Arts and Culture

Picture a Victorian graveyard and a terrified woman running for her life. Chasing her is an implacable predator, the vampire, Dracula. She runs and struggles but as the scene ends, he catches her, tears open her neck with his fangs, then greedily siphons out her life and her blood.

It’s a standard sight for Louisville audiences that attend Actors Theatre of Louisville’s yearly production of Dracula. This year, audiences will see something a little different. Though the script, adapted for Actors Theatre by William McNulty, is mostly the same — the sets are the same, the costumes — Actors is changing this Dracula, and letting the traditional victims like Lucy and Mina take an active role in the fight for their lives.

They’re doing it by reading between the lines.

Jonathan Roberts

David Ball and Kayla Peters in DRACULA, 2018.

Before rehearsals started, this new version of Dracula existed in the mind of director, Drew Fracher and the resident dramaturg at Actors Theatre, Hannah Rae Montgomery. Other higher-ups at Actors Theatre, like former Artistic Director Les Waters and current Artistic Producer Emily Tarquin, were also thinking about the show and talking about how it connects with today’s audience.

For Fracher, the new vision of the production started somewhere less philosophical and more practical.

“I always felt like it was a little too long. The first act is like, an hour twenty, so I started hitting [McNulty] up, to make some changes,” said Fracher.

Montgomery was more interested in the particular gender dynamics of Victorian England: looking at how those would affect a novel written at the time, and by extension, the script by McNulty. In this Dracula — which focuses more on the character of Lucy and less on Mina Harker — Lucy has for a long time been the one who gets to drive the final stake into the Count. But she didn’t get much of a chance to fight outside of that moment. Montgomery wanted that to change.

“When I first met with director Drew Fracher last fall, I mentioned that as a female audience member in 2018, it might be nice to see Lucy exercise a bit more agency in the fight to stop Dracula,” she said.

As a dramaturg, Montgomery isn’t writing a new play; rather she’s using a close reading of the text to reveal the play that is already there.

“Part of adaptation is about finding ways to make the source material newly exciting and relevant, in new and expanded contexts,” said Montgomery.

Montgomery and Fracher combed through the script looking for places to slim it down, and change a few words or a sentence here and there, before taking those cuts and changes to McNulty and getting permission to alter his work.

The trims to the script made more time to explore the action of the play. In any production, audiences eventually get a chance to hear the words, and see the onstage movement. What audiences don’t see are the stage directions, which are often sparse when it comes to details.

For example, the famous — and generally lengthy — fight between Mercutio and Tybalt in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” gives actors and directors just two words with which to work: “They fight.”

When it was time to choreograph the fights and create the blocking for Dracula, Fracher and fight director Jake Guinn filled in the details in such a way that highlighted Lucy and the other women in the play.

“We really ripped it back down and took another look at how we could make the action more athletic and more female-centric, and really throw down,” said Guinn. “The action that we managed to put together is pretty rad.”

That radness was facilitated by the kind of performers that Actors Theatre cast. Just like any other profession, different actors have different specialties.

“Hiring actors that could bring in a little more action, action that was going to be shared amongst all of the good guys and gals,” said Fracher.

To play Lucy, Actors brought in New York-based Rin Allen. Her special skills include unarmed fighting, firearms, rapier and dagger, small sword, broadsword, rappelling, and basic bullwhip skills.

Guinn recalled a specific moment from rehearsal, where Allen’s expertise shaped the show.

“We were like, ‘Hey Rin, can you do a body slam?’ and she was like, ‘Yeah,’” said Guinn, punctuating the sentence with a loud “Wabam!”

Jonathan Roberts

Rin Allen and Crystian Wiltshire in DRACULA, 2018.

Allen isn’t the only woman in the cast ready to fight. Kayla Peters and Silvia Bond, members of this year’s Professional Training Company (PTC), play Mina Harker and Margaret Sullivan, respectively. All the members of the PTC, the nine-month training program that Actors offers for young professionals, audition for parts in various shows a few days after they arrive in Louisville in early August.

“One of the parts of the audition was a rigorous fight call,” said Bond. “They were gauging how physical we could be in the room.”

Peters is an “actor combatant,” certified through The Society of American Fight Directors, and Bond studied stage combat in college, but said in Dracula she also draws on a broader theatrical movement vocabulary, including training in techniques that include Viewpoints, and The Alexander Technique. Bond said it helped her in the pieces of the show that weren’t always violent.

“Storytelling through movement is what we zeroed in on,” said Bond. “Through movement we’ve given storylines to the female characters that weren’t necessarily there. We’ve put it in different context.”

The play’s opening sequence, with one woman being chased and killed, provides a useful example. With dramatically altered visual and movement-based storytelling, that sequence tells a very different story. Now there are short vignettes, of multiple people, women and men, being attacked all over town.

“They are dealing with a predator for everyone. So it’s put everyone on a level playing field, and created a better context for the women in the show,” said Bond.

The smaller moments in the show can change just as much as the running, jumping and chasing. The internal lives of the characters, something the actors and directors work hard to flesh out, can give a sentence two completely different meanings. It’s not unlike the work Montgomery did as a dramaturg. Careful reading of the script can create and support new ideas. In fact “a reading” of a line or scene can refer to the way an actor reads a line out loud, or how a dramaturg or director interprets a line as they read the play before rehearsal starts.

The culmination of all the changes — small trims to the script, changes in the blocking, fine tuning the acting, reimagining the combat, and different readings of the script — comes together to tell a story that is simultaneously familiar and entirely new.

That story is set in Victorian England, but Actors Theatre hopes it reflects ongoing changes in today’s society.

Bond summed it up:

“We are part of the fight, and we will win this fight. Because these women are not victims. We are fighters, and survivors,” she said.

Actors Theatre’s Dracula runs until All Hallows Eve. Times and ticket information can be found here.