Sarah-Louise Young, 10 January 2016


A conversation about violence on stage, including shared practice, audience

experience and what draws us to the horror genre. The thoughts below are a

collection of questions which came up from the group.


I have been researching the French horror theatre, the Grand Guignol, for the past five

years, working towards writing a new musical about one of its main artists, Paula

Maxa. Named ‘the most assassinated woman in the world’, she was renowned for her

nightly executions, torture and trademark scream. One of the challenges I am facing

as I move from story arc to first draft, is how to portray the on stage violence without

exploiting the actress playing the part or undermining the show with schlock horror and

gore…this was our jumping off point.

The audience experience:

Do we want it to be fake or real?

The choice between portraying the violence as naturalistic or stylistic.

Symbol vs realism.

The act of violence is often less important that the build-up to it, like a magician

preparing for a trick. Derren Brown’s Russian Roulette.

Film can be ultra real. On stage we have different challenges (technical). But being in

the room with the act can make it more intense/personal.

The original Grand Guignol actors would have been skilled in stage magic and sleight

of hand. If we use the same techniques now would a contemporary audience laugh?

Do we need to see blood? What’s to be gained and lost if we don’t?

Is the unseen more frightening than the seen? The noise of the fight off-stage followed

by the actor entering covered in blood (The Removalists).

Do we normalize the ‘gore’ once it has been seen? Re-set to neutral after the reveal.

Carlos Saura’s ‘Blood Wedding’ used flamenco to portray the violence.

A production of ‘Ubu Roi’ using tortured vegetables. If we invest in the object can we

care about it as much as if it were a person?

Puppets can be invested with huge personal weight. Twice Shy use a naked female

puppet in a Peep Show and are able to address sexual questions without the possible

voyeuristic guilt of watching an actress in compromising positions. Yet we still feel


Are we sanitizing death by removing the blood and guts? Are we displacing violence?

What if we introduce real jeopardy? Instead of choreographing a staged fight, one

director taught his actors to box and let them play for real. Do the audience know?

Can they feel the difference of the actors improvising within the discipline of the

learned skill?

Actual vs representational: ‘Walworth Farce’. The audience is taught a set of moves

which are ‘stage fighting’. Then the characters circumstances change as one of them

has made a mistake and the father wants to punish him. The same staged moves are

carried out but in the new context: the moves are only slightly less careful and yet the

menace is now real.

If we slow down violence can we explore it more? Does it become less frightening the

less naturalistic it is?

Why are we drawn to violence?

Facing your fears of death in a safe environment. Playing with our fight or flight primal

urges. Exploring our own potential for violence and acknowledging that we are all

capable of murder.

There are schools of thought who believe that violent video games make us more

violent but research shows that games with guns and shooting have the opposite

effect, acting as a release. Conversely, frustrating games where we cannot solve a

problem or navigate an environment, promote aggressive behaviour.

Great expectations…

Theatres often need to warn audiences that violence and nudity (see Chris Grady’s

session notes for an interesting chat about that) may feature. Does this heads up amp

up or undermine the impact of the violence? Does it depend on the audience

member? ‘Ghost Stories’ worked (for those who think it did) by keeping people in a

jumpy state of suspense. Some people came to the show already jumpy because of

the promise of being scared. Others sunk back into a ‘go on and prove it, I bet you

can’t’ stance. Like the promise of something being funny or sexy, the expectation of

violence and fear can make some people more susceptible to it and others, harder the


Simultaing old primal urges. Satisfying the adrenalin highs and lows synthetically

which we no longer get in our 21st Century lives.

The release of All Fools’ Day. Addressing the hidden enemy. Looking death straight in

the face (see Stella Duffy’s notes on her Death session).

Darkness and Division.

Do we need to see it?

Some people said they would feel cheated if there were not some kind of bloody bath

in a Grand Guignol show. Others said we should not underestimate the audience’s

ability to use their imagination. ‘Terminas’ uses three voices and asks the audience to

imagine the drama. Stephen Berkoff’s ‘Tell Tale Heart’s is one man and no blood.

Why are women often at the centre of the horror story?

‘The are being punished for being so beautiful!’

The erotic link to death, le petit mort.

Power and submission…

Then the Monkeys were called back to the closing circle…many thanks everyone.

Who attended:

Robert Wells

Antonio Ferrara


Nicholas Pimpare

Karen Kidman

Claire Bennett

Ben Kulvidit

Jonathan Holloway

Antonio from The Drayton Arms


Grand Guignol, violence, horror, Musical, musical, death