Thrillpeddlers’ artistic director Russell Blackwood talks shop before the opening of Marat Sade

Thrillpeddlers presents Peter Weiss’ The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Photo credit: Thrillpeddlers.

This week, Thrillpeddlers will open their new production of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade at Brava Theatre, for a limited run of only 15 performances. This promises to be a must see event!

On their website, Thrillpeddlers’ work is described in very simple terms: “Thrillpeddlers have been performing authentic Grand Guignol horror plays, Theatre of the Ridiculous, and lights-out spookshows in San Francisco for nearly 20 years.” The description does not do justice to the outlandish, original, unlike-anything-else theatre adventures the company has provided under the direction of the wildly talented and rather eccentric Russell Blackwood.

The company began presenting their hallmark piece, “Shocktoberfest” back in the late 90s, with posters that featured the advertisement: “Horror! Madness! Spanking!” and a bill that included original authentic Grand Guignol revivals and the world premiere of an erotic Victorian play about the corporal punishment of schoolgirls. Their promotional website heralded the company as “San Francisco’s favorite theatrical deviants” and promised “an evening of one-act plays so shocking, no one else would dare to produce them.” This was not hyperbole.

More recently, the company has been reviving the work of the fabulous Cockettes, who achieved fame back in the 1970s as San Francisco’s own psychedelic drag queen troupe performing such gems as “Journey To The Center of Uranus”. The revivals, including members of the original Cockettes and their offshoot, Angels of Light, have been a huge success.

Russell Blackwood, founder and artistic director, is the driving force behind this original brand of over-the-top theatrical insanity. He has attracted collaborators of international eminence such as playwrights Clive Barker and Eric Bentley, Grand Guignol historian Mel Gordon, San Francisco’s topless pioneer Carol Doda, Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn and, of course, the extraordinary musical talent Scrumbly Koldwyn of the original Cockettes. Prior to founding Thrillpeddlers, Mr. Blackwood spent a decade as a director for the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival and has directed opera for both San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute. He is also one of the most accomplished comic drag performers imaginable, comparable, in this reviewer’s opinion, to the great Barry Humphries, creator of Dame Edna Everage.

Russell Blackwood, founder and artistic director of Thrillpeddlers. Photo credit: Thrillpeddlers.

The Storming Bohemian (cest moi) recently met with Mr. Blackwood at the company’s Hypnodrome Theatre, where Blackwood had been conducting his summer horror day camp for a group of enthusiastic teenagers. In the interview that follows, the Storming Bohemian’s remarks are in boldface while Mr. Blackwood’s are in regular type.

So, you work with kids dealing with horror and blood?

Oh, yeah! All that stuff . That’s what they love. Ha! Ha! Ha!

Does anybody say, “What are you doing? Are you out of your mind?”

Not so much “out of your mind”. I guess the most politically correct response was one time when the city was doing a camp fair. I was at our table telling information about the camp and doing makeup demos. Bruises, cut fingers, noses, you know, with mortician’s wax, and I did have some lady come up and say, “These are at risk kids! How can you be doing this gore makeup on at risk kids?”

I mean, like, wouldn’t kids who are perhaps more likely to have violence in their lives deserve more exploration of that? And doesn’t makeup put them in charge of the look of their own faces and being able to deal with blood and bloodletting in terms that are their own or that are just strictly imaginary? I mean, to me, it totally makes sense that kids are drawn to horror because they’re interested in mortality. We definitely do deliver what we say we are which is a camp that focuses on classic horror. It’s not Freddy Krueger and stuff like that…

Are you a fan of Freddy Krueger?

No! And I don’t really go to haunted houses and I don’t see contemporary horror movies. For me, it’s more the old Universal classics films and also old B grade horror films.

How did you get into Grand Guinol?

Well, I grew up in Kansas City but I had a friend around the block, Daniel Zilber, whose dad was from Paris and when we were probably 10 or 11, he told us about the Grand Guinol for the first time.

We were working with my dad, who was a designer for the Missouri Repertory Theatre which is now the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. So we were into theatre, and we just thought that the idea of a horror theatre sounded really cool. We liked that it was old fashioned with girls in long dresses and Gibson haircuts and everything that seemed really different from what we were seeing in the movies. It seemed somehow more classic and classy and therefore the bloodletting was more of a shock.  And then, I think, in his freshman year of college, Daniel went to the library and he found a couple of Life and Newsweek articles from when the Grand Guignol closed down in the 60s.

Daniel visited me in my senior year at BU and we were in the bookstore and saw a big display of Mel Gordon’s book, the first English language book on the Grand Guignol. I bought it that day and then two years later I got a job at California Theatre Center in Sunnyvale out of BU…

As an actor?

 Yeah, and director. Two years after that I moved to San Francisco and was working for George Coates’s Performance Works and decided I was going to do an adaptation of this Grand Guignol play that’s in the book, Laboratory of Hallucinations. That was 20 years ago.

And that was before your time with the Shakespeare Festival or was it simultaneous?

 It was simultaneous. I had been maybe nine months or a year with San Francisco Shakespeare Festival before taking that on.

What did your colleagues think?

Generally, what theatre people used to think about Grand Guignol, when we first latched on to it, is that it was very much just a strange footnote in theatre history. It wasn’t really being produced. It’s changed, though, because I think we have done a certain amount at least in San Francisco, and we’ve changed perceptions. I think even internationally, we’ve done something to get the word out about it.

What is the connection between Shakespeare and Grand Guignol?

Well, maybe not Grand Guignol so much, but I think there is a clear connection with Marat Sade in that Shakespeare’s plays and Marat Sade are language pieces. They are thinking pieces. They are heightened pieces that are able to be about both the story of the play and also about big ideas at the same time.  They are different than Grand Guignol which is really more naturalism and melodrama.  This is something different. And yet there are certainly Grand Guignol-esque aspects to Marat Sade.

What about Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus which you have directed for Thrillpeddlers? Grand Guignol?

That’s tough to say because the Grand Guignol started as an experiment in naturalism, a splinter fringe of realism. Things onstage needed to be observable in real life. Like the bloodletting, like plays about madness, prisons, low lifes, all the kinds of things that plays hadn’t been about previously to that. Naturalism was concerned with all that. Also, the plays happened in real time. So you would get short plays. You weren’t going to see two hours of  real time at the Grand Guinol, you would see ten minutes.

So, with Titus Andronicus, we were not really doing Grand Guignol, but rather using Grand Guignol technique in a larger form.

With Marat Sade, or with the original pieces we’ve written, I loosely say “in the style of” or Grand Guignol-esque. Grand Guignol has come to mean over-the-top blood letting, y’know.

What’s the connection between Grand Guignol and some of your other areas of interest, such as gay theatre and drag. Is there one, really?

 Well, a big connection is that gay people like to have fun at the theatre.  Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

I think it’s that theatre of the ridiculous, like the Cockettes, latches on to genres and maybe just sentiments that have been deemed antiquated by society and cast off. It latches on to those things, reorders them, perhaps repurposes them and makes something new and wonderful out of these things that were cast off.  It’s what the Cockettes were doing with their vintage costumes. Those came from thrift stores and they were beautiful. Those clothes were made for skinny ladies who were smaller in the 1930s but look at these skinny guys that we have now. So the idea that society would decide that something is old hat and not worth anything makes it gold to a practitioner of the ridiculous. We can breathe a contemporary life and intention and, I think, a queer sensibility into these things. The original users didn’t even acknowledge queer culture, although, maybe, the originals were created by queers.

Going back to Grand Guinol, is there a connection, do you think, between queerness and horror?

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Clive Barker! Ha ha ha ha ha! But sure there is. Whether it be dark secrets or extreme emotions or being a freak or an outsider…

When you perform in drag, is the experience similar to performing Grand Guignol?

Russell Blackwood as Madame Fu in the Thrillpeddlers revival of the Cockettes’ Pearls Over Shanghai. Photo Credit: Thrillpeddlers.

 Yeah. For me, I would say that it is a matter of the things that we get to do onstage. To be strangled for a good ninety seconds on stage and then expire is something one never forgets once you get to play a run like that. To get to play Mother Foo and tap dance while wearing a dress is just priceless. Its not an experience that Arthur Miller or even Tennessee Williams is going to give you. Although Tennessee Williams can be both Theatre of the Ridiculous and Grand Guignol. There are plays of his that would feel right at home on bills of either of those things.

There’s one more thread I want to pull, Russell. I promise I’m going to ask about Marat Sade; I know this is about promoting the new production and we’ll get there. But I want to ask about opera, because that is another of your major interests. There’s Shakespeare, Grand Guignol, Theatre of the Ridiculous, and then there’s opera.

 Yeah!

Opera, of course, is not realistic. You talked about the realism of Grand Guignol, but of course opera, although also over-the-top, is not realistic at all, is it?

Well, I like theatre that one would, I think, prefer to see live on a stage, rather than in a film.  On stage, it can’t be overdubbed. You can’t stop filming and pour blood on somebody or make a cut or whatever. So, the thing that is so exciting about seeing opera is its being live and being up close to it, that kind of other worldly “how do they do that” kind of sense to get from an audience is similar to a blood letting event on stage where you don’t know how the slight of hand is working. Its getting to see something out of the ordinary, almost impossible, and live in front of your face.  The drag is like that as well. The tawdry spectacle of the Cockette shows. The imaging of characters that seem to go as far as your imagination can take you…

Tawdry?

Ha ha ha ha! Yes, tawdry. Sure it’s tawdry!

Not for me!

Ha ha ha ha. I feel like those things, though you can make movies out of any of those things that I’ve specialized in, to me they are a live theatre experience and the theatre should be looking now at what it does best and do it and get better at doing it.

You said something that excited me because you pinpointed something I feel about the theatre that I hadn’t articulated, which is that sensation of “How the heck did they do that?”

 Right!

And the audience can look around in the theatre and they can tell we made it all by ourselves. They can sense from the number of seats and what they paid for the ticket and the fact that there are forty people on the program that everybody is doing it for the love of it. And even if they can’t do the detective work and figure it out for themselves, they can see it in us: we’re doing it because we love doing it.

Why is this feeling of wonder and amazement so absent in our theatre? I’ve seen around 100 productions in the past year and very few have had that quality. Has it always been like that? That there is only very little really great theatre?

Well, there’s a point where I think I embraced amateur theatre. The idea of doing it for the love of doing it. I think people doing it to the best of their abilities and finding differently abled people to do it with. Maybe some of the productions that you are seeing are taking people from the same casting pool that wanna be on some kind of ladder or staircase that doesn’t exist in a strong way right now…

I’m assuming the problem isn’t unique to San Francisco. That I’d probably feel this way even if I were seeing theatre in New York.

Yes, that could very well be.

Actually, I’ve had friends come from New York and tell me that San Francisco is more exciting than New York right now. Broadway, they say, is just for tourists.

Yeah. There are certainly things that paying everybody a living wage can bring to a show, but one of those things is that everybody will treat it like a job, maybe, and a job that they are not going to have after the show’s over and I just don’t sense a lot of companies that are building allegiances with artists, necessarily.

In our case, we keep this tight family when it comes to casting . Of course, when it comes to casting something like Marat Sade, we do cast a broader net. I wasn’t going to kid myself that we necessarily had the right actors for all the roles in our existing company…

Had you considered producing Marat Sade before?

No. But I knew I had a date with destiny! I’d known of the show since I was a young teenager.  But I didn’t see the film until it was time to consider this production. I didn’t know much about the show, but I knew the full title and had seen photographs and kind of knew what it was about.  I somehow knew this was a play that some day I would be considering in the same way that I knew some day I would get to direct Medea, Cabaret and Titus Andronicus.

I take it you’re trying to do something different with Marat Sade than Peter Brook‘s famous production?

Aaron Mahlberg as Jean-Paul Marat, and Bonni Suval as Charlotte Corday The Thrillpeddlers producion of Peter Weiss’ Marat Sade at Brava Theatre, July 13 through 29. Photo credit: Daniel Nicoletta.

Oh, yeah! I didn’t see the stage version. I’ve talked to a couple of people who did. I’m sure it was extraordinary. For me, you can’t separate out the Royal Shakespeare Company playing inmates, performing in Sade’s play. The play within the play conceit included the Royal Shakespeare Company being the players. But here, the Thrillpeddlers are the players. Latching on to the play within the play conceit is, to me, a great deal of the richness of the piece and Sade’s choice of how the play is cast and what that illuminates about the character from history based on who is playing it, knowing that these actors will be susceptible to the imagery and the feeling in the language. Sometimes his casting choices are sadistic casting choices, y’know?

The Grand Guignol, of course, very much concerns itself with madness and asylums. Binet, the psychologist who invented the IQ test, actually wrote many Grand Guignol plays. Madness is interesting. Its fun to have people playing inmates playing characters.

Will this be pretty bloody?

It’ll certainly be graphic. The blood is all still being negotiated and will be saved, as in Grand Guignol plays, until late in the play.

And musically?

Well, Scrumbly Koldwyn is the musical director and he has done new orchestrations for this production, rather than using the original score. It’ll be electric keyboard, trumpet, soprano sax and drums. Those instrumentalists get involved in the action of the play as well. Of course, they are inmates too.

It sounds very exciting! Let me ask you, why now? Is there a connection between the circumstances of the play and current times?

Oh yes. I think there are connections. I have had a growing sense that while Grand Guignol and Theatre of the Ridiculous do address social issues and ideas, they don’t necessarily do it in the full front way that I wanted us to be working and I think this play allows us to be more bold and literal in terms of taking on political ideas… but I hate to minimize them by calling them “political”.

That’s a fascinating thing that you just said! Why is it minimizing to call something “a political idea”. That’s a bizarre thought!

It’s the way “political” is being used right now.

I mean, political ideas created the American Revolution, the French Revolution, Ancient Greece….

Yeah. But look at what they’ve done to the word “terror”. I used to say that we were a “terror” theatre but now I think twice about it because “terror” has been usurped, right?  Well, “politics” has been usurped as well.

Nowadays, it is belittling to say something is a “political idea”, when in fact it is “political ideas” that have made history.

Exactly!

Tell me more about what it’ll be like to see your Marat Sade.

The show has many, many scenes that will take you from pantomime with a monologue going on to a big spectacle musical number to a debate… in some ways it is structured in the way that you would structure a variety bill or a revue. I’m very much looking for the differences in each of these scenes and am keyed into what Peter Brook talked about in calling it a piece of total theatre where you are drawing on every convention and trick and theatrical tool that you have at your disposal to make a lively and engaging piece.

So your production is not an academic exercise or an exercise in nostalgia: this is going to be very much “in your face” theatre.

Right. And yet, as with Theatre of the Ridiculous, it is for the people who are contemporary with the original to get a chance to come back and remember or if they missed it to see what it was all about or if they’ve seen the film or heard the music but never seen the play.

For people who have never heard of the play, what should they know?

Start with the full title: “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under The Direction of the Marquis de Sade“. Well. Wickipedia anything in there that floats your boat and you’ll begin finding out the richness of the material.

I certainly wrestled with my intention about program notes. What does an audience have to know heading in? I think I am bold to say that there will be enough for them to latch on to. I don’t think they will feel stupid if they don’t know the French Revolution.

We will make connections, between the three periods – the French revolution, 1968 and right now. And being Thrillpeddlers, we have something to offer from our kind of otherness. There is an otherness about this company, a freak theatre, and that is encouraged and so there are freak voices that are handling these words. And that makes a difference! It’s all these interpreters, lots of them are on the fringes of any society. Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

So what is this play going to be in these people’s mouths as opposed to The Royal Shakespeare or a company that you would just cast trying to get the best actors? That’s a big part of what interests me.

Anything left to say about this?

Well, we have a wonderful company of designers and leaders working on this play. It’s all people who are saying “we want to do this play, we want to this play now, we believe in the fit with Thrillpeddlers.” We have company members as yong as 18 and as old as 71. We have two of the original 12 cockettes are in this show! It’s an amazing group.

I’m eager for everybody to see the piece!

Thank you, Mr. Blackwood.

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