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Deadly Dates and Man-Eating Beds: Encore reviewers-turned-playwrights debut Halloween shows in October

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This fall two of encore’s writers have Halloween-themed plays opening in town. Film critic Anghus Houvouras penned “Dine and Dash,” a vignette to be showcased in “A Wilmington Horror Story” at TheatreNOW. Gwenyfar Rohler has adapted the lost ‘70s cult-classic film “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” into “Death Bed: The Play That Bites” for Big Dawg Productions’ Halloween Horror Festival.

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This fall two of encore’s writers have Halloween-themed plays opening in town. Film critic Anghus Houvouras penned “Dine and Dash,” a vignette to be showcased in “A Wilmington Horror Story” at TheatreNOW. The event will host three one-act productions during their Friday and Saturday dinner shows starting October 2—including Cali Voorhis’ “A Letter To Dave from the Zombie Apocalypse of Hurricane Irene,” which will be directed by Aaron Willings, and Chase Harrison’s H.P. Lovecraft-inspired “Dr. Herbert West: Re-Animator.”

I, too, have adapted the lost ‘70s cult-classic film “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” into “Death Bed: The Play That Bites” for Big Dawg Productions’ Halloween Horror Festival. The festival will showcase various works throughout October, including original shows by Stephen Raeburn based on Edgar Allen Poe’s writing, “War of the Worlds,” the 1938 Orson Welles staged radio production,” and a children’s show, “The Witch, the Troll, and the Harry Man!” “Death Bed” is slated to run October 23-31 at Cape Fear Playhouse.

Anghus and I sat down to discuss our shows, casts and experiences writing. During our chat, we discovered we’re both long-winded.

Gwenyfar Rohler (GR): Tell me about your one-act ‘Dine and Dash’ as part of TheatreNOW’s Halloween production. How will it be set up? A one-act play, then dinner, then another one-act, and then dessert?
Anghus Houvouras (AH): I believe so. I won’t lie: This is my first dinner-theatre piece at TheatreNOW. I’m not quite sure when the courses are served. I’m assuming that’s how it goes. My only experience with dinner theatre is Kevin Kline’s opening scene in the film “Soap Dish.” But I am fascinated to find out.

GR: Who’s going to be in your show?
AH: I am directing it. Kire Stentson will be Susan; Clark will be played by Phil Antonino; and the waiter will be Nick Reed. It’s not a huge show.

GR: How did you got hooked up with TheatreNOW?
AH: I’ve known [TheatreNOW owner] Alisa Harris and [TheatreNOW artistic director] Zach Hanner for a long time. Zach and I have done a thousand different things together over the years—from film stuff to all sorts of crazy little projects. It’s a small community in this town; everybody knows everybody else.
Last year I was talking to Zach about doing the newer, longer version of “Diplomacy is Dead” [Anghus’ 2012 play, which debuted at City Stage] at TheatreNOW. He liked the idea and wanted to talk about doing stuff in the long term. He told me about the Halloween show. “Do you have anything off the wall?” he asked. I said, “Yeah, I got this one about a guy and girl who go to a restaurant, have a date, and by the end of the evening, somebody’s dead.”

It’s sort of based on a true story in that I conceived the idea while in a restaurant. My wife and I went to Budapest—I loved Budapest—and there was a restaurant called “Museum.” Great restaurant—beautiful décor and classic service. The waiter was this guy who spoke five languages. He was the most popular; he was just so good at his job. In Europe, [waiters] have to speak different languages for tourists.
This wasn’t a cheap restaurant; it was a quality establishment. This guy worked the place like he was the belle of the ball. He was smart and funny. He was speaking Chinese at one table and French to the other. He spoke Magyar, which is the Hungarian language, and English perfectly. I thought, If I were a less confidant person, I would be intimidated by this guy. He was the smartest, best-looking, most-cultured guy in the room. If you were an insecure person on a first date and this is what you had to compete with…

GR: Nick is that guy?
AH: Nick is that guy but the basics of that guy. The story had to change. In order to work in the plot point of wanting to kill somebody, I had to make it so the waiter was an enviable person in terms being smarter, better-dressed and better-looking than the guy on the first date—who is basically a schlub. My male schlub characters are all patterned after me. Whenever I am writing a male in a show who is a total ass, I just have to get into character as myself. It just flows right out—a complete tactless dick. “Oh! That’s what I’d say!” And then I write it. Clark is kind of me.

Susan’s a buttoned-up, shy person who has some ulterior motives in the show. She might be there because she’s a nymphomaniac. She might be there because she wants to kill Clark. It’s very unclear as to why she’s there, but you know it’s not right. She shouldn’t on this date with him. The fact that she stays throughout his schlubby, asinine behavior lends itself to the idea that there’s more going on than just a typical first date. I try to layer in these little moments. By the end of the play, one of those three characters does not make it out alive.

GR: Wow!
AH: That makes it sound more like a thriller. In reality, it is just a really bad first date where someone winds up dead. It’s dark, it’s comic, and it’s ridiculous, which is what I enjoy.

GR: So what did auditions look like? You cast all three shows at once and with three directors, right?
AH: Yeah, it’s crazy because you have all these people auditioning. In the past, every show I have done has been by myself. It’s like when I do a movie and put it together. I’ve had some movies with other people, but a lot of times when I do things locally, it’s me setting up the chairs, handling the list, bringing people in, and watching and giving direction. This was different because we had all these people coming in and auditioning for these three shows and [TheatreNOW’s] Christmas show. So there were very broad auditions going on. I saw some people and right away was like, “Yeah, that would work. Yeah, he has that quality I’m looking for.”

Auditions are always interesting because I always go in with predetermined expectations of what I want. Originally, I saw the character as myself: fat, bald, schlubby, and obnoxious. When I saw Phil, he had this Sam Rockwell, ratty vibe. I thought, That could totally work. I had to rework some of the dialogue—removing the fat and bald components. Other than that, he had that essence of what I wanted. Nick was instantly that tall guy. Nick is very tall…

GR: And very attractive.
AH: And very lanky. He is a very good looking man. I’m glad somebody else said that before me, because it would have been weird if I had been like, “He’s a very attractive man.” He had that sort of manic energy. The waiter is good looking and suave. At the same time, it’s almost like he goes one step beyond that to…

GR: Too far?
AH: Yeah! When he pours the wine it’s just so slow that you’re super frustrated with him. You just want the wine pouring to end so you can drink. I wanted to make the waiter a little bit more of a hindrance. I don’t like to build people up; I’m a pragmatic realist. All I want is to entertain people. Anything I’m ever working on—movie, TV show, play—I always tell people my goal is to entertain people. So I do a play like this in my free time because I have fun doing it. I enjoy it.

With “Diplomacy is Dead,” my only goal was to have a good time because this is what I do for fun: I write stage stuff. I told the actors: “The goal is for you to have fun and for the audience to have fun.” It’s really simple; I would never describe anything I do as super complex. If you’ve ever seen any movie or play I’ve made—or read any book I’ve written—there’s usually a really simple theme and it doesn’t go too deep.

This play is the exact same. From the minute it starts, it’s fun and I’m trying to pull you along on this crazy roller coaster ride. By the end it’s like, Oh shit, I didn’t see that coming. I don’t like to call things “twists.” Twists are sometimes crutches, but there are things you should be paying attention to. It’s a slight of hand. The entire show I’m like, “Look over here and pay attention to this.” This is not the work of a genius, but it’s, hopefully, something you will laugh at and have a little fun with.

GH: I’m guessing you are going to have a bare stage­—maybe with the screen.
AH: Yeah, I’m trying to find an interesting way to use the screen. I think the waiter is going to be my main set piece, because it’s such a simple concept: Guy walks into restaurant late for a date. Guy meets girl. Guy convinces girl to go home with him. Someone winds up dead.

GR: Did you ever talk a girl into going home with you on the first date?
AH: Oh, yeah! Not often, but yeah. That’s kind of the point of the character. Whenever I write a schlub, it’s me and how I would describe myself sexually. It’s how I would convince somebody to come home with me. That is how I would describe myself as a writer/filmmaker/novelist.

I believe there are people in this world that are super talented and get what they want because they’re really good and in the right place at the right time. Then there’s the rest of us that have to work twice as hard, double down all the time, and put all our efforts into something worth seeing. It’s true with women and it’s true with art. I work twice as hard; I write all the time. I’m not the guy who made his first movie, went to Sundance and got a three-picture contract with 20th Century Fox. I’m the guy that’s still writing, still grinding and still working twice as hard. Good looking guys go on a date and pick up women like that. I am not that guy; I had to be twice as charming, twice as funny and work twice as hard to convince that girl to go home with me. And sometimes they did.

GR: Originally, this was a short story. What has been the biggest surprise about adapting it to a one-act?
AH: I’ve been doing a lot of adapting this year. Basically, you can’t tell the audience what to think or how to feel. In a book you can go inside the minds of your characters. When I did the first drafts of this play, I was going to have somebody narrating the story. It was going to be a dinner table of people talking about things that happened in a restaurant—like a bunch of waiters having a meal outside at the end of the shift and talking about the worst customers they ever had. [I decided against it] because then you’re cheating. You’re filling in the blanks.

Stage is all about getting a reaction from the audience and getting the audience invested in what’s going on. I understand the need for soliloquies and asides, but sometimes I think it’s cheating. A play is dialogue and action. A short story or a book is thoughts and emotion, plus the dialogue and action. I’m a big believer in cadence in theatre. Every piece I’ve ever written for stage has a beat and a rhythm to it.

I can understand George Barry [the writer/director of “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats”] because I’ve been there. When you make a film on a low budget, you are saying, “This is never going to be what I wanted it to be.” I had to get [that mind set] out of me. Like any of us, it burns when you think up something really good—you’ve just got to get it out of you.

Gwenyfar, you’ve been thinking about “Death Bed” so much for so long, and you’re so worried about it. It’s a sign of how good it’s going to be because you are so passionate about it. At the same time, it’s on the precipice: It could be an amazing, truly wonderful thing, or you could completely alienate the original creator of it.

That’s the kind of pass/fail proposition I like. When we were doing “Diplomacy is Dead,” someone said, “This show is really offensive.” I said, “Yes.”
GR: Yes, it was.

AH: But that was the reason to do it. You’ve got this thing like George did with “Death Bed”: This could be the coolest thing ever or it could be a total fucking disaster. That is the reason to do it.
GR: Well, one of the things we found with “Death Bed” is that we have to cover 40 years of time and space, because it’s not just the making of the movie—it’s also the story of the movie being lost and the movie having a whole life outside of George. And how people re-discovered it and how the people who did work on it continue to interact with it. The first act of “Death Bed: The Play That Bites” will be the story of the making of the movie. Jock, who is the great, grand passion of my life…
AH: Awww!
GR: He is! It was his camera that was used to shoot the film. Actually, he’s the one who made the bed eat. He lit the movie, and he’s one of the first people killed by The Bed—which means he’s kind of the main character in act one. Though I have talked with other people who were part of “Death Bed,” my entire concept of the film is filtered completely through him.

AH: So, I knew a little bit about “Death Bed” just from being friends with you and Jock for many years. For those who have no idea what “Death Bed” is—trust me, there are people who aren’t as weird as me—what is it exactly?
GR: “Death Bed” is a low-budget movie that was made in 1973 for less than $30,000, which was embezzled from the Student Film Society at Wayne State University. It was never finished, and it did not get its official release on DVD until 2003; though, it was pirated in the early ‘80s and distributed throughout Europe where it became a cult classic. It is considered to be the worst movie ever made. Having seen a lot of bad movies, that is definitely not true.
AH: The ‘70s was a great time for independent cinema. Any time someone says a movie was made in the ‘70s, it automatically gets a star from me no matter how bad it is. They probably were trying something. “Death Bed” was trying to be something scary, and it ended up being something ridiculous. The fact it was never released but was pirated speaks volumes. Europe’s funny that way. Every film I’ve ever made has been released in Europe, and it’s done a thousand times better there.
GR: Really?
AH: Oh, yeah! “Dead Heist” came out in the U.S. and everyone was like, “BLEEZE!”
GR: That’s is the one you made at the Wachovia building, right?
AH: Yeah, Bo Webb directed it. I wrote it and helped produce it. Every year I get an email form a bunch of friends in distribution: “Hey, your movie just came out in Spain. Hey, your movie’s on DVD in England right now.” It became a cult thing but only in Europe. Almost every country has a copy of “Dead Heist.” So Mandy and I are in Budapest, and there was this movie I made the first year I moved here called “Angel Doll” with Gil Johnson as one of the leads, and Pat Hingle was in it. I never heard anything about that movie—that movie never saw any release at all. Then I’m in Hungary, flipping around the TV, waiting for Mandy to get ready, and I’m going “Why is Gil Johnson on my TV in Budapest?” Sure enough, it’s fucking “Angel Doll.” I don’t know why, but American products are much better received over there. Everything I have ever put out has come out in Europe and done better. It’s just nuts. So I can see “Death Bed” being the cult phenomenon in places other than the United States.
GR: Chase Harrison, who is directing one of the shows at TheatreNOW, was at the very first reading we had for “Death Bed: The Play That Bites.” Of course, what we have now looks nothing like that. At one point, he said, “This reminds me a lot of ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ [a documentary which chronicles the search for ‘70s rocker Sixto Rodriguez, whose musical career—unbeknownst to him—gained a following in South Africa].” The more I thought about it, I realized he was right. They are both Detroit stories: Rodriguez and George Barry were from Detroit. “Death Bed” was made in Detroit. Both “Death Bed” and Sixto created something that had life outside of themselves, which [neither Rodriguez nor George] knew anything about. The people who loved them had no idea how to find them. George literally was playing around on the Internet at 3:30 a.m. in 2001, and stumbled upon a thread in a film forum about “Death Bed.” He was like, “Wait a second are you talking about the movie that’s rotting in my attic?” The forum had people talking about how much they loved the film, but they had no idea how to find it. The only thing the credits say is: “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, George Barry, 1977.” Because they had gotten the rough cut together by ’77, there were no character names or actors listed on the original credits. They had no idea who George was or how to find him. It was a lot like the “Searching for Sugar Man” story. It’s this beautiful kind of finding. Stephen Thrower wrote a book you would love called “Nightmare USA,” which is about independent horror films in the U.S. He was so taken with George that they actually narrated the Blu-Ray together.
AH: And it’s funny, because I know people have different aspirations, but my only aspiration when I was starting out was to make a movie like “Evil Dead.” It was my favorite movie when I was a kid. I wanted to make a low-budget film that people really liked, felt attached to and enjoyed—something like “Death Bed.” It’s weird to say that’s your career aspiration (like you’re Lloyd Kaufman and want to make “The Toxic Avenger”), but I never had any aspirations of winning an Oscar. I just wanted to make something culty, fun and ridiculous that people really, really love to watch.
GR: On the topic of “Evil Dead”: Sam Rami and George Barry grew up blocks away from each other.
AH: Oh, no kidding!
GR: What is Sam Rami doing now—“Spider-Man”? “Death Bed” was the only movie George ever made.
AH: You know who else grew up in that area? Joel and Ethan Cohen.
GR: Really? That’s where the Cohen brothers are from?
AH: One of the Cohen brothers helped edit “Evil Dead.”

AH: So back to “Death Bed.” Where is George now?
GR: He’s still in Royal Oak, Michigan. He owned a bookstore for most of his adult life and had two wonderful children. He’s coming for the show. He and Jock have not seen each other since 1973.
AH: 41 years!

AH: Would you call “Death Bed” a comedy? Drama? Tragedy? Both?
GR: It’s a mockumentary.

AH: It could be comic if the actor has a sense of humor, and it could be tragic if he doesn’t. Who will be playing George?
GR: Hal Cosec. Hal grew up doing children’s theatre here. His mother Anne Cosec was one of the founders of Minerva Productions. About six years ago, Hal ran off to Thailand to work on a ship and get his captain’s license. Now, he’s home.
John Wolfe is playing Jock. He does a lot of Pineapple Shaped Lamps stuff. I first saw him as the hero in “Dr. Horrible.”

AH: Oh, yes. He was Captain Hammer. I love “Dr. Horrible!”
GR: He was a great hero. You know, he’s tall and blond with good looks.

AH: That’s who you cast as Jock? Ah!
GR: Yeah [blushes], which is a whole other thing. Casting someone to play the man of your dreams seven years before you were even born is difficult. I think John deserves credit! It’s intimidating to do a cold read for somebody who is a real person—especially when that guy’s watching you! Then, of course, I’m a character in the show.

AH: So, who’s playing you?
GR: Well, that’s an interesting thing. There are interludes that are the character of myself and Steve Vernon—the show’s director and producer—talking about the life of “Death Bed” because we periodically have to move 10 years at a time. There is no way to do it without having these outside voices.

Susan Auten, who is a very talented local actress, has been very sick this year. She’s been up to Chapel Hill and has had some very expensive surgery. She is playing the female lead in “Death Bed,” and Big Dawg is planning to auction off the roles of Steve Vernon and myself as a fundraiser for Susan. The money they raise will go to Susan’s medical bills.

AH: If I didn’t have a show, I might bid on that—to play you!
GR: Anthony Lawson is directing that portion. Steve Vernon realized that if he tried to direct, he would be too entrenched in trying to make them play me perfectly, and that’s not the point.

AH: If I were casting someone to play me I’d hire the best looking guy—a 24-year-old, with the best head of hair!
GR: Anghus, you’re a very handsome man.

AH: In my mind, The Bed is a giant puppet that goes: “Wahahahah!”
GR: In a perfect world, but no. One of the struggles I had is that when I first started thinking about adapting “Death Bed” to the stage, I completely went to “Little Shop of Horrors.”

AH: Yeah, I think that’s natural. “Feed me!”
GR: Yeah, I wanted that kind of puppetry. The reality is that The Bed doesn’t actually eat so much as it dissolves people. Anthony Lawson is going to play the voice of The Bed.

AH: I am so glad that is going to happen. You know I love Anthony.

GR: Well, he’s got it. He gets the whole idea—he’s there!

A Wilmington Horror Story
Featuring: “Dine and Dash,” “Dr. Herbert West: Re-Animator” and “A Letter To Dave from the Zombie Apocalypse of Hurricane Irene”
TheatreNOW, 19 S. 10th Street
Fri. – Sat., Oct. 3 – Nov. 1, 7 p.m.

Halloween Horror Festival
Featuring: “War of the Worlds,” Oct 2-5; “Horrific One-Acts,” Oct. 9-12; “The Witch, the Troll, and the Hairy Man,” Oct. 16-19; and “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats,” Oct. 23-31.
Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St.
Thurs.- Sun., 23-2, 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $18-$20

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