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Interview: Mark Redfield

Nevermore in Baltimore – Mark Redfield on Producing Live Theatre and the Edgar Allen Poe Bicentennial Celebrations in Baltimore, MD

When you have friends all over the globe, you aren’t always entirely up to speed on what their current projects are. In this case, my darling friend Mark Redfield has gotten himself entangled in a morass of Poe tendrils worthy of Cthulhu himself. In October of 2009, I was watching CNN’s coverage of the Funeral of Edgar Allan Poe that was taking place in Baltimore, 160 years after is actual death. I suggested to my husband that no doubt Redfield was somewhere in attendance. When he and I finally talked to each other again, I found out that he’d produced the damned thing!

And he’s not done. It would seem that 2009 and 2010 are the years that Baltimore will celebrate Poe until the cows come home. With this in mind, I nailed Redfield for an interview so he could tell us about all the things they’ve done already and what’s coming up next.

Jessie Lilley: So Mark, when did you first get involved with the Poe Museum and its curator, Jeff Jerome?

Mark Redfield: A couple of years ago I made a film called The Death of Poe and spoke to a few historians before we shot the picture, one of whom was Jeff Jerome, curator and director of the Poe House and Museum in Baltimore. The film is about Poe’s last week and his mysterious death and I really wanted to know what the scholars thought of all the theories that were floating around. When The Death of Poe premiered we invited Jeff and he liked what we did and my performance as Poe. He was very supportive and invited me to a few events in Baltimore at Westminster Hall to promote the DVD release. Sometime in 2007 Jeff began talking about his plans for the Bicentennial in 2009 and then, knowing my background in theater and live events, began to pull me in to help with Poe-related events that he was doing.

JL: It would seem you agreed to this.

MR: Yes. Throughout 2008, Jeff would thrash ideas around about the events he wanted to do to celebrate Poe’s 200th, and by then I was in his circle, along with director John Spitzer from D.C.; we began to focus on the January 2009 Birthday Celebration.

Jeff Jerome had ambitious ideas about what he wanted to do, kicking it all off with a bang with the birthday. He wanted to do things that were more theatrical than what they had been doing. Other than the usual parade of Poe impersonators reciting and the wonderful live adaptations of stories that John Spitzer had created, my initial contribution to the 2009 Birthday celebration was to adapt and stage Poe’s Hop-Frog. What was different was the use of masks and puppets; sort of a mini-Cirque du Soliel experience. It went over very well.

JL: Wow! What made you choose Hop-Frog?

MR: I had picked Hop-Frog for a number of reasons. Doing a live performance, making Hop-Frog and Tripetta three-foot tall puppets worked wonderfully and the contrast between them and an enormous Minister puppet and King worked well visually. In the adaptation, I made the occasion of the King’s masquerade his birthday party and that fit well with the theme of Poe’s party as well as lending lots of color. I could also make it a very grim comedy which was a bit different in its irreverence. It’s the first piece of theater I’d designed and directed in about ten years as I’ve been making films. It was an exhilarating experience for me. 

JL: But this is all birthday stuff. Where did the 2009 funeral come from? It was a spectacular idea.

MR: The funeral was always key to Jeff Jerome’s plans for the Bicentennial. He had the idea of a kind of symmetry to the year-long series of events, and wanted to top what had come before with the funeral event. I think he succeeded in spades!

JL: I’d say so! Did you ever expect to get the attendance you got for the funeral. not to mention worldwide media coverage?

MR: It was bigger than we all thought. Something about it captured people’s imaginations. NPR, the BBC—it was fun herding all the press through and around the streets as they covered the procession and the event inside the hall.

JL: Did you find folks in Baltimore eager to invest in these events or were they privately produced?

MR: It’s all paid for by the City, which makes budgeting a tough job as cuts are the norm throughout the US in all major cities. But I think the City of Baltimore sees the value of what we’ve been doing, at least as far as publicity and promotion and tourism is concerned. I’m worried about future budgets for things like this. 

JL: As producer of these events, what kind of hoops must you jump through with the City of Baltimore?

MR: Thank God I don’t have to deal with them! My job as producer has been creative and organizational. I try to bring to life what Jeff has in his head, working within the many tight restrictions of time and budget. Jeff Jerome deals with the City bureaucracy! But I’ll say this; once the City saw the press we were getting—beginning with the ’09 Birthday Bash—and the fact that all of the events have at least broken even financially, not to mention the press that Promotion and Tourism has been able to use, they’ve been wonderful and very supportive. 

Jerome started the ball rolling by saying that he wanted to give Poe the funeral he never had. When Poe died, he was buried so quickly by family in Baltimore that nobody really knew about the service until after the fact; only a handful of people were present, and so few that the minister dispensed with the eulogy altogether. Rather sad.

JL: I read that there were some major players involved theatrically. Who were some of your cast members?

MR: For months it was Jeff Jerome, John Spitzer and me. Jeff wanted Poe’s body to be ceremoniously transported in a horse-drawn hearse from The Poe House on Amity Street to Westminster Hall. He also wanted a collection of eulogists to speak and honor Poe. John Astin, who used to do a one-man Poe show, was tagged as the host as he had performed at Westminster Hall in years past and was a big part of the birthday celebration earlier in the year.

The first thing Spitzer and I did was make a list of the eulogists, then broke it down into three groups: Poe contemporaries—people who were alive when he died; historic characters—mostly writers who could talk about Poe’s influence and the debt we owe; and finally, “living” eulogists. Our initial list was so long that after I did the math and figured that if everyone spoke for a minute and a half to three minutes, the program would last over six hours! The final event clocked in at about three hours, not including the hearse procession!

So we made some hard decisions. The first difficult decision was to eliminate any “family”. Then we had to decide which authors to include, so we could cover horror, science fiction and poetry.
JL: Did the performers prepare their own eulogies?

MR: No. I wrote the bulk of the eulogies—Lovecraft, Conan Doyle and others—and Spitzer concentrated on some like Griswold, who was of course, Poe’s archenemy. The living eulogists included me, Gris Grimly, Editor Ellen Datlow and of course, John Astin. Jeff Jerome handled booking the musical entertainment, which set a beautiful tone and was used to bridge groups of speakers.

We then cast the actors, which I think were really great, including Ron Burr who played a young Alfred Hitchcock; Matthew Bowerman who played H.P. Lovecraft, Tony Tsendeas. John Spitzer himself played Griswold—the cast list, along with photos—70 out of 1500 that were taken that day, is up on the website www.poebicentennial.com—they were all really great.

JL: And were you satisfied that you’d presented Jeff’s vision?

MR: I think we delivered everything Jeff Jerome had envisioned. I was quite stunned that it got the world-wide press and attention that it did. People traveled from all over the world to attend this funeral; from Europe, Vietnam, South America and all corners of the US—it turned out to be an incredibly emotional event and entertaining at the same time; a wonderful way to honor Poe.

JL: Are there plans for Poe’s 2010 birthday celebration?

MR: This year the idea is to do something a little different. Jeff Jerome knew the 2010 Birthday Celebration was coming so closely on the heels of the ’09 October funeral event that there was no way to top it. That’s when I suggested the one-man play Nevermore, starring Jeffrey Combs. We could bring it to Baltimore and have the East Coast Premiere. We’re also unveiling a lost watercolor portrait of Poe, which to my knowledge, hasn’t been seen by the public in over a hundred years. There’s always something new!

JL: How did you manage to get Nevermore to swing East and play Baltimore?

MR: Nevermore opened in July of ’09 during the Bicentennial in LA at the Steve Allen Theater, and the buzz from Day One was strong. It was Stuart Gordon who recognized that, of all the towns laying claim to honoring Poe, Baltimore was doing the most spectacular stuff. It was Gordon that floated the idea of bringing Nevermore to Baltimore, and performing it at Westminster Hall.

This was early in the run of Nevermore in Los Angeles. The reviews were wonderful and friends began to rave about it and there was talk of touring the show. In the summer, at one of our funeral planning meetings, Jeff Jerome just casually mentioned a conversation he’d had with Gordon about bringing Nevermore East. Our initial idea was to bring it in two weeks before the funeral, as the play is staged just like a recital that Poe did in halls and parlors all over the mid-Atlantic. Gordon and I worked really hard for a couple of months getting all parties and schedules together to make that work. At one point I floated a Plan B, that if this didn’t work out schedule-wise, we could make Nevermore the January 2010 birthday celebration centerpiece. The enormous pressure was taken off, luckily for all, I think, when Gordon called me to say that Nevermore got extended, yet again, to December 19th in LA. 

So it all worked out in the end, and that’s how we finally got Nevermore and Jeffrey Combs to Baltimore!

JL: Does Stuart Gordon travel with the show or is he coming in especially for these two performances?

MR: If his schedule allows. I really wanted him in Baltimore, and I think he wants to be here too—especially as the director of the piece—to be able to help Jeffrey Combs adapt to a larger venue than the Steve Allen Theater. They’ve also agreed to do a Q&A after the performance, which I think their fans will love.

JL: Will you be recording the show for DVD release?

MR: The show was taped in LA for archival purposes. Unfortunately it won’t be taped in Baltimore as there just isn’t the money to do a proper, professional recording. That will happen in the future, I’m told. But the desire is to continue on with Nevermore as the theatrical, live experience that Combs and Gordon intended is what they’re concentrating on now. There isn’t an official tour yet, but there are about a dozen theaters and venues across the country that want the show. 

JL: Mark, this has been grand. Thanks for taking the time so soon before the curtain goes up. Is there anything you’d like to add?

MR: I’m proud to have helped bring Nevermore to Baltimore and of all the work for the Poe Bicentennial last year. I hope we’ve created unique and wonderful experiences for Poe’s fans, and that somehow Poe knows about it and is smiling down on us. All of us working in the horror, science fiction and mystery fields owe an enormous debt to him. Here’s to Poe, his Bicentennial, and beyond!

Interview: Mark Redfield

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