This month’s installment of The Wright Stuff finds Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner creating a new musical, commissioned by Creative Cauldron’s Bold New Works for Intimate Stages initiative. Monsters of the Villa Diodati, playing January 31 through February 21, draws its inspiration from a fortuitous gathering at Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816, when the infamous Lord Byron challenged his literary guests to write the perfect horror story. The results included John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Jamila Reddy caught up with the collaborators - and married couple - to get the inside scoop.
Tell me your origin story. How did you all come to be a writer-and-composer team?
Stephen: I've always written stories. When I was in my teens I used to write short stories, things just for myself. For years I thought about a musical version of my favorite film – The Night of the Living Dead – and I kept having an image of how it would work very well on a stage and actually make it terrifying and not funny. I wanted Matt to work on it with me, and he kept saying he didn't think it was a good idea and then one day he sat down and watched it and came up with his way into it, and we both started working on it. That was in 2010, and that was the first musical we wrote together. From there, we've written a couple others.
Tell me how Monsters of the Villa Diodati got started; how did you all come up with the idea for the show?
Matt: Because Stephen and I are both actors and writers, we are always drawn to similar themes: literature, pop culture, horror, history. It’s like being an archeologist, where you uncover something and bring it back to life. The more research we did, we found that you can’t make this stuff up—five people vacationing in Switzerland during a volcanic eruption and having to stay inside during what they called “the summer of darkness.” In 1816 these people were living like it was the 1960s. At the time, Lord Byron was like the first rock star. They called it “Byronmania.” Once we started really delving into the story, it revealed itself to us. It became the perfect storm in a way—everything we love all in one setting.
This production is part of Creative Cauldron’s Bold New Works for Intimate Stages project. How did you take space into consideration during the writing/composing process?
Matt: We both really love intimate and honest black box spaces—you can’t hide anything, and you can’t apologize for anything. So Laura [Connors Hull]’s idea of us creating a musical that actually would honor the space and hopefully inspire other small spaces to do it was really the point. Not that we don’t want our work to be done at bigger theatres, we’re saying, “Look, you can turn your theatre into a little magic box with a little bit of nothing.”
For the Turn of the Screw, you two adapted a novella into a musical. Did you adapt any pre-existing texts for this piece, or is all of the material original?
Stephen: It’s basically historical fiction—what we know is the timeline of events of what happened on what day. We know that on June 16th, Lord Byron challenged [John Polidori and Mary Shelley] to write a ghost story. That’s when the vampire in Frankenstein started being worked on. In between there’s a big massive fill-in-the-blank of what could have happened. A lot of evidence was destroyed, so it makes for delicious speculation.
Tell me about the development of this piece—what was that process like?
Matt: The process of this included a public reading in November for us to hear feedback and takes notes. Since we’re married, our process is pretty quick because we are together a lot and we understand each other a lot. We don’t really have a formula to our system—sometimes the words come first, sometimes a theme comes first, sometimes they come together.
What’s been the most challenging thing about working on this piece?
Matt: Most people will realize that whatever they thought about this subject matter isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. This piece is about one’s responsibility to one’s creation, and that creation can represent a million things. I think the most challenging thing was how to sift through all these wonderful gems – so many stories, so many things to say—and how to pick which path to take.
What’s been the most rewarding thing about working on this piece?
Matt: As a writer and an actor and artist, I always have amazing learning experiences where I’m excited about what I’m learning and to move an audience to a place of laughter or tears. It’s about hoping to make another connection. Just like Frankenstein, this is another artifact left behind. That’s really why we do art—to leave something behind.
Stephen: Our dog passed in December, when we were in the middle of rewriting the show from the workshop in November. All of a sudden no work was happening with the show. We were not in a place where we wanted to think about writing. One day Matt turned to me and said, “I keep forgetting and remembering that Buddha’s gone.” I said, That’s interesting, I’m going through the same thing.” It took a couple of weeks for us to come back to life, so to speak. The first thing that we wrote, “Forgetting and Remembering,” became the opening of act two. This piece has helped me use art to heal myself—there are a lot of things in the show that I wouldn’t have been able to express before I went though that. The book changed a lot in the weeks after our dog’s death. It became major art therapy for me. That was the reward for me.