Go Deeper

“Hackles” Rising

Posted August 15th, 2012

Festival Blog contributor Richard Bon lives in Northern Liberties with his wife and daughter. He posts original flash fiction of his own or by a guest writer every other Monday on his blog,

In the Fishtown flat of Nick Gillette, the Groundswell Players are devising their 2012 Philly Fringe production, Hackles. Nick sits in the center of his large living room, emerged in an intense dramatic situation with Martha Stuckey and Alice Yorke while Scott Sheppard and director Mason Rosenthal flank me as the audience. Mid-scene, Mason directs Nick to “tell us a story,” and Nick responds in stride with an impromptu tale chock full of fictional memories convincing enough to have happened in real life. When Mason tells Nick to “go deeper,” Nick reveals a crushing secret from his and Martha’s characters’ shared pasts, the ad hoc revelation as eloquent as if he’d memorized the lines from a script.

As they craft this fully devised play, collaborators/actors Scott, Nick, Martha, and Alice along with director Mason reexamine the traditional ghost story. Comparing Hackles to earlier Groundswell performances, Scott says their new show will be more “finely orchestrated” and less “reliant on spontaneity.” He also says they aim to “manipulate what’s behind the suspense” surrounding scrutiny of the supernatural, with Martha adding that “incongruities will be highlighted between the fact of death and people’s enjoyment of ghost stories.”

The living world, generally treated in genre fiction as more stable than the dead world, contains its share of believers in visitations by lost friends, relatives, or anonymous entities from the other side. “Ghosts are often thought to haunt people in certain ways,” Scott tells me. “We’re asking: what does that curiosity do if redirected?”

After the jump: inspiration from pop culture, children as ghost hunters, and the physical representation of death.

In seeking the answer, Groundswell’s team draws inspiration from books like Mary Roach’s Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, movies including the Paranormal Activity franchise, and the pseudoscience behind the success of television host turned author Zak Bagans. And yet with so much seriousness and scariness devoted to death, “the viral popularity of the Darwin Awards,” Scott offers, “proves that people can find humor in death as well.” But all of these pop culture examples tend to omit details regarding the actual lives of the living before they become ghosts to pursue and fear or, in the case of the Darwin Awards, become fodder for water cooler laughter when they meet death via the backside of a previously constipated elephant.

As a means of incorporating ghost hunting into Hackles without having to choose between promoting its authenticity or poking fun at its practitioners, Groundswell develops child-aged characters to search the spiritual realm. “Children are blameless,” Scott states, implying that they would never think to investigate spooks for the purpose of profit. “The further you get away from commercialism, the more genuine it could be.”

To bring death to life on stage—to depict death itself—Groundswell’s actors utilize their training at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance, where they all recently completed their first year as students. Scott credits the influence and teaching of the school’s faculty, particularly school director Quinn Bauriedel, with inspiring Groundswell to, as Scott puts it, “invite death into the room.” Using the Lecoq method, part of Pig Iron’s curriculum that emphasizes physical expression over verbal, an actor can transform herself into an alligator, or a piece of glass, or even something intangible. In the first half hour of a Hackles rehearsal, I saw Nick characterize a frog, motionless in crouched position for nearly a minute before hopping around, and Alice help Nick portray a pill passing its way down an esophagus. Not a single word was necessary from Nick or Alice to convey either scenario.

Over coffee, Scott and Martha chat about the unfairness and all too frequent randomness of death: the fact that it could come at any time to anyone without reason or forewarning. Disturbing as death’s unbiased nature may be, Martha describes a desire to be “inclusive of death without hiding behind ambiguity,” and that she wants viewers to be “more aware of their relationship to mortality by the end of the show.” To accomplish this goal, to delight in that which we so commonly fear, to embrace the great unknown rather than fruitlessly strive to reject its inevitability, expect Groundswell to explore a range of fatalistic emotions in the living as deeply as they delve into the domain of the dead.

Hackles runs September 7 through 16 at The White Space at Crane Old School, 1425 North 2nd Street, Kensington. All shows 8:00 pm, $15.

–Richard Bon

Photos courtesy of the Groundswell Players.