BY SELENA FRAGASSI | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Horror never dies at WildClaw Theatre Company. While other troupes are busy producing shows about elves and reindeer and nutcrackers this time of year, WildClaw axes through all the joyful noise with “Deathscribe 2014,” an annual festival of 10-minute radio horror plays relayed through actors, a live band and in-the-flesh sound effect artists.
“As great as Christmas is, we all get beaten down by stories of Santa and ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’ and we thought this would make great alterative holiday programming since there’s a lot of people whose interests aren’t served [this time of year],” says Brian Amidei, a producer and co-creator of Deathscribe and managing director of WildClaw Theatre Company. “We’ve had some people tell us it’s the highlight of their holiday season.”
The show originated in 2008 as an early fundraiser idea and a way to build attention for the budding theater company, which was started by local actor Charley Sherman and named for hislate colleague Ray “The Claw” Wild, and soon drew in an ensemble of alums from Strawdog, Lifeline and The Factory Theater.
DEATHSCRIBE 2014: THE 7TH ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF RADIO HORROR PLAYS When: 8 p.m. Dec. 1 Where: Mayne Stage, 1330 W. Morse Tickets: $30 Info: (773) 381.4554; maynestage.com
What Sherman proposed for WildClaw’s programming — all horror, all the time — was not being done at the time, says Amidei who has worked with the theater since the beginning along with this wife, Allison Greaves Amidei, artistic director.
“People thought you couldn’t do horror properly in a theatrical setting because [the audience] would compare it to that of going to see a movie,” he says, “but if you do it right there is no comparison.”
For WildClaw, that means choosing and adapting quality scripts such as classics like Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” as well as new works like those from the theater’s Literary Manager Scott T. Barsotti. His 2012 play “Kill Me” so intensely captured a character’s descent into madness, it actually caused an adverse reaction in one audience member.
“A guy at our show who never had any history of seizures or epilepsy had a full-on Grand mal seizure when watching the play. His doctor said that basically he was so into it, his brain short-circuited,” recalls Amidei noting that the real surprise might be the fact that he came back to see the show again.
WildClaw is not afraid to push the borders, though. Their shows (for the most part marketed to mature audiences) often involve gore and strobe lights and other effects with every detail thought about carefully. “We take this genre very seriously; we are never winking at the audience or satirizing material,” says Amidei. And while horror theater has since grown significantly (a result of coming out of a recession and needing a cathartic release, he rationalizes), WildClaw Theatre still finds its place by doing things a little bit differently, as in the Deathscribe radio plays.
“It’s a pretty easy format to dive into and is a great way to get a lot of people involved,” admits Amidei of the choice to use the “throwback” idea, which has been re-popularized locally through Strawdog’s “Wireless” program and American Blues Theatre’s annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” radio play.
Beginning in the late spring, Wildclaw announces the six-month open submission period, encouraging writers from anywhere to participate (some have come as far as Poland and Singapore). After submissions are closed, the managing group gets together for one night (dubbed “The Culling”) and, through blind reading, whittles down the 100-plus entries to the final five. They are then handed off to a team of local directors six weeks prior to the performance date and the collaboration begins with the writer and a team of Chicago actors. In the end, one winner walks away with the coveted “Bloody Axe” prize while everyone gets a taste of some homegrown terror.
“There’s been a lot of reactions,” says Amidei, “but the general one is always [that] it was fun.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.