Theater Around The Bay: Thirteen Questions (And One In-Joke) About Terror-Rama

Today’s guest interviewer is local actor Tony Cirimele, who interviews Anthony Miller, one of our regular columnists (“The Five”) and the mastermind behind this year’s Halloween spectacular, “Terror-Rama.”

TC: “Terror-Rama” is a rare breed of theater; billed as a “Horror Theatre Double Feature”, it is comprised of two one-acts whose sole purpose is to scare. Think “Grindhouse” with a bit of “Friday the 13th” and “M” thrown in for fun. “Terror-Rama” is comprised of two parts; “Camp Evil” by Anthony Miller is a darkly comic look at slasher flicks, while “Creep” by Nick Pappas is a deeply disturbing crime thriller. When Anthony Miller was approached about being interviewed for SF Theater Pub, he requested that his “celebrity” interviewer be yours truly. Besides bonding over having more or less the same name, Anthony and I worked together on several projects during our time at SF State, and one magical summer we were neighbors/drinking buddies. I recently sat down with Anthony (via email) to discuss “Terror-Rama”.

As anyone who saw “Zombie! The Musical!” will know, this isn’t your first theatrical horror piece. What is it about the horror genre that you feel makes it work for theater?

AM: Making it work is half the fun. Horror is very reactive and elicits a reaction from its audience, that lends itself very well to a live performance. But taking concepts from films and turning them into a theatrical concept, to make it theatre, is the exciting part. When it’s done well, it can be fun to watch, exhilarating even.

TC: Your piece, “Camp Evil”, is about a summer camp that may or may not be haunted. What was your camp experience (if any) like in your energetic youth?

AM: I was a Boy Scout so I did a lot of camping trips as a kid. My parents sent me to summer camp for years. I have good and bad experiences, but the bad ones were important because I was very much the weird kid who everyone teased mercilessly. Some of my bad experiences tie in (albeit in more comical ways) to what happens to the characters in “Camp Evil.” I also always loved movies and TV shows about summer camps. I was particularly fond of Salute Your Shorts, and of course, Sleepaway Camp.

TC: What scares you the most? And does that work its way into your writing (horror-genre or otherwise)?

AM: Death, I’m in general terrified of death. I had to deal with it early in my life so it was always something I’ve had to process, more so now because I’m in my mid-thirties and people my age are starting to die. So in every play I’ve written, someone dies and a big part of the plot is how people react to death. More specifically I’m afraid to die suddenly. Being given a time table and die in bed with my loved ones around me doesn’t worry me as much, it’s not seeing it coming or it happening in an impersonal way that scares me. Everything I write tends to deal with that.

TC: Let’s say I’m a total wuss who doesn’t like a lot of blood and guts in his talking pictures, but is willing to give it a go. What horror films do you recommend?

AM: There are lots of great Horror movies that aren’t big on blood and guts, they’re usually called thrillers. Movies like Dementia 13 or Psycho are good. Nightmare on Elm Street is so ridiculous; the violence is more comical than scary. Friday the 13th is pretty tame by today’s standards. Night of the Living Dead is another good one.

TC: Do you have a favorite obscure horror movie that you wish more people knew about? Or a famous horror movie you find inexplicably popular?

AM: Long Island Cannibal Massacre is an unknown masterpiece in my opinion. I also have a deep fondness for Troma Studios; they made the Toxic Avenger films, Basket Case, Monster in the Closet, De-Campetated, and Rockabilly Vampire. There’s a campy, punk rock, DIY feel to those movies that I try to carry over into my work. Lloyd Kauffman (Head of Troma Srudios) is a hero of mine. What I don’t get is torture porn type movies. I think Eli Roth is more talented than the films he makes. He’s got such a great talent for storytelling and his visual style is fantastic. But it seems like these movies are more like gross-out movies or just barrages of horrific imagery for the sake of having barrages of horrific imagery. The Saw films are also a good example, the first one is practically an art film, the dozen sequels don’t even come close. I will always consider the 70’s as a golden age for Horror. I think Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Dawn of The Dead are all brilliant films.

TC: Did you and fellow “Terror-Rama” playwright Nick Pappas collaborate and/or read each other’s pieces during the process? Or is one half of this show completely new to you?

AM: I commissioned him, gave him some parameters and we put both plays through a development process. There were several drafts, two readings and lots of dramaturgical work. So we often gave our opinions back and forth. Part of my job as producer was to shepherd along both plays. So I’m pretty excited to see how far the pieces have come. A neat thing about it is that both plays were commissioned, written, and developed for this show. So this has been a play incubator as well,

TC: What writers/non-writers have had the most influence on your writing style? And conversely, which writer has had the least influence?

AM: Playwrights like Charles Busch, Neil Simon, Arthur Laurents and Christopher Durang are all really influential. They are very much the folks I started off trying to emulate and after a while, find my own voice from. Also, I’ve always liked how David Mamet writes how people talk on the phone, I steal that pretty often. From Film; Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, Robert Rodriguez and Wes Craven are big influences as well. On the other end of that, I’d say my two favorite playwrights are also the ones that have had no real influence on my work. That’s Eugene O’Neil and George Bernard Shaw; I am deeply intimidated by their work. Candida and Long Day’s Journey Into Night are without a doubt my two favorite plays, but I don’t think my work resembles them or those plays at all.

TC: Describe your ideal writing setup. Laptop or longhand? Music or silence? Coffee or “Faulkner’s Little Helper”?

AM: I’m lucky enough to have my own little man-cave at home. So I still use a desktop computer (laptops and I have a strenuous relationship). I don’t do anything long hand, my handwriting is atrocious. I like being able to edit as I go and I don’t really have the romantic obsession with typewriters others do. I listen to a lot of music when writing; sometimes I’ll put together a playlist of songs that kinda resemble the tone I’m going for. “Camp Evil” was written to a lot of Styx, Peter Frampton, Bad Company and various 70’s stoner music. When I edit, it’s usually a quiet, concentrated time. Podcasts or silence is really good for editing. Writing and drinking has never really worked out for me. Coffee, if I’m writing at the beginning of my day.

TC: You have quite an eclectic cast assembled, including a very talented actress I once made out with in a zombie-related show. What kind of actors are you drawn to as a writer/director?

AM: Most of the time, I cast people because I see aspects of that character in the actor. But sometimes you have a person that can play anything. Sometimes, I use people who aren’t primarily actors, but who would do that specific role well. In truth, the kind of people I want/need to work with need to be kind of up for anything. The cast (and crew) we have for Terror-Rama is the best group I’ve ever worked with. Like, ever.

TC: You are serving only as playwright for “Camp Evil”, letting director Colin Johnson take the helm. Are you still active in the rehearsal process? You’re not one of those “back-seat directors”, are you?

AM: As Executive Producer, I was very hands-on at the beginning, I had some specific ideas that I wanted to be the foundation of the show. Like Sindie Chopper, the Horror host, she was a big element I pushed for. But now we’re in rehearsal and I’ve taken a big step back. There’s a quote by Tina Fey that I really like; “Hire brilliant people and get out of their way”. So to me, if I just meddled and micromanaged every aspect of the show, that would be a disservice to the people I hired. Some people can have one grand vision and execute every aspect of it, I’m not one of those people. I have learned that I like it much more when someone else directs my play. I can’t write and direct a play. In the best cases, the director sees something I didn’t and it’s better. I’m too reverent to my characters and writing. Colin has been perfect in this role; from day one he has always “got” the show. I was at the first read-through and then I didn’t go to rehearsals for two weeks. Now that we’re about to go into tech and we’re into run-throughs I’m around a bit more. But by this point, it’s very much their show, and I think this approach has worked out perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I find times to give my opinion. But I feel like Colin was given the space to make it his, and I love what he’s done with the whole show.

TC: You used to house manage at SF Playhouse. Have you ever based a character off of an annoying patron you’ve had to deal with?

AM: Patrons not so much, the most annoying ones aren’t that interesting. It was the people I worked with that were fascinating. Nick Pappas and I always talk about writing a pilot for an American version of Slings and Arrows based on the Playhouse. It is our dream to see Kevin Kline play Bill English.

TC: After reading the Terror-Rama Diaries at AwesomeTheatre’s website, this show seems to have had some difficulty getting off the ground. What motivates you to put on theater?

AM: Masochism mostly. But seriously, I get very frustrated when I hear people declaring theatre dead or dying because I find that to be patently false. Theatre as we know it now is destined to change, but that’s more natural evolution as dictated by what people want and react to. You have to keep it fresh. But the thing I think that will keep theatre around forever is that unlike every other form of entertainment, it requires more than one person to enjoy it. You can listen to music alone, you can look at a painting alone, you can watch TV, sporting events, and movies alone. You never have to interact with the people actually creating it. In theatre, there’s no way around it. Even if you’re the only person in the audience, you’re still in a room with actors and a couple of stage hands. You can’t have a theatrical experience all by yourself; theatre is unique in that sense. I mean, you can watch a play or musical that’s been recorded, but you’re really just watching a movie. I think that’s why I never got into film or TV, there’s an uncontrollable element to live theatre that I find appealing. If you want perfect, make a movie and it’ll be the same every time you watch it. But theatre has the ability to be different every time. Now in the case of Terror-Rama, I did initially pitch it to another group, and the talks went pretty far down the road but ultimately they didn’t really get it. That rings true for a lot of my projects, people don’t get it initially. Then they see it and they say, “oh now I get it”. So a big motivator for me is to take my crazy ideas that people don’t think will work and then prove them wrong. I’m really into converts, so I want to make theatre that attracts people who regularly wouldn’t go to theatre. If we can get those people in, then they can realize they do like theatre, provided they’re being told stories they want to hear. I’m less interested in what Theatre IS and more interested in what Theatre can be. It’s when we make hard definitions of the art form that people start to bemoan the death of theatre. I don’t think it will die, it just evolves. Being part of that evolution is what motivates me. And it’s the only thing I’m good at, so there’s that.

TC: And finally, what pearls of wisdom do you have for anyone trying to get a start as a playwright?

AM: It’s cheesy but, I think it’s important to spend a lot of time finding your voice. Knowing what you want to write and how you write it. So it’s not just writing a lot, it’s also finding out what inspires you and gets you excited about writing. Study the nuts and bolts of what it is that you like about them and what they do. Know what you like and know a lot about what you like. Also, sometimes only you will believe in your idea at first. Own your crazy idea and do it.

TC: My one In-Joke: Remember “Schuster Boys on Schuster Island”?

AM: Of course! Those damn Schuster boys; there was Jethro Scuhster, Mad Dog Schuster and their sister Lulabelle. Ah, wonderful times living in the Sunset.

Performances of “Terror-Rama” run October 17th-November 1st at the Exit Studio Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets.

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