Ghost Stories of the Stage: An Interview with Playwright Mark Scharf on his New Work The Quickening

Is there life beyond death? An age old question that plagues the minds of the masses. Science has answers. Religion has answers. Should not the theatre also have answers? In a brand new work by Baltimore-based playwright Mark Scharf, The Quickening, perceived as a ghost story for the stage, dabbles into the uncharted territories of the unknown. In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview we sit down with Mark Scharf to discuss his latest work.

Welcome back, always a pleasure to have you with us.

Mark Scharf: Thank you. We just spoke about The Island of Doctor Moreau, which is still running at The Twin Beach Players through November 1, 2015. And now we’re going to talk about The Quickening.

What was your big inspiration for The Quickening?

Mark: I wanted to see if I could write a ghost story for the stage. I love ghost stories.

What is it that you love about ghost stories?

Playwright Mark Scharf
Playwright Mark Scharf

Mark: That there’s the possibility of “the other.” Can you frighten somebody? It’s all in your head. The original movie of The Haunting of Hill House, the Shirley Jackson tale? You never saw anything. You just heard things and watched people react. When they remade it you saw things flying around and that just ruins things for me. It made me think— can this sort of thing be put on stage? What could you get away with on stage and how would you do it? You don’t use special effects, well maybe simple special effects like sound effects and paintings falling off the wall. Could I write this and engage an audience, scare them or have it unsettle them and have them still enjoy it? Is there more to it? Those questions that you brought up about “what is interesting about the idea of a ghost.”

My friend Charlie Walsh is Dylan Walsh the actor. We did summer stock together. He told me if I had a treatment he would give it to somebody. I wrote this treatment. I gave it to him and he liked it and he said “Now forget about it.” That’s just the way film is. So I had this treatment and I kept thinking about it. It was about a ghost story set just outside of Richmond, Virginia, which is full of battlefields. There were various ideas that have always stuck with me, which are mentioned in the play.

What is this play actually about?

Mark: It’s about a soul seeking a new home. At U.V.A. there is a Medical Center Division of Perceptual Studies Institute that studies reincarnation. It’s privately funded; it’s not funded by the state. Doctor Tucker, who is an associate psychiatry professor, investigates reincarnation.  One of the theories that he put out there deals with Quantum Mechanics. I have an African-American woman physicist who opens and closes the play. People do argue about this in Quantum Mechanics, but one interpretation is that consciousness affects things. There is an experiment, and she talks about it in the play. If you shine a light through two slits onto a photographic plate, and you’re looking, light from only one slit registers. If you don’t look, light from both slits register. What’s different is that you’re observing it. I found this fascinating.

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There are lots of possible natural explanations but it could be consciousness. If consciousness affects things, what this leads to is perhaps that our consciousness is not generated but downloaded the way you would download a program to your computer. We are a vessel and the consciousness is downloaded into us. It’s that possibility that sets up the premise for the ghost story.

There is also an older Catholic tenant called ensoulment, or “the quickening,” which refers to the moment in a pregnancy when the soul enters a fetus.  I think that originated from Aquinas…

In the ghost story a young couple, and she is very, very, very pregnant, move into the last house sold on a cul-de-sac in a brand new development on the outskirts of Richmond. Things start to happen in the house. We come to find out the house is built where a farmhouse used to stand. The whole area used to be a farm and a skirmish took place there during the Civil War. Now, another interesting theory to me is that if someone dies and they don’t know they’re dying, they don’t leave, they stick around because they don’t know they’ve died. Well, you find out that the farmhouse served as a first aid station for this battle in the Civil War. Several soldiers were killed along with one ten-year-old boy. He was a farm kid, he hears gunfire, goes to investigate, and he gets himself killed.

I’m afraid that I’m going to give the entire thing away here, but this kid, this dead child, he wants a second chance at life. When this pregnant woman comes in, before the quickening can occur, he wants it to occur using him, using his soul — he wants to be born. There’s an actual séance in the play. I did all this research to learn what you have to do, how you dress, what you put on the table—

Have you ever conducted a séance, Mark?

Mark: No. You know, Ouija Boards and séances and things? They freak people out. I’ve never had one, but I did do research and you do— you have to dress a certain way, you get stones, you get sticks, you get candles. There’s all of these things that go along with it. The husband is a Civil War reenactor and there’s some funny stuff with that because Philomena, who is the next door neighbor who teaches math at the community college is black, she’s over talking with Beth and the husband comes in dressed like a Confederate Soldier. But it takes place in Richmond where you have Monument Avenue with all these statues of Confederate Generals. You can’t escape the past. O’Neill says the past isn’t really the past, it’s always with us. Anyway, it’s set in a historical area that had a lot a lot of violence, which to me is a very American theme. It has the possibility of not just being a superstition but having a scientific basis and a religious basis.

Is that a big deal?

Mark: If a soul is downloaded where the hell does that come from? Does it really make a difference that an already dead kid is going to become the soul of your new child? Don’t you want your own “original,” if you will, kid? You don’t want a retread? Beth finds out that this is the dead boy’s intent, which she does not want. Now, they don’t learn this until the climax of the play where all hell breaks loose during the séance. 

There’s an actual kid in the play?

Mark: There is a kid in the play but he doesn’t have any lines. He does scream. Every reading I’ve had of this show so far has worked to me. I have an amazing cast for this reading at Spots.

Who is in your cast?

Mark: Marianne Angelella, Ryan Gunning, David Shoemaker, and Debbie Bennett. It’s directed by Chelsea Dove, who has directed all of the readings thus far and who I think is an amazing, intuitive and generous director who also has the organizational skills of first-rate stage manager. Ryan is playing Beth, the pregnant woman, and David plays her husband, Matt. Their chemistry is amazing. They just fell right into it. I’m so looking forward to this reading. I used some of my grant money to get a Sound Designer. Brad Ranno created sound cues for it. It’s one thing to hear it just read. But now you get to hear, for example, the sounds of a telephone screaming like a fax machine, which to me is a very frightening sound. Whoever comes to the reading will get to experience it instead of just having it told to them.

This play sounds as if it is different from other projects you’ve worked on, what was the process like for you?

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Mark: It was serendipity to tell you the truth. Things just kept falling into my lap and I kept wondering if there was a reason for that. I had the whole setup and then some articles came in about quantum mechanics connecting to reincarnation and I just went with it. As it grew, I thought a lot about how one would deal with this situation. You can’t just bring in a priest and do an exorcism. And I thought, well, we could do a séance. I wanted to make sure that it was right. Not a movie version but the actual process of a real séance. There are a lot of things that will happen in the audience’s mind but I’m really looking forward to the sound cues and you can do some cool things with lights in a production. No heads explode or anything like that.

You mentioned The Quickening is an old Catholic Dogma, what is it that draws you to that vein of mystical influence? You’re not Catholic, are you?

Mark: Retired. Well, retired or lapsed, recovering? To quote Eugene O’Neill again, “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” You can’t escape it. It informs the way you think even when you don’t want it to.

But you’re agnostically inclined. How does that fit into a play that has a dominating hand of religious presence?

Mark: It asks the questions I want to ask. At the end of the play there’s a shot scene that is almost like it began with Philomena talking directly to the audience, saying “with some people, wouldn’t that be a comfort? Wouldn’t you find that a comfort if you had concrete answers that you could prove scientifically?” Those questions, especially as you get older, I think, really plague your mind.

The other thing is, Amanda, think about the kid. A sweet and innocent, preadolescent kid. How non-threatening — but you take that and you make that horrible I think that has a lot of power. He appears at the back door. He doesn’t say anything. Beth goes to offer him a drink and suddenly he’s gone. Now it could be a neighborhood kid. But I thought, “What can you do on stage for this?” I can do things with lights, I can do things with sound, I can have things fall. I did cut— stealing from everything, hacks borrow, artists steal— but I had white noise on the television. It was too reminiscent of Poltergeist, and too cheesy. So I cut it and it’s gone. I made some other changes.

Have you been working on this for a while now?

Mark: I got to work on it at Sewanee (Sewanee’s Writers Conference), which was very encouraging, and then it got into the Comparative Drama Conference. It just seemed to build. And when it won the Maryland State Arts Council Aware off we went to the races. I’m hopeful that someone will want to produce it.

What was the most difficult thing about writing this?

Mark: The rewrites. The revisions. The hardest thing so far has been some of the cuts and changes that I know make it better. Cutting them wasn’t my first instinct. The last thing you want is for someone to hear a line and say “Oh, what a great piece of writing.” If they say that then I haven’t done my job. Audience members shouldn’t be thinking “Oh, what a brilliant speech!” You shouldn’t be able to tell when it’s the playwright speaking instead of the character speaking. Thou shalt not bore!

The reading is at Spotlighters.

Mark: 7:30pm on the 29th. After that I go into rehearsal for Our Town. Actually, we start that on the 26th.

I’ll be in Philly on the 26th, visiting the Terror Behind the Walls attraction at the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Mark: Okay. You tell me then, what attracted you to that? Because that’s not just a play that’s the real thing.

I like being scared. Or rather, I like the potential to be scared. The potential of the thrill of being scared.

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Mark: See? I think people love that potential. My brother is very much into this subject matter. I grew up reading occult stories — HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Part of what fascinates us or rather draws us, at least me, to it is that question of is it real? When your dog or cat is staring at the vacant corner – there’s nothing there but they are raptly gazing, and of course I have an overactive imagination and I look over to the corner and suddenly the air looks a little thick. The otherworldly is a fascinating thing to think about, mostly because you don’t want to think that it just stops.

 If it does just stop then what are we doing here?

Mark: All of those questions. When I started reading the research on the quantum mechanics and the theory about the light experiment, I noted it was something that could be replicated. And it makes you think— maybe. Of course, people argue over it. When that article came out? The online thread has been going on for three years, people fussing over it. Everyone from fundamentalist Christians to Buddhists to theoretical physicists with 30 years of experience and they all have their arguments. How do you use science or religion to explain away things that simply are inexplicable?

Do you expect your audience to just accept your ghost boy?

Mark: It depends on who you are. I imagine there are people who will accept it and then there’s a boatload who won’t. It challenges their belief system.

Do you believe in ghosts?

Mark: I’m open to the possibility.

Have you have ghost experiences or encounters?
Mark:
Yeah…

Do you want to talk about it?

Mark: …No. Like I said, I have an overactive imagination and I wonder how much of it did I experience versus how much did I just think I experienced. But I am open. These are the everlasting questions. Is this it? If not then what happens and what’s the point? This play is happening because I want them to come into the theatre and enjoy it and walk out and have a discussion or an argument. Or maybe I just want to enjoy the fact that I might have given my audience the creeps. I gave the poster image to Ryan (actress Ryan Gunning) and she said “well that creeped me out!” That made me happy. During the opening of the play, the little boy is outside the sliding glass door looking in. And that’s a normal thing to happen, or is it? I mean this is all in the realm of the every-day. The couple is moving into the new house, they’re under a lot of stress, and there are theories about how people who are under a lot of stress are more open to these experiences.

A lot of things happen. She puts a wedding picture up on the mantle and when she walks out of the room it flies off the mantle and shatters. When she wakes up she has bruises on her arms, and the husband immediately says that she must have done it to herself because he knows he didn’t do it, but the bruises look like imprints from a child’s hands. I tried some things that I’ve always wanted to try— like reverse light. On stage the reality is they’re in blackout but we can see them. In the middle of a thunderstorm the lights go out and you can see them feeling around and stumbling about, but we can see them. For an actor bumping into things and navigating a strange room, I think it’s interesting to see that.

What would you say is the core message or major dramatic question for this work?

Mark: Can I leave that to critics like yourself?

I mean, you’re more than welcome to, but I make no promises that you’ll like what I have to say. However, I am curious to see what you think it is.

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Mark: Okay. At the end of the show, people have to make choices. You have to go forward, but how do you go forward? And I don’t want to over expose the ending, because I don’t want to give it away. But there are things that have to be determined. The ending is very different for each of these characters. Hopefully this will scare a few people and creep them out. I want it to make them ask those questions. We turn to science, we turn to religion, or our instincts to answer those “what if and what happens and is there an afterlife?” questions. I’m immortal, so personally I’m not worried about it. I figure if I say it often enough it’ll become true.

It sounds like the entire process has been very rewarding for you.

Mark: It has been and I’m very hopeful that I can get someone to produce it.

What is the moment in this show that speaks to you to define the show for you?

Mark: Probably the séance. That’s when all the shit hits the fan. That’s where belief and skepticism collide. That’s what occurs to me right off the top of my head.

What has working on this project taught you?

Mark: It really is a different kind of play for me. It’s allowed me to employ whatever tools that I’m consciously aware of and several of the ones I’m not aware of. Getting into it, trying to set the tone, trying to set the mood of the dialogue, Finding the balance and having some humor but having the awareness and having that edge built-in— that stressed couple edge of moving and being pregnant and everything that comes along with that…

What is the one thing you really hope will spark a debate among the audience after the leave the reading?

Mark: The initial question: What does happen to you when you die? Is this possible?

What do you think happens?

Mark: I don’t know. I’ve read a lot of theories, everything from the tunnel with the white light— and some people say that’s just the synapses in the brain shutting down— but I don’t know. Instinctively I’m thinking there is nothing. And that does frighten me. There’s just fuck all awaiting. It’s not a reunion. It’s not a reckoning or a party it’s just it. It’s the end. It’s instinctive, but I don’t know. I was raised Catholic so I can’t just dismiss that. That upbringing is still with me enough that I still wear St. Genesius, patron Saint of the Theatre, here around my neck. I’m a man of contradictions. But I’m not the first like that and nor will I be the last. I do envy those people who have that certitude about what happens, but I just can’t do it. I don’t think we really have any choice except to make this existence the absolute best that we can.

Are you overall pleased with the way this play has turned out?

Mark: I’m pleased with this play. Some of the lessons I learned from my three adaptations— because those authors have stood the test of time with their building of suspense despite the bastardization of today’s media— have helped me get this to where I want it. I don’t consciously think about the tools, techniques, and strategies as I’m writing. They’re just there and they inform what I’m doing as I do it. I get a gut feeling and I go with it. I want to ask the questions and have the audience determine the resolutions.

Here is your chance to get people to attend the reading. Why should they attend the reading?

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Mark: If you’ve liked anything I’ve done before I hope you’ll take this chance to come see something that’s very different from my other work and something that I’m very enthusiastic about. I hope you’ll have a good time. You’ll see some excellent actors and I think the piece works so that you will enjoy it. Maybe it will pique your interest and raise a few questions that most people try to avoid thinking about. We don’t have that advantage that cats and dogs do of just constantly living in the moment. I hope people will come and see it, mostly for the questions.

The Quickening will receive a one-evening special engagement reading on Thursday October 29, 2015 at 7:30pm at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 St. Paul Street in the Mount Vernon District of Baltimore, MD. The reading is a part of the Dramatist Guild Footlights 2015/2016 Reading Series and is a free event open to the public.


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