Ten questions for Eric Woolfe

While I sometimes aim to write the bio that goes into an interview, sometimes I can’t top the brilliance of what I’m given to work with.

For instance, the origins of Eldritch Theatre are explained this way on their website:

Eldritch Theatre was formed in 1886 after an impertinent Ouija board informed Randolph Pomeranski that his soul would be devoured by the Great Old Ones That Were And Shall Be Again unless he produced a series of puppets plays exploring the dark and foreboding mysteries of the Dread Necronomicon of Abdul-Alhazred. Unfortunately, none of these plays were ever performed, because when it came time to write grant applications, the Ouija Board would only spell gibberish.

And here’s the bio of Eric Woolfe, who bears the title “Director of the Uncanny”:

Eric Woolfe was born the bastard child of an itinerant sideshow contortionist, and a door-to-door alienist. He began his career at the age of eight and three quarters, when a national famine forced him to follow his mother’s twisted feet into show business. Following failed careers as a learned pig tamer, flea circus promoter, and gaffed armless calligrapher, he formed Eldritch Theatre after losing a bar bet. He is now an actor, writer and puppeteer, as well as being a noted spiritualist huckster. He is often visited by the ghost of his beloved miniature schnauzer, Schubert, who offers Mister Woolfe valuable career advice, such as “You should chase more squirrels”, and “You better hide in the basement when there is thunder outside.”

Eldritch Theatre are back, presenting Frankenstein’s Boy, written by Eric Woolfe, with puppets by Eric Woolfe and starring Kimwun Perehinec & Eric Woolfe, at the Red Sandcastle Theatre 922 Queen Street East October 23th – November 8th. Having heard about this momentous event I had to ask Woolfe ten questions: five about himself and five more about his work with Eldritch Theatre.

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

Eric Woolfe’s Facebook photo.

I used to think I was more like my mother, who is energetic, creative and engaged with the world. However, as I age, I realize that I am very much a product of my father. I am astoundingly irritated by lego bricks left on the floor. Nothing seems more heavenly than falling asleep while watching a movie. And I often forgo regular modes of communication in favour of short, surly grunts. Like my father, I look forward to my boys becoming teenagers so I can scare their friends with my wild eyebrows, curmudgeonly scowls, and wry, ironic mockery of their choice of clothes and poor taste in music. When I was younger, these habits of my father used to drive me crazy. And now I cultivate and nurture them in myself.

Also, it was my dad who introduced me to horror movies, and nurtured my love for them. He was the one who encouraged me to watch the Saturday afternoon horror shows like Super Host, and Sir Graves Ghastly when I was little, which fostered my love for both the classic Universal and Hammer films, but also taught me the virtues of good schlock.

And in my teen years, when I’d come home, often at one or two in the morning, on weekends, he’d be half asleep on the couch, waiting to watch some slasher video nasty he’d rented to watch together. That’s what we did instead of playing catch.

2) What is the best thing or worst thing about your work, building, writing and producing for Eldritch Theatre ?

The lack of financial stability is certainly the worst thing… Well, at least one of the worst things. On one hand, it’s wonderful to be able to make a living- however meagre- by playing with puppets, and magic tricks and telling spooky stories. These are all things I love and am interested in. On the other hand, there is a constant pressure to keep up with deadlines and create to a schedule in order to keep the Eldritch Theatre balloon afloat. It takes a lot of hot air to keep this basket aloft.

That said, it isn’t many people who get to run their own flea circus, or haunted medicine show, or whatever. We fill a unique niche in the Toronto Theatre scene and I am happy about that. I mean, there are a lot of wonderful companies re-discovering Shakespeare or the American classics, or producing hard hitting political work, or challenging cultural boundaries, but, to my knowledge, we are the only company producing dark horror comedies with live actors, puppets and parlour magic, relying heavily on motifs from genre movies, sideshow traditions, and gothic literature.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I really love the film Re-Animator. Anything by George Romero, even the darkhorse films like Bruiser or Knightriders. Books: I’m a big fan of Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler, chiefly—and I guess this is what I love about Romero too—because of their ability to use trash to tell stories of depth and deep sophistication, without losing their sense of fun, or, well, trashiness.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I tried to learn the banjo. But I was terrible at it.

I’d also really love to be able to write a kitchen sink play. Something really Canadian about, say, someone on a farm, or with a terminal illness struggling with something middle-life-crisisy that summer theatres would program. A play without monsters in it. It would be nice to be able to do that. But I lose interest too quickly.

And I wish I made better pancakes.

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

I like to make bread. And eat potato chips. Rye whisky is fun too.

click for tickets / info

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Five more about Frankenstein’s Boy, coming October 23rd.

1-Please talk about the challenges of Frankenstein’s Boy in the context of the growing body of work created by Eldritch Theatre.

Kimwun Perehinec, appearing alongside Eric Woolfe in Frankenstein’s Boy (click for bios of Eldritch Theatre’s team)

Frankenstein’s Boy is a play I have been trying to write since Sideshow of the Damned in 2001. I wanted a vehicle for Kimwun Perehinec that would show off her many talents, as well as her fearlessness.

But for many different reasons the various versions of the script were never quite up to snuff. In the last few years we’ve started incorporating parlour and stage magic into a plays, in much the same way songs are used in musicals. And that seemed to do the trick. It provided a spectacular element of Mad Science that the previous incarnations were always lacking.

There are only two actors in the play, who not only perform human parts, but manipulate and interact with about 30 other puppet characters. This is the first time we are having single characters performed by either actor, which requires a daunting level of both virtuosity, and trust in your fellow performer.

The play itself is based on an extensive mishmash of sources: The Hammer and Universal Frankenstein films, the original novel, a large portion of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, a spattering of the Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, and some unexpected sources of inspiration, like early Frank Capra and Preston Sturges movies, and the works of John Steinbeck .

2-What do you love about Eldritch Theatre?

I think we have a really nifty website.

Also, I get to work with some wonderful, creative people, who get to work on subject matter that doesn’t usually get covered in Toronto Theatre.

We tend to use the same team over and over, so we build up a relationship, an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as a short hand. It’s our second or third outing with Marjorie Chan and Kaitlin Hickey. Kimwun has acted in, a think, a bazillion Eldritch Shows. I forget the exact number. And our designer Melanie McNeill has worked on everything we’ve done since 1892, or something.

I also love that our audience has grown steadily in the last six or so years, with the same people coming back over and over, sometimes even to repeated viewings of the same show. I am very grateful for that, especially when many other theatres are complaining of dwindling numbers.

3-In a world that includes Muppets & Disney, but where some artists employ puppets for profound works of art, how do you feel about the way puppets and marionettes are understood in our culture?

Ronnie Burkett's Schnitzel (photo by Alejandro Santiago)

Ronnie Burkett’s Schnitzel (photo by Alejandro Santiago)

I am almost embarrassed to say this, but I never really pay too much attention to puppetry’s place in history. There are some wonderful companies in town, like Ronnie Burkett and the Puppetmongers who are deeply knowledgeable about all the different forms and styles, and the great masters of the art form through out the ages. But to me, the importance of the puppets is what they provide for a horror story, and the way they invade an audience member’s imagination and leave them open to otherwise difficult emotions to reach, like terror, dread, wonder and awe. The reality of the puppet exists only in the imagination of the observer, and so they act on people’s psychology in a way that humans can’t.

For example, our play Dear Boss opened with Jack the Ripper’s final victim having a nightmare in which she faced off with the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. The Caterpillar was a fifteen foot tall rod puppet with multiple operators. It could be scary one moment, funny the next, graceful, threatening, sexy, and coarse. It could be all those things and more in close concert, some times more than one thing at a time. However, if that character were played by an actor in a caterpillar suit, it could only be on thing: stupid looking.

4-As an artist whose work regularly visits the realms of mystery and terror of a writer such as Edgar Allan Poe –one of the writers who influenced everyone from the French Symbolists right up to more recent artists such as Alfred Hitchcock and Tim Burton—please reflect for a moment on the value of fear and suspense in works of art, as evidenced by the work of Eldritch Theatre.

I think fear, and it’s cousin wonder, are grossly neglected in modern theatre. I suppose, in part, it is because they are difficult feelings to arouse in an audience. Like humour, fear is largely subjective. Also like humour, fear requires great understanding of timing and technical skill from the performer in order to be evoked successfully. Both Comedy and Horror tend to be dismissed as lesser art forms, as well. I can’t really understand why this is so.

I believe that the purpose of entertainment is to provide for society what dreams provide for individuals. They are a collective outpouring of our subconscious yearnings and trials. To neglect to provide nightmare entertainment along side the other more accepted forms of art, I believe, results in profound societal neurosis.

Also, and more importantly, way more importantly, scary stories are really, really fun.

5-Is there a teacher you’d care to name that you especially admire?

My Theatre Arts teacher, Art Fidler, when I was in highschool in London Ontario, over 25ish years ago, was hugely influential. He let us run the drama club as if it were a small theatre company. And I learned as much about show business doing that as I have in a lifetime of working professionally.

*******

Eldritch Theatre present Frankenstein’s Boy, written by Eric Woolfe, with puppets by Eric Woolfe and starring Kimwun Perehinec & Eric Woolfe, at the Red Sandcastle Theatre 922 Queen Street East October 23th – November 8th.  For tickets click here.

Perehinec & Woolfe + creations in Madhouse Variations (2010)

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One Response to Ten questions for Eric Woolfe

  1. Pingback: Happy Halloween, Frankenstein’s Boy! | barczablog

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