If you’ve never seen actor-writer-director Bryan Enk in action it’s not for lack of opportunities. He is one of indie theater’s busiest and most ubiquitous talents, and also one of its best, having racked up an impressive array of recent acting credits in projects as diverse as Jeff Lewonczyk’s Macbeth Without Words, Ian W. Hill’s Hamlet from Gemini CollisionWorks, Michael Gardner’s environmental staging of Mountain Hotel for The Havel Festival, Robert Honeywell’s Greed: A Musical Love $tory (a very liberal musical adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses), and Frank Cwiklik’s productions of Bitch Macbeth and The Sinister Urge.
As a writer and director, Bryan also has his hands full. He and his writing partner, actor Matt Gray, are the driving forces behind Penny Dreadful, a 12-part theatrical serial inspired by pulp dime-store “penny dreadful” stories from the turn of the century. The series, which started in November, presents a new installment every month, for one night only, at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg. (Penny Dreadful is also another in a long line of film and theater projects created by Bryan’s production company, Third Lows Productions.)
Bryan (pictured above with Matt and several o f their Bitch Macbeth castmates) recently dropped by the ol’ blog to talk about Penny Dreadful, Third Lows, his partnership with Matt, and his trademarked “Bryan Enk elements.” Here’s what he had to say:
Let’s start with you telling us a little bit about Penny Dreadful and what it is exactly.
Penny Dreadful is a 12-part stage serial. It’s a horror-suspense-adventure-mystery that takes place in the early 1900s and chronicles the sprawling story of a second-rate magician, a Detective of the Supernatural, a vampire, the Sundance Kid’s ex-girlfriend, sci-fi author H.G. Wells, a beautiful escape artist, Teddy Roosevelt, a prisoner from the future, a teenage anarchist and a shadow organization called The Alliance that’s probably up to no good.
We’ll be performing Episode 4 on Saturday, February 16 at 10:30PM at The Brick.
What are the origins of this project?
I had written and directed a couple of late-night shows at The Brick in 2005 and 2006, small-scale supernatural melodramas that got really good houses and great reception. Michael Gardner and Robert Honeywell, co-artistic directors of The Brick, approached me in January 2007 about creating an ongoing late-night horror serial. The only parameters they gave me were that it should be 12 episodes – one for each month over the course of a year – and the title should be Penny Dreadful
I brought Matt Gray on board shortly thereafter, and it was his idea that, if the series was to be called Penny Dreadful, then the story should take place at the turn of the century, when the pulpy dime-novel Penny Dreadfuls themselves were at the height of their popularity. We then constructed a rough outline of the 12 episodes and launched with Episode 1: “The Amazing Viernik” in November 2007.
How important is it that the audience follow the story from the very first episode?
Extremely. We videotape each episode and have them available for download on the Third Lows website.Although I talked to someone recently who started with Episode 3 and he said he enjoyed it even without following every little nuance and plot point, so I hope there’s always some pleasures for newcomers who are coming in blind.
You and Matt are the sole authors of Penny Dreadful, but you have different directors for each episode. How come?
There are two reasons; one is practical and the other actually has a “concept” behind it. The practical reason is that, even though the episodes are usually only about 45 minutes long, we’re still mounting a brand new play every month, complete with costumes and tech and a cast of usually around eight. That’s a huge undertaking just as writers and producers, so we thought it best to leave the directing to others, at least the majority of it.
The more official reason is that I see Penny Dreadful as an opportunity to showcase a lot of different directorial styles. It’s a great format for first-time directors, like Adam Swiderski and Christiaan Koop; extremely experienced directors, like Ian W. Hill; and directors that are somewhere in-between, like Danny Bowes.
The format I envisioned when deciding that each episode of Penny would have its own director was that of the four Alien films, which had four very different directors and four very different styles, but they were each telling one part of one large story. It’s amazing to see something you’ve written interpreted and brought to life by someone else. It’s a privilege and an honor. We encourage every director to really put their personality up there on stage. It makes every episode of Penny Dreadful a unique experience.
Matt and I will be wrapping up the series as directors, though. Matt will be directing Episode 11 (September) and I’ll be directing Episode 12 (October). For no particular reason other than it seems appropriate.
Give us a brief overview of how a typical episode gets put together and mounted.
Matt and I will put together an outline of the episode; what characters are in it, how much or how little of the overall story is revealed, how it fits in with what episodes have come before it and with what is yet to come. We’ll then divide up the actual writing duties: Matt will take, say, Scenes 1, 3 and 5, and I’ll take 2, 4 and 6. We’ll then put our individual work together so we have a full first draft, and from there we’ll finalize the script.
Once the final draft is complete, the script is given to that episode’s director. The director then distributes the script to the cast and works with The Brick regarding when the episode can be rehearsed in the space. From there, it’s the director’s show and Matt and I are strictly producers (securing costumes, props, etc.) and/or actors, if our characters are appearing in that episode (Matt and I both have semi-recurring roles in Penny Dreadful).
There are usually two or three rehearsals, and then tech is the morning of the performance. Ian W. Hill and Berit Johnson of Gemini CollisionWorks work their technical wizardry on lights and sound. The episode performs that night and is videotaped from two different camera angles. A couple of weeks later, the episode is edited and posted on thirdlows.com.
You and Matt have been working together for a long time. What’s the connection between you two?
Matt and I actually have very different interests and styles as writers and directors. Matt likes the sweeping romantic tragedies, the women in trouble but refusing to compromise their independence. He has a great sense of romantic longing, of melancholy tone and old-world wit. He’s also extremely interested in history, almost obsessively so, and a lot of the period detail of Penny Dreadful comes from him. He’s a smarty-pants and a charmer and one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.
As for me, an old friend of mine came to see a play I wrote and directed last fall, and he said, “That had some of the familiar of Bryan Enk elements.” I asked him what “Bryan Enk elements” were, and he said, “Oh, you know. Breasts and the Devil.” He’s exaggerating, but I do go for the more pulpy stuff, but I love doing in-depth character studies in such environments, finding the human soul in over-the-top worlds.
So Matt and I meet somewhere in the middle and sometimes come up with something that we both like and that audiences like. And as different as our styles and interests are, I think we understand each other’s work better than anyone else. For me, there’s no one better than Matt to call for help when I’m suffering from writer’s block or just need to discuss a particular idea, no matter how vague.
And we’ve been close friends for 15 years. How wonderful is it that you also get to work with a friend? The answer is, “Quite.”
Tell us a little bit about your company, Third Lows Productions, and what kind of stuff you guys specialize in.
I founded Third Lows in 1992, when I was a freshman at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. I don’t know if we necessarily have a specialty – I’ve made, I think, to date, 18 films, and they’ve covered lots of different genres, as have the stage productions I’ve put on over the years. I suppose our specialization is, if anything, putting up projects with hardly any money, but I know a lot of production companies that do that, and do it more often than I do. I suppose I lean more towards the supernatural stuff: horror, sci-fi, comic-book kinds of things. I love intense character dramas. I love monologue plays. Breasts and the Devil. You know.
Any plans for more episodic shows of this nature in the future?
We’ll see if The Brick requests a Season Two after we perform the 12th and final episode in October. Penny Dreadful is still in its testing period; we’re only just performing the fourth episode this month, and there’s a lot more to discover about what works and what doesn’t in terms of this kind of serialized storytelling.
What’s up next for you and Third Lows after this?
I have something I’m working on called The Ballad of Jeliza-Rose, a beautiful and painfully frustrating piece of work that refuses to be tamed or categorized. It’s a devious and seductive beast, and something of a shape shifter: sometimes it’s a stage play, other times a feature-length film, then it’s a short film, then an art installation, then a music video, then a graphic novel, then an HBO pilot. It might be some or even all of those things, but the question is: what should it be first? For a while I thought it was a feature-length film, but it’s escaped and changed again, so now I’m back in the forest hunting for it.
How’s that as metaphors for the creative process? “Beast.” “Shape shifter.” “Forest.” “Hunting.” Ha! Ah. Hmm.