Bringing Monsters to Life in Toledo
“‘I won’t sacrifice my vision....When I’m creating a monster, I must give the monster respect...I never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.’”
Nestled in the heart of downtown Toledo, Ohio, the black box experimental theater provides a home to local actors and performance arts groups, offering them the chance to explore newer and classic material alike in an intimate setting just a few feet away from the audience. Building on the murder mystery thrillers and vignette comedy musicals that suit the small, dark space so well, the theater was undergoing a facelift and sought a production with a fresh and exciting voice to kick off the studio reveal. Monster Makers’ appeal to the horror film fans of the Midwest town looking for entertainment to kick off the Halloween season was an added bonus.
The story follows three different behind-the-scene struggles in the entertainment industry to bring now iconic monster films to life, and addresses frequent themes in the conflict between art and business: the boundlessness of creativity and passion vs. the limitations of copyright laws, time and budget. Based on facts found in the public domain, Act One dramatizes the legal rivalry of F.W. Murnau against the Bram Stoker estate over his silent film, Nosferatu, and its striking resemblance to Dracula. Act Two concocts a war between “prickly” director James Whale and bull-headed, mastermind makeup artist, Jack Pierce as they set out to create the Monster’s look for the film Frankenstein. Act Three catches Terence Fisher directing Peter Cushing in simultaneous, alternating scenes for a Dracula/Frankenstein double-feature horror flick when the already shoestring budget meets its demise.
Seen through the lens of the tenacious, passionate entertainment visionaries Murnau, Pierce and Cushing, the show celebrates the evolution of cinematic accomplishments, while highlighting the monstrous hurdles that sometimes stand in the way of artistic fulfillment. The musical calls for a small cast of five with each actor playing three distinct roles, one per act, throughout the show. It is written so that it can be presented as a concert piece or fully staged production.
Mirroring the plotlines in the show, director Elizabeth Cottle found that collaboration was key to bringing the Valentine’s fully-staged Studio A production to life. She was able to bring together a diverse group of talented contributors whose skills and passions aligned perfectly with the needs of the show. Cottle was initially drawn to the play by the opportunity it provides to present fresh challenges, enrichment and the development of their craft to ambitious thespians. The show is campy but rooted; the conflicts are extreme but sentiments are honest, and with so many layers to explore in this script, it has made the process as fun and energetic as the performances promise to deliver. Since the characters are based on real people in history, research on their lives was very helpful in molding personality traits and determining individual tactics to influence overall group chemistry. Identifying the similar and contrasting qualities of each character has been essential to making each act distinct in their respective group dynamics and emboldening the actors to experiment with a range of reactions and deliveries. Set in three different countries, Monster Makers also offers a great chance to integrate dialect work to further establish the characters’ origins and present environment. The actors shift very quickly to their subsequent characters, which demands convincing versatility from their performances.
The cast has embraced these challenges. Christopher Stack is making his debut at the Valentine portraying the directors: F.W. Murnau, James Whale and Terence Fisher. Originally from Pennsylvania, Chris has quickly found a home in the Toledo, Ohio theatre community, where this is his fourth show this year. Garrett Monasmith returns to the Valentine after performing in the Studio A production of The 39 Steps earlier this year. Born and raised in Toledo, Monasmith is a musician who portrays various roles in this show including: Moritz, a meek lawyer; Jack Pierce, head of Universal Studios’ makeup department, and Dracula’s Stuntman, a jack-of-all-trades at Hammer Films. Patrick Boyer makes his Studio A debut playing the primary actor roles in Monster Makers: Max Schreck, Boris Karloff and Peter Cushing. A chameleon of a character actor, Patrick has also inhabited past characters George Bailey (It’s A Wonderful Life), Igor (Young Frankenstein) and Donkey (Shrek), to name a few. Marshall Kupresanin, who plays the film producers Albin Grau, Carl Laemmle and Anthony Hinds, is also brand new to Studio A. By day, Kupresanin is a lawyer. His undergrad roles at the University of Toledo include Malcolm (Macbeth) and The Professor (The Lesson), for which he won an Irene Ryan acting award from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Jennifer Braun holds all of the production’s female roles: Mrs. Florence Stoker, Vera West, and Hammer Film actress Victoria. Braun’s background is in the opera, having performed with Toledo Opera, Opera MODO, Center City Opera Theater, Opera Columbus, Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, Opera in the Ozarks, Colorado Light Opera, and Oberlin in Italy. She returns to Studio A after playing Kathy Stapleton in The Hound of the Baskervilles in 2015.
Logan Maccariella, making his musical direction debut, has worked with the cast on developing their voices and telling their stories through their character-defining solos. Compositions such as Mrs. Stoker’s “Out for Blood” and Victoria’s “Horror Fan” provide drastically different stances and require a great deal of range, from Act One’s threatening antagonist to Act Three’s starry-eyed, fan-girl actress thrilled at her opportunity to work with one of her childhood idols. Logan’s musical precision and technical feedback have been instrumental in helping the actors clearly distinguish such vocal metamorphoses through their lyrics and dynamics.
Jeremy Allen, assistant technical director for the Valentine Theatre and production designer for Monster Makers, crafted a minimalistic set for the black box stage, so it could easily transform from eras and locales. The production design reflects the cinematic stylings of each act’s respective places and times: 1922 Germany and Prana Films’ sepia-toned Expressionism; 1931 Hollywood, featuring Universal Studios’ black and white production, and 1973 England, showcasing Hammer Films’ vibrant colors. He also developed the lighting and sound effects to transport the cast and audiences alike through the reminiscent audio/visual styles of each era’s filmography. Spending many hours outside of rehearsal enhancing and acquiring technical elements and set pieces, Allen has exemplified the fervent spirit and determination proclaimed in Monster Makers’ prologue and echoed throughout the show.
Costume designer Ashley M. Stewart and makeup artist Mark McGovern (both long-time classic horror movie fans) enthusiastically joined the artistic team to create the defining looks of each character based on historical images, available resources and imagination. Stewart, formerly of California, brings his experience in fashion design to the Studio A stage by refining each outfit to reflect the trends of the respective times, and ages, status and circumstances of the characters. McGovern maintains his degree in theater and art through his own model-making business. He employed his astute study of theatrical makeup to design the right pallor and ages for each character and has taught the actors the proper techniques to apply it themselves. Toledo Repertoire Theatre’s costume coordinator, James M. Norman, also assisted with locating appropriate pieces for all the roles to fit the color schemes of each act.
Laurie Mix, stage manager, has tirelessly shared her talents and worn many hats on the production, often rushing from her booth to help strike and set between scenes. Also serving as the production’s ruthless dramaturg, she has honed in on answers to puzzlements throughout the rehearsal process such as whether or not Florence Stoker’s Irish heritage was Catholic or what kind of cigarettes were popular in Britain in the 1970s.
The Valentine cast and artistic team has had the extreme pleasure and benefit of routine contact with the playwright, Stephen Dolginoff, himself, who never hesitated to share his inspiration for certain songs or characters, or keep spirits elevated and minds engaged with encouragement and fun Dracula/Frankenstein-related trivia and cartoons via social media. His openness and involvement provided a wonderful first-hand resource that made this experience exciting and unique for the entire group.
With a rich script and score that lends itself to inspired production, costume and makeup design, as well as substantial performances full of biting insults and hysterical tantrums (not to mention Boris Karloff singing) Monster Makers is a sharp, deliciously seasonal show into which the artists and the audience can sink their teeth.
Monster Makers runs September 23-25, 30-October 2 at the Valentine Theatre’s Studio A black box theater, 410 Adams St., Toledo, OH. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $10 for students with a valid I.D. and can be purchased by calling the box office at 419-242-2787 or online at www.valentinetheatre.com.