Emily Dussault as Báthory Erzsébet (Elizabeth Bathory) in The Winding Sheet Outfit’s production of Blood Nocturne.
Báthory Erzsébet, or Elizabeth Bathory as she’s more commonly known in English, holds an infamous title: history’s most prolific murderess. A Hungarian noblewoman, Countess Bathory (1562-1614) was arrested by a royal agent on December 30, 1610 and eventually accused of killing 650 victims. Court proceedings and popular historiography added accusations of bathing in the blood of virgins, colorful and horrific tortures, and even cannibalism. Historians to this day debate whether she was a prolific killer, the target of politically motivated slander, or something in-between. Her story is explored in Blood Nocturne, a new musical at the 2018 Minnesota Fringe Festival.
The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine sat down with Amber Bjork of The Winding Sheet Outfit to discuss Blood Nocturne, devised theatre, and the intersection of historiography and the stage.
Your last production, The Memory Box of the Sisters Fox, was a devised piece with a strong movement component. Will Blood Nocturne be similar in these respects?
Yes, but probably not as pronounced as Sisters Fox. After all, we are challenging ourselves with making music this time, so that’s our main concentration. Many of the cast members play instruments that will ground them a bit more. They’re also all in period costuming, and the corsets are slightly more limiting. I did do a little research into traditional Eastern European dances, and while we won’t really be breaking out into lines and circles, we have built on the physical vocabulary of those dances, like the way ladies hold their skirts, keep time by formalized swaying, or adding emphasis with stomps and claps. I wanted to start with a movement foundation that feels atmospherically tied to the region where the story takes place.
Blood Nocturne is listed as “A new play with music” and the title refers to the nocturne music genre, but I don’t see a composer listed in the credits. Who is writing, improvising, or otherwise creating the music?
Regarding “nocturne”: I had to decide on a title far before we began building the show. I knew it would be a musical and that there would be a lullaby in there somewhere. Whether that was a lullaby being sung by Erzsebet or to her, I didn’t know, but I knew it would be a musical, and that the subject matter was dark. I chose a word that I associated with those two thoughts.
The music is composed and created entirely by the ensemble. It’s as organic a process as building any of the dialogue or movement – everyone pitches in. I knew the beats we needed to hit in 60 minutes’ time, and how many songs we could fit in there. So it’s my job to come to the ensemble and tell them what purpose a song may serve at a particular moment, the feel it should have, and who is the main voice.
One performer might come up with a melody or support line, pick up an instrument and play it. Another may suggest which instruments serve it best or give it percussion. Two of my actors are brilliant at creating multi-part harmonies by ear, one of them is a natural with music theory, and we all learn fast. Sometimes I’ll come in with lyrics to start it off, and sometimes we start with the sound and build some lyrics together in rehearsal.
How did you first learn of Elizabeth Bathory? What led to your deciding to create a show around her story?
Oh, I can’t remember when I first heard of her. I really love horror and ghost stories, so she’s been buried in my memory collection probably since youth. I can’t really remember why she drifted to the surface more recently. I think it’s because with The Winding Sheet Outfit, we are always looking for subject matter that has a creepy feel, but we also like telling women’s stories.
I had originally planned to tell her bathing-in-blood horror tale, but when I really started researching her history, I found a much more fascinating feminist tragedy beneath it.
One of the emergent themes in your last Fringe show was the tangled and often biased process by which a history is written, slanting the popular understanding of events. Does this factor into this show as well?
Oh, absolutely. This one even more so. Especially with the political climate we live in now–it’s so easy to get caught up in salacious details. They fascinate us and create something that’s instantly re-tellable for short attention spans. But sometimes the real story is infinitely complex and the roots run so deep into so many pockets of politics and history and details details details…. And many stories have complex characters that don’t fit neatly into “hero” or “villain.”
It can be exhausting and we all get a little lazy and just hook into the better story with the more clearly-defined moral decision. It’s a trap I feel we all fall into when times are hard. I guess I hadn’t realized it was a running theme with our shows. But I have to say, if you’re telling stories about historical females, you run into the “history is written by the victors” a lot. These ladies may not have been saints, but that doesn’t make the slander against them any more excusable.
You may have heard of that Hungarian Countess. Killed 650 virginal girls. Tortured and maimed them. Bathed in their blood. That is the story we know. Because that is the story the world has chosen to hear.
Tell me about the casting process for this show. I presume you didn’t just go up to Emily Dussault and say, “I think you’re the picture-perfect image of history’s most prolific murderess, be in my show?”
[Laughs] Actually, it was a lot like that! I’ve directed Emily before (Elephant’s Graveyard, Theatre Pro Rata) and we worked together on stage (105 Proof, Transatlantic Love Affair). I have always been a fan of her voice and her beautiful duality–she has the ability to be strong and frail at the very same time and I don’t know how she does it, but I know I like to work with her.
I can’t remember which thought came first: that I wanted to write a musical about Erzsebet Bathory, or that I wanted to write a musical lead for Emily, but it’s been set for a long time. I don’t know how many years I’ve checked in with Emily and asked her what her schedule was for that season…I’ve been thinking about it for a while.
She’s always had a great voice, but she’s really come into her identity as a singer (she has a duo with Leslie Vincent called The Champagne Drops; I highly recommend checking them out), and I knew I had to do this show before she got too busy to come and play with me.
How would you compare your casting process for devised works with “traditional” single-author works?
With a published or established script, you need to cast the characters that are already on the page. The author tells you who they are and while you can vary from that a little, it’s pretty pre-ordained. That’s when an audition pool comes in handy. But with a devised piece, it’s exactly the opposite – you build the piece with the people and talents you have in the room. That’s why devised pieces often seem so perfectly cast – because those characters weren’t just made for them, they were made by them.
When it comes to casting a devised piece, I think about the number of people I need, sure. But there’s really not much of a casting process. I ask people that I trust to be open-hearted and creative in the room, those who say yes to trying absolutely anything and putting all ideas out on the table, even if they think it won’t fly. The more ideas we have to choose from, the better, so I want people who will contribute. That also means building an atmosphere of trust and friendship, so I definitely want kind people who bond well.
In the instance of Blood Nocturne, I also thought of people with musical skills…but I didn’t have to stretch too far, since most of the devisers I love to work with are musicians in their own right. It’s because I have musically-talented people that I love and trust that I was even able to consider doing a musical.
Your cast plays a large array of musical instruments in this production – accordion, balalaika, bowed psaltery, flute, french horn, and percussion. Were you specifically looking for these instruments in your casting, or is this a happy accident?
Totally a happy accident. Derek and I are a couple, and we collect and play a large number of odd instruments because we both do devised work and you never know what will be needed in any particular show. We also play by ear and can pick up things quickly. I’ve worked with Boo Segersin, Kayla Dvorak Feld, and Emily Dussault in the past and I am aware of their skills. Josh Swantz worked on my very first Winding Sheet Fringe show in 2012 (Birds of Passage). I was looking for a musician and he has an education in music and music theory; a mutual friend connected us. Josh ended up being an actor in that piece, but he was so open and fun that I knew I’d want him back when I made my first musical!
As for the instruments at hand, those are all a very lucky coincidence. I don’t like to get too “in the weeds” with historical accuracy when it comes to staging a story – our costuming, speech patterns, and music are always meant to evoke an atmosphere or a time and place, but not necessarily recreate it. This is, after all, a theater in 2018, not Hungary in 1614, and we are actors, not ancient nobility.
I was looking for sounds that would pull Eastern European, but still would be entirely our own. We researched music from Hungary, Poland, Transylvania, Slovakia and found that there is an array of traditional sounds and styles from that area. Derek found the balalaika at an estate sale years ago and it’s been waiting for its moment.
I don’t play violin that well, but the psaltery has that string feel with the added twang of eerie. There’s a lot of brass in some Eastern European music; knowing Kayla that is an active, concert-playing French horn player, I’ve been waiting to utilize that skill. And Josh can play just about any instrument you can blow into or pound on, so we had lots of options there!