Annalee Scott plays a character far removed from her inspiration in the LeFanu’s novella! Baron Vordenberg in Carmilla is a nobleman living in genteel poverty whose ancestor once fell in love with a girl, a girl who became a vampire.
Elyse Ashton portrays The Countess, arguably the single most mysterious character in the entire story. LeFanu created a very unsettling atmosphere, in part by not answering certain questions. One of these remains the identity of the woman who claims to be Carmilla’s mother.
Tell us about yourself. Who is Elyse Ashton?
As an actress, I lean towards the classics and the bizarre. Some of my fondest theatrical experiences have been working on productions with the Grand Guignolers and Classical Theater Lab.Very different approaches and aesthetics! I’m an old goth and this girl loves to dance! It’s fun to work those elements into performances Theatrical life chose me, and every time I get discouraged and want to make a change, I am furiously swatted around by fate. My college degree was in French literature, and my studies led me to seek out and to love more literature written in my native tongue! I am a voracious reader and researcher. Languages, poetry and books fascinate me. As a woman… I like to remain a bit of a mystery!
Were you familiar with Carmilla before becoming involved in this project?
I am a a big fan of Lefanu’s writings and that’s what drew me to audition for this project. Lefanu’s home in Merrion square is one of the first places I visited in Dublin. Eighteenth and nineteenth century literature is my escapism, my happy place. I adore faithful film versions–and sometimes even the bad versions— of these books as well. In the 80’s I saw a crazy version of Uncle Silas starring Peter O’Toole on Masterpiece Theatre and knew I must search out and read Lefanu’s books. I never thought that Carmilla was done properly on screen, so I have developed very high hopes for this stage production after reading the excellent script.
So what do you think about vampires? Any favorites?
Oh…yes! Since the notion of vampires evolved into the more romantic, well mannered, rake and less the decaying, dirty, stinky versions of the myth over the last two centuries, there have been some lovely vampire characters that send me swooning. I have to go with Tim Power’s The Stress of Her Regard as one of my favorite vampire stories, because he includes some of my beloved romantic poets and even weaves in Lamia by John Keats. Baudelaire’s The Revenant is among the poems I recite before every stage performance.
How are you approaching your role as The Countess?
There isn’t much in the original text, so I am letting my imagination run amok. I like to do a very thorough background. She must have qualities that Carmilla values: loyalty, seductive charm and the noblesse which allows her to interact credibly with the sort of people with whom Carmilla wishes to make her temporary home. Perhaps she was an aristocrat without the money to continue her way of life. The setting of the play, between the wars, makes that a logical back story. She must have been left quite on her own, possibly losing her family in the Great War. She also has to be a creditable actress.
In the original story, The Countess’ identity remains a total unknown. She claims to be Carmilla’s mother. But what is she? A vampire? A ghost? Some kind of witch allied with vampires? Do you have a theory?
I haven’t made all my choices concerning The Countess yet. She isn’t Carmilla’s mother. Carmilla’s mother is a distant memory and would have held some sort of sway over her daughter, which The Countess lacks. there is a line in the story about how the Countess looks at Carmilla with an emotion that was not affection. No maternal bond. If she were her Carmilla’s mother, they could both insinuate themselves into households and work their spell. That would be a totally different story! There is an element fear, I believe, for the Countess in her dealings with Carmilla. The Countess is dependent upon Carmilla’s favor. I have not decided yet on the elements of her relationship with the supernatural. Her powers do not equal Carmilla’s, and I believe there has to be some hope of gain or benefit attached to the Countess. Of course, one meeting with the director and all these theories could go right out the window!
When the audiences leave the theater, how do you hope they’ll be changed?
I hope they’ll be lured into reading Lefanu and other writers of the period, especially after the unsettling yet glorious dreams which Carmilla is sure to inspire and then come back and see the show again.
Finally, is there a question I didn’t ask you wish I did? If so, what would the answer be?
Were you born in the wrong time? On the wrong continent? Yes. Absolutely! But I’m sure the ideal gorgeous European centuries of my imagination bear little resemblance to the reality. I treasure my modern human rights, medicine, plumbing and technology…but I still like flounce around in frou-frou dresses and tiaras when given the opportunity.
Amir Khalighi recently directed a wonderful piece based on the works of the Sufi poet Rumi. He also took part in the second reading of an earlier draft of Carmilla. His character (named after a vague reference to a man in the novella) takes the place of the unnamed chronicler to whom Laura tells her story.
Tell me a bit about yourself. Who is Amir Khalighi?
I am actor, director, father, husband, alchemist of my heart and soul on a spiritual path towards better understanding who I am. But I’m assuming more focused attention should be placed on my artistic self for the discourse of these questions, so…. I was born in Tehran Iran. The Iranian Revolution thwarted me out of Iran and into the neon lights of the West. My start in the arts came at the age of 17 with a lead in the UJ Production of Our House then laid dormant until two successful productions, To Gillian on Her 30th Birthday and the critically acclaimed, Los Angeles premier of A Hatful of Rain. 2008 birthed me back into acting, picking up where I left off. I’ve studied under the tutelage of Sandy Meisner’s pupil David Blanchard, Stella Adler’s prodigy Jane Fleiss Brogger and Brian Reese in Hollywood. My recent works on stage include the role of King Saul in Whore’s Bath, & one of my favorite Shakespearian roles that of Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing“. My recent film credits include Drones (2014), Almost Broadway (2014) & The Darkest Hour: Survivors (2013). I recently had my directorial debut in Rumination, which was based on the works of the 13th century mystic Rumi, which was artistically satisfying before we even reached opening night, I loved my cast and the process. I’m a martial arts instructor as well, hold a 3rd degree black belt in Hapkido and taught for many years. My love for my family is the cornerstone of heart and I love people as a general rule unless they are blatantly offensive in which case I revert to my martial ways.
How did you get into acting?
See above answer.
Under what circumstances did you become a part of this production of Carmilla?
I was approached by David MacDowell Blue the writer and co director of Carmella to read the script and give my feedback. After reading the play I was drawn to the mysterious world created by David and told him that I’d be happy to meet with him in person to discuss my detailed feedback on the work. After our meeting I encourage David to put together a reading and ultimately push to get this work on stage, which is coming to fruition. I was asked to read for the role of Captain Martin for the table read and was later offered the role by Co-Director Mark Hein, in which I gladly accepted. I had not heard about the story of Carmilla but was taken by it’s history and the palpable recreation by David MacDowell Blue. The character of Captain Martin met the criteria of which measure all project I consider in taking on. It would be challenging and layered. I’m in. In addition to a wonderful scrip, a challenging role I also wanted to work with co -director Mark Hein. I’ve had the pleasure of recently working with Mark on stage and as his director but had not had the opportunity to be directed by him. And finally, it’s Vampire Play, how could I say no?
Were you familiar with the story before?
No, but I’ve always wanted to be a part of a Vampire story. I thought it would come from a television or film experience but I plan and God laughs.
Your character is Captain Martin. What are your thoughts about this person?
Captain Martin is a strong character to play and falls in line with my favorite types of roles to tackle. I enjoy playing, strong, authoritative men, Kings, Generals etc. But there is more to this character that meets the eye. At first look one can see that I am not a typical Anglican with the last name of “Martin” playing this role. I have a darker complexion which would suggest a mixed race of some sort, which immediately adds a layer to the character. Taking into consideration the time period and this mix of breed adds even another dimension and I believe plays well into the meeting between Captain Martin and Laura’s interview. Minorities who have experienced bigotry have a deep capacity to bring an essence of compassion to the table for those in need. Laura is in need, but this causes an inner conflict of sorts between doing ones job in interrogating this young woman to find the truth in contrast with the impulse to show compassion through naïveté or affection. Time will tell what happens between these two characters.
As we all know, vampires are all the rage. Do you have any opinions or thoughts about the undead?
Well I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Vampires. It started with a pre mature viewing of Salem’s Lot when I was 9 years old. That movie scared me for years and at the same time gave me a fascination into the topic. Some of my favorites include Lost Boys, Fright Night, and soon to watch Let Me In.
What do you see as your greatest challenge in this part?
It may be fine tuning the right accent for the captain. But I wouldn’t take on a role if it wasn’t challenging.
Is there something in particular you’re looking forward to during rehearsals?
The rehearsal process may be my favorite part of the theatrical experience… well opening night is right up there. I’m looking forward to working with some pretty talented actors and seeing what is created between all of us and the directors.
Finally, what question do you wish I’d asked, and what would be your answer?
Are unicorns real? Answer: yes. I only know this because my daughter told me so years ago and then it was reinforced recently by Dennen Melody aka Madame Perradon
Lara Bond plays the lead in Carmilla, the young woman telling her tale of what happened when a beautiful visitor came to her father’s home.
First off, tell me about yourself. Who is Lara Bond?
Questions like this always befuddle me. I don’t quite know how to answer them. On paper, Lara is a young woman living in the late part of the 20th century, early part of the 21st century. She is a person of multiple backgrounds, giving her a unique view of the world and it’s people.
Though her passport is American, her hair-Moroccan, she will always be a Berliner.
She enjoys the arts and sciences, and doesn’t really care about much else. She loves animals and people—when they’re being civil.
And how did you come to be involved in this production?
I was cast in a production directed by Vanessa Cate, the actress playing Carmilla. I had seen her work on stage before and was excited to get to work with her. It was Vanessa that invited me to the auditions for Carmilla.
Were you familiar with Carmilla before this?
I remember hearing the title or name of the character over the years, but never read or heard the story. I was excited to find out that it was an inspiration for Dracula.
What do you think of your character, Laura?
I am fascinated by her isolation and calm, deep spirit. Also, her ability to open herself up so willingly to Carmilla, especially when she’s had such few people to connect with. Their relationship is a very mystical one.
Is there a particular challenge in your mind to playing this part?
I am excited to explore the idea of standing in different time periods during the play. How to be in the present time, recounting the past, and then be in that past story experiencing it for the first time. Also, the relationship between Laura and Carmilla is going to be an amazing challenge because it is so layered. It is a bond of friendship and sisterhood and yet has an otherworldly, seductive, deep love in it. There is a sense of these two being entwined by destiny. I think it’s important for the audience to feel this connection and perhaps to feel enwrapped in it with them.
Generally, how do you feel about vampires and vampire stories? Do you have a favorite?
I LOVE vampire stories. Everything about them, including the history of the folklore, the setting in eastern Europe, the idea of the undead, the immortal. All of it is fascinating to me. I’ve been a fan of vampire stories since I was a kid. I religiously listened to a German series of books on tape called The Little Vampire, a story about a young boy who befriends a young vampire boy. Most of my Halloween costumes growing up were vampire costumes, the occasional witch or Wednesday Adams, but vampires were always the trusty go to. Even in college…See below.
I really love the film Interview with a Vampire. I was about 12 when I saw it the first time and while it was gory and I was scared, I though it was so beautiful and really captured what it must feel like to be a vampire. I’m also a big fan of Coppola’s Dracula and Joss Whedon’s Buffy and Angel series.
Basically, I adore vampire lore but I do believe first and foremost the story has to be great. I think I connect more to vampires than other creatures in the horror genre because there is such an element of beauty and mystery to them. They’re not your average undead “monster”… But I guess a hardcore werewolf or zombie fanatic would say the same thing.
How do you want audiences to respond to Laura specifically, and to the production in general?
I want the audience to understand her and to feel her solitude. Even relate to it. The fact that Carmilla is the first person that Laura has gotten this close to, that they have a mysterious bond, I hope will be a journey for them, as it is for Laura. She’s not a victim of her circumstance but is, one could say, chosen.
Finally, is there any question you will I’d asked? And what would your answer be?
If you were given the choice to die or become a vampire, what would you do? Vampire. Definitely. I’d try to get a job in special effects.
I 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, untampered 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 encounters 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.
The 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 Leopold 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 places 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.
The 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.
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.
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?
The 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.
Mind 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.!
On 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.
That, 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!