Ryan Lear hasn’t seen any ghosts yet while working at the West Bank’s Southern Theater; but he has had a moment of, shall we say, startling self-awareness?
“I scared myself pretty badly,” he says. “I was walking up, and I saw a shadow on a wall. It scared me to death … and then I realized it was my own shadow, on this small light I didn’t even think was bright enough to cast such a shadow.”
It’s in the 107-year-old Southern Theater where Lear helps make the Twin Cities Horror Festival happen. The Southern is allegedly haunted, making it all the more perfect for an 11-day horror binge. Rather than using Halloween as a victory lap, it’s merely the halfway point: the festival began Oct. 27, and runs through Nov. 5.
That gives you plenty of time to get a scream in, for spectators and specters alike.
“Talking to people who have worked here alone at night,” says Lear, “they swear they’ve seen things like people waiting in the wings to go on during shows. There was a former executive director who was here several years. He worked quite a bit at night by himself, and he was absolutely convinced it was haunted. He heard things and saw things, and … yeah.”
The Twin Cities Horror Festival came about through the work of a comedy group, if you can believe that (and I hope you will because it’s true). Lear co-chairs the festival, but his “home” theater group is Four Humors Theater. They’re based in Minneapolis, and their mission statement on their “About Us” page reads: Four Humors strives to create art that celebrates the humor, stupidity, and beauty of our world by letting the artist connect with the audience in a vulnerable and honest way.
So how did that build a horror festival? It begins the way a lot of horror stories begin: with a trip to Cincinnati.
“We wanted to bring something new [to the Cincinnati Fringe Festival],” says Four Humors co-founder and Artistic Director Jason Ballweber. “One thing we talked about was a ghost story. It excited all of us. As we started exploring what excited us about it, the idea of simply looking at the audience, which is something we do a lot in comedy – really making eye contact with them, and really telling them the story – but the beats of horror are very similar to the beats of comedy. It’s like the setup, and the punchline … but in horror, you have the setup and the scare.”
What they brought to Cincy was a two-person, one-scarecrow production called Harold. After it won the Critics’ Pick Award at the festival in 2010, Four Humors wanted to feature it back home. Ballweber said assembling a festival made that financially possible.
“[We thought] ‘Let’s get a friend to do it with us,’ so we asked a company and they said yes,” Ballweber explains. “Then we said, ‘You know, it’d be cheaper if we got three,’ and then we said ‘It’d be cheaper if we got seven,’ and then it was a festival.”
The festival debuted in 2012. Seven companies put on a total of 10 shows that year. Lear says it was meant to be a one-time affair, but drew enough interest to precipitate future installments. It eventually got so large, Four Humors couldn’t manage it alone. They brought several artists and producers together and formed the United Festival Group to oversee the festival’s operation.
This year, 12 groups from as far away as Boston and New York are performing.
“We get a lot of great applications each year, and that number keeps growing,” says Lear. “Word is getting around that this festival exists and that artists have a good experience here.”
So what can viewers expect?
“We’d like to say there’s something for everybody in this festival,” says Lear. “We try to curate really diverse genres, but also modes of doing horror. There’s dance, there’s theater, there’s music, there’s a short film festival; and, within that, there’s psychological horror, there’s comedy horror, and there’s blood-and-guts stuff.”
A complete list of productions and detailed descriptions can be found on the Twin Cities Horror Festival website. Harold makes its return, with Lear performing alongside Brant Miller and Matt Spring. Ballweber directs.
The story centers on two brothers who venture in the mountains. It’s a perfectly normal excursion. They make a scarecrow. The perfect normality ceases fairly soon afterward. The whole production is lit by a single bulb – and it goes out pretty often, says Lear.
“This show is kind of hard for us, because we punish ourselves whenever we get a laugh,” says Ballweber. “We’re funny people, and there is a lot of funny in the show, but we don’t want the audience to release too much tension through laughter.”
Every year, the festival has been held at the Southern Theater. The Southern first opened in 1910. Since then, it’s lived a lot of past lives – as a movie house, garage, warehouse, restaurant, a showhouse for “adults-only entertainment,” and an antique shop. From 1968-1975, it stood vacant.
The Guthrie Theater purchased the space in 1975, and remade it into a theater. It’s been that way ever since, but the space still wears a lot of its past lives’ accessories. The arch over the stage looks mighty fine for its 107 years young, and filled-in truck entrances are visible in the walls. When lit, the stage goes from “ramshackle, but in a charming way” to simply mesmerizing – and that’s before any performers even set foot on it.
“We believed that the Southern was the perfect venue in town for a horror festival,” says Lear. “The atmosphere in the theater is just perfect for this type of performance. The arch is such a powerful scenic element that you don’t even need a set to perform there. Many of us had already worked and performed at the theater over the years, so we had connections there and knew how to use the space effectively to mount a festival.”
It sits and audience of 165 – of the living, anyway.
“The green rooms were underneath the stage, and there are thought that they’re still down there but just covered over,” says Lear. “Nobody knows for sure. People talk about, there are actors who died here 100 years ago whose spirits are still in those green rooms waiting to go on. There’s one story from like 15 years ago, someone is waiting in the wing and they look over and see a gentleman in a top hat standing across. They go on stage, and when they came back, he’s gone.”
Tickets can be purchased online and at the Southern Theater box office. The last show is slated to end around 10 p.m. Sunday night.
If you need a word with Ballweber, you’d better chase him down before then.
“For my mental well-being, I can’t believe in ghosts,” he says with a laugh. “I refuse to be in this building by myself, ever. I always find an excuse to not be the last person in this building.”