Deathtrap: A thriller that thrills

Art by Jordan Wieben

Art by Jordan Wieben

The third show of our season, DEATHTRAP, is a returning classic with a terrific director, Jamie Dunsdon! Jamie is the Artistic Director of local indie company Verb Theatre, and she sat down with us to chat about the suspense genre, and Ira Levin's mind-bending script.

DEATHTRAP is one of the most successful Broadway plays ever, with nearly 1800 performances over four years. What do you think makes it so appealing to audiences time and time again?

To quote the main character, "Sound construction, good dialogue, laughs in the right places." The play is built to delight, and I can't get into the details of what makes it work so well without spoiling things, but that alone should tell you what kind of a ride you're in for. And in a thriller, isn't that what we all want? To be thrilled?! The first I time I read it, I gasped out loud many, many times. My cats were worried.

Also, one of the things we discovered during auditions is that the roles are pretty darn juicy. Sometimes when a play relies heavily on plot, the characters can get flattened out or take a back seat, but the characters in Deathtrap are wonderfully playful and nuanced. I think when actors enjoy playing their roles, audiences can feel that and it amps up the electricity in the theatre.

There's a huge amount of "meta-commentary" in DEATHTRAP - self-aware winks to the audiences, references to suspense works, and of course the literal play-within-a-play. What is your personal relationship to the suspense/mystery genre, and what are some of your favourites?

Ho boy, I could write an entire blog entry just on my top 10. I've become a bit of a mystery/thriller nut in the last few years, so my list of favourites is long (and luckily, Deathtrap is near the top!). My own company, Verb Theatre, has even started working on a thriller, so I'm knee deep in the genre and loving every minute of it. I'm partial to thrillers, because there is so much action - characters actively seeking what they want. And I'll take a ghost any day. I worked in a haunted theatre for three years, so a good ghost story will always get me.

The very first Vertigo show I saw was The Mystery of Irma Vep in 2005, and it holds a special place in my heart because it opened my eyes to what suspense has to offer an audience, thriller or otherwise - I'm not sure I valued suspense until then. Plus it was hilarious. The Woman in Black and Evelyn Strange both stick out in my memory as plays that made me laugh and scream, which I think Deathtrap does as well. And actually, The Woman in Black was turned into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe just a few years ago, which I also enjoyed, but I think the play is better.  Fear is a feeling best felt LIVE! Any Night by Daniel Arnold and Medina Hahn is a wonderful psychological thriller written by a couple of wonderful Canadians that makes the viewer question the nature of reality itself. Oh dear, I'm rambling. And I haven't even mentioned Accomplice by Rupert Holmes! Seriously, this list has barely dusted the surface. I have a spreadsheet of mystery scripts on my computer. No joke.

What do you think is key to building a suspense across a show like this? How do you as a director play with audiences and get them on the edge of their seats?

 Great question. I don't think there's a single key, but a series of careful choices. Casting, design, delivery of plot... and these elements work together to create a sort of atmosphere of curiosity. You need your audience to be asking "but what is going to happen next?" but suspense doesn't work if the audience doesn't care.". And I don't want to dodge your question, but I also don't want to explain too much more because a good production kind of functions like a magic act - the less the audience knows about the machinery, the more magical it is!

That said, one thing I will say is that I always try to surround myself with experts. That goes for any play, but I think is particularly important in a play that relies so heavily on the individual pieces doing their job. Designers who understand the subtleties of creating atmosphere, actors who can both build and diffuse tension, playwrights who can drop a red herring with just the right amount of eyebrow. I'm SO excited to have Vertigo's former Artistic Director, Mark Bellamy, playing the lead role in our production, bringing his years of expertise and skill, alongside so many of Calgary's favourite actors - Tyrell Crews, Barbara Gates Wilson, Karen Johnson Diamond, and Kevin Corey.

Fun fact: Kevin Corey and I grew up in the same small town of Coaldale, Alberta. Irrelevant but it's a small town, so I enjoy the coincidence.

Jamie Dunsdon, director of Deathtrap and Artistic Director of Verb Theatre.

Jamie Dunsdon, director of Deathtrap and Artistic Director of Verb Theatre.