Off in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains—not yet in the hills, but you know you’ve been gaining altitude as you approach—sits the Mountainview Cemetery and Mausoleum. Pulling into the parking lot of the Mausoleum at dusk is slightly eerie. You know the feeling, the kind you used to get as a kid when driving by a cemetery. The imagination takes flight and all the headstones or wall markers signal the thousands of stories that are now gone, forgotten, laid to rest… or are they?
The mysteries of life and death, the barriers between the two, the paths from one to the other are a seemingly endless trail of stories. From folklore to mystic tradition, from campfire ghost stories to the short tales of mystery by great authors, there is a tickle of the human heart, the dark questions of facing the unknown.
On a rainy evening back in 2007, Paul Millet and Jonathan Josephson were on their way to a tech rehearsal at the Chance Theatre in Anaheim. Paul was driving, and the conversation fell to a question that Paul had posed to a friend, Jeff Rack, “What would a Halloween Theatre Festival look like?”
If the sun had been shining, and traffic pulsing along at breakneck speeds, would the question have even arisen? Who knows, but it was getting dark, it was raining and the only good thing about being in rush hour traffic on the 210 freeway was that they were not in traffic on the 5. The sparks of imagination began to fly and Unbound Productions, yet to be named, was born.
The two men, along with Jeff Rack, had all committed themselves to a life in theatre, Jeff was designer and director who also happened to be working at the Chance at the time, Paul, who had spent the previous half dozen years directing shows and occasionally writing, and Jonathan, who had worked with a number of theatrical institutions while pursuing a career as a writer, was working at the Chance as Literary Manager. All three were brought together by chance, at the Chance.
A year later, there had been enough thought and energy put into the concept of bringing spooky stories to the stage that scripts had been written, a company assembled, and, with a few phone calls, 13 staged readings at 13 different venues were booked. There was more than a passing interest in the offering.
The next step was to put this on a stage, but which stage? Fate would have it that both Paul and Jeff had worked at Theatre 40, where David Hunt Stafford was and still is the Artistic Director. While Stafford was not sure that a Halloween-themed show was a good fit for his theatre, he still saw the potential in the show and pitched it to the city of Beverly Hills as a replacement for a production that had dropped out of the city’s famed Greystone Mansion.
It was a perfect pairing: the building, supposedly haunted, was no longer a working theatre, but there was enough character in the environment to enhance the production. What is now known as Wicked Lit was born. Wicked Lit would become the umbrella name for the various productions produced by Unbound Productions.
Unbound Productions is so called as it’s at least a triple entendre. Stories that had been previously constrained to the page were now unbound onto the stage, the performance space being more than just a theatre, and all the produced works were adaptations of often told or read stories and unpublished works of theatre until unbound by Unbound. That has since changed though, as there is now an anthology of some of these stories published and available for production through Stage Rights.
Back at the Mausoleum, the site of the current Unbound production, a crowd begins to gather in the dimming light. As groups assemble, characters begin to appear, acting out little vignettes—tickles of what’s to come during the adventure of an evening.
Being in a cemetery at night presents its own gift to the psyche, but walking through the halls of a mausoleum only illuminated by flashlight or torch certainly assists in an air of foreboding. Ushered into a conclave, audiences are drawn into the actions of the play, the sounds and sights enveloping you as the ominous presence of the environment sits on your shoulders. When the tale is over, it’s time. Time not to relax and breathe, but time to move to the next performance space, through the halls that echo with the quick steps of those not wanting to be left behind.
And so goes each presentation, from one to the next, until the end, when you have witnessed and participated in an event not soon to be forgotten.
There are no details left unattended, from the introduction to the world of the plays, to the passage from space to space, to the exit which brings you back to a star-filled night—all orchestrated and managed to fully engulf the audience.
For ten years, Unbound Productions has been producing site-specific productions. This year, there will be two performances a night on selected dates from October 4 to November 10. The entire evening is called Wicked Lit: The Chimes and The Corpse and you can visit the website http://unboundproductions.org for details.
But there is more to this story. Unbound offers new opportunities for artists, new adventures for audiences, and unending peeks into the great literature from the past. These productions remind us that there are stories that sparked our imagination long before CGI.
Unbound Productions sits at their ten-year anniversary and can look back with pride at their accomplishments. Not just the Halloween Theatre Festival, which is now just a wink in the rearview mirror, but a growing canon of plays not just by the principles, but by writers from throughout the LA community. While Jeff is no longer an active part of Unbound productions, his presence is missed and his contributions always welcome.
The base stories are drawn from diverse cultures, and speak to audiences well beyond the traditional. Last year, another site-specific event was Holmes, Sherlock and The Consulting Detective. Earlier this year they presented the First Stab Festival.
Paul Millet recalls a conversation from years ago with a mentor from the Laguna Playhouse, who advised, “Don’t just set your sights on creating great theatre, find something that only you can address, a unique passion that will sustain you.” Life in theatre is a long journey. Often one doesn’t realize they are on that path until they have spent some time living there. Paul Millet and Jonathan Josephson are on that path.
We have little to do but embrace the effort, join the ride and celebrate the victories. For every spark of life that is reflected to us, the audience, is an opportunity to touch and commune not just with each other, but with all those souls that surround us, wherever we are.