After being cast to play Edgar Allan Poe, the central figure in Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe from Molotov Theatre Group (opening tomorrow night, November 6th), I started developing my plan to become Poe. Step one: Grow an epic mustache. After that, I was hoping that everything else would fall into place.
My plan unraveled quickly when I discovered, alas, I cannot grow an epic mustache; mine looks more like the upper lip of a teenager right before his parents buy him his first razor. Audiences will surely come to the theatre with a very specific set of expectations and to a certain extent we must deliver that. Luckily, Molotov President and resident goremeister Alex Zavistovich came equipped with an array of solutions to turn my wimpy mustache, along with the rest of me, into a spitting image of Poe. Satisfied for the moment that we could meet audience expectations of how Poe should look, I moved on.
In addition to providing a reference for how Poe should look, photographs and paintings of Poe provided insight into how the man held himself, and by extension, how he might move. He had an uprightness of someone raised to be a member of the upper class combined with a gloomy expression and curious cock of the head that fit someone of his tragic background. I imagine he walked like a man carrying an enormous burden but trying to walk as if he didn’t.
My next question was, “What did Poe sound like?” How would a man born in Boston, raised in Virginia, and employed in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York speak? There are a couple references to Poe having a very slight Southern drawl, but others claimed he had no accent. Firsthand accounts of those that had heard Poe speak seemed to agree at least that he had a “melodic” voice that seemed to match the eloquence of his fiction and the arrogance of his literary criticism. It certainly wasn’t the clear directive for which I was hoping (would it have been so hard for someone to say, “He had a high pitched voice and a Baltimore accent” or something like that?), but it was a start to something playable.
Then was the challenge of deciding to what extent I was going to allow the real life history of Poe inform the performance. The natural inclination was to say, “A lot.” However, Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe is not an autobiographical play. It sets Poe as the protagonist in several of his own horrific short stories. Therefore, the circumstances of the story must take precedence over any biographical information. So I switched tracks on my research; instead of learning about Poe the Man through his history, I began probing his texts to put together a picture of Poe the Storyteller. Finally, I started feeling like I was on solid ground.
Reading through Poe’s stories, I felt like the man was speaking to me directly, telling me how he really spoke, how he felt, and how he lived. I was finally getting a sense of Poe as he fits into Nightfall. A creative throughline and framing device from Director Mark Kramie, along with the fourth wall ambiguity of the Grand Guignol style, provided me with a motivation and need to share these stories with the audience. It helped define Poe’s relationship with the audience and gave him a more active role than just “narrator.”
For me, that was it. That was the real way to find my way in to Poe. The Poe/audience connection felt like the most tangible thing we had discovered about Poe because it was a connection I had already felt for my entire life as a fan of Poe. So, I hope fans of Poe will feel that we’ve done him justice in Nightfall, and non-fans of Poe will come out and see why his stories are still so unsettling.
Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe plays from November 6-December 7, 2014 at Molotov Theatre Group performing at the DC Arts Center-2438 18th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.
Molotov’s “Nightfall” Picks Up Where “Normal” Left Off – And Then Some by Alex Zavistovich.
‘Nightfall: Inside the Minds of Madmen – And Molotov’ By Mark Kamie.