The role of horror in theatre: A chat with the London Horror Festival

What happens when you bring the creepy and the chilling to theatre? Or how you frighten an audience on a low-budget? Read Editor Jennifer Richards’ Q&A with the London Horror Festival to find out…

Halloween – the perfect time for carving pumpkins, finding the best scary costume and… going to the theatre?

Horror may not be the most well-known genre when it comes to theatre, but its value is being championed by the London Horror Festival (LHF) with a series of spectacular and spooky shows.

Wanting to find out more about the role of horror in theatre, I caught up with the producer, Katy Danbury, of the LHF for a chat.

Q&A With The London Horror Festival

JR: Why did you decide to launch the London Horror Festival?

KD: The LHF was founded by Theatre of the Damned, a company dedicated to exploring the potential of onstage horror, who ran the Festival from 2011-2013.

Their specialism was Grand Guignol and in 2011, rather than just staging another show of their own (Revenge of the Grand Guignol), they decided to find a way to bring as many people as possible together under one roof and create a platform for like-minded writers, directors and companies to display their work.

Thus the LHF was born and various Producers have continued the model since!

JR: Horror isn’t a typical genre you see in theatre. What do you think could be the cause of this?

KD: As a huge fan of the genre I find it shameful how little horror you find in the theatre. Perhaps people think it will literally scare audiences away!

But let’s look at the classics –  Ancient Greek tragedies, Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’, William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ and ‘Titus Andronicus’ – the infamous occurrences of these plays have never stopped theatre-makers from staging them before.

I think the ‘horror’ label is often misunderstood – people assume it’s all about jump scares and gore but it’s so much more than that. Horror forces us to confront the darkest parts of humanity and dig into the repressed parts of our psyche.

Some artists choose to frame it in a comic way, forcing us to laugh out our fear, and others choose to confront it head on, no holds barred, by challenging societal norms and niceties and putting taboo subjects centre-stage.

Outside of theatre, horror has a gargantuan following and this festival works to encourage genre fans who might not normally go and see a play into a theatre space to enjoy the pleasures of the live experience. Most importantly, regular London theatre audiences can come and see something different every Halloween season.

JR: Why do you love horror at the theatre?

KD: The best thing about watching horror in the theatre is that you are trapped in there with it – you’re not protected by a cinema screen or the page of a book – it’s right there before your very eyes or, if the fourth wall is broken, in your face!!

The Old Red Lion Theatre (where the festival takes place) is a suitably gothic-looking, intimate space and any escape attempt will force you to walk along the front on the stage right next to the action!

Watching horror is an incredibly cathartic experience and sometimes we need to see how far we can push the boundaries of decency to truly understand why we set those moral guidelines and societal expectations in the first place.

Theatre visually demonstrates answers to our ‘what if …’  questions- it is important to see these horrifying things on stage as well as being entertained!

JR: If you’re a playwright or theatre on a low budget, how could you manage the scale of production that horror can often involve?

KD: I’ve seen horror staged on a multitude of scales and it is always fascinating to see what companies on the smallest budgets come up with.

You have to be particularly creative when staging special effects as you can’t trick the audience with a camera angle. Be inventive. If the play is asking for particular visual tricks then there is probably a clever means to achieve it through theatrical sleight of hand.

Theatre is the perfect medium in some ways as the contract you have with the audience from the start is one in which they are immediately asked to suspend their disbelief.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the plays that unsettle us he most might simply require one person on stage telling a story!

JR: Your playwriting competition supports new writing, which we love at LPB! What tips do you have for emerging writers who may want to try writing horror?  

KD: Horror is a hugely broad genre. You don’t necessarily need blood, guts and ghosts. Some of the best plays we read this year were concerned with the horror of being a human in 2017! That’s terrifying!

Write about what scares you but don’t sell out your characters for cheap scares. The more your audience can invest in the story and its repercussions on the protagonist, the more you’ll have them on the edge of their seats! If they don’t care about your characters then all fear is eliminated.

JR: What horror play would you recommend to our readers who want a Halloween fright? 

KD: If you’re prepared to be shocked, sickened and truly disturbed then we recommend some of our world premieres – ‘The Men Who Made Frankenstein’ for a grim body horror by Second Self, ‘Father of Lies’ by Bête Noir Productions for a chilling story inspired by true events involving satanic cults, or ‘The Stomaching’ by Red Cape Black Cape Theatre for a trippy 60’s medical horror!

If you want to be spooked then we recommend ghostly matinees ‘The Dead, Live’ by Scytheplays Ltd and ‘The Haunting of Blaine Manor’ by Tales from Paradise Heights or Blackshaw Theatre’s ‘Scare Slam’ for a truly unsettling evening of storytelling. You can listen to last year’s Scare Slam here. (Goosebumps are guaranteed!)

The London Horror Festival is on at the Old Red Lion Theatre until November 4. All images used in this piece are posters for upcoming shows, which you can find out more about here.

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