explore, and a cast of eleven gothic, macabre characters. After premiering for a 12-week season in Sydney before moving to Fringe World Festival in Perth, A Midnight Visit is playing in Melbourne’s inner north until November 3rd. Described as “a delight to all the senses” (Theatre People) and “mind-blowing” (West Australian), it is the first large scale immersive work of its kind in the country. In the middle of it all sits their Edgar Allen Poe, Andy Johnston.
A graduate of Victorian College of the Arts and Actors Centre Australia, Andy Johnston’s credits include Stu in Yank! The Musical (Understudy Productions) and Felicia in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (NCL). Yet what sets Andy apart from so many other artists in this country is that he actually listened to all those teachers that said, “make your own work.” Through Don’t Be Down Productions, he created and starred in the sell-out Melbourne Fringe show Twink Ascending and Father Figure at Chapel off Chapel. His producer credits include Tommy Murphy’s Strangers in Between (45 Downstairs/Seymour Centre) and It’s Not Me It’s Lou (Malthouse Theatre). So he’s actually giving back to the industry and creating jobs. Bless you, Andy!
Naturally, this month’s (cyber) coffee is shared with Andy Johnston over his experiences in A Midnight Visit.
What were the logistics of A Midnight Visit’s rehearsal process like?
Well, I’m not at liberty to discuss the details #keepthesecrets but I will say it was unlike any rehearsal period I’ve ever been a part of.
In a regular rehearsal process the set and props come in at the last minute. However with A Midnight Visit we had that from day one. We rehearsed in the rooms as they were being built around us, with props and costume items at our fingertips, so that was a real treat for me. I will say though because each performer has a track that is individually tailored to their skills we all rehearsed on our own and for an ensemble show, that was a little hard to get my head around to begin with. It was quite a lonely rehearsal process in that sense but on the other hand I was able to totally focus on exploring and creating the character of Poe. It was as if we were each given a blank puzzle piece to go off and colour in and then we all rejoined at the end and worked on putting it all together.
Taking on the character of Poe himself, what was it like to have so much research of the man available to you?
To be honest it was a bit over-whelming to begin with. It’s the first time I’ve ever played a character who was a real person. The thing about Poe is that all of his loved ones, the people who knew him intimately, all died very young. The majority of information about him comes from scorned lovers, jealous peers or historians so it is hard to know what is fact and what is subjective opinion. His obituary was written by his enemy Rufus Griswold, I mean in the great tradition of Paris is Burning the library was well and truly open!
So I guess to answer your question it was an overwhelming task at first but once I started to read all of the information I could find on Poe, an outline started to form in my head of who this man was. Then I started on his stories and poems and that’s when he really started to come to life for me. The great thing about the fluidity of A Midnight Visit is that I was able to bring a lot of myself to the role and create a track that has this beautiful balance of historical fact and personal interpretation.
How did your preparation differ from more traditional productions you’ve been a part of?
There are a few major differences in comparison to traditional productions.
Usually in a rehearsal you are directed to “enter, walk to 6, say your line, move to 4, back to 6, exit, Chookas, see you at Opening!” or better yet “do it like the person in the video”. A Midnight Visit rehearsals however required a lot of my own creative input, which was wonderful. I was even able to suggest material and have a say in where and how it is performed in the space. When it came time for all of this work to be combined with that of the other actors it often meant that scenes were cut, large sections of the show were flipped or changed, even some characters tracks completely re-worked. I’ve written and self directed a lot of my own work so having the ability to dump hours of hard work in service of the greater story is something I was familiar with but that isn’t something you often get on traditional shows. I think we ended up rehearsing about six or seven different versions of the show to get it where it is now. The show is never set, for many reason it can’t be, so that took some getting used to.
Secondly the show consists of eleven multi-disciplinary actors. On paper it’s an ensemble show, however unlike traditional shows where you all work together on stage at once, in this show the eleven individual tracks weave around 36 rooms in a two story warehouse and are designed to seldom cross over. It can get very lonely out there so to combat that I have had to modify my normal pre-show routine, which generally consists of quite insular and focused activities, to one that was a lot more social and extroverted. Backstage the dressing rooms are ripe with laughter, banter, music and funny stories or retellings of our days. Don’t get me wrong, I still have days where the earphones go in and I have to do my own thing but I have definitely discovered the social aspect helps me prepare for the darkness and isolation of my track in this show.
The third and biggest difference is the fact that the audience aren’t at a comfortable distance sitting back in their seats, in the dark, while you are on stage behind an invisible wall. In immersive theatre they are all around you, you can hold their hand, look into their eyes or watch them as they rummage in a chest of draws that is apparently more interesting than you giving it full Meryl. In this show they are given the freedom to choose how they navigate the experience, so it is well within their rights to view you as an inconvenience or boring just as much as it is to follow you all night and experience every single moment of your character’s journey. On top of that they aren’t allowed to speak and they all wear black surgical masks so you can’t even gauge their expressions. It took me a while to adjust to this; it’s so jarring to not have an audience’s attention during a performance. It goes against everything I understand my job as an actor to be. I did find that by removing my ego and reminding myself that I am part of the fabric of the experience and not the leading man, I was able to stop letting it affect me so much. In this world a tiny prop hidden in a draw is just as important as I am and I am just as important as it is and at the same time neither of us are important at all.
How much of a consistent structure does each show have to maintain, and what are the techniques involved in making sure participants follow along with this?
Well as I mentioned before participants have no obligation to follow along. There are lists of specific rules they have to abide by but outside of that they can do whatever they want. The amazing thing is the majority of our audiences aren’t regular theatre goers, a large percentage have never been to a show let alone an immersive one and it is fascinating to watch them navigate their journey. Some people dip their toe in and are satisfied, some people jump in the deep end, some just float on the surface in a kind of zen-bliss and many splash and flounder around as if they are drowning in a puddle.
Amongst all of that, yes, there is an overall structure that has to be maintained. It is part of our job to make it seem as if all of these wonderful and bizarre things are just magically happening before the audiences eyes, when in fact we are listening and adapting and calculating every footstep, every breath, to keep that facade of effortlessness alive. Our performances are rehearsed and timed down to the second, if the slightest delay occurs it sends a ripple through all of our tracks and we must adjust accordingly. It takes a lot of concentration and energy to maintain.
What is the physical and mental stamina involved doing up to four performances a night?
Stamina is everything in this show. All eleven performers are faced with their own physical, mental and emotional demands specific to their individual tracks. For me playing Poe, it is absolutely hectic. Each performance for me consists of deep grief, fear, guilt, death and a spiral downward into absolute insanity, which ends in a coffin. I repeat that loop for up to four hours a night without a break, five nights a week, and that’s just the content! Put on top of that the demands I mentioned before of intense concentration, dealing with audience and readiness to adapt at any moment. Finally chuck in the non-traditional performance space of concrete floors, no ventilation, constant haze, darkness, eerie soundtracks, triggering scents and hundreds of black-out curtains that absorb all your sound. There are also no covers or swings so if you have to take a show off, the entire show is re-blocked. It’s quite an extraordinarily demanding job.
Lots of sleep, nutritious food, vitamins, moving my body in whatever way feels good and making sure I’m taking care of my mental health have become crucial priorities in order to keep my stamina where it needs to be for A Midnight Visit.
How do you find not being limited to just one script/scenario has influenced your characterisation?
I love it! I’m definitely the type of actor that can spends hours and hours working on character development so this has been a dream for me. Because Poe doesn’t follow a prescribed character arc as such, it means that he needs to be a fully formed human being who reacts truthfully to whatever is happening around him. Therefore I am able to play on the full spectrum of human emotion, which allows me endless possibilities. It is probably the most complex and detailed character work I’ve ever been able to produce simply because, as you say, there isn’t one script or scenario Poe is going through.
The endless opportunity to develop and explore keeps me focused and it’s a great little trick to ease my way into a show when I’m not necessarily feeling it. At beginners I will say to myself ‘okay, tonight my point of focus is exploring how Poe deals with having a headache’ or, ‘what happens if Poe is sensitive to light tonight?’ ‘What is Poe having a good day today?’ My impulses are fresh and I can learn so much about his personality, his behaviour and his attitudes towards the space and the other characters.
Dates: 30 July – 3 November 2019
IN SEASON: WEDNESDAY – SUNDAY
Wednesday – Multiple sessions (starting 7pm)
Thursday – Multiple sessions (starting 7pm)
Friday – Multiple sessions (starting 7pm)
Saturday – Multiple sessions (starting 7pm)
Sunday – Multiple sessions (starting 5pm/6.30pm)
HALLOWEEN PARTY WEEKEND
Thursday 31 October – Multiple sessions (starting 7pm)
Friday 1 November – Multiple sessions (starting 7pm)
Saturday 2 November – Multiple sessions (starting 7pm)