Carmilla on Stage
Browsing the website DeviantArt I came across photos by the lighting designer (http://dionysuspsi.deviantart.com/) of a Canadian high school production of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.” Evidently, the set was minimalist (“a set of demented white ‘pillars’ that when put in the correct configuration form a closing hand”) while the destruction of the vampire in the end was very stylized, all red lighting and slow motion action by the actors. Intrigued, I managed to wrangle a small interview with the author/direct David Amour:
First, tell me a little bit about yourself.
David Armour, born in Sarnia Ontario. I’m a schoolteacher. I have been teaching High School English, Drama and other humanities for 30 years. For the past 18 I have been at Goderich District Collegiate Institute in Goderich, Ontario. I’m married, with three children and three grandchildren.
How would you say you approached adapting Le Fanu’s novella? What was the trickiest thing in writing this play?
While I have great respect for the original, I also had a fairly powerful personal response, a perspective which, though part of the secondary characters’ experience was not the central focus. In other words, Le Fanu had touched a nerve, brining up ideas I felt needed further exploration. I thought of the story, not from the point of view of the victim or of the predator, but from the point of view of the one (or ones) who might be left behind. If you’ve ever had a child who has fallen under the influence of something or someone outside the family – outside of what was expected – then you understand what I’m talking about. The trickiest part of writing the play, then, has been to explore the points of view of Laura’s father and General Spielsdorf without destroying our experience of the central relationship – Laura and Carmilla. The story itself lends itself readily to the stage, since the epistolic structure of it provides so much first person speech. I imagined that Hesselius had gathered Laura’s story, not posthumously, through an autobiographic memoir, but in person, through a series of interviews. The only other changes that I made were to substitute Mlle. de la Fontaine for a servant woman, named Vadma – I felt the household needed a local voice (De la Fontaine and Perroden seemed too much âof a featherâ to me) and to expand the role of the gypsy peddlar. I really like the idea of him, so I made him more important a character. The scene wherein he publicly notes Carmilla’s sharp teeth – “like an awl” – in rather more theatrical than the original.
Are you familiar with other adaptations of Carmilla, like the Hammer film or Blood and Roses? If so, what did you learn from them (if anything)?
I am familiar with all of them. I own a copy of âThe Vampire Lovers,â though I don’t feel they were much of an influence. These lovers are fun, but impossible for me to believe in.
Going into production, how did cast and crew react to the script?
It was pretty interesting. The original company were a group of students from the school where I teach. The idea that the central relationship could be between two young women was fairly daring for them. However, they were determined to play it as honestly as they knew how. They, of course, loved the spooky, fantastic elements a whole lot. We wrote some original music and designed a set that was more prop than actual set. All in all – we thought it was some of the best work we’d done in some time.
Did anything surprise you once real live people started speaking the lines?
Not really. We had been through a series of readings and workshops, so the characters developed slowly. The extent to which students could grasp the jealousy and sense of dread of the adult characters did surprise me a little, as well as their understanding Laura’s inability to escape Carmilla/Mircalla’s influence. It seems that the type of the friend-who-isn’t-good-for you-but to get-rid-of-them-would-be-cruel is very well-known to today’s teen, They’re sleeping in your rec room, stealing from your mom’s purse or repeatedly threatening suicide to keep you in line in neighborhoods all across the country.
When it came to actual performance, what do you think worked best?
The gypsy scene and the scene where Carmilla reveals herself to Laura. The one was very funny – a pantomime concerning the dangers of the country vampire and how to defend against them. The latter was very romantic and despite the obvious dependency of the two protagonists, very touching. Their love is based in fear, but they feel it very keenly.
Ideally, what would like to see happen with your play?
I’m involved already in the next draft. The original version was an essay – a one-act version for a student drama festival. The next is a full-length costume play for a modern audience.
Any thoughts on the huge popularity of the vampire genre right now?
Vampires come and go as pop icons. When I began, I thought I’d hit the trough after the fading of Anne Rice’s work. Then, the whole âTwilightâ thing happened and has spawned so much other trash that it will be impossible shortly for a real story to be told. I’m a Tolkeinophile and while there are many who have tried to emulate him, both in form and intention, there are many more who are content to parrot the form, until anything that smacks of Celtic or Norse mythology is written off as fun but irrelevant. The same has happened with vampire stories. Rice’s mythos stopped being interesting – at the latest –Â after âQueen of the Damned.â Myers’ novels are for me, unreadable. There is power in these archetypes, but not because the characters glitter, or because they are beautiful or wise. If they were wise, they would not do what they do, want what they want, or cherish the hatreds that they do. The vampire is afraid. We identify with that fear. I think that their interest – any kind of real identity that we can have with them – proceeds from that.
Photos included in this article are copyright to Steve Allen (http://omega.scriptmania.com/) and used with his permission.