Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Oct 8, 2013
11:22 AM
Stage Write

Three Surprising Things: Strollers Theatre's 'The Woman in Black'

Three Surprising Things: Strollers Theatre's 'The Woman in Black'

Strollers' upcoming production makes the spooky most of few props and few actors

One of the greatest things about live local theater is its power to surprise us, to defy our expectations and shake our sense of what we think we know. That said, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to have at least a little sense of what you’re getting into when the lights go down. Steve Noll, who’ll be directing Strollers Theatre and OUT!Cast’s production of The Woman in Black beginning October 18 at the Bartell Theatre, took a few minutes to reveal some of the surprises we can expect from this Halloween season’s spookiest play. As you can see, he took our concept of three to heart.

1. It’s radically different from the movie.

For most of us, the cultural touchstone for The Woman in Black is the 2012 movie about a vengeful, kid-hating spirit starring Harry Potter, er, Daniel Radcliffe. Noll says you can toss that notion right off the horse and buggy.

“The play could not be more different that the movie,” he says. “The movie is linear, a traditional story that relies on special effects for its thrills. The play involves a play-within-a-play.” In fact, it begins with a younger actor arriving at a dilapidated theater to help an older actor work through his script-in progress, and then jumps into the script/story itself. (And, unlike the film, the play doesn’t have a cheap, cop-out ending.)

“It’s interesting how the story jumps back and forth in the same time frame,” says Noll.  

Turns out there are actually three versions of The Woman in Black, all based on the 1983 horror novel by Susan Hill—the play (adapted by Stephen Mallatratt), the movie and a made-for-TV movie that ran in Great Britain, where the stage version of The Woman in Black is actually a long-running theater institution on par with The Mousetrap.

2. There are only three actors.

Obviously, there’ll be some multiple roles involved: Sam White, who plays the lead, handles a total of seven characters during the course of the play. He and Pete Ammel both end up playing the main character, Arthur Kipps, at different ages.

“We brought in a dialect coach, because their accents have to match,” says Noll.

3. There are only three major props, and they’re all onstage at the beginning of the play.

A trunk and a pair of chairs do yeoman’s duty, converting at various points from the trappings of a law office to a moving train to a pub and a horse and buggy. The trunk opens up at points to provide smaller props for the actors to use, but that’s as complicated as it gets.   

Well, except for the sound effects, that is. Noll rented three (yep, three) speakers to amp the spooky vibe in the Drury Theater—two for surround sound and a subwoofer to punch up some of the scary moments. Noll also rented the actual sound effects, contained on four CDs, from the British stage production that plays in London’s West End. It’s all part of creating an old-school, Hitchcockian vibe that’s far more about building suspense and characters than it is about going for a cheap scare.

“Letting your imagination run wild is more scary that showing the audience something,” says Noll, who characterizes the play as both PG-rated and family-friendly. “What you don’t see is usually more terrifying than what you see.”

The Woman in Black opens Friday, October 18, at the Bartell Theatre. Certain shows will feature Scott Bennett, president of the Bartell Theatre board, doing Tarot card readings in the lobby. The show scheduled for Halloween eve will feature not Tarot readings and a costume contest. You can find more information about tickets at the Bartell box office. 

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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