Meet the Cast: Vanessa Cate

introducing.carmilla

Vanessa Cate qualifies as a triple threat. Not only an extremely fine actress, she’s a playwright in her own right as well as a gifted director. And we are very fortunate to have her play the title character.

First off, tell me something about yourself. Who is Vanessa Cate?
I am a California native with a passion for the theater. I work as a writer, director, and actor. I’ve been working mainly at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater, but have also recently started my own theater company ‘True Focus Theater’ and am in the process of planning its first independent production, ‘Cat-Fight’.
What kinds of roles have you played before now?
All types. For awhile I was playing a lot of strong, crazy women. And for the past few years I’ve been doing a lot of horror and a lot of cabaret. I think Carmilla will be a good culmination of aspects from all that.
I already know the answer to this, but how did you come to hear about this production of Carmilla?
The writer approached me with the idea – very enthusiastically, by the way – as he was still writing it. Lesbianism and vampirism are two things I’m into, and hearing that he had me in mind for the title role, well it was flattering at the very least.
How are you approaching the idea of playing a 200-year-old lesbian vampire?
I suppose when you put it like that, I have quite a lot to live up to, haha. Vampires have a lot of power, but they don’t have to flaunt it. And Carmilla tries to blend in with the humans around her as much as possible. Much of it will be nuance. And this ain’t her first rodeo. I think she is used to a lot of what happens around her. She’s seen how people react to her before – it’s almost scripted in a way. But what surprises her is Laura, and as a vampire can feel certain sensations in a heightened way, I think a sense of companionship, mingled with a feeling of desire and even hunger that only a vampire can understand, I think that will be the most challenging and interesting aspect. So the connection with Laura will be my focus. 
For that matter, what do you think of vampires in general–especially as characters on stage or screen?

I adore vampirism, and have always had a fascination. It has influenced me in many ways, from the make up I wore in high school to my writing. Whenever the subject matter is a vampire, I am instantly into it. The idea of a predator that could kill you so utterly, and yet you are drawn to it. That’s sexy. And tragic. Though vampires are entering into a strange period where pale heartthrobs somehow don’t need human blood and fall in love with teenage girls, I think we’ll evolve out of that. 

When the audience leaves after each performance, what do you hope they’ll feel about your character?

I hope to have seduced them. 

Finally, what question would you like me to have asked about this role or your performance or the play in general? And what would be your answer?

I think it was perfect the way it was. Some things have to remain a mystery.

Auditions Scheduled!

Basic RGBWe’ll be having auditions in a couple of weeks here in Los Angeles. The play i will be staged in North Hollywood in February or March 2014 (just before Pilot Season). Exact dates to be determined, but Fridays and Saturdays look by far the most likely. By far!

Anyone interested should show up Saturday October 26, 1pm- 5pm at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood (this is the home of Visceral Company, doing a splendid show at the moment–Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite).

Here’s a list of who we need:

Woman (lead), 20’s, Caucasian
Men (2), 30’s to 70’s, Caucasian
Women (2), 30’s to 70’s, Caucasian

PLEASE BRING — Headshot and Resume stapled (or glued) together.  Prepare a Monologue (1-3 minutes) from a play, such as the works of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Peter Shaffer, Tom Stoppard, etc.  Sides will also be provided.

If you like, you may also join the Facebook Event page for these auditions. Please spread the word!

Previous Carmillas: “Blood and Roses”

Blood and roses-LocadinaI have seen every single filmed version of Carmilla with two exceptions–the BBC one from the 1960s (starring Jane Merrow, almost certainly lost) and the French t.v. miniseries from the 1980s (still looking for).

Blood and Roses, directed by Roger Vadim, one would think might prove rather faithful to the original. At least we Americans have that impression of European filmmakers.  In fact it varies quite a bit. One gets the sense–not for the last time–LeFanu’s tale ended up as little more than a partial inspiration for somebody else’s story.

Which doesn’t mean this translated into a bad film! Hardly!

Vadim’s flick to a real extent relies on the vampire’s POV, initially from her grave where she sleeps, waiting for the right series of events for her resurrection. As such she seems to spy voyeur-like upon the modern Karnstein family.  Just like the audience in fact! Of course, that is an English-language addition. The uncut, BloodandRoses11untampered original contains far more ambiguity, thus matching LeFanu more in tone if not plot.

We meet Leopoldo De Karnstein (the story has been moved to post WW2 Italy), and his cousin Carmilla (a lookalike to reputed vampire ancestress) who moodily watches Leopoldo announce his engagement to her friend Georgia.  We’re also told of the vampire legend, of Mircalla who married her cousin Leopold but died and then seemed to devour every young lady Leopold sought to wed for the rest of his life. Carmilla goes wandering into the family tombs on the grounds of an abandoned monastery or convent. She camp0209-01encounters what seems to be the vampire’s tomb, screams, and emerges from the ruins somehow different. She hovers near Georgia in all kinds of semi-erotic situations, while the latter has an amazing dream about them both. Local girls begin dying suddenly. People begin to fear a vampire! Carmilla herself seems to die falling on a farming machine, but a hint continues that perhaps…just perhaps…her soul has transferred to Georgia. She has her Leopold again.

blood and roses_smThe biggest praise I can offer this film remains its look and atmosphere, all of which help recreate the odd sense of mystery the novella possesses. Even the famous costume worn by Mel Ferrar as Leopoldo, with its sweeping Renaissance cape and winged bat mask, highlights how tables are being turned. The vampire here is not a dashing Dracula-esque male, but the pretty blonde. He is in a real sense her victim, as she seems to consume the woman he loves. On the other hand, how come he never notices? Likewise, as lovely a presence as Annette Vadim may be, her Georgia comes across as a cookie cutter ingenue. Why should bloodandrosesstakecopy6Leopold notice a complete change in her personality, after all? The man doesn’t pay any attention to such things. Was Vadim himself commenting on this, or simply buying into a subtly mysoginistic formula?

Either way, the whole story becomes something different by shifting focus away from the female victim of the vampire and their relationship. Making it about a rivalry for the same man hardly echoes LeFanu’s themes of the feminine versus masculine. Rather it tumblr_latqc8EwUN1qa95wro1_500places the Male at center stage, not only as far as power in this world but in terms of value, plot and motivation.

Also, I’m left with wondering why the update? Financially it makes more sense rather than making a costume drama, of course. That seems logical, if unfortunate. Yet I see no justification in the script for moving the story about a century forward — save perhaps to juxtapose our modern rational world with that of a mystical past? That would be cool, and I don’t mind it.

Remember, if you want to help bring a brand new, erotic and disturbing as well as faithful version of Carmilla to the stage, just click on this fundraising link!

Is Carmilla Evil?

from 'The Blood Spattered Bride'

from ‘The Blood Spattered Bride

A friend of mine recently ranted about a dichotomy in modern vampire fiction. On the one hand we see the Byronic immortal longing to find true love. Then we find the human-shaped sharks with just enough humanity to be cruel. Easy to find examples, really. Look at Edward Cullen from Twilight, Barnabas Collins in all the many incarnations of Dark Shadows, Countess Marya Zeleska in the film Dracula’s Daughter as well as the title character in Varney the Vampyre. Then take a gander at The Lost Boys, at the creatures in 30 Days of Night or From Dusk Till Dawn.

What’s most interesting, though, are those undead characters about whom folks argue. The ones who don’t seem totally one way or the other. At least, not to everyone.

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Let Me In

An obvious recent example–Abby in the motion picture Let Me In. This is the English-language adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s brilliant novel Let The Right One In about an eerie and somehow touching relationship between a misfit little boy and the child vampire who moves next door. The American film starred actress Chloe Grace Moretz as Abby, the vampire.  Reviewers almost immediately drew up into two camps about her character. One saw Abby as a lonely child who hated being alone and found a friend/love/companion in Owen (played by Kody Smitt-McPhee). The other looked at the exact same performance and saw an immensely clever animal, a manipulator of vast skill pressing all the right buttons to recruit a new slave.

600full-scars-of-dracula-screenshot(Lindqvist confirms Carmilla inspired his own vampire story, not incidentally.)

Dracula himself has seen the same debate played out. Some insist the Count must only be a vicious predator of great charisma, much as Christopher Lee portrayed him in all those Hammer horror movies. Others prefer a more tragic characterization, far more like Gary Oldman in the Francis Ford Coppola film.

So which do I prefer? More importantly, which choice did I make when writing my own version of Carmilla?

Essentially, both.  One of the problems I have with most versions of the story is how they see Carmilla herself as an unremitting predator and really nothing

Nightmare Classics

Nightmare Classics

much else.  Apart from anything else, that surely makes for the least interesting choice possible. More, I would posit the story itself does not back that up. Consider how Carmilla resists feeding on Laura for nearly a month after she arrives. If you examine the times given, you’ll learn Carmilla did not wait so when targeting Berthe, an earlier victim. More, she even suggests leaving early, before starting to drink Laura’s blood! Seems like a case of mixed feelings to me, between conflicting desires.

Something else to consider–an issue LeFanu brings up in that subtle, intriguing way he has. When Carmilla is not visiting young women to feast upon their blood, where is she? She’s evidently not alone. We know she has an older female companion who says she’s the girl’s mother, complete with coachman who seem unpleasant in a quite visceral manner. The Polish television version actually hints

German play

German play

they might be dead people (a nice touch). Certainly they do not seem very pleasant company.

Might it not make sense Carmilla feels lonely? Might long for some more congenial company with which to spend the centuries?

Frankly, this leads to another question, at least as far as I’m concerned. Compare in your mind’s eye how the visit to Laura’s home might seem to Carmilla as opposed to where she usually spends her time? A beautiful home, with pleasant company, everyone treating her exactly like an ordinary human girl. She can pretend to be alive. Can brush the hair of this girl she evidently finds so very attractive.

Drusilla-Spike-Angel-promotional-images-buffy-the-vampire-slayer-12513398-2073-2560

Drusilla and Spike

At heart–and I’ve seen this even in the process of collaborative writing–I don’t agree with the premise of “Oh well, she’s a vampire so she must be evil!” For one thing, what a vague concept! What does one mean by evil? I usually get the impression they presume vampirism infects people with sociopathy.  This even makes some kind of sense sometimes, as in The Strain where the entire nervous system restructures itself–or Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the soul leaves the victim to be replaced by a demon. But even then, the most interesting vampires nearly always end up those who retain or regain some aspect of their humanity. Drusilla is still mad, after all. Spike makes for a far more fascinating character than The Master.

So that governed how I wrote the title character. Yes, she’s a vampire. A monster who preys upon other human beings. A predator who must have found some way to emotionally ‘live’ with her means of survival. Certainly capable of great ruthlessness. Yet…also capable of affection, loneliness, regret, even love. I also frankly suspect has a deep melancholy streak that surfaces when the funeral of her victim strays into view.

“Everyone must die! And all are happier when they do!”

That line speaks volumes, or at least it does to me.

Shifting Periods

masks1The research that went into writing The Annotated Carmilla led me to a very specific belief about the time period in which LeFanu’s story takes place. A character mentions a certain Grand Duke, who can only be one historical person, and then Laura talks about visiting Italy from Austria, which narrows it down further. Bottom line–it cannot take place later than 1846.

I set my theatrical adaptation in 1938.

Why?

Excellent question and I’m glad to explain. Begin by considering this–Carmilla had a specific impact, one we can presume the author intended. But that impact is dependent upon the context of his times, circa 1870. A very different time in many ways from our own! One particularly obvious one, at least to even amateur historians like myself, must be how readers react to the setting…

“In Styria…” With those words Laura begins her report of events. And where is Styria? Austria–a nation in the 19th century known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a land without a Parliament or Congress, without trial-by-jury, and held together by a secret police and threats of brutal military suppression. We do not think of Austria that way. Not anymore. Yet if Carmilla is hunted down by forces of a tyranny–as she is in the original–it adds something. A nuance. An ambiguity. Something a little less straightforward.

How to fix this? How to get the same reaction?

Quite simply, there seem two options available. First, shift the locale in place from Austria to a location a modern audience would think of the same way in that era. Germany might well work. Tsarist Russia might work even better! Or not. That does rather depend on the viewers’ knowledge of 19th century history. Or–shift the time period, to within a modern and well-known dictatorship. The makers of the new motion picture Styria did precisely that, setting their version behind the Iron Curtain! I decided on a different tyranny, hence my shifting to the year 1938. The year of the anschluss when Austria became part of the Greater German Reich, and in the process came under the authority of Germany’s dreaded Gestapo.

Other advantages pop up in moving the story forward as well. For example, an audience naturally finds it easier to slip into a story when the clothes, music, furniture etc. feel more recognizable. Consider Lawrence Olivier‘s Richard III against (or along side) Ian McKlellan‘s! Both contain great power, with top-notch casts performing very well. Yet the former feels more antique, a little less accessible, a fact Olivier realized and pulled many a trick to get around. The latter needn’t work so hard, for the simple reason on some level we understand many tiny details better. In Olivier’s film, to give one subtle but pervasive example, the costumes show men as society’s peacocks. They wear the elaborate hats, show off their hosed legs, are seen in splendid colors. Women remain covered virtually head-to-toe, with flirting a profoundly private thing. Not like our time at all! Now look at the McKlellan film, in which women don a elaborate array of outfits, show off some leg, while men garb themselves in business suits, tuxedos or uniforms. We recognize one pattern as that of our world, the other as someplace other.

Translating this to Carmilla, when Colonel Spielsdorf shows up sheathed in the black uniform of Himmler’s SS, that in and of itself tells us much.

More, it allows (or insists, really) the characters to behave in a more open way given the time period, decades closer to what we call “the present.” Any kind of intimate contact or hint of same ended up circumspect in the extreme by our standards, at least in LeFanu’s original text. By putting the story in the era of the radio and phonograph, I found an opportunity for Laura and Carmilla to dance! More, not the constrained minuets of the 19th century but a tango!

Decision about period made, opportunities opened up nicely as well. Remember, a play is not a novella. If one simply copies one to the other it rarely works. The two media remain fundamentally different experiences. Books we read, at our own rhythm and leisure. Plays we see and hear, at the pace and energy set by the production! So I eagerly grabbed the opportunity to let the radio intrude upon Laura and Carmilla, reminding them (and us) of the outside world  tightening its web.

Better yet, it allowed me to give a further context, bringing into sharp relief what remains almost hidden in the book. Laura in the text recounts her story to someone, someone who remains mysterious. This play gives that person a name, a voice, and most importantly an agenda. Someone to ask Laura questions, to doubt her word and motivations, to seek the truth.

And to be deceived by Laura, as we see the difference between what she says and what actually took place.

Things To Avoid Adapting CARMILLA

Having watched all but two filmed adaptations of Carmilla (there’s a French television one from the 1980s haven’t tracked down yet, and a lost BBC version from the 1960s), I feel qualified answering this question: What should anyone adapting LeFanu’s work avoid?

CryptV10The most obvious two things to avoid are pervasive in pretty much every single film version ever made. First, giving Laura a suitable male romantic interest. Why not? First and foremost, it completely alters the dynamic of what happens. A lonely girl growing up surrounded by much older adults in an obscure part of a foreign country must become a different person if she has a boyfriend. How not? Part of the seductive power of Carmilla herself lies in how she remains an outsider. Laura cannot help but feel the same way–she has no siblings, no playmates, not even a mother to teach her how to become a young woman. LeFanu’s description (through an unaware Laura’s eyes) tells of a home equal parts empty yet suffocating. Anyone functioning as a Prince Charming alters this. Instead of escape then, Carmilla becomes nothing but an invader, diminishing the layers of ambiguity. Yet that very ambiguity gives the story its power! Power here is key. Laura has none. But a brutal truth which explains something of the attraction Laura feels for Carmilla is that, in love, the one who loves least has all the power. In this case, that one is Laura.

vampire_lovers053Mind you, were Laura more-or-less betrothed to someone against her will, that might work very well. Providing her would-be paramour remains not her choice. On the same basis, we the audience need to understand why she doesn’t want this person. Which means creating an entirely new character (or altering an existing one–turning the elderly Colonel Spielsdorf into a younger man for example). I’m anything but opposed to that. But–does it achieve anything worth the trouble?

Possibly. However, that becomes a different topic.

The second most common mistake made is essentially to rob Laura of a personality. This highlights why Carmilla remains (at least in my humble opinion–okay, not soooo humble) a feminist classic. Western society assigns certain traits to different genders. Allowing women, for example, to display traditionally masculine traits becomes thus ground-breaking. Bravo to Buffy The Vampire Slayer! And Clarice Starling, River Song, Lara Croft, etc.!

Angel-Buffy-Shows-vampires-15859991-610-745On the other hand, therein lies a trap (one addressed by Caryl Churchill in one of my favorite plays of the XXth century, Top Girls). If we value women only when they behave like stereotypical men have we really accomplished much? Laura in Carmilla is by no stretch of the imagination a tough grrrrl or A-type personality. One might easily call her a waif. This invokes the stereotype of “mindless doll” which, in turn, degrades a big percentage of the human race. Male as well as female.

Writers do face a dilemma with Laura. She seems to take little or no action. Emphasis on “seems.”

This dilemma vanishes once you accept an essential fact about the story–the “action” consists of Laura’s emotions, just as the “setting” is Laura’s mind. Her feelings, her awareness of events, her reactions to people and events–this makes up the stuff of the story. When about ourselves, it also makes up the bulk of our own. How not? But then we face another dilemma–isn’t fiction supposed to be more exciting that real life? Yes, it should. Hence emphasizing the mystery and eroticism of the tale is the way to go, rather than artificially stapling onto Carmilla all kinds of action-adventure tricks.

617183_475726369125722_1254493957_oThat, not incidentally, makes for yet another trick to avoid in any adaptation–what I call copying Bram Stoker (or James Bond) . In a nutshell, folks who want to fit the story of Laura and Carmilla into a different kind of dynamic than the one it already is! Instead of drama, romance, addiction, mystery, eroticism and subtle horror they look for thrills and chills, action and adventure, heroics and daring-do. Consider Crypt of the Living Dead as well The Vampire Lovers, both of whom focus on the menfolk rushing against time to find the vampire’s lair and destroy her, thus saving the ingenue from a fate worse than death! Blood and Roses at least mixes this up a bit by having them fail, but never realizing it. One very cheap adaptation adds the thrill of Laura’s sister and husband trying to flee a small New England town transformed by Carmilla into a nest of the undead (very Salem’s Lot).

What none of these do is tell the story in LeFanu’s novella. He has Laura recount what happened about a decade after the fact (to whom remains unclear, but internal evidence suggests an older woman from a city). Doesn’t take much to realize she’s an unreliable narrator given her (subtle) contradictions and omissions. In the Victorian Era, what we see as little more than mild hints they viewed as akin to hardcore pornography. Much as with The Turn of the Screw, Picnic at Hanging Rock, even The Usual Suspects, a huge amount of background remains tantalizingly unclear. The major mistake folks generally make in adapting this story is avoiding the heart of what the author originally created.

Mind you the Polish television version from the 1980s and the upcoming independent film Styria (that I’ve had the good fortune to see) manage to avoid these mistakes quite neatly.

Hopefully, so have I!

Cast of the Reading!

295336_10151267312624506_13668514_nBack in July 2013 we had a reading of my play Carmilla. It proved a thrilling experience, which led in turn to a lot of improvements in the text. Now, I’d like to introduce you to some (albeit not quite all) of the wonderful folks who took part!

Amelia Gotham read both Laura and Carmilla at different times. I first saw her in The Turn of the Screw at the Visceral, a part for which she won an award. She has since won another for her role in Sherlock Through the Looking Glass. She wowed me at the time and wowed me again from the first word she uttered. Honestly she leaves me in a bit of awe.

Copy of 47350_1583450588655_5450894_nVanessa Cate read Carmilla and the Countess. She’s been in many shows, the first I saw being Hamlet. But since then she’s also starred in, directed and written numerous plays including Urban Death and Fragments of Oscar Wilde as well as A Down & Dirty Christmas Cabaret and the upcoming Kamikaze (a one woman show). She’s got an amazing stage presence as well as an unusual gravitas for someone her age. Plus a wicked sense of humor that radiates from her like heat!

amirAmir Khalighi read the part of Captain Martin (and if you don’t recognize the name from the novel–well, I’ll explain later). He’s a wonderful actor I’ve seen in such plays as Much Ado About Nothing and Whore’s Bath. Now he’s directing a show coming up about the poet Rumi, titled Rumination. He played a crucial role in organizing the Reading, even offering up his home as possible location. We didn’t have to go that far, but the offer meant a great deal.

mark.hein002Mark Hein , who read the part of Fontaine (Laura’s father) has become a good friend. He’s been a teacher at Pierce College, a performer in dozens of plays, most recently in To Kill a Mockingbird and before that in Urban Death. He’s also directed lots of plays and will now be directing another!  He has a quiet power on stage, and it doesn’t hurt that he understood in his bones pretty much precisely what I trying to do with the script!

douglas.eamesDouglas Eames came recommended by a film director friend, and I was very much impressed. He portrayed Colonel Spielsdorf, the “vampire hunter” of the story and in many ways the spiritual ancestor of Van Helsing (Dracula was published a full quarter century after LeFanu’s work). He captured the rather tricky ‘air’ and manner of how I re-imagined Spielsdorf (as an SS Officer in 1938) extremely well.

lili.bordanLili Bordan played Laura at one point and the rest of the time she played Madame Perradon (for which she is actually far too young and glamorous). Had the enormous good fortune to see her in The Shawl by David Mamet and we had a lovely conversation about theater and acting afterwards.  Having expressed interest in my play, she ended up invited to the reading where she did a splendid job! Really. I was very impressed (but then, having seen her work, I was not surprised).

sebastian.munozSebastian Munoz is an actor and director I’ve seen before, mostly as a director for shows like Attack of the Rotting Corpses as well as Captain Dan Dixon vs. The Moth Sluts from the 5th Dimension (which was really too much fun!). His most recent performance that I’ve seen was one of an ensemble in a Poe-laden work in North Hollywood simply dubbed The Raven. Honestly I was thrilled to see it! And it hasn’t surprised me how many of his shows have ended up extended! He did a very fine job in the important role of The Peddler.

To be fair, several others helped out as well, some of them doubling for various roles. But these folks played the major roles. Others who helped out included Tyler McAuliffe, Redetha Deason and Stephanie Bergman Kalighi (the latter two beautiful women Amir and Sebastian have the incredible good luck to love and be loved in return). Tyler read Mr. Fontaine, Redetha the Countess, and Stephanie also read the Countess. Everyone did a fine job with reading, but more importantly they gave invaluable feedback. Revisions that followed–which made the play better in quite tangible ways–arose from their shared perceptions and thoughts.

Cannot thank any of them enough!

Put Carmilla On Stage!

template2thumbPut Carmilla On Stage!

In 1872, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu published an important piece of gothic literature, the novella Carmilla. Not only did it influence many works that came after it from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw to Jon Alvide Linqvist’s Let the Right One In, but it created a new subgenre.

The Lesbian Vampire Story.

Now an adaptation of this seminal (or should that be “ovarian”?) work is on its way to the Los Angeles theatre scene. One that adds to this atmospheric, erotic nightmare the one thing it was lacking.

Nazis.