Fringe Festival: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

An interview with the director of the Renegade 'Hunchback'

Dan Higbee in Renegade’s “Hunchback.” (photo by Meghann Hicksonn)

Henrik Eger: Every year you present often radically different productions of classical literature, for example a naked Captain Ahab hunting Moby Dick in a bathtub. This year, you chose Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Your inspiration seems to come from mysterious places. What filled your well this time around?

Michael Durkin: I have been inspired by the silent films of the 1920s and ‘30s, primarily these films: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and the films of Georges Méliès.

HE: As a director and playwright, you tend to work with your actors as a collaborative team. Tell us more about that approach.

MD: I start with a cast in a workshop environment where we talk about the source materials: novels, plays, films, etc. We also discuss the iconography of the source material, its relationship to contemporary culture, and the relationship between the material and ourselves.

Through these discussions and a series of improvisational exercises, we generate material centered on text, stage images, choreography, etc. I don't like to put constraints on what the piece is going to be in these workshops, but let the cast and myself find the structure. The actors not only aid in the structure and text, but also aid in understanding the environment of the piece and the design. They offer up suggestions for design.

Through these workshops, discussions, and material generated, I then go away and "write" the piece. I put "write" in quotations because it is more sketching out the piece, creating a framework for us to go off of when we get into standard rehearsals.

HE: How many weeks do you spend on preparing for a new piece through this workshop approach, and what happens if some of your actors get a job at a big theater?

MD: What’s great about the workshop environment is that we are generating material that can be used in the final product — it doesn’t have to be. We’ve started workshops in April and May and had a two-month break before standard rehearsals. A lot can happen in that time frame. The workshops were more about generating material than rehearsing for the show. All of the participants in these workshops will be credited as creators of the project.

HE: What do you want to explore in your new production?

MD: Religion, archetypal characters, and what it means to be a monster. What happens when we let obsession pulsate through our veins? Are we capable of denouncing our beliefs for the sake of lust?

HE: Interesting, why don’t we start with religion?

MD: The performance takes place in the sanctuary space of an active Presbyterian church. People have some sort of relationship to religion — positive or negative. A universal truth to this piece is the character of Archdeacon Claude Frollo [Quasimodo's guardian, played by Steve Wright] and his doubts towards the church.

He experiments with alchemy and lusts after Esmeralda [Lee Minora], both of which contradict his faith. He becomes engrossed and obsessed with these "ungodly" aspects and ultimately is destroyed by his newfound beliefs. Though Frollo's plight is extreme, we can extrapolate the sense of doubt and temptation — only the strong can survive the temptation.

HE: Why are you using archetypal characters?

MD: The silent Lon Chaney film and the Disney characters are drawn fairly flat, in spite of Hugo's novel. We therefore have chosen to break through these archetypal characters and really understand them as deeply flawed and complex individuals, dispelling their iconography.

HE: How are you going to present Quasimodo — a monster? A troubled human being?

MD: Quasimodo [Dan Higbee], the grotesque individual, exhibits a physical embodiment of what a "monster" is. We are interested in exploring what monster qualities are in the characters. We decided that the seven deadly sins are the "monster"-like qualities the characters possess. These sins cause the characters harm to themselves as well as other characters. We have framed the experience of creating a "Quasimodo" — people projecting their inner monsters onto others. Quasimodo becomes a scapegoat, an all-too-familiar attitude that continues to be understood today.

HE: What frames this production?

MD: Quasimodo, half-blind, disfigured, and, due to the ringing of the bells, he is experiencing severe hearing loss. With the help of Joo Won Park and Adam Vidiksis, we have settled on a sound design, based around an exaggerated, expressionistic, silent film aesthetic and live Foley work simulating a sensation of tinnitus, a persistent, nonstop ringing in the ears, all to create a fever dream with lighting by Eric Baker and movement by Annie Wilson.

HE: I hear you’re collaborating with Genevieve Geer’s Le Puppet Regime as well?

MD: Yes, I was at a fair looking around for potential collaborators and found a table with stained glass puppetry. I talked with Genevieve about her work and asked if she would be interested in creating puppets for the show. She was very enthusiastic and will be providing detailed puppets in the style of German Expressionism.

HE: Given Quasimodo’s deafness, are you using deaf actors?

MD: We are using actors with full hearing. We are presenting a dance-theatre piece with actors, and actors with movement experience. Some have gone through the Pig Iron School as well as the Headlong Performance Institute.

HE: How did you create a play without words that takes us into the inner world of Quasimodo?

MD: The performers riff and experiment with one another, trying abstracted versions of the characters and creating situations that range from the mundane to expressionistic interpretations of the environment.

HE: Anything else you’d like us to know?

MD: Our Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t an adaptation of Hugo's novel, more of an extension of the story, sometimes minimal, sometimes exaggerated. It is a new way to present the familiar story. This is a movement-inspired piece, a "mute play" — a wordless drama.

HE: Thank you.

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