Theatre in Historic Places: Unbound Productions Takes MYSTERY LIT to the Santa Anita Train Depot
Theatre in Historic Places is a series by Los Angeles editor Ellen Dostal featuring theatre, music, and other arts performances in historic venues around Southern California.
Back in 2008, the creators of Unbound Productions - Jonathan Josephson, Paul Millet, and Jeff G. Rack - bet that audiences were ready for something different. That's when the trio began to explore adapting classical literature to create a new kind of immersive theatre no one had seen before. You know them better as the guys who produce Wicked Lit.
The series has become tremendously popular and now plays to sold-out crowds at Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery each fall. They have a published anthology coming out in a couple months and no lack of local and national press. From the beginning, they had always intended to branch out into other genres. Little by little, programs like History Lit, which highlights adaptations of plays that reflect history in creative ways, and a budding Holiday Lit series that will see a reading of Millet's version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and Josephson's CHARLES DICKENS' CHRISTMAS TREE adapted from lesser known Dickens Christmas stories this December, would emerge.
Adding Mystery Lit Into The Mix
Currently, these classical lit fiends are working on their very first full-length play which also happens to be the first in their Mystery Lit series. Rather than combining individual shorter plays into one theatrical event, like Wicked Lit, HOLMES, SHERLOCK AND THE CONSULTING DETECTIVE, written by Josephson, weaves together three stories into a single narrative. On November 5 & 6, the public will have an opportunity to experience it in an enhanced staged reading - complete with costumes - at the historic Santa Anita Train Depot, housed on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.
Josephson says the piece started with two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic stories: A Scandal in Bohemia and The Red-Headed League. He read dozens of others looking for the final piece of the trilogy and, in the end, decided on The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, a lesser-known story that hasn't been adapted into movies and TV shows previously but is no less intriguing.
"There are elements of it that are so theatrical and so lovely that they fit in really nicely with the other two. If the play works, it seems like you're watching three unrelated stories. You get the lowdown on what is going on as you follow one character named Holmes, one character named Sherlock, and one character named the Consulting Detective. As the play continues, the plots start to intertwine and you begin to realize why there are three Sherlock Holmes's."
"That's been the fun and the adventure of writing the adaptation. How do I lay out the information, the characters, and the details so the audience both understands what is happening within each branch of the plot but then also makes sense of how all three plots tie together."
His "Eureka" moment came during a reading of the play last year at The Huntington, after which Josephson made edits in anticipation of his next reading in Brentwood last August. That presentation of the play took place with Sherlock Holmes in Brentwood, a play-reading series produced by Bonnie MacBird. "This is a group where half of the members have written their own Sherlock fan fiction," says Josephson. "Many of them have been published. They do seminars and sessions on every Sherlock movie and television series that comes out. They have regular get-togethers after every BBC episode, picking it apart and breaking it down. They're really into it, and they were incredibly helpful in my work."
Luckily for Josephson they were also enthusiastic about his play. "Bonnie sat down with me afterward and gave me her insight, like the fact that Inspector Lestrade would never refer to Sherlock Holmes as anything other than Mr. Holmes. I had an instance where I had Lestrade call him something else and Bonnie caught that. I thought that it was such a beautiful little detail that I wanted to uphold."
The November presentation is the latest draft of the play and will reveal how Josephson has decided to "cinch all three of the stories together."
"There are plenty of characters from the original Sherlockian universe but there are also new characters and variations on old characters, and I had to figure out how to blend them using some of the more theatrical moments of the stories and make them come to life. I definitely wanted to bring Doyle's wit and humor into the play so it's got a lot of Doyle's original language, but it's also got a very original ending that will feel familiar to Holmes aficionados but will still be totally different because it had never existed until I wrote it. It's not shy about having fun with language and words."
Location, Location, Location
The setting for HOLMES, SHERLOCK AND THE CONSULTING DETECTIVE is the historic Santa Anita Train Depot, originally built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1890 on Rancho Santa Anita land that belonged to "Lucky" Baldwin. Baldwin permitted the railroad to be built on the surprising condition that it would always stop for him or any of his ranch hands. The company agreed and the depot was constructed using 100,000 bricks from Baldwin's own brick yard. He was one shrewd businessman.
Trains came through the depot six times a day and carried both passengers and freight. The station master also ran the post office which was located inside the waiting room. Because the depot was so isolated, the agent lived onsite, an arrangement that was unusual at the time. A bedroom and parlor upstairs and kitchen/utility room downstairs made up the living quarters. Typically the depot was run by a man but in 1897, Nora Higginson, the only woman to hold the position, was appointed station mistress. She held the post until she left to be married.
The Santa Anita Train Depot serviced Baldwin Ranch and the surrounding Sierra Madre residents until 1940 when it was finally closed. In the early '60s, plans began for the 210 freeway and the abandoned train depot soon faced demolition. That was when the Arcadia Historical Society raised enough money to move the depot to its new location at The Arboretum. It wasn't able to be moved intact, but Lucky's original bricks were salvaged, along with the doors, trim, beams and the picturesque Depot balcony. Workers reconstructed the building from photographs that had been taken and, in 1970, the train depot reopened on its current site. It is open on a limited basis for tours and is occasionally used for special events and as a location for filming, most recently for Walt Disney Studio's Saving Mr. Banks.
Josephson says the depot, The Arboretum, and the Mystery Lit reading all came together because there was "enough physical space, it's an interesting and cool place to be, and it has a sense of history. The time period lends itself (closely enough) to the Sherlockian time period but for the purpose of the reading, we're adjusting slightly so instead of all of the characters meeting at Baker Street in the study, Sherlock is meeting the different people at the train station."
A Partnership Begins
It was a series of coincidences that facilitated the partnership between Unbound Productions and The Arboretum. Dan Foliart, Arboretum Board President, had been coming to Wicked Lit with his wife and friends for years and then one day Josephson saw Richard Schulhof, CEO of The Arboretum, at a Wicked Lit performance.
"I had worked with Richard through my day job at a marketing agency. We had built a website for The Arboretum and then I ran into him at Wicked Lit. That started the three of us talking about the possibilities. They came to see us do a History Lit performance and we just kept the conversations going."
The challenge was to find a location at The Arboretum that would be controllable. The grounds are enormous and it had to be easy for audiences to get in and out. The other challenge was that The Arboretum isn't lit at night. "They introduced us to the train depot which is incredible. It's been restored and the exteriors are really wonderful so we're going to stage the reading in different places outside around the depot. The audience will move once or twice to give a sense of how the play would come to life in a fully-realized production but there is seating for the entire show."
The cast will be made up of actors who have been in Wicked Lit productions over the years including as many as possible who did the last reading. Josephson says if you've been following Unbound and Wicked Lit you're going to see a lot of familiar faces. Paul Millet directs the performance.
"The cast is a minimum of twelve and almost everybody plays multiple roles. Sometimes the actor plays multiple characters and sometimes the characters play multiple roles. It's a lot of fun to see how casting ties into narrative and ties into surprise."
A Personal Adventure
"Mystery Lit was originally lowercase. It was going to be some other lit but we didn't know what that was going to be. It became capital M when we realized there was a whole genre that's not just Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie but has a long tradition, primarily in the U.S. and Western Europe. There are also some other really cool kinds of mystery stories that exist all over the world. So, then, if we were going to explore the genre of mystery, we had to decide how to make it challenging and exciting and something that's never been done.
I've always been intrigued by mash-ups (like with music) mixing genres and styles to create something new. Even in high school I'd play around with sampling, like combining one level of music or lyrics with the bass line or the harmonies of something else, or making orchestrations of pop songs for my school's jazz band. The same thing applies to Holmes. It was about keeping myself interested and exploring something I'd never done before.
My passion is theatre and world literature and lots of perspectives and ideas. As someone almost new to Sherlock Holmes, I found myself asking a question over and over again: how does he do it? How does he always know? How does he always get the bad guy to admit what he did? Being really perceptive is one thing. Being really smart is another thing. But having an infinite catalogue of knowledge about everything at all times? Yes, he's a savant. Yes, he's all these other things, but I was wrestling with that. So I came up with a potential answer that still requires him to be a savant and all the other things but is a slightly different way of thinking about it than other folks who have tackled Holmes have written about."
That's what audiences will see at the train depot in November with Unbound's staged reading. "We've learned over the years that the readings are a form of entertainment that really appeal to people. They like hearing the plays and using their imagination to fill in the gaps. This is the fourth reading of this particular play partly because we are continually looking for ways to engage the community and for new venues. And I keep coming up with new things I want to do with the story," he grins.
You can tackle the mystery along with the detectives when Mystery Lit presents HOLMES, SHERLOCK AND THE CONSULTING DETECTIVE at the Santa Anita Train Depot on November 5th and 6th.
MYSTERY LIT 2016: HOLMES, SHERLOCK AND THE CONSULTING DETECTIVE
November 5-6, 2016 (3:00 pm)
Santa Anita Train Depot at the Los Angeles County Arboretum
Members of The Arboretum - check email for a $5 discount code
Click Here for tickets or call 323-332-2065
The performance runs just under two hours and includes an intermission.
Concessions will be available and there are restroom facilities with running water similar to the set-up for Wicked Lit.
Directions: Travel southbound on Baldwin Avenue, passing the Arboretum's main entrance at 301 North Baldwin Avenue and turn right into the second driveway marked Arboretum Train Depot. For more about Unbound Productions go to www.unboundproductions.org.
Historical information and photos courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum
Santa Anita Train Depot present day photos: Ellen Dostal