Paranormal Activity: Horror film gets stage premiere in Leeds

By Ian Youngs, Culture reporter

grey placeholderBlumhouse Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock Katie Featherston looking scared in a still from the Paranormal Activity filmBlumhouse Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

The original film showed a couple who were plagued by unexplained phenomena in their home

The two men behind the world premiere stage adaptation of hit horror film Paranormal Activity currently know all about being woken by loud cries in the middle of the night.

Director Felix Barrett and writer Levi Holloway’s nocturnal activity isn’t paranormal, though. It’s parental.

“We both have six-month-old babies,” Holloway says to explain why the pair are even more bleary-eyed than they might usually be in the frantic final preparations for a major new show.

“The only paranormal activity I know is at 03:30 with the cry for milk. That comes quite regularly at the moment,” Barrett jokes.

“Yeah, we’re both very haunted,” Holloway adds wryly.

They haven’t let night-time disturbances stop them from coming to the Leeds Playhouse theatre’s café first thing in the morning to talk about their production – and fill up on coffee – before starting their last week of rehearsals.

With Paranormal Activity, they are taking on a modern horror classic.

In 2009, the film terrified audiences by showing an everyday young couple, Katie and Micah, at the mercy of unexplained forces in their San Diego home.

grey placeholderMoviestore/Shutterstock Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston smiling in a still from the Paranormal Activity filmMoviestore/Shutterstock

The film’s “found footage” was all supposedly shot on Micah’s video camera

It became one of the most profitable films ever, if box office takings are compared with the original production budget. It cost just $15,000 (£8,000) to make and went on to earn $193m (£125m) – then spawned a franchise that took another $700m (£435m).

The stage version isn’t a simple recreation, but few details have been revealed so far.

Instead of posting the usual promotional blurb to persuade us to buy a ticket, the theatre website simply lists Barrett and Holloway’s names, then adds: “We can’t say anything else.” (Although if you click on the obligatory trigger warning, it also pledges that the show will feature “loud noises, sudden darkness, blood and gore with references to mental health”.)

Barrett and Holloway give up some more scraps of information.

“I think we can comfortably say that it’s wildly different than the film,” says playwright Holloway.

“Wildly different but I think still familiar,” Barrett adds.

“It takes its essence. The events are different, but the texture and the quality is very much inspired by the film because it’s very effective.

“If people love Paranormal Activity, then they’ll bond with this for sure.”

Element of surprise

Unusually, the theatre hasn’t even announced who’s in the cast or which characters they will play. Will there be actors playing Katie and Micah?

“Well, it’s not Katie and Micah for starters,” Barrett replies. “It’s a different couple.”

A couple who haven’t appeared in the film franchise?

“Correct,” Holloway confirms.

“Can we say that it’s…” Barrett trails off. “I don’t know what we can say.”

He puts his hand up to his mouth in an attempt to privately confer with his collaborator. “Can we say that it’s a couple who have come…”

“Yeah,” Holloway decides. He turns back to me: “It’s about an American couple who have moved to London, and they’ve brought something with them.

“And I think we can also say there are four cast members. So it’s a tight-knit ensemble.”

“Intimate,” Barrett adds. “Just as the film is. It’s very claustrophobic.”

The director also divulges that, as in the film, the action takes place in a house. What’s more, it’s haunted.

“All the best ghost stories feature a house. It’s almost the other character.”

grey placeholderLevi Holloway (left) and Felix Barrett

Playwright Levi Holloway (left) and director Felix Barrett have teamed up for the stage show

The Anglo-American storyline perhaps reflects an ambition for the show to transfer to the West End after its try-out in Leeds, then – if it goes down well – presumably across the Atlantic.

It also reflects the make-up of this creative partnership – Holloway is American, and last year Broadway hosted his spooky play Grey House, starring Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, double Tony Award winner Laurie Metcalf and A Quiet Place’s Millicent Simmonds.

Barrett, meanwhile, is one of the most innovative and influential British directors of the past 25 years, pioneering immersive theatre with his company Punchdrunk.

In 2013, the Observer hailed him as “the visionary who reinvented theatre”.

Barrett and Punchdrunk’s speciality is staging shows in abandoned buildings and other unusual spaces, where the performances unfold around audience members as they wander from room to room.

So it’s a surprise to find him in an actual theatre, with old-fashioned things like a stage and seats.

“Actually it was a deliberate choice to respect the machinery of theatre,” he says of his decision to direct Paranormal Activity.

“The simplicity of seeing the story on stage is what drove me to do it, and why I immediately said yes.

‘Horror is necessary’

“I quite like the fact that there’s a sense of security of being in an auditorium,” he goes on.

“This piece isn’t going to flip theatricality on its head. Far from it. The actual narrative, and the tendrils of that, will creep out from the stage and grab the audience.

“And it feels great to be embracing good old-fashioned stagecraft. I haven’t done that for a while.”

While horror films are enduringly popular, there’s been a rise in scary shows on stage in recent years.

Holloway believes watching horror stories let audience members “ask themselves existential questions” in a safe, communal setting.

“I think it’s easy to discard what good horror does. I think good horror bonds us,” he says.

Barrett agrees that the genre fulfils an important function. “I feel like the reason why this wave is coming now is because the world’s become a frightening place and there’s a lot of real tension out there,” he says.

“So you get catharsis and escapism from horror, but also it’s a way of safely having those feelings and being a vent for them in a place that you can put them away to the side and then move on with your life.

“It’s almost necessary. We need to feel those peaks of emotion. And as much as we need abject joy, we need to be able to feel frightened safely so that we can move forwards.”

Screens ‘alienating’

The Paranormal Activity film was so scary partly because it was so convincing – it was supposedly shot entirely on a video camera that boyfriend Micah had bought to capture the things going bump in the night.

Another current theatre trend is using cameras and screens on stage – but Barrett has decided against replicating the movie’s “found footage”.

There is “a post-Brechtian moment happening within theatre where there’s lots of screen work”, the director posits.

“We’re seeing the machinery of the live capture of the performers on stage, and then we’re seeing it beamed up like a cinema.

“But actually, that’s quite alienating for an audience.

“Whereas what we want to do is pull them in, almost too close, so we singe their fingers.”

He goes quiet for a moment as he mulls this description. Has he said too much about the special effects? Or is it an evocative metaphor from a sleep-deprived mind?

“I think I might need another coffee after all!”

Paranormal Activity is at Leeds Playhouse until 3 August.

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