[NoHo Arts District, CA] – A NoHo Arts theatre interview with Madmann’s Playground on their production of “Van Helsing’s Dracula” – an immersive circus dinner theater experience with exclusive performances on October 21, November 4, 11 and 18.
Sarah Mann is the founder of Madmann’s Playground, a production company created to promote and produce works around the unique and diverse talents of the Los Angeles circus community. Sarah herself is a dancer and an aerialist with years of experience creating innovative immersive productions in bars and nightclubs. Her latest project, “Van Helsing’s Dracula” is her biggest project yet and over the seven-year journey it took to get to this point, Sarah has involved many of her friends and even her father, Emmy Award-winning composer Hummie Mann in this utterly original and groundbreaking show.
Not only is “Van Helsing’s Dracula” an adaptation of one of the most fascinating and intriguing stories of our time, it was important to Sarah to create something fully immersive for her audience. Since drinking each other’s blood was a step too far even for L.A., it seemed that serving authentic Romanian food would be the next best thing. To that end, Sarah partnered with Anne Apra Events whose expertise in developing highly researched and accurately themed menus was the perfect foil for this iconic and transportative show.
I was invited to a tasting of the menu for the show and I have to tell you I was thrilled with the food. Gorgeous, earthy, fragrant and ancient flavors. With traditional Ghiveci, which is Romania Ratatouille…an absolute favorite of mine and easy to get wrong. But Anne Apra’s version with its roasted eggplant is absolutely delicious. Then there are the meats, roasted chicken with paprika and honey, skeward chargrilled steak and a lovely vegan option with roasted vegetables and more paprika, of course. Everything served with delicious smashed potatoes and Romanian maize porridge, which is like polenta and just incredible.
I was so impressed with the attention to detail. How Sarah and Anne made the food as important as anything else making the experience of the night all encompassing.
Every sense served. Our eyes, our ears, our mouths and our beating hearts as the performers spin around us and tell the tragic and beautiful story of Dracula.
I’m really looking forward to the opening night!! This is such an ambitious piece so I had some questions for Sarah.
Hi Sarah. I can’t tell you how excited I am to see this show…you trained as a dancer, but what led to your interest in the aerial and circus arts?
Growing up with a father from Montreal, Quebec, my family always attended Cirque du Soleil shows whenever they came into town. I always had a fascination with circus arts and the circus experience, although it wasn’t until after college that I ended up finding my way to it.
After college, a fellow dancer asked if I would be interested in learning how to pole dance and potentially joining a new pole dance company she was creating, Jagged Contemporary Pole Dance Company. I eagerly agreed and became fascinated with the ability to dance in the air. I danced with the company for 4 years and was co-director for the latter three, at which point life took me in a different direction. After I left the pole dance company, I started dabbling in other aerial arts (primarily hoop and hammock). A few years into my aerial journey, it made perfect sense as to why I was so obsessed with it, yet also struck me as completely odd that I had not explored circus arts earlier.
How did you come up with the idea for “Van Helsing’s Dracula?”
As a new company and a producer in L.A., I knew it would be best to find a story that people already knew and loved in order to capture an audience’s attention and peak their interest. In addition, I was determined to find a story that was dark and sexy, as I wanted to create an experience for adults.
I spent a few months watching movies, reading fairy tales, and looking for stories that would be easily translatable to circus arts and wouldn’t be too complex to portray through movement. One night, my boyfriend – being a huge Dracula fan – stumbled upon BBC’s Dracula TV series. After watching it, I knew that Dracula was the story I wanted to tell. The first thing that piqued my interest was the fact that their Van Helsing was a female. I loved the idea of having a female Van Helsing, especially because I already had an actress in mind who I wanted to cast as the storyteller and emcee/hostess for the show. Next, the fact that Dracula is a shapeshifter makes Dracula an easy character to portray in a circus show. Dracula could be cast as a dancer, an aerialist, a contortionist, a stilt walker, or all of the above. Third, the fact that vampires are “evil” yet sexy would enable me to keep the show sensual and dark.
Your team seems amazing, how did you find them all?
They are truly amazing! Honestly, it was a combination of hiring creatives and performers I had previously worked with, referrals from performers and friends I knew, and scouring the internet and social media, interviewing new people who I had never met.
The creative team:
I met my two writers, Katie Rediger (playing Van Helsing) and Corrin Evans, while performing with The Toledo Show. Hummie Mann (composer) is my father. Kelly Maglia (costume designer) I worked with during my time with Jagged Contemporary Pole Dance Company. Derek Jones (lighting designer) was referred to me through a friend of a friend who helped run a dance company. Chris Sousa (sound engineer) is my nextdoor neighbor. After Chris came on, he brought his friend, Justin Harris (sound engineer), on board.
Frankie Tan (Dracula), Rachele Donofrio (harem member), and Jennifer Harrison (harem understudy) are performers who I had worked with previously. Lala Araki (The Lover) I met in an aerial class. Carolina Saverin (harem member) was referred to me through Frankie (Dracula). Alicia Salvadori (harem member) I found through an audition notice I posted on Instagram. And Taylor Marie (harem member) was a referral through Alicia, who also happened to respond to the Instagram audition notice.
Jarryd Elias (Music Director and percussion player) was one of my father’s film composition students. He brought Alison Bjorkedal (harp player) on board. Chihsuan Yang (violin player) is a musician I met through The Toledo Show. And Dylan Price (keyboard player) was referred through another one of my father’s students.
The catering team:
When I was searching for event venues, I was given Anne Apra’s name (chef) from one of the venue owners. She brought fellow chef Ronen Levy on to help with the food service and logistics.
It’s truly been incredible how it’s all fallen into place!
As the daughter of a composer you certainly are rooted in music. But does the music come before the choreography? Or do the motions inspire the music?
For me, the music always comes first. However, in this case, it’s been an interesting challenge because the music was written for the show, rather than me spending hours trying to find the right track for the right moment. Katie and Corrin created the storyline first. Once the three of us had settled on the narrative and had determined what would be happening on stage for each scene (aerial act, ground act, Van Helsing onstage alone, etc), we met with my dad, Hummie, and broke the whole show down for him. We explained the type of act that would be taking place, along with the emotional beats that would need to take place in each act. Being a film composer, my father is used to having a visual aid to watch and to inspire the music, so I knew this would be a bit unconventional for him. However, being a film composer, I knew he would be able to deliver the emotional arc of each scene and truly tell a story with the music.
As he was creating the music, he would send it over for me, Katie, and Corrin to listen to. This way, Katie and Corrin could confirm that the music felt correct for the scene and I could confirm whether it would accurately work for the type of movement or act that I envisioned happening onstage.
Once a music cue was complete, I would come up with an outline of where the emotional beats would take place, according to what I was hearing in the music. Then, in rehearsal with the cast, we created the movement. Every scene was a collaborative process with the cast. The majority of my experience has been working with dancers or aerialists who are dancers. This is the first time that I have been given the opportunity to work with hand balancers, contortionists, gymnasts, acrobats, and a multitude of circus props that I had never previously explored. As a group, we had to figure out what each character would do in a given circumstance (scene), as well as figure out what each performer’s body was capable of. Many of these performers had never worked together, so the movement evolved as the performers became more comfortable with each other and developed a better sense of trust with one another.
Explain your perfect situation moving forward for “Van Helsing’s Dracula” and future productions for Madmann’s Playground.
My ideal plan for Madmann’s Playground is to have a permanent home in Los Angeles. With a permanent home, I hope to host circus dinner theater experiences every week, year round, changing the show and menu every 4 months. As for “Van Helsing’s Dracula,” I would love to see it become an annual Halloween season experience. It’s possible that “Van Helsing’s Dracula” would take place in our permanent home every Halloween season, or perhaps it will pop up in a new city each year.
I’m always so impressed by the huge variety of talent in Los Angeles. Does the city inspire your work?
Absolutely! One of the main reasons I wanted to start Madmann’s Playground was to give the circus community a home. Los Angeles is home to a ton of circus performers, however, Los Angeles doesn’t have a circus. There are nightclubs and bars that regularly have dancers and aerialists. There are burlesque and variety shows that happen weekly, monthly, and yearly. And there are always commercial jobs and corporate events that hire circus performers. But for most circus performers, they end up leaving L.A. to pursue a full-time career, which I find extremely unfortunate. So, yes, the incredibly talented performers that I come across during my training sessions, my performance career, and who are featured in the shows I attend are definitely a source of inspiration. After all, it’s nearly impossible to have a quality show if you don’t have the talent to make it happen.
Any advice for burgeoning live performance producers out there?
If you’re looking to produce live performances, know what you’re getting into: it’s a risk and, depending on the scale of the production, it can be pricey. Make sure you have the people you need, the systems in play that you need, and the finances to pay for those people and systems.
If you have only ever been a performer, make sure that you understand the production and technical elements that are required before you jump into producing. Understand the ticketing systems that are available to you. Find out how other shows are marketing their show and how much that costs. If you’ve never worked as a stagehand, you may want to try it. Make sure you understand what a lighting designer needs to know to properly light your show or what an audio engineer needs from you, whether you’re performing to tracks or with live musicians, to ensure that your audio sounds the way it should. You’ll be amazed to learn how many technical staff are backstage and how many people are helping to keep the show running smoothly. Running a live production is not easy and, depending on the scale of the production, it will most likely require more hands and humans than just you.
Lastly, if you plan on being in the show, I suggest you find someone else to act as your production coordinator. Starring in and running a production simultaneously is extremely challenging. Make sure that you have someone to help you and your fellow performers. There’s nothing more chaotic than something going wrong with a guest at the ticketing booth or learning that the lights aren’t working properly when you are trying to get ready to go onstage. Plus, your fellow performers will inevitably have questions or need something from you prior to doors opening. Rarely will you have the time for yourself to get show ready or take the necessary time you need to warm up if you don’t have someone else handling the logistics night of.
Finally, if you have anything else to add…please do.
The circus dinner theater experience is something that I am really excited to bring to Los Angeles. In Seattle, where I grew up, there is an amazing company called Teatro Zinzanni that does exactly this: a narrative circus show with a meal. It is an experience that I (and most of the other Seattle locals I know) love. It’s time for L.A. to experience it!
October 21, November 4, 11 and 18
The Vatican Banquet Hall
6913 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys, CA 91405
Social Media Links:
Madmann’s Playground: www.madmannsplayground.com
Van Helsing’s Dracula ticketing: https://www.eventbrite.com/cc/van-helsings-dracula-2388819
Sarah Mann (CEO/Co-Producer & Co-Director of Van Helsing’s Dracula): www.themadmann.com
Corrin Evans (Co-Writer/Co-Producer of Van Helsing’s Dracula): https://www.corrinevans.com/
Katie Rediger (Co-Writer/Co-Director of Van Helsing’s Dracula): https://www.linkedin.com/in/katie-rediger-7a361a277/
Hummie Mann (Composer): www.hummiemann.com
Derek Jones (Lighting Designer): https://www.pandaroja.com/
Anne Apra (Chef): http://www.anneapraevents.com/
Ronen Levy (Chef): http://www.ronenlevy.com/