Conjure the Spirits revolves around a wicked séance that goes awry, wedging its participants between the realms of the living and the dead and transforming them into seethingly dark manifestations of their hopes, fears and flaws.
We asked playwright and direct Hiro Korsgaard more about his new show.
How did you come up with such a unique idea for a show as a seance gone wrong?
With Conjure the Spirits, I wanted to follow characters whose choices result in the characters each getting what they want, but not in the way they expect. I thought an interesting way of exploring this concept would be to see characters’ selfish intentions corrupt the process of a séance — then see how they face consequences once pulled halfway between the realms of the living and the dead. Before researching the rise of American spiritualism in the 19th century for the project, I would have never guessed how rich the cast of characters who attended “table-turning” parties could be. A lot of the time, they were high-stakes affairs for everyone involved — from the mediums, to the hosts and guests, and even the skeptics — so the situation sets the table (so to speak) to delve into interesting conflicts.
What drew you to Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre as a venue?
I have been a fan of Zombie Joe’s Underground — and particularly their signature show, Urban Death — for years. I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve as a writer and director, and I knew that the opportunity to develop a show influenced by the distinctive style of ZJU would be very enriching. I also knew I had a high bar to clear, given the theatre’s storied 31-year history. At the same time, it was reassuring to be able to count on the presence of a supportive community to help along the way and to give helpful feedback before and during the show’s run. On that note, I owe very special thanks not only to Zombie Joe himself, but also to Denise Devin, who was instrumental to bringing Conjure the Spirits to life and ensuring that it bears the essence that only exists at the Underground.
Casting is tough with plays in general, but with a show like this were there certain special attributes you were looking for in the actors?
Because Conjure the Spirits is a fast-paced and physically demanding ensemble piece, it was important that the cast both be very capable at communicating relationships and conflict in ways that an audience member can recognize right away, and be able to move in unconventional ways. Huge shout-out to each member of the cast – Sarah Bruce, Zelda Gay, Ryan Leonard, Jorge Lozano, and Liza Rash – for taking a leap of faith with this show and delivering absolutely top-notch performances every night of the run.
What made you decide to have a ‘pre-show’ in the lobby?
It’s one thing to tell an audience in the playbill that they are ghosts — it’s another thing entirely to give them the experience of haunting a theatre alongside the spirits of decades’ worth of ZJU performances past. I think that inviting the audience to be a fly on the wall while the troupe “conjures” the play not only allows narrative groundwork to be established (and easter eggs for the character relationships that cross over between the pre-show and the show to be placed), but it also lets the audience know that their presence is important to us as the storytellers.
I really enjoyed your 2022 Hollywood Fringe show, ‘4 Season Total Sh*t Show.’ How do these two genres, parody and horror, differ to produce?
Thank you! In my experience, timing and tension are both crucial to giving an audience the experience of laughter or fear, and it’s the way performers resolve tension that makes the two genres different. So I would say that no matter the genre, developing strong cast chemistry is key.
Lastly, please give any prospecting playwrights, directors and producers your insights on what do do and what to avoid.
Trust your casts, and do everything in your power to foster an environment where they can be their most creative selves! As writers, I think our most important job is to craft relationships and conflicts that allow each performer to tell a compelling story from their character’s perspective. And as directors, I think our most important job is to create conditions that allow each performer to find moments and make choices that only they can while they’re inhabiting their character.