Cowan Palace: Drowning Kate and Other Halloween Scares with Morgan Ludlow

This week Ashley talks about scary stuff, plays, and candy with playwright, Morgan Ludlow.

The race to Halloween is on, gang! This is the perfect time to embrace all things scary, am I right? Well, this year, Wily West Productions has taken advantage of this spooky season with a suspenseful new play entitled Drowning Kate and you still have three more chances to see it. But before you do, you can learn a little more about the show and its production courtesy of its playwright, Morgan Ludlow, who kindly answered a few of my questions.

Morgan Ludlow

Morgan Ludlow

AC: So tell us where the idea for Drowning Kate originated.

ML: It actually came from a vivid dream I had about twelve years ago. It’s actually a recurring dream for me. I’m often just an observer in dreams. In this one a man’s wife drowns in a lake. He refuses to let her go. He keeps trying to resuscitate her over and over. Night falls, and finally, she awakens! The husband is overjoyed to have his beloved back. But after a few days he realizes she is different. As they go on he realizes his wife’s spirit actually died in the lake and he is now living with another person in his wife’s body. She looks at him and he knows it is someone or something else…

It’s not quite what my script turned out to be but it was the starting point. Dreams are definitely a source of inspiration for me. I have a notepad by the bed. I often only get fragments that are usable. An image. Sometimes there’s a bit of dialogue. A character. But occasionally an entire story of a dream stays with me and I can write a coherent version of it, and every now and then, I use it as the germinal idea to start a play.

AC: A dream come true! What was the process of getting this show up and running? Did it go through any major changes in the writing process from your first draft to the current script?

ML: This is the oldest script of mine that I have had produced. I wrote it about ten years ago when I took a playwriting class from Gary Graves at the Berkeley Rep School. I was reading Frankenstein at the time, which definitely influenced the play. I found Frankenstein more philosophical than scary. The novel made me think of people who push boundaries and break the rules and that helped me shape my main character for the play. DROWNING KATE started as long monologues with a few scenes. I had several readings in my living room. And the play moved more and more into action scenes. City Lights Theatre in San Jose picked it up for their new play reading series. They gave the play a couple of readings and were very interested in it – they wrote a grant trying to get funding for the play but it didn’t come through. I moved on to other plays. It sat for several years waiting. Then in 2012 we needed a full length for Spooky Cabaret and Wesley Cayabyab really connected with the script and had a lot of ideas for it. The reading for Spooky Cabaret had tremendous potential and made me see new possibilities for the script. Quinn, Wes and I realized that the house was key to presenting both Un-Hinged and Drowning Kate in rep. For one play you are inside the house and for the other you are outside the house. So here we are. The monologues are still there but they are trimmed down and Wes decided to make them into video bites presented on stage. Wes also really got into the wolves (which mysteriously appear after Kate is “revived”) – according to Wes the wolves are trying to lead the trapped souls in Kate’s body into the spirit world. This made a lot of sense to me and adds a great deal to the “spook factor” for the production. Wolves are howling, just outside the door, encouraging Kate’s spirit to cross over.

Colleen Egan and Scott Cox in DROWNING KATE.

Colleen Egan and Scott Cox in DROWNING KATE.

AC: Do you believe in ghosts?

ML: Well, just because I wrote a ghost story doesn’t necessarily mean I believe in ghosts. But in all truth I’m like a multiple personality on that question. Totally and furiously split. My logical “you must go to work” side says, “absolutely not.” The other, more spiritual side of myself that believes in the collective human consciousness, Edgar Cayce, and space aliens says, “not everything is known.” But I think it would be wonderful if the atheists were right. That this is the only dance we dance. That all the events that make up our lives is just random coincidence and not “fate.” Lovely. However I was reading that scientists are discovering patterns in our brains at the quantum level. Apparently this pattern could hold even after death. Is this pattern the soul?

AC: While horror movies continue to dominate the box office and generate millions of dollars, the genre isn’t very popular in the theatre world. Any thoughts about why you think that is? And did it push you to write a “scary” play?

ML: Well, we are all drawn to what scares us. Fear is one of those thrilling and immediate emotions – we are never more aware of being alive than when we are afraid. This is as obvious to Hollywood as it is to newspapers and the media that feed our culture’s addiction to fear. It seems like everything we read is based on some element meant to scare the bejesus out of us. But I don’t think it is just cultural. It is human nature to seek out the thrill of fear. To ride along the edge of death. It’s why we love roller coasters and rock climbing and nuclear power plants.

However that was not the driving force for me in writing the play. I’m well aware of the pitfalls of trying to do a ghost story on stage. There is something about live theatre that makes it extremely difficult to scare an audience. To be honest I’m not sure I can quite articulate why this is so. Perhaps it is that theatre is too immediate – and while we can get into the story – attempts at horror just seem “fake” as we know there are inherent limitations to what can happen on stage. Whereas in movies anything can happen, people can transform into bloodsucking monsters and destroy the city, there’s a lot of uncertainty in horror movies, and the uncertainty is part of the fun. Whatever the case it is extremely hard to scare people with a play. In theatre you can surprise, maybe startle people but that’s about it. So, that wasn’t even a goal of mine. I was working toward the mystery of my story. What happened to Kate? Did she drown herself to prove their methods of resuscitation would work? Did Harry do something to Kate? And what is happening to Kate? Is she brain damaged? Is she a zombie or ghost? Who is in her body now? I was more focused on peeling out the story of these two failed scientists than I was in scaring people. I think as a writer what I learned with this play is that I am not required to answer all questions or find explanation for every mystery. In fact it is better in some cases to leave some interpretations to the audience.

DROWNING KATE after the drowning.

DROWNING KATE after the drowning.

AC: Speaking of scary movies, are you a fan? Do you have a favorite Halloween film?

ML: Yes, I do like scary movies. When I was six years old my Dad took me to ALIEN and I loved it. It seemed like for years afterwards I loved seeing things explode out of other things. ALIENS is one my favorite movies. There is something very compelling about motherhood in that film that has always fascinated me. But recently I saw, THE OTHERS, with Nicole Kidman, which I think is one of my all time favorites.

AC: So what was your favorite part about watching this story performed in front of an audience?

ML: I only got to see one performance of the play but the production has the promise to be quite wonderful. Jason Jeremy created some chilling sounds for the show, the sound of ice slowly breaking apart starts the show, and the set designed by Wesley is amazing. There are always surprises for me as the writer because often the actors and director will see my story in an entirely different way than I do. In this case I think everything is aligned. What I love is that everyone is taking risks along with me and giving the show everything they have. Colleen Egan is giving a wonderful performance as Kate – you really feel like there is something eerie going on with her. It’s keeping the suspense up. And Scott Cox and Genevieve Perdue give really heartfelt performances. This gives the play a real emotional punch at the end.

Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue in DROWNING KATE

Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue in DROWNING KATE

AC: Along with the relationship of a husband and wife, we also get the chance to watch a relationship between two siblings in an extreme situation. Do you have any siblings of your own? And did they inspire any dynamics that made it into the play?

ML: I do have an older brother, Rhys, but I don’t think any of that came through this play. I think a lot of Harry and Shelley are more my parents dynamic actually. They were both ballet dancers in the New York City Ballet – at the top of their field. And they worked together throughout their careers of being teachers and artistic directors of ballet companies all over the U.S. My father was the dreamer, the experimenter, the choreographer and chaos-creator, the one who would come up with crazy ideas and my mother generally accurately assessed the consequences of those ideas – as she often had to implement them. And I also think I was influenced by my father being a professor at the University of Utah for 25 years. He thought he was going to be working with colleagues who understood his work. Instead there was nothing but in-fighting and petty personal agendas. Apparently it is not at all unusual for faculty within a department to have colleagues who despise one another. Much more so than other work places. It’s complex (and of course dependent on the situation) but generally there is something about the set-up in academia that pits professors against each other – the betrayals, lies and back stabbings are ghastly – to the point that many brilliant ideas and successful programs are destroyed because of politics. I think that is where some of Harry’s bitterness comes from – is that his ideas were never fully considered because of political reasons. But isn’t that what every scientist and great creative thinker is up against? Sometimes it is hard to know when to stop.

AC: The play centers around characters who are very committed to their work; did you find that you had a similar type of focus while you were writing?

ML: This play, for me, is about failure, ego and loss. All things I am intimately familiar with in abundance. I’m drawn to success stories but I’m even more fascinated with stories of failure. As Americans failure makes us uncomfortable. We are geared for ways to “fix things” in our lives, to celebrate only the successful stories. But nothing reveals a character or person more than when they are failing. Especially when they try like hell not to fail. Perhaps that’s why I love Chekov so much. Failure has the ability to completely transform us and says so much about who we are at the core. I wanted to explore how the same elements of success can also lead to failure and loss. In this play our main character, Harry, is basically a failed scientist. He took risks and they didn’t pay off. His colleagues, even his own sister, think he has gone too far. His ego is also telling him to keep going and not give up. That he will find an answer. To take even more risks. It’s sort of Harry’s blind spot in a sense. It throws him off balance. He doesn’t see what is happening right in front of him. His ego kind of engines him through the most horrible consequences – things that make the audience cringe. It isn’t until the very end, when he has lost everything, that Harry can let his wife go.

Genevieve Perdue, Colleen Egan, and Scott Cox: working hard.

Genevieve Perdue, Colleen Egan, and Scott Cox: working hard.

AC: What’s your favorite Halloween candy?

ML: Candy corns. By the wee fistful.

AC: What can we look forward to seeing with Wily West Productions in 2015?

ML: We will be having our annual meeting in January so we are still gathering ideas for 2015. We are going to do some “deep theatre exploration” next season – which means we are going to be reaching out to other artists in the community and seeing where we can partner and collaborate with them and what new directions we can take. We have a lot of wonderful plays by local writers in our vaults and we want to do several staged readings and workshops of some of our favorites. We are going to try some more interactive events where the audience has a chance to participate on the outcome of the evening. We are also going to be trading plays by local playwrights from other cities – like Seattle, L.A., Salt Lake and Vancouver. And we will be doing another production of a multi-authored show in the summer possibly in rep with something else. We will keep our audience updated on our website: http://www.wilywestproductions.com

AC: Tell us what’s next for you! And where we can see more of your work.

ML: I’m working on a Holiday show about Edgar Cayce the famous American psychic. I’m also working on a domestic comedy about a man who thinks he’s found his birth mother. And it seems like I’m always working a zillion short one-acts. I’m going to be directing one of my own plays, THE TERRORIST, in Seattle next spring!

AC: And lastly, why should people come see Drowning Kate?

ML: DROWNING KATE is a “horror story with a heart” which only the coldest of hearts wouldn’t find intriguing. Who doesn’t want to see someone try like hell to save his wife from death? And let me tell you: I think we give you that dark ride and we deliver some powerful emotions about loss and grief to boot. Not bad for $9 bucks.

Drowning Kate, starring: Scott Cox, Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue and directed by Wesley Cayabyab, plays October 17, 23, and 25.

Drowning Kate, starring: Scott Cox, Colleen Egan and Genevieve Perdue and directed by Wesley Cayabyab, plays October 17, 23, and 25.

Pictures: All pictures provided by Jim Norrena (excluding Morgan’s Halloween inspired headshot)

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