From Film to Theatre: Production Design for Night of the Living Dead

A cult classic sci-fi horror film for the ages, George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) has always been known for its strong noir feel, locations and influential design. For the first time ever, this instrumental piece of cinema is being adapted for the UK theatre. But how does one re-create these singular scenes on the stage? Our Head of Production Design Matthew Button spoke with theatre Director Benji Sperring and Producer Katy Lipson about the challenges of translation between spaces

Matthew Button: What drew you to re-create Night of the Living Dead for theatre? What challenges did you see from the outset?

Benji Sperring: I love horror generally – it’s the genre I will usually sit down and watch when I’m looking for some entertainment – and I think there’s something incredibly visceral about bringing horror to the stage. The combination of live action along with direct engagement with the audience is a perfect mix; it fascinates me that the genre isn’t more popular as it stands on stage – it’s ripe for fun! Challenge-wise, it’s about making the piece close enough to the original to please those who (like I do) fondly remember the original film, but also making it relevant to a modern audience who may not have seen the Romero classic.

Katy Lipson: I actually discovered the play when browsing the website of the licensor Samuel French. I am already a huge fan of the film and love zombie and horror films so something told me this was one for me! I knew the show had to be produced with high production values and I knew it was going to be hard to let audiences know what the show actually was which is why we’ve invested a lot in PR and Marketing exercises.

 

MB: Horror as a genre is widely achieved through close-up shots and structured framing. How do you recreate this for a wide stage? How do you 'direct' the audience's gaze? 

BS: Directing the audience gaze is just about isolation. The stage itself is easily compartmentalised – the design we’ve created has a number of areas which can be brought to the fore or taken out of focus quite easily through lighting and through action. There are quite a few stagecraft techniques, however, that we have employed to make sure attention stays on one area of the stage whilst other nefarious activities are taking place. It’s usually about the narrative thrust taking us to one area and large physical activity then keeping the eye, but that’s not a rule of thumb, more a guideline.

KL: Producing on the stage is very different to film although there are some interesting elements to our show such as monochrome sets and cinematic original underscoring. There may also be the element of some seats on stage which are immersive to a degree… we are creating a show for the space we are in.

 

Night of the Living Dead Live cast rehearsal

Night of the Living Dead Live rehearsal © Pamela Raith 

MB: Similarly, much of the tension of the film is credited to the control of emotion that is forced through in the edit. How do you intend to approach the 'shock' element without the ability of creative editing and jump cuts that are not possible with a live audience?

BS: Pacing is a really important part of the show, and it’s quite a microscopic art which has an element of ineffability. The actors we have are mostly musical theatre based, which helps an awful lot with instinct and the finding of beats; we’ve choreographed a fight in counts of eight (5! 6! 7! 8!) and then blurred the timings, but it means there is a shared language amongst cast and creatives. This does mean that in terms of held moments, and the suspense of reveals, etc., we are all very experienced.

KL: The show is a cross between comedy and horror; there is only a cast of 6 who multi-role so there is a frenzied pace to the show with shock factors and many scares!

 

MB: Considering the number and range of scenes in the original film, what strategy did you employ to / how did you approach re-structuring the story to fit the Act/Scene format of a theatre production?

KL: We didn’t actually write the piece and scene structure – it’s already in existence as a licensed show. However, we love the adaption and believe it honours the film as well as being fresh and with something new to say.

BS: The writers spent a lot of time considering the structure to make sure the horror – and then the comedy – were introduced to the story quite succinctly and definitely. It’s a cracking piece of scriptwriting.

 

MB: Night of the Living Dead premiered in 1968, and therefore has a strong sense of the time period though film grain, period lighting, etc. Did you attempt to recreate this for the theatre? If so how did you adapt the original design mood for theatre?

BS: We’re going entirely black and white in design, so the total mise en scene of the stage is monochrome – actors in makeup, set, props, blood, it’s all black and white. We’re also using a very specific style of lighting to make sure the emphasis comes from the 1968 original – for the audience it should be like watching the film come to life. There are lots of heightened chiaroscuro tableaux that hark back to the original arthouse nature of the Romero work.

KL: I had worked with designer Diego Pitarch before on The Addams Family musical and I knew I wanted him to get his hands on this. One of the most interesting elements is the monochrome setting of the show; his set is so stylish and effective and classy. I also had worked with Nic Farman, the lighting designer, before. Our show will have its own unique look but will fuse period and modern techniques to create the most powerful effect for an audience.

 

MB: Did you seek to render the theatre production in black and white as in the original film? If so did it – conversely – make the theatre production more 'theatrical'?  

KL: It’s something which the original creators suggest and we loved it so stuck with it! I don’t know any other show designed in monochrome so I am quite excited.

BS: We haven’t seen it on stage yet, but here’s hoping!

 

MB: How did you deal with location, specifically adapting landscape scenes and travelling sequences for the shallow depth of the stage?

BS: The adaptation of the work is set within the house for the most part, with some moments going outside the room, but mostly staying within one environment. I’m not going to give the game away, but I think there is something innately creative in setting rules like that for the show and then having to deal with solutions that stick within those rules; radial moments which happen outside the play have a creative way of staying within the walls, and I think the cast and I have found that the most challenging, but the most rewarding aspect of rehearsals thus far.

KL: The set design is incredible. We utilise areas of the stage for your upstairs and downstairs and have a staircase, gauze and an upstage area for the outside. There may also be a revolve for the audience to go on…

 

Night of the Living Dead Live cast rehearsal

Night of the Living Dead Live rehearsal © Pamela Raith 

 

MB: How do you plan to approach any SFX elements?

KL: We have the element of playing with light and sound. It’s incredible what you can do and how you feel when you see live actors in front of you too, rather than on screen.

BS: We’re going very classic – lots of blood-bags, historic effects for breakages and a bit of prosthetic work, but I think there’s something delightful about seeing it vintage. Hopefully, the audience won’t feel too ill, but there are no promises with some of the effects we’ve created. 

 

MB: Use of score contributes hugely to the film. Were you able to/how did you approach recreating the atmospheric sound in the theatre production?

KL: We have commissioned a composer to create a unique cinematic soundscape. As a producer I go a lot with my instinct and gut when choosing creatives; I had scouted someone from a previous show who I thought was very talented and introduced him to Benji and the rest is history. They work together weekly through his work, fine-tuning and adapting when necessary.

BS: The sound design for this show is entirely new, and Sam West, our Sound Designer, has been absolutely brilliant. The ambient sound – as well as new compositions for the world – is absolutely in keeping with the original intent whilst also drawing on a number of other horror influences. He’s done some cracking work and it makes our job on stage a lot easier.

 

MB: What was the most surprising thing you found about doing this adaptation?

BS: I suppose just how easy it is to create a terrifying effect on stage when the audience doesn’t expect it. There are some beautiful moments we’ve created that will be amazing to see on stage – a select number of audience members may be on stage with the actors… and I think part of the fun will be seeing just how we interact with them. It almost becomes a show in itself.

KL: I will answer that closer to the opening… so far it’s been very fun and truly exciting!

 

Night of the Living Dead Live runs at Pleasance, London from 9 April to 19 May 2019
Tickets available at
www.LivingDeadLondon.com