Interview: Joseph Willis on The UK’s London Horror Festival
2018 marks the eighth year of the London Horror Festival, the UK’s original and largest festival of live horror performance. From October 7 to November 3, the London-based event promises a month of theatrical fear and terror to satisfy even the most bloodthirsty horror lover’s taste. To learn more about what exactly the organisers have in store, Dread Central spoke to Joseph Willis, one of the talented team members putting the festival together.
London Horror Festival runs from 7 October to 3 November 2018 at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ. For more information and to buy tickets, visit LondonHorrorFestival.co.uk.
Dread Central: The festival is in its eighth year, which is quite an achievement for a genre fest! Can you tell me a little about its origins?
Joseph Willis: Since 2011, the London Horror Festival (LHF) has delighted and scared audiences by championing an eclectic programme of horror theater, from puppetry adaptations of literary classics to midnight mind-reading; and immersive interactive experiences to LGBTQ cabaret.
Started by Stewart Pringle and Liam Welton of Theatre of the Damned in response to the growing desire by audiences for horror theater, it has grown from humble beginnings to become the UK’s largest festival of horror in the live performing arts. Initially hosted by the Etcetera Theatre, it has now found a home at the Old Red Lion.
The wonderful and amazing Katy Danbury, artistic director of the Old Red Lion, is the producer and curator of LHF.
By fostering new talent at the same time as nurturing the constantly growing horror theater scene, LHF is planning its biggest programme yet in its eighth year.
DC: Can you tell us a little about Katy Danbury’s work with LHF, and about your own involvement?
JW: Katy Danbury is an incredible producer and programmer, whose work with LHF has brought huge support to this emerging theatrical genre. Without her, numerous companies would not be in the position they currently are, so even if you cannot get to LHF, please try to support her work at the Old Red Lion throughout the rest of the year. She and the venue provide continual support to exciting artists through their theatrical seasons. Also, if you’re a company reading this and want to put on a show in London, you should definitely get in touch with them about using the venue, it will change your life for the better.
I have been a part of the festival since 2017, so am quite young in the horror game! I made my first trip to London as a volunteer, getting companies in and out of the venue whilst sofa cruising for the four weeks on various friends’ floors and couches. This year I have come back (like a member of the undead) to help with all the administration of the festival and ensure that it is the spookiest and best year yet.
DC: What have been the highlights of the festival for you?
JW: For me, a huge highlight has been getting to see the companies who came last year for the first time return with new shows. Hearing that so many felt supported and excited to come back with exciting sophomore efforts after incredible debuts is a testament to both the companies and Katy’s work with the festival.
More specifically, I loved seeing the wonderful Red Cape Black Cape’s The Stomaching which was like a 1960’s LSD trip with violent nuns and the most terrifying use of a garden since Alan Titchmarsh lost his mind that one time and took a chainsaw to Charlie Dimmock (I might be misremembering that one).
DC: What can we expect from the line-up this year?
JW: The line-up this year is going to be bigger, better and more terrifying than ever before. Returning companies such as The House of Macabre and Stack Ten are bringing their darkly comedic, brilliant, warped minds to plays about cult leaders and Catholic werewolves (The Darklings and Wolves of Erin respectively).
Masters of Horror, Turnpike Productions and Brother Wolf are bringing their hugely successful tales about H.P. Lovecraft and Occultist detectives to the festival for the first time after successful runs (Providence: The Shadow Over Lovecraft and Magic Circle respectively).
Newer, emerging frighteners Somna Theatre bring a tale of witchcraft and broken friendship in Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?, and Ponydog Productions promise an interactive paranoid conspiracy horror with The Agency.
Finally, the festival has also gone international with the renowned Grand Guignol de Milan arriving for one night only to bring some never before seen Italian horror stories, so that is certainly one not to be missed.
DC: That’s certainly an exciting mix of shows! I notice Danse Macabre Productions have a new show at the festival, which I believe you co-wrote?
JW: Danse Macabre Productions is a horror, humor and fantasy theater collective created in 2016 that aims to make the darkness a little lighter. With a “bloody tongue in cheek” sensibility and a love of experimentation within genre, their shows keep you guessing whilst making you laugh, scream and check under your seat for the bogeyman.
My co-monster Sam Essame and I write produce and direct the shows ourselves. Previous works include a site-specific version of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow at night, an extra-sensory, interactive show set inside a sensory deprivation tank, and an improv show set inside hell itself.
Our latest show, Fear Itself, opens the festival and is a combination of a TED Talk and Stephen King. It follows Dr. Amelia Greenwood, a renowned psychologist who wants to help the audience conquer fear itself. However, in order to do so, she not only has to get past her ex-husband who just so happens to be teaching the show but also the metaphorical and literal ghosts of her past. For more info see @danseofdeath or www.dansemacabreproductions.com.
DC: As if you weren’t busy enough, you’re running the LHF playwriting competition. A great opportunity to discover and showcase new writing! Are you expecting a good mix of the gothic, grisly, and gory from submissions?
JW: Definitely, as those are three of our favorite things about the genre. Also, we’re hoping to see horror which uses the genre as a means to explore various beliefs and statements about the world. Writing which uses the scope and abstract metaphor of the medium to test, prod, and provoke what it means to be living in the 21st century. Key examples of this recently being Jordan Peele’s incredible Get Out. We also really hope to be scared, as having been in the horror game for a while now, we’ve become a bit accustomed to frights and would love to feel like a kid again, hiding beneath the covers in the dark!
DC: The theme of this year’s playwriting comp is, of course, Women in Horror. What inspired this choice? And would you agree that women writing horror don’t always get the recognition they deserve?
JW: The inspiration of this choice was two-fold. Firstly, as it is the 200th anniversary of seminal horror classic Frankenstein (1818), we wanted to honor its incredible writer Mary Shelley by looking for her successor. We’re hoping to find a brilliant artist who uses the genre as a way of providing their unique and inspirational take on the world, just like she did.
Secondly, it was indeed to increase the representation of women within the world of horror, both in terms of the writers and also generally how women are viewed in the medium. There are some incredible, stand out female horror writers and characters such as Jennifer Kent (who wrote and directed the stratospheric The Babadook, 2014) and Ellen Ripley (the protagonist of Alien, 1979, who I spent a long time as a child dressing up as), but largely it is a male-dominated genre where women are written as objects, to be killed, or for the hero to save.
Thus, we want women writers and women characters to get the recognition that they deserve. This competition might not change the world, but hopefully, it’s a step in the right direction.
DC: Absolutely! Your efforts are laudable. Rather than just limit the competition to women writers, you’ve also installed the Bechdel Test. What was the thinking behind this move?
JW: As well as encourage women writers, we want male writers to re-examine their beliefs about how they write female characters. This will challenge them to not just call upon stock, outdated stereotypes but write women as people with personalities, as well-rounded characters rather than plot devices.
This will hopefully mean that even if they don’t win this competition, those who have entered will continue to rise to the challenge and look at how they write and represent women within this genre and others.
It is going to be interesting to see whether this is the case and we are successful in our aim or if we just see male writers attempting to shoehorn their scripts into the entry criteria without re-examining their representational efforts.
DC: It is, and I look forward to seeing the winning piece. Finally, is there anything else that you’re keen to shout about?
JW: Yes, in keeping with this year’s Women in Horror message, please support women in the media in as many ways as you can, including through the following links:
https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/volunteer-for-us (volunteer to promote Women’s Rights);
http://www.rosauk.org/what-you-can-do/individuals/ (donate to support projects working with women and girls such as this UK Fund);
http://femalearts.com/links (promote women in the Arts);
https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/GirlsOnTops (purchase merchandise to support women in film);
https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/scared-sacred#/ (support projects featuring women contributors such as the campaign for this new book on religion in horror).