‘Woman in Black’ requires audience imagination


“The Woman in Black” is a readers theater production, in which actor, Matt Maw, read from scripts during the performance.

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The chill of the marsh trickles down the spine, causing a shiver. A woman clad in dark robes appears in the path ahead. All of a sudden, a child’s scream erupts from the darkness.

As Pullman Civic Theatre (PCT) can prove this Halloween season, a ghost story is truly terrifying when audience imagination plays a part.

“The Woman in Black” is a play that recounts the tale of Arthur Kipps and his trip to the Eel Marsh House, leading to an encounter with a malicious entity known as the Woman in Black, said to be an omen of a child about to die. The play is originally based on the 1983 horror novel by Susan Hill.

The story was also adapted as a movie in 2012, featuring Daniel Radcliffe. The play features two main characters: an elderly Kipps and a young actor he hires to play himself through a reenactment of his own memories.

“I would call it a good, old-fashioned, scary ghost story,” director Jeri Harris said.

Utilizing a different form of theatre akin to a radio drama, the play is performed with only two actors, one of whom plays multiple roles throughout the show, with their promptbooks before them. This style is known as readers’ theatre. Harris said this style gives the play a feeling of sitting around a campfire listening to ghost stories.

By having the script in front of the actors, it made the rehearsal process easier since the theater is in the midst of preparing for their Christmas show, Harris said.

“The challenge for the director and the actors is to convey the life of that character in just little, suggestive gestures,” said Matt Maw, who will play Kipps in the show.

This style of theater, where the actors have their promptbooks in their hands or on music stands in front of them, doesn’t offer many opportunities to move around the stage. Maw said one of the things he worked on with his co-star was making eye contact often and maintaining emotions.

Travis Gray plays the actor who portrays the younger version of Kipps. Compared to larger-cast shows that are more spectacle-oriented, small-cast shows have their own kind of magic, Gray said. Small casts tend to work in small venues, allowing for closer connections with cast-mates and the world of the play.

“It’s just a handful of people (involved), but it adds its own sense of intimacy,” Gray said.

Maw said smaller casts can give an actor the chance to know their character better, getting to the details of who they need to be onstage. Maw’s challenge is differentiating between the numerous personas he must take on throughout the show.

Most of the characterization needs to be heard, so little clues and the styles in each voice keep up the illusion that a new character has come in, Maw said.

“The hard part for me is remembering which voice to use,” he said.

While “The Woman in Black” isn’t a blood, guts, and gore type of horror, Gray said it is a genuinely scary play. The story itself is more intense and more adult in nature.

Gray said he loves scary stories, and he hasn’t seen very many plays like that. Films have a sense of heightened realism that is hard to accomplish in theater settings, he said. Movies can take the audience to these different settings, whereas a play requires the audience to imagine them.

“A stage version of ‘Lord of the Rings,’ for instance,” Gray said, “We can’t go to Middle Earth, and we certainly can’t get a dragon onstage because one, they don’t exist and two, we have little budget.”

The tone of the play is carried through the actors, the lights and the sound effects. Written in an older Victorian style, the story was created with that creepy tone that is portrayed visually with a moody, atmospheric presence onstage, Maw said.

Most of the tension onstage comes from the punctuated sense of the atmosphere. The ominous tones and the fear Kipps encounters contribute to this misty, violent and brooding aura surrounding the play, Maw said.

“It really does try to summon the audience,” Maw said.

The way the script is written makes for a truly terrifying story, akin to Hill’s novel. But, if done poorly, the play can fall flat on its face, Maw said. Much of the scariness comes through how it’s shown via the director and actors’ choices.

For example, should the Woman in Black be seen clearly, right in front of the audience’s eyes? Or does she appear as a shadow or through a haunted scream that creeps under the audience’s skin?

“I think (the audience) will find it interesting how different (the play) is from the movie and how much scarier it can be having your own imagination fill things in,” Harris said.

“The Woman in Black” performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28 and 29 at Pullman Civic Theatre. Tickets are $5 to PCT members and $10 at the door.