By Alex Zavistovich
Many, MANY years ago, when I was barely in junior high school, I was cast in my first role – a school production of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. As most first experiences are, it was influential in my passion for acting. In my case, it also prompted a lifelong fascination with the intersection of Poe, horror, and live theatre.
That’s why, having moved to Poe’s burial place in Baltimore three years ago, my current creative endeavor as artistic director of The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre is so meaningful to me. On October 14, Edgar Allan Poe’s Blood, Sweat and Fears opens in Dundalk, MD at FPX Events Live. While it is the first live production from The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre, after two years spent producing award-winning audio plays on NPR, the real story is NOT about this single-stage show.
Modesty aside (and anyone who knows me knows modesty isn’t my strong suit anyway), the real story is a 15-year odyssey of production successes that started in DC and made its way an hour north to Charm City. Our current show is an interweaving of the sensibilities of two companies, one having been spawned from the other.
Years before there was a National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre, I co-founded Molotov Theatre Group, a non-profit company dedicated to the preservation of the historically significant Grand Guignol Theatre of Horror. The Grand Guignol began in Paris in the late 1800s, grew to the heights of its popularity in the 1920s, and finally saw its demise in the 1960s, as motion pictures began to dominate the horror entertainment scene.
Grand Guignol saw a cult-like return in interest in the early 2000s, with a dozen or more theatres around the world recreating a typical evening of scripts from the horror theatre. The Grand Guignol founders and creative powerhouses cited numerous inspirations – including Edgar Allan Poe, whom the Grand Guignol paid tribute to with an onstage dramatization of Poe’s infamous The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.
Arguably, Molotov Theatre Group was at the forefront of that cult of fascination with all things Grand Guignol. The company first gained attention in 2007 with its Capital Fringe Festival Entry For Boston, which won Best Comedy recognition. Molotov followed up its success the next year with its play The Sticking Place, which was awarded Best Overall by fans – despite a lackluster response from critics.
Molotov went on to amass a collection of Helen Hayes Recommendations, and a nomination for its work Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe in 2015. Two years later the company saw one of its greatest commercial and critical successes with a remounting of an early production, Blood, Sweat and Fears: A Grand Guignol Sick Cabaret. The show was a resounding favorite among fans and critics and even received a lavish positive review from this very publication.
Molotov Theatre Group was undeniably better known internationally than in our own hometown of Washington, DC. (In fact, our cult status in the international horror community was underscored just a month ago, when Molotov was the subject of an entire chapter in an academic text from the University of Exeter Press in the UK, titled Grand-Guignolesque.)
Moving forward two years from our final Molotov show, I found myself in Baltimore – a happy decision that prompted a refocusing away from Molotov Theatre Group. As Baltimore is the home of The Ravens, The Poe House and Museum, and Westminster Hall (Poe’s gravesite), it made sense to honor, in our small way, America’s grandfather of horror and suspense.
Staying true to its interest in horror and suspense theatre, Molotov Theatre Group officially became The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre in 2021. The company has maintained its 501c3 non-profit status while honing our ambition and focus as the only theatre dedicated to the adaptation of the works of Poe for the stage, for broadcast, and in education.
Along the way, The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre entered an agreement with Baltimore NPR affiliate WYPR to create radio drama adaptations of Poe’s best-known works. Over nearly two uninterrupted years throughout the pandemic, the company produced monthly adaptations of Poe’s work under the banner Poe Theatre on the Air. The programs are streamable on Amazon Music, Audible, Apple Podcasts, and a host of other platforms.
These monthly adaptations have won five awards of excellence, including the 2021 Saturday Visiter Award for Best Adaptation from the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival for the company’s production of Hop-Frog. As a result, The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre was invited to work on an international collaboration with the University of Stirling in Scotland and the University of East Anglia in England with a three-part audio drama adaptation for a curated project called The Media of Mediumship.
And now, finally, on October 14, this 15-year odyssey culminates with Edgar Allan Poe’s Blood, Sweat and Fears. The show readapts for the stage three of the Poe Theatre on the Air programs: Berenice, A Predicament, and The Tell-Tale Heart.
When asked how we selected the stories to be adapted for Edgar Allan Poe’s Blood, Sweat and Fears, the answer is the perfect hybrid between Molotov Theatre Group and The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre. The early Grand Guignol theatre shows relied on an approach called “the hot and cold shower,” or in French, “la douche ecosaisse.” An evening at the theatre would begin with a suspense story, followed by a comedy, and would conclude with a horror play. The mid-show comedy served as a palate-cleanser and caused the viewers to be caught off guard by the finale.
So it is with Edgar Allan Poe’s Blood, Sweat, and Fears. The first story is the shocking Berenice (also notable for being among the stories written by Poe during his time in Baltimore), followed by A Predicament, one of the several true comedies written by Poe. The Tell-Tale Heart was the obvious horror story to end with, not only because it is one of Poe’s best-known works, but also because it is currently being taught in the Baltimore County Public Schools Eighth Grade Curriculum.
Fifteen years on from my first foray into horror theatre, I’m still pushing a very big rock up a very steep hill by producing works in this underappreciated genre. Horror theatre isn’t what you’d call a big seller to begin with, and I’m compounding the challenge by taking on some of the best-known works from an author with a rabidly loyal fan base. I’m really opening myself up to criticism, and I sincerely hope that this time around, unlike Molotov Theatre Group, we might actually become as popular in our hometown as in the global horror community.
For me, acting in and producing horror theatre has been a lifelong passion that got its start in childhood and grew through the years – in one form or another – to be the one thing that can keep me working past midnight.
And isn’t that the perfect time to work, for someone producing horror theatre?
Alex Zavistovich is the founder and artistic director of The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Edgar Allan Poe’s Blood, Sweat and Fears was co-written by Professor Richard Hand of the University of East Anglia and Poe Theatre Director of Education Jennifer Restak, the play is directed by Jay Brock, Catholic University Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies. includes music performed by Jill Parsons, lighting design by Hailey Laroe, costume design by Jacqui Maranville, sound design by Jay Shovan and choreography by Christen Svingos Douglass. The production director is Jackie Wilberton.
The cast of Edgar Allan Poe’s Blood, Sweat and Fears includes Adam R. Adkins, Elizabeth Darby, Olivia Ercolano, Melanie Kurstin, Anna Phillips-Brown, B. Thomas Rinaldi, and Alex Zavistovich. They include some old Molotov cohorts along with new friends.
This article is part of DC Theater Arts’ In Their Own Words Series. DCTA invites members of the arts community to contribute articles. If you have a topic that you feel passionate about, please reach out to email@example.com about potential publication. Examples of past articles include this essay on the playwriting process by playwright Normal Yeung, and this article on burning paper onstage in Hamilton by props designer Jay Duckworth.