BWW Interviews: Phil Nichols, Louis Crespo & Melissa Nichols Spill on FRANKENSTEIN at The Country Playhouse
On the final Sunday in September, I visited The Country Playhouse and got a backstage glimpse into the undertakings on their main stage for FRANKENSTEIN. The set are incomplete, but coming along nicely. The cast has been rehearsing hard, and everything is being put through the paces to ensure that the show is nothing short of a success. I got the chance to speak with Phil Nichols, who is directing the show in addition to designing the FX make-up, Louis Crespo, starring as Victor Frankenstein, and Melissa Nichols who is designing the sets and choreographing the massive and complex set changes.
Me: When did you first discover make-up and prosthetics as a passion?
Phil Nichols: I started playing with make-up when I was three. My dad made me up as an Emmet Kelly tramp clown for Halloween one year, and I wanted to be a clown. I was fascinated with clowns, and at 10 years old I even applied to the Clown College in Florida. They said I was too young, and sent me an application. It was about that time I found a book that Dick Smith had written called The Handy Dandy Do It Yourself Monster Make-Up Handbook, and I got that. That’s where I learned about nose putty, mortician’s wax, greasepaints, and all that sort of stuff. I started playing with that stuff when I was about 10. When I was in high school, I got into the drama stuff, the thespians, and learned about stage make-up and went to college for it and picked up prosthetics along the way.
Me: Shows like Face/Off on Syfy expose how much hard work goes into the process of creating full special-effects make-ups. What is your process like?
Phil: It all begins with sketches. It was a year ago this week that I sketched out The Creature. My birthday is tomorrow, and I presented it all on my birthday. It all starts with research, and I started doing these doodles a year ago, just different things I possibly wanted to do with it. And, we ultimately picked that for The Creature. [See image insert.] But originally what I was going to do was have him start out like that and heal up and kind of begin to take on Victor Frankenstein’s appearance. Then, I realized how much work that would be changing the make-up and everything, and we just don’t have the time to do that with this production. So, I went with a different route, which is the more Bernie Wrightson re-animated corpse route, which is what he is. It starts with sketches because pencil and paper are cheap. I get the ideas out, and then I move onto modeling clay and sculpt out the prosthetics. Then I cast the play, and I took a life-cast of Michael Raabe, who’s playing The Creature, and started to translate this sketch to his face as best I could. I originally wanted somebody much leaner to play The Creature. I really wanted a very gaunt Creature, but the people that were the right physical build for what I was looking for didn’t have the right acting range for what I wanted in the play. The acting won out, and Michael came in and blew everyone away. He dropped about 50 lbs from what he normally is, and I was able to take his current status and incorporate this sketch and a lot of elements from the Bernie Wrightson Frankenstein and Hammer Film’s The Evil of Frankenstein that we’re using to template as much as we can for the play. Then I sculpted it in clay and took the molds in special plasters that we make the prosthetics out of. It’s a heat cured sponge rubber, and the plasters have to hold up to the heat and multiple runs because we use a new prosthetic every night. This play runs 12 performances plus techs, so I have to make like 20 copies of the face. Then painting and arting it up, and there it is. That’s the basic process.
Me: Considering you have worked extensively in both genres, what are the major differences between designing FX make-up for film and live theatre.
Phil: You can get away with more in theatre as far as being a little bit less concerned with The Edges and things like that. With movies and stuff, the camera is right on it and you have to be focused on the details more. Also, with theatre you have to exaggerate a little bit more to project it for an audience that is distant because a play is like a permanent wide shot. And the paint can be more exaggerated too.
Me: What advice do you have for others interested in pursuing FX make-up as a career?
Phil: Don’t. It's a real tough business, particularly in Houston. They never want to pay you what you should be paid. They never want to give you the time to do it. So, you’re always working for less than your worth, sometimes you’re working for free, which doesn’t even cover the cost of this stuff, and then you’re working for people that are always critical, and they want things changed on the drop of a hat that really can’t be changed on the drop of a hat—it’s a whole process that has to be completely redone. It’s really a difficult job to do. Then you have to deal with all kinds of personality types with actors. You have an obligation not to damage their skin. You have to give their skin back to them better than they gave it to you when you’re working with them. There’s a lot of things that go into it, and you really have to have a passion for it that will last for a forty or fifty year career. I mean, you might love it for Halloween and stuff, but when you’re actually doing it day after day and dealing with producers and dealing with the unscrupulous people that actually make these things, it can really wear you down. You know, that’s not going to deter anybody that’s a little crazy about it, and my advice is do the best you can with what you’ve got, try not to be overly critical of people unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes—you really don’t know the conditions under which that stuff was made. Everybody’s doing the best they can with what they’ve got in the parameters that are set.
Me: What motivates or inspires you in the realm of FX make-ups?
Phil: I don't know. At this point in my career, I’ve done just about every kind of project there is. If somebody comes to me and they have a cool creature or character that I am interested in doing, I’ll generally do that. But if it’s just something that other people who need a break can do better, I’ll point them to that. Artistically, I’m still inspired by the old masters; Dick Smith was my mentor, John Chambers, the Westmores, the people of the silent eras, people of the Golden Era of Hollywood. That all still inspires me. Comic Book art. Bernie Wrightson inspires me. Michelangelo, The Dutch Masters, all the famous artists still inspire me artistically.
Me: This play is not a version of the story that I am familiar with.
Phil: This is the version that was on Broadway in the early 1980s that ran one night officially. It previewed for months and months and months. As written, we couldn’t do it here. We can’t do the stage exploding. We can't do real rain. We can't do anything like that, so we’ve had to make compromises. So, we’re doing as close to as written as we can. It’s really a grand opera scale play. We have seven environments that will change in and out. It’s not one unit set. It’s quite a few wagons, quite a few things. It’s not the musical, but it is bigger than most musicals are as far as the technical stuff. [Discussing the laboratory set, which is already shaping up and looking good in its unfinished state] These walls will all be really tall and all flagstone, and they all break apart. When the scene opens we’re going to flood it with fog—that’s the plan. The table will be up, The Creature will be on it, and they be sewing, And Then They’ll begin with the scene. It’ll be awesome.
Me: That sounds pretty cool. How close to the novel is the script?
Phil: I chose this script because it is the closest to the novel. The Creature is intelligent. He learns from the Blind Man. He remembers how to speak, how to talk, and things like that. When the Blind Man is murdered, it sends him into a rage, and in the second act he just basically kills everybody in sight. He shows up and he wants to know “Who am I?” Frankenstein has no answers for him, and that makes him even angrier. And then he presses Frankenstein into making him a bride, and that’s what the second act deals with—the making of the bride and the consequences of all of that. So, it’s as close to the novel as any published version gets.
I set the play in 1860, which is your typical Hammer Films—Peter Cushing Frankenstein era—and that’s what we’re doing. We’re using a lot of music from the Hammer Films. Everybody will be speaking in English accents. The costuming is very Hammer Films. We’re not trying to copy anything. I don’t have anyone copying things, but there are elements of some of the Hammer Film’s Frankenstein’s Creatures in our Creature and things like that. We start out in a cemetery. Well, actually, we start out with Mary Shelly. I wrote her in the prologue. She comes in and she’s talking about the contest that they did, which she wrote the short story for. As she does her little bit, we go into the cemetery with Frankenstein and the Body Snatchers discussing the convict’s body and haggling over the price. Then we go to Chateau Frankenstein and the announcement to his engagement with Elizabeth, and the Body Snatchers show up right in the middle of that with the body. And there’s a whole bit of business with that. His friend from school has come in, and he conscripts him into helping him with his experiments. Then, we go into the lab for the creation of The Creature. And when The Creature is born, it escapes and then winds up in the woods with the Blind Man. And then we end Act I in the woods. Then in Act II, four months have passed and The Creature is intelligent, and it’s wondering the countryside. It comes across a little boy that is Frankenstein’s brother, and there’s a bit of business there. Then it goes to the Chateau again, and that’s the first time that Victor Frankenstein meets his monster since it’s been created, and they have this exchange: “Who Am I?” “I don’t know.” And the creature makes him make him a bride because he is lonely. Then the third scene in Act II is the creation of the bride and the consequences that come of that. The fourth scene in the act is preparing for Victor’s wedding to Elizabeth and all that goes with that. And then we end it in the North Pole. So it follows the structure of the book.
Me: I’m excited. This is one of my favorite stories, and I’m looking forward to EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL following it.
Phil: Yeah. I’m doing the effects for that too. It’s kind of tough.
Me: [Laughing] Because you have to have exploding blood.
Phil: Well, there’ll be no exploding blood. There’s going to be blood in super-soakers going after people and stuff like that.
Me: Well, there you go.
Phil: I don’t have time to completely devote myself to EVIL DEAD with everything I’m doing for FRANKESNSTEIN. That’s not to say that we’re not doing some really cool things for it. The prosthetics are going to be awesome. The singing moose thing on the wall is going to be pretty cool. So, it’s going to be a pretty fun show too.
Me: Sounds good.
Phil: Louis Crespo is playing Victor Frankenstein in the play. Is this your first time to play a villain role?
Louis: It’s not my first “villain.” I played this role, Rooster, in ANNIE. [Laughs] In FRANKENSTEIN, we’re not playing the comical or over-the-top melodrama version. It’s more serious. It’s more of a challenge. The complexity of the character is more than just playing God or creating a monster. He’s a sociopath in some sense.
Phil: Well, it’s that genius thing.
Phil: It's that genius thing. You walk that line between madness and sanity. Well, you don’t walk it. You kind of blur it, skate over it, and zig-zag through it. And you do it very well. I’ve been very pleased.
Louis: Well, I’m not brown-nosing here, but you make it very easy with the direction you’ve given us.
Phil: Well, you know I’m crazy. That’s why I can direct you.
Louis: I base most of my stuff on you. [Laughs]
Phil: Thank you. I am a monster maker, of course.
Louis: You are Victor and you are creating the monster in this show.
Phil: Well, that's the thing. When I proposed it, I wanted to play Frankenstein, but they said, “No, you have to direct it.”
Louis: What’s also nice is, with the other actors, the chemistry is there. It works.
Phil: This company, like the company with BOYS NEXT DOOR (the show that Louis Crespo and Phil Nichols had worked together on previously), everybody is in the appropriate place. They all have the brilliant ranges, and there are no selfish actors. Nobody grandstands.
Louis: In a show like this you can't have egos. It’s just too big. There’s not enough room for egos on this stage.
Phil: I am a very demanding director, as he can tell you.
Louis: Yes he is.
Phil: But, I’m not cruel in any way.
Louis: No. But at the same time if you want something, you’re going to tell us because it’s your show. Your name’s on it. You have to.
Phil: Well, it’s my vision of this play because it’s Victor Gialanella’s play. And another thing we wound up with because Victor Gialanella, bless him, used to write for Days of Our Lives, some of these scenes are 20 pages long and it’s full of family drama and intrigue, but you can't cut it because it’s exposition for what’s fixing to happen in the next two scenes.
Phil: Luckily, this cast came—from square one to where there are now is a bazillion mile journey in improvement—they play this stuff entertainingly, so you don’t realize you’ve been sitting there for 20 minutes listening to the family bitch. So, it’s good. A difference between directing a professional theatre and community theatre is when you direct in the community theatre you also have to be part drama teacher. You have to teach these people how to do what you want them to do. Where if you’re directing at Main Street Theater or at The Alley or something, you can just say, “I need this, this, this, and this.” Louis can give me that, people that have worked with me before, and people that are more experienced can take that kind of direction. We had a couple three people in the cast that are community theatre staples but had never worked with a director like me before.
Louis: Well, a lot of community theatre directors who don’t have that much experience tend to give the actors too much freedom, when they really need to be giving direction. Sometimes they don’t know how to take direction.
Phil: Well, I give direction when it’s warranted. I micromanage when it’s warranted. I call it micromanaging but it’s really not. If you need it, I will guide you. And that’s the thing that a lot of actors that don’t like direction need to realize—they can't see what they're doing.
Phil: And it’s my job to sit out there and watch the play, and make sure they’re doing a good show. And that’s what I try and do. You know, I think I was very surprised when Country Playhouse approved this play, partly because they didn’t realize how ambitious it was going to be. With these sets, I mean, we have used every bit of everything they have in The Playhouse for this production and the EVIL DEAD. There are no other resources. The talent pool, all the flats, every lighting instrument, everything; it’s just all been used up, so we are pushing the limits of what The Playhouse can do with this double bill. And the wonderful thing is that it’s working. It’d be terrible if it failed, but it's not. Everything is coming together nicely. Everybody’s getting along.
Louis: This whole thing has been a learning experience in a good way.
Phil: Well, this is my second time doing this particular script and my fourth time doing FRANKENSTEIN. I’ve done the script by Tim Kelly, and when Main Street Theater did their original one back in 1986, I think it was, I did that one. And then I did this script out at University of Houston Clear Lake when I was a student out there. But this is my first time directing it, and I think it’s probably the best of the four FRANKENSTEINs because I really understand Victor Frankenstein and I also understand the monster, and we are homage-ing those great Hammer Films and putting as much Bernie Wrightson in it as we can. But, our budget is so small that there’s only so much we can do. It’s still going to be fantastic show, and I will not tell you the budget because you will not believe it when you actually see the show. You just will not believe that we pulled this off with that amount of money.
Melissa Nichols (who is doing the production design): Are you a fan of the old Hammer Films? Have you seen any of them?
Me: I don’t know that term.
Melissa: Well, in England there was a Production Company called Hammer. In the 50s they started making all the Frankenstein and Dracula films starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. They had a series of Frankenstein films in which Peter Cushing repeatedly played the doctor, and the production value on it was awesome. They had the best sets, and the cool props, and the awesome costumes because they had resources over in England. In fact, they shot all the stuff on the stages that became the James Bond stages. It’s kind of cool. So, I’m homage-ing all of that with the production design. I wanted the lab to be two levels, so we’ve got the door that opens from the residence from the top, and then there’s an up and down stairway there. The table we actually had custom built. I just love this. It’s going to have more junk on it and its going to be hooked up to all the apparatus. It’s still a little wet from staining, but it’s a functioning slab. [She manipulates the table to show everything it can do.] And of course, when we first see the creature, he’s on here, back-lit. Then they pull him down to do the surgery and stuff. And this is all portable, so it’s cool.
[Talking about the walls] This is all going to be covered with cobblestone and stuff. It’s all going to be like castle walls. [Pointing at the Stage Right Wall] All the machines are over here. [Pointing at a large barrel located upstage] And this is going to be a big battery that hooks up to a spinning dynamo. And on top of it we have this actual Jacob’s Ladder.
[Then she took me backstage and showed me a large gurney like device.] This is really cool. At the opening of the play, the grave robbers are stealing a body and this is the cart we built for them to cart it away on.
[Crossing back on stage to the lab set, she showed me the stage left wall of the lab.] This is Victor’s chemistry stuff. There’s a scene where this is covered up because it’s been a year. [She moves a drop cloth t reveal the shelves.] This is his chemistry sets and stuff, and the brain in a jar. You have to have a brain in a jar!
[Then we went backstage into the wings] These are the sets for the residence. You know these French Doors from MURDER FOR DUMMIES. This is actually an unfinished set from FRANKENSTEIN that we used for that play because normally they don’t get a set for the Murder Mystery Desert Theatre. But this is going to be all finished out. [Showing me a house shaped set piece.] This is going to be the Bind Man’s cottage. It’s going to be Tudor style, with all of the stucco and planks. [Moving on to another set in progress.] We’re building the bedroom where Elizabeth dies. Everything is on wheels. It’s all wagons and massive set changes. We’re trying to choreograph it all so the action keeps moving. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
[Back on the stage, in the lab set] We’re going to paint the floor to be all marble-ly and cool looking. I’ve been doing set and production designs for at least 20 years. I’ve built a lot of sets for industrial projects. We did a Munster’s lab once—like Grandpa’s lab. We did it for an industrial film. [Walking back to the stage right wall of the lab set.] We’re putting together all the machines over here. I put these switches in place for now. [She moves them to show they’re functional.] It’s all going to be wired to the big battery and dynamo. And there’s this over apparatus that’s going to come down that we can hook to the table and bring him to life. It’s all starting to form, and Victor fabricated a lot of this stuff himself, which is why I used wagon wheels for things because it would have been readily available to him. [Showcasing a piece on the wall.] This is really kind of cool. This is out of an old telephone. It’s actually a working, old magneto. [She spins the handle] It generates a little bit of electricity if you have something hooked up to it. I’ve got some gages and stuff to put in. I have a bunch of this junk. I have insulator caps. So, it’s all in the works still. Hopefully, it will all be kind of cool.
Me: I think it will. It all is looking good already.
Melissa: Are you a fan of Frankenstein?
Me: I really enjoy the book a whole lot.
Melissa: It’s always been my favorite, which is why I am so excited to be working on it. I actually have a cameo as one of the grave robbers too, so that’ll be fun. It’s that whole the consequences of your actions never die. It’s a morality play actually.
Phil: That’s the theme of the whole play. Just cause you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.
Melissa: That’s the whole thing with society today. It’s kind of like the whole should we make a dinosaur thing. We can, but should we? Oh well, let’s just do it anyway.
Phil: That’s the reason I chose this particular script. It was so strong on the morality issue of just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should, and just because you’re done with it doesn’t mean you’re not going to have to pay for your actions down the line. In fact, we open with that famous quote from Mary Shelly: “The consequences of our actions never die. Repentance and time may change them, but they are with us still.” That’s how we open, and then she goes on to tell about the contest at Villa Diodati and the rainy summer. Then she says, well I can read it to you.
Melissa: It's a really cool prologue. Then the music comes up and we’re digging the body out of a hole. And off we go.
Phil: In fact, I added bits from the novel that I felt like needed to be in here.
Melissa: To flesh it out more.
Phil: [Reading from the script.] “I had a dream, a fevered dream, which has set me on my path. In my nightmare, I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. Today, from these fright filled figmentations, I busied myself to think of a story. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” And then we go into the cemetery and they’re digging up the body.
Me: Awesome. Good enough to get the theme planted, and then...
Phil: And then we have that marvelous music from the Hammer films that we’re using, which immediately puts you in it. And, I am, in my staging we are breaking the fourth wall quite a bit, as often as we can, just because there’s really no entrance and exits from here except for one place. So we’re having to use the aisles for a lot of it, and that’s going to be really effective for the way I have it staged.
Melissa: It fits the piece. It’s not gratuitous or something.
Phil: And even though this is billed as a Halloween thing, we’re not cheesy. We’re playing it straight. We’re playing straight drama that just happens to be about a man creating a monster out of body parts. EVIL DEAD is very campy. It’s the king camp show of the universe.
Me: Then they should be good counterpart to each other. Get a good meaty dinner from FRANKENSTEIN before enjoying EVIL DEAD as a desert.
Phil: If you’re still able to stand after what I do to you with FRANKENSTEIN, hobble into the Black Box for EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL. We have some moments that if the audience doesn’t just gasp so much that the oxygen doesn’t just leave the theatre, I’ll be surprised. There are some very scary, disturbing moments in this play. There is a little gore. I did add a little bit. I mean, that’s where I come from, so we have a little of the Hammer touch, but not like EVIL DEAD. The main thing is just the way people act and react to each other in the situation they’re in and dealing with the repercussions of what happens when you don’t think ahead, when you have no end game. And that the problem with Victor is that he didn’t have an end game. It was so busy developing the process and didn’t think it through. He is a young man in a hurry.
The Country Playhouse is offering a Halloween double feature. Opening October 12, 2012 audiences can (if they choose to) see FRANKENSTEIN and EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL as a Creature Double Feature. For more information about both productions and tickets, please visit http://countryplayhouse.org/ or call (713) 467 – 4497.All images coutesy of Phil Nichols.
Phil Nichols with his Creature Make-Up.
Phil Nichols applying The Creature Make-Up on Michael Raabe.
The Original Sketch.
Life Cast Photo Compilation.
Louis Crespo as Frankenstein.
Louis Crespo as Frankenstein.
Louis Crespo as Frankenstein.