Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Spotlight on the Molotov Theatre Group

By • Mar 19th, 2010 • Category: Interviews
Mondo Andronicus
Molotov Theatre Group
Playbill Cafe, Washington DC
Through April 3rd
Interviewed March 17th, 2010

Mike: This is Mike Clark with ShowBiz Radio. Today I am talking with Alex Zavistovich, a founding member and resident goremister for the Molotov Theatre Group. Thank you for talking with me today, Alex.

Alex: Thanks for having me, Mike.

Mike: So tell me a little bit about the Molotov Theatre Group.

Alex: Molotov Theatre Group is just about three years old. We just received our 501 (c)3 tax exempt status from the US government. What we do is preserve and revive the traditions of the French theatre du grand guignol which was the theater of horror that was popular from the end of the 19th century to about the middle of the 20th century when it faded into obscurity in about the 1960’s. Right now we are doing a show called Mondo Andronicus at the playbill Cafe. 1409 14th Street. It is a one hour reduction of Titus Andronicus, a tragedy by William Shakespeare.

Mike: I looked at your website and it keeps talking about the “Grand Guignol.” What is that? It’s horror, but is it more than just scariness?

Alex: Yes, it’s more than just scariness. The word horror meant something different at the end of 19th century. It was simpler times and I think that people were thrilled a little bit more easily than they are now with movies like “Hostel” and “Saw” and it’s a little bit easier to become numb to what was horrific back in the 19 and early 20th century. Even then though the word “horror” meant more than just blood letting and craziness.

If you think of a moment of horror, there can be comedic elements well. For example you are about to give a very important presentation to a very powerful group of people and right before you give your presentation you spill a cup of coffee on the crotch of your pants. To you, you have just experienced a moment of horror. To everybody else it’s comedy.

That kind of notion is really important to the Theatre du Grand Guignol. Even in the way the shows were put together. There was a concept at the time called the Hot and Cold Shower which was introducing comedy in between dramatic suspenseful or horrific plays. Almost as a palette cleanser way for the audience to get a little bit of relief from what was otherwise real in your face kind of theater.

Mike: The places I read on the web was talking about World War II helped contribute to the demise of the Grand Guignol because everything was realistic, everything would happen. They thought the things they were seeing could not happen, but now it could.

Alex: Well, yes exactly. I think it’s important to remember that the theater style began in kind of a ripped from the headlines sort of way. One of the founders of the theater group actually was a former police officer and a lot of the plays that were written at the time were from news stories that came out at the time. Sensational stories that were then treated melodramatically on stage. In simpler times, in pre-war, that kind of a thrill was uncommon and the visceral reaction was pretty high. When war started, the kind of thing that was happening on a day to day basis throughout all of Europe was easily eclipsing the stuff that the Grand Guignol theatre could depict on stage.

It did fade into obscurity a little bit for that reason, but I think most importantly at the same time you were seeing motion pictures having a real surge in popularity. And the kinds of things that could be done in England by Hammer Horror for example in the 60’s were so much more vivid than you could depict on stage because you get multiple takes and a much higher budget that being able to see these horrific or scary or sensationalistic acts on stage became less interesting when you had so many more opportunities to see so much more in the film.

Mike: Is a lot of what we are talking about, is it the visceral reaction of seeing the coffee spilling on the pants or the blood coming off the guy’s hand?

Alex: Yes, I think there is a visceral reaction. The other founder of Molotov Theatre Group, Lucas Maloney, who is the artistic director, and I got together not just because of an interest in this theatrical style, but more of a sort of disaffection with the typical theatre group mission. If you look at a lot of different theatre groups, not just here in the DC area, but nationally and even internationally, the phrase keeps coming up “exploring the human condition.” We applaud companies that think they can do that. We do not think that it’s possible that you can get very deeply into the human condition in 90 minutes plus an intermission.

What we are really a little more interested in is showing the human condition, showing the human monster. Looking a little more deeply at things that might be a little bit unsettling. Finding ways to depict that on stage. So Mondo Andronicus for example which is now running at Playbill Cafe through April 3rd is a one hour reduction of Titus Andronicus, but we maintain all of the violence that was suggested in the Shakesparean text. And we find ways to use contemporary effects to depict some of the violence that is related in the text on stage. We do that with our tongue half in cheek, but we also do it so people can get more involved in what they are seeing. Shakespearean text can be fairly dense. Having things illustrated for you visually is a really good way of being able to understand what is going on.

Mike: Could it be more effective if you did the whole script of Titus Andronicus and that way when all the sudden you have this violence happening, you are a little more invested in the people?

Alex: Well, I’d leave that to the audiences to decide for themselves. My feeling is that we have taken the key elements and presented it in a way that maintains the relationships between folks, but really compresses the action and keeps people at the edge of their seats. I’ve see Titus performed in a variety of different places. I have performed the full text and stage readings. I am not sure that if I were to do it as a staged play I would not cut some things anyway.

We were lucky enough to get this version from our sister company in San Francisco. Thrillpeddlers which has been round for about thirteen years and this particular production that we are doing won their Bay Area Best of the Fringe Award for their Fringe Festival in 1997. It is interesting in this little community in DC, our tiny little theater is really in the middle of a resurgence of interest in Grand Guignol internationally.

Not only have I said that we have a sister company in San Francisco, there is company in Los Angeles, Australia, Brazil, E!ngland. There is a professor in Wales who has written several textbooks that is the definitive academic book on the subject. Here in the middle of the Nation’s Capitol in the shadow of one of the larger theaters in town in the back room of a bar and restaurant, we are actually in the middle of this resurgence of interest. The way we’re doing this particular show is more true to this theatrical movement that we are trying to support than to try to be an authentic Shakespearean theatre, which we are not.

Mike: One of the things I was reading was that a lot of the Grand Guignol is the violence, but there are also aspects of sexuality that are a part of it. Is that involved in this show?

Alex: I think there are sexual situations that are dealt with but just in passing. Now in other aspects of our season we deal a lot more closely with sexuality. In fact for the next show that we are doing for the Capital Fringe, we are doing a world premier of a new musical by Shawn Northrip, who is prolific here in this area and has written a variety of different musicals. We are doing The Horrors of Online Dating. It has to do with a psychopathic woman who meets men online and then drugs them and ritualistically brutalizes them. And it’s a musical. So we not only deal with sexual topics and topics with violence, but we do it all in a sort of camp tongue and cheek sort of way.

Mike: Has the internet helped make Grand Guignol sort of more acceptable?

Alex: Acceptable no. Accessible definitely. I think that there are groups throughout the world now that are interested in this topic and have found kindred spirits around the world because of the internet. We developed a relationship with a Professor Richard Hand at the University of Glamorgan at Wales who is the author of the definitive text on the Grand Guignol and through that relationship just sort of promoting that online people have come to us and we have found ourselves as a clearinghouse in information literally internationally about this style and this genre. And that could simply not have happened without the accessibility that the internet provides.

Mike: So longer term is the horror that we are seeing is it going to get more intense over time? Is it going to grow?

Alex: We are a little bit limited by what we can actually do on stage. Not like film where you can have multiple takes and there are people working effects off camera so that you can have pumps pumping and wind machines blowing and smoke going the entire time and no one really sees what’s happening behind the curtain. On stage you have to do all of this stuff in plain view of the audience, which means that there is a lot more magic oriented way of doing things than effects oriented gore in film.

So to a certain extent we are limited by how far we can go, but we are always pushing that envelope. We are always learning new devices; new ways of presenting the effect. Teaching our actors how to integrate those effects with what it is they are doing on stage. It is very specific and one of the things that we have to disabuse our actors of right from the very start is that it’s not what it feels like to you that matters. It’s what it looks like to the audience and how it makes the audience feel.

So when you are integrating an effect in a show or you are a victim reacting to a particular effect you have to always be aware that you have to be true, but you have to reveal these effects to the audience. If you play too much to yourself you don’t give the audience a chance to see what is actually happening you might as well not do the effect at all.

Mike: Is it hard for new performers working with the group to do that, to learn that difference?

Alex: It is tricky which is why we have created a workshop series which we call the Disturbatory. We had our first disturbatory workshop last year in April where we took the three different aspects of the Grand Guignol style (acting the effect, gore, and brawling, which is is our equivalent of stage combat) and integrated it together in a series of scenes. The folks who succeeded in that workshop are now part of our go to group of people for shows and technical assistance.

One of our graduates is assisting me right now in the stage combat or brawling portions of Mondo Andronicus and later this year will be directing The Horrors of Online Dating. The folks that move through our company have opportunities to learn more about what this style and these techniques are all about and then we incorporate them in progressively more responsible ways.

Mike: Do you have any other classes scheduled for the future?

Alex: We are planning our next Disturbatory Workshop, but to be perfectly honest with you Michael, we are so involved in Mondo Andronicus right now that it is not going to be until after April 3rd when the run is completed when we will be able to give time to the workshop.

Mike: What is your ideal audience? What type of audience is coming to these shows?

Alex: Our audiences are not the traditional theater going crowd. I think probably because we do not pretend to be catering to the ordinary theater going crowd. A lot of the folks who go to theater in DC come to a Molotov show because they see it as an oddity.

The folks that we really find appreciate what we do the most come from comic book backgrounds or horror movie background or alternative venues. The music scene. A lot of the theatrical community while they find us adorable in our own I guess quaint little way, they do not quite know what to make of us.

So we get these pretty good reviews and then they criticize us by saying it’s a lot like seeing Patrick Stewart in a Tarantino “Grindhouse” movie. And we think that it is exactly like that. That is fantastic that you got that. Unfortunately, for us they kind of mean that as a criticism. We find that the communities that really respond best to what we do come from outside the conventional theater going scene. We do not shun any group. We embrace them all it’s just that I think the folks who go to other places for their entertainment appreciate us in a different way.

Mike: It kind of feels almost like a bunch of people putting on a show right when they have gotten out of living with their parents. And they are allowed to do stuff they were not allowed to do before.

Alex: Well, if I were not 48 years old I would agree with you, but I think it’s more like a bunch of people who have gotten tired of groups saying that they are pushing the envelope of theater and yet their seasons are interchangeable. There is no real difference from one company to another except for the artistic vision. Our artistic vision just happens to be a little bit more extreme and we look at things that most of the community would kind of sniff at. We do not sniff at it, we just kind of think that if it’s nothing that’s been done before, and it’s kind of strange, then it’s perfect.”

Mike: Thank you very much for telling me about that and a little more about Grand Guignol and Molotov Theater Group.

Alex: Oh you are more than welcome, Michael and I encourage everyone to come see what we are all doing in Mondo Andronicus which runs now through April 3rd.

Mike: And how to people get tickets?

Alex: They can visit the Molotov Theatre website or they can purchase tickets through

Mike: Okay, well thank you very much.

Alex: You are welcome. Thank you.

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