"I find theatre artists are often really conservative in their imagination...We’re reluctant as theatre artists to engage the imagination of our audiences"
Artistic Director Eric Woolfe of Eldritch Theatre thinks of himself as a guy who works in show business. He tries not to refer to himself as an artist.
Born into the performing arts profession, Eric grew up in London, Ontario, and worked at the Grand Theatre. His first professional job at ten was in the Grand’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ given to him by Director Bernard Hopkins in 1982. Actor Barry Morse appeared as Scrooge as did London Ontario actor Tom McCamus as Bob Cratchit. By age fifteen, Eric took semesters off school and worked across the country for the last forty-some years.
Eldritch bills itself as Toronto’s only theatre company specializing in ghoulishly giddy tales of horror and the uncanny. During our Zoom call, Eric enlightened me further, saying ‘Eldritch’ is an old archaic word that means ‘strange and eerie.’ It became a bit of a joke that the name Eldritch was used as the title of the theatre company:
“Our first show was for the Summerworks Festival almost 25 years ago. It was called ‘The Strange & Eerie Memoirs of Billy Wuthergloom.” We were running overtime by about a half hour for the time limit the Festival gave us, so I came in with a hacked piece of the version of the script which fit in the time. Just as a joke for the director, I crossed out the title and wrote ‘Billy’s Eldritch Diary’ to shorten it, and we thought, why not call the company The Eldritch Theatre?”
Eldritch Theatre operates from Toronto’s Queen Street East’s Red Sandcastle Theatre. They were two separate entities until they married when Eldritch took over the space in December 2021.
The art form of puppetry remains an important part of Eldritch Theatre. The first show performed by Eldritch was a one-person show. Rod Beattie travelled with the Wingfield plays nationwide. Eric thought if he did a one-person show, he would play all the different characters while Rod did his own show. Woolfe compared it to writing symphonies in Vienna in the time of Beethoven.
Eldritch puppets are both strangely grotesque yet beautifully alluring simultaneously. That’s the trump suit for Eric. Yes, puppetry is an art form, but he quickly discovered that it exists in the audience's mind. In turn, it is the audience that creates the performance:
“A puppet is an inanimate object being wiggled by someone. It doesn’t have sentience. It doesn’t move on its own and we know it … Nobody is fooled, but the audience creates the existence of that puppet character in your mind when you’re watching it...we imbue that inanimate thing with life.”
Woolfe’s extensive knowledge of puppetry kept me on his every word. Since the supernatural and horror plays into Eldritch’s season, using a puppet can connect further with an audience, more so than, say, a character in a costume. Eric spoke about an earlier play from Eldritch about Jack the Ripper. The first scene was a dream sequence of one of the last victims who was having a nightmare about Alice in Wonderland and a giant, 15-foot-tall caterpillar puppet. That puppet could be funny one moment, threatening, sexual, aggressive, angry, weird, and jump from these different tones and from word to word and line to line because he was a puppet. If that exact text were done with an actor in a giant caterpillar costume, the only thing that caterpillar could be would be vaguely stupid. There’s no same ability to stretch tone and get under people’s skin when using human beings.
Often puppetry and magic go together at Eldritch:
“Magic is an opposite art form of puppetry…if it’s a puppetry performance, we are complicit to suspend disbelief to make that puppet come to life because wonder has been created. If it’s a magic trick, it works when the audience resists suspending their disbelief and has no other ability to explain what has just been seen.”
The last three years for the theatre industry have been challenging for commercial theatre. Eric refers to himself as ‘the angry outsider.’ He despairs and feels terrible for those theatre companies that find it challenging.
Woolfe doesn’t find many things terrible right now in the larger sense regarding the industry for Eldritch. Everything has been pretty good. Eldritch shows are selling well at Red Sandcastle. The audience demographics for Eldritch are not all dying or people in their 80s. Eldritch audiences are leaving their houses and coming to see shows. People come because they feel the Sandcastle Auditorium is not a COVID trap.
His upcoming show at Eldritch is ‘Macbeth: A Tale Told by An Idiot.’ Directed by Dylan Trowbridge and coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the play’s premiere, show dates run from February 8 – 24 inclusive; Eric told me that Dylan has been pushing for a few years now that Eldritch should present a Shakespearean play.
Woolfe calls this ‘Macbeth’ a one-person, surreal, classic comic telling of the Bard’s classic with puppets and magic. He’s terrified about the upcoming production because it’s a lot. He plays every single character.
Here’s what he had to say about the state of the theatre:
“The real truth is I don’t like a lot of theatre. I find theatre artists are often really conservative in their imagination. I think in Canada, there are way too many plays set in kitchens and way too many stories about a broken family getting together at their father’s funeral. We’re reluctant as theatre artists to engage the imagination of our audiences…People interested in conservative theatre from years ago are not coming out anymore.”
Woolfe even believes that when tackling the classics, often, when theatre companies present Shakespeare, what they’re really presenting is a kind of museum piece where it isn’t even really the play they’re doing. It’s a comment on other performances of another production of another play. For example, Eric said there have been pieces from ‘Hamlet’ handed down from generation to generation. Assumptions have been based on the text that are not based on the text. Instead, these scenes are based on performances of actors making choices that are copied and copied and copied.
Younger, diverse audiences have not been reached yet, according to Eric. Why? The style of plays still echoes this old model of theatre viable in the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, ‘Macbeth’ is slated to begin performances shortly, but it’s a weird Macbeth. Eldritch’s idea is to blow up that preconceived notion of the old model of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.
I’m most certain that, under Director Trowbridge’s artistic vision, ‘Macbeth’ will be ‘aggressively unconventional yet still rooted in the actual words.” The Scottish play was one of my favourites to teach because there are witches, ghosts, and magic. It’s also Woolfe’s favourite; however, he has never really liked any production he has seen. Instead, he likes versions of Shakespeare that upset people because the plays don’t obey the rules, don’t bluster, or don’t attempt to entertain.
He then made a most appropriate analogy:
“As people make theatre, we try to worry that it’s good for you. We’re trying to make healthy plays, and sometimes in theatre, we’re like restaurants: “We have the best broccoli. Come and get the broccoli. Eat our broccoli; it’s good for you, and all we’re selling anybody is broccoli.”
Broccoli is great, but it’s only one thing on the plate. There are all these other tastes and things you can serve. If the food happens to be good for you, that’s fantastic, but you don’t have to tell people. It shouldn’t be the selling point. The selling point is that this meal is wonderful and has broccoli that will taste good. Eldritch’s ‘Macbeth’ will be approached like this. It’s a horror play about fear with puppets and cartoon noises, and it’s everything that should be in a Macbeth without the bluster and stuffiness and attempting to do it properly.
There are four sold-out school matinees. A steadily growing demand for tickets extends the production to February 24.
Does he listen to feedback from audience members, reviewers, critics, and bloggers?
Woolfe prefaced his answer by saying he was always the kid in school who never liked to do the assignment the way the teacher asked. For example, if he wrote an essay, he would try to do something slightly different than the assignment. He spent a lot of time on it and did more work. Why did he do this? He thought the assignment may have been stupid or lacking any reason why it had to be done. So, when the graded assignment was returned, Eric was always that kid who was a tad annoyed when the teachers said he didn’t follow the conventions for the work.
Eric reads the reviews. He listens to honest feedback. If every feedback or review is five stars, no one will pay much attention to what is said in the article. Woolfe remembers every bad review as opposed to the good ones, but the thing to answer regarding feedback, whether it be from audience members, reviewers, critics, or bloggers:
“We are entering a world where people expect to be able to get entertainment that appeals to their specific tailored individual tastes...Theatre has to reflect this. Over the years at Eldritch, we are building our little niche market and our growing fanbase of weird nerds who don’t go to all theatre but like the horror stuff of comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, sci-fi movies and strange things with puppets and Tarot cards…This is our audience base. Everybody is welcome here at Eldritch Theatre, but it is a specific tent.”
What’s next for Eric once ‘Macbeth: A Tale Told by An Idiot’ concludes its run?
A series of play readings of some older plays from early on in Eldritch’s existence is happening through February and March. The season's final show is ‘The House at Poe Corner,’ from April 11-21, 2024, written by Woolfe and Michael O’Brien.
To learn more about Eldritch Theatre, visit eldritchtheatre.ca. You can also find the company on Facebook.
Tickets for ‘Macbeth: A Tale Told by An Idiot’: https://www.ticketscene.ca/events/45534/