Story by Jane Kaufman

Henry Bernstein Photos / Three Driveway Media

In the 1930s, Cleveland was terrorized by a set of gruesome serial murders. Victims were decapitated, bled and dismembered.

Dubbed the torso killer or the mad butcher of Kingsbury Run, the killer was never identified despite the best efforts of then-public safety director Eliot Ness and his team.

That macabre subject serves as the backdrop and foreground for a series of immersive theater projects designed by Shadow of the Run LLC, a for-profit theater company based in North Canton.

Immersive theater is just that: Rather than having the invisible fourth wall or proscenium arch separating the audience from the action, audience members take part in some way.

The company’s first show, “Shadow of the Run Chapter 1: WanderLust,” was staged in four buildings and in open air of Bedford’s historic district in July and August.

Bedford Town Square, where “Shadow of the Run Chapter 1: WanderLust,” was staged.

In it, 21 actors interacted with 14 audience members – individually and as a whole – who walked in groups from scene to scene in a theatrical experience that challenged them to drink, smell, listen and observe, and play a role in the flow of the scenes. During its run, the show played 12 times an evening with start times staggered 20 minutes apart.

“WanderLust,” the first iteration of an upcoming series of theatrical experiences, created a back story for the Lady of the Lake, the first victim of the torso slayings. The culminating project of Shadow of the Run will be a full-length warehouse-sized production by the same name. That final project was the first piece written but won’t be staged for at least a year and a half. In the meantime, the theater company is in the midst of staging a series of smaller productions.

‘An actor prepares’   

Michael Sharon, a retired lawyer who lives in Cleveland Heights, played the apothecary in “WanderLust.” As part of his research into the healing art, he found an apothecary shop in Bedford within walking distance of the historic district where the show was staged. The owners allowed him to use fox bones.

During his scene where audience members were directed to visit his shop and engage, he asked them to “cast the bones,” or pour them from a canister onto a table. As some might read palms or tea leaves, Sharon says he used the pattern the bones formed to determine how to customize sachets for audience members seeking protection.

“The spirit in the bones would tell me,” he says.

Michael Sharon, who played the apothecary in “Shadow of the Run Chapter 1: WanderLust” says immersive theater presents special challenges to an actor, which he enjoys.

The Lady of the Lake was a so-called Jane Doe, and writer Beth McGee imagined her as a young woman from Bedford striking out for Cleveland. Similarly, Sharon, who acts in traditional theater as well, created a back story for his character as the town attorney and sometimes apothecary, the maternal grandson of Romani, who taught him about herbs and sachets.

In his role, Sharon had one-on-one encounters with members of the audience, quite different from delivering lines from a stage. A hallmark of immersive theater is that it requires a heightened and intimate level of audience interaction. 

Sharon says he enjoys the experience and prefers it to traditional acting. Dealing with the unexpected may be important for actors in this sort of theater, but timing is critical.

“I have done litigation during my career, and it does help,” he says. “Anybody who’s got the ability to think on their feet is going to be better served in this type of theater. A good actor is going to live in their character a little bit.”

Logistics and special effects

Every scene had to run like clockwork in ‘Wanderlust.’ A synchronized soundscape provided cues to the actors about when each scene needed to close, a device commonly used in immersive theater.

“Everything was done meticulously so that we know where every given patron and actor is at any given moment,” says Ben Needham, production designer. 

Because of the close proximity of the audience, special effects must hold up under scrutiny, including makeup and prosthetics, says Christine Woods, co-owner, designer and escape room designer; the final production will include two escape rooms. 

“There’s the saying in theater – it only has to look good 30 feet away and four feet up,” she says, adding that maxim doesn’t apply to immersive theater. “People know that it’s not real, but you don’t want it to pull them out of the experience.”

Another challenge in setting the stage and preparing the actors is conveying the rules of engagement to the audience.

“We want people to be able to intuitively understand the rules,” Woods says. “That’s always a challenge because this is still a young medium where we’re still trying to learn from other people.” 

Gwen Felton, playing the Lady of the Lake, does a scene with actor Adam Kirk, who stands in as an audience member during rehearsal for “Shadow of the Run Chapter 1: WanderLust.”

In immersive theater, actors will sometimes invite experience through touch.

“We’re trying to make sure that they engage but don’t engage in a harmful way,” she says. “There are some spaces where it’s OK to touch things. And there are other spaces where that’s a real antique and we don’t want to mess with it.”

Lighting can help, as can staging.

“The more we can do with managing their attention in a way that they aren’t even interested in touching that thing over there, the more we win,” Woods says.

“We were fortunate enough to have the resources of the Bedford Historical Society at our disposal. So we had a series of buildings that were all from the 1800s that we were to actually put our show inside of,” Needham says. “So instead of creating a train station from scratch, like we would in theater and film, we actually were able to use a historical train station for one of the locations. It was really well received because no one had seen anything like this.”

After the show, audience members often spent hours comparing their different and shared experiences.

How it started

Created in London in 2000, the concept of immersive theater first came to the attention of Adam Kern in 2009, when American Repertory Theater brought “Sleep No More” from London to the Old Lincoln School in Brookline, Mass.

At the time, Kern was in graduate school working on his Master’s of Fine Arts at the American Repertory Theater Moscow Art Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

“Getting to see my classmates and friends work on that production led me on a trip to kind of see more immersive theater,” he says. “I also worked with an immersive haunted house called Blackout. … Those two things combined, and seeing immersive (theater) around the country, just made me want to be involved in it.”

After the North Canton native returned from Los Angeles in December of 2015, he wanted to launch immersive theater localy. He decided to reach out to McGee, a theater professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, whom he met in 2002. At that time, they were working on “Big River” at the Porthouse Theatre in Cuyahoga Falls and later collaborated on other theater projects. 

A week after he returned to North Canton, Kern called McGee to ask if she would write the show.

“And without missing a beat – and I don’t know why because this hadn’t been a fascination for me or anything – I said, ‘Well if I’m going to write an immersive theater piece in Cleveland, I want to write it about Eliot Ness and the Cleveland torso killer,’” McGee recalls. 

Six months later, her full-length piece, ”Shadow of the Run,” was finished, and the company launched in late 2017, with four co-owners: Kern, McGee, Needham and Woods. Based in North Canton, the limited liability corporation is a bit unusual for an arts organization. It is structured as a business, and it pays every member of its cast and crew.

Max Elinsky plays chess in a scene staged in Bedford this past July and August.

Art as inspiration

McGee says her inspiration for the topic came from a 2010 multi-media installation called “An Invitation to Lubberland” by Duke Riley shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland. That installation focused on Kingsbury Run, a river that has been diverted underground. In the 1930s, the intersection of Kingsbury Run and the Cuyahoga River was home to a homeless persons’ camp.

“And that’s where the torso killer was preying on people,” McGee says. “I was fascinated by that history by going to the exhibit, and that’s what I think fueled my idea.”

Casting ‘Wanderlust’ proved particularly challenging, says Kern, the director, because the green light for the show came less than two weeks before it went into rehearsals. He says future shows will be easier to cast now that local actors have been exposed to immersive theater.

“We had a lot of actors come through as audience members and reach out to us saying, ‘Hey, when can I do this, how can I audition?’” Kern says. “So, I think a little bit more time and notice and we will not have any issue with that. But for a first-time company, it was a little scary having to go into a first rehearsal casting two or three roles.”

Liz Samsa stands on the railroad tracks in downtown Bedford where “Shadow of the Run Chapter 1: WanderLust” was staged.

What’s in store 

The hope is to stage the full warehouse-sized, “Shadow of the Run,” as an ongoing or permanent production in Cleveland, possibly in 2021, Kern says.

A pop-up show, “Railroaded: A Shadow of the Run Story” will be staged, tentatively from Jan. 9 through Jan. 12, 2020 at a location to be announced. 

Those who attended “WanderLust” can take part in an internet game or puzzle starting in late November or early December, leading up to “Railroaded,” Woods says. Others may take part in that game as well, although Woods says attendees of “WanderLust” may have a leg up.

McGee says “Railroaded” will center on the village at Kingsbury Run where some of the body parts were found.

“In the 1930s … Cleveland was considered a welcoming town to hobos,” McGee says. “There were three railroads that all crossed through that area of Cleveland, and so it was easy for the hobos to jump off and camp.”

McGee is just starting to write the script for ‘Railroaded,” having won funding in early November.

She says “Shadow of the Run Chapter 2: Calloused” will feature Eliot Ness as a character, tentatively scheduled for summer of 2020. 

The title, “Calloused,” comes from a quote by Ness.

“You think eventually that nothing can disturb you and that your nerves are impregnable,” Ness is quoted as having said. “Yet looking down at that familiar face, I realize that death is something to which we never become calloused.” 

FROM STAGE TO SCREEN

Story by Bob Abelman

A behind-the-scenes look at the NT Live Production of “The Madness of King George III.” | Tom Wren / NT Live

The notion that art imitates life – that creative work reflects and refracts the world around us – is as old as Aristotle’s “Poetics” (c. 335 B.C.), the earliest surviving treatise on the imaginative process.

A less romantic observation, but one that is just as true, is that art often imitates art, where the original imaginative idea of one person is emulated reverentially, borrowed unceremoniously or pilfered outright by someone else. While this practice is no doubt as old as Aristotle, it is most famously traced to William Shakespeare, who turned the pages of others’ literary works into bits and pieces of his own. 

It’s well known that Shakespeare took from Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmond Spenser and Arthur Brooke, among other poets. And recently, a long-forgotten, handwritten document from 1576 by one George North has been found to be the likely source for more than 20 monologues and key passages from Shakespeare’s plays, including “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Henry VI” and the “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy from “Richard III.”

Ironically, IMDb – an online database of films, television programs, home videos, video games and internet streams – lists 1,095 entries that emulate, borrow from or pilfer in some form the works of Shakespeare. This number is steadily increasing thanks to the National Theatre in London which, in June will celebrate its 10th year of adapting theatrical productions for the big screen – an endeavor that has included much of Shakespeare’s canon.

“Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal, bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different,” noted author T. S. Eliot, who is known to have borrowed an occasional phrase, line or reference himself.

From stage to screen

Films rooted in works from the page and the stage have attracted film audiences for decades and account for nearly two-thirds of Oscar Best Picture winners. Some plays turned into movies – including “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944), “Dial M For Murder” (1954) and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) – have become film classics.

But stage-to-screen adaptations have not escaped the watchful eye of theater critics who argue that the effusion of drama and sense of spontaneity that sweeps across the stage during a live performance is lost on film. And rich dialogue – the bread and butter of stage plays – easily morphs into dull moments in this more visually demanding medium. 

A behind-the-scenes look at the NT Live Production of “Hamlet.” | Ludovic Des Cognets / NT Live

Stage-to-screen storytelling has also been harshly criticized for turning the playwright’s work into a product that best defines the vision of its Hollywood director. Even the films just cited are more often recognized as the works of Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock and Mike Nichols than that of Joseph Kesselring, Frederick Knott and Edward Albee, respectively. Author Virginia Woolf deplored the oversimplification of literary work in its transposition to film, calling the upstart movie industry a “parasite,” literature its “prey” and stage productions its “victim” in a 1926 article in The New Republic.  

The transference of musical theater to the big screen seems to have fared better, but even the highly successful 2012 film version of the Broadway musical “Les Misérables” – which earned $148 million domestic and $283 million worldwide – was met by disparaging reviews regarding its cinematic storytelling. The New York Times called out the overt intrusion of the camera, noting the film’s “inability to leave any lily ungilded” and the failure to “direct a scene without tilting or hurtling or throwing the camera around.” New York magazine called its production values a “tasteless bombardment” and The Hollywood Reporter referred to the film’s visual approach as “laboriously repetitive.”

Critics haven’t been any kinder to recent efforts to bring live musical theater to the small screen, including NBC’s broadcasts of “The Sound of Music” (“As lifeless as those alpine backdrops,” Variety), “Peter Pan” (“Fails to take flight,” NY Daily News) and “The Wiz” (“A hot mess,” The Daily Beast). The highly promoted $10 million production of “Hairspray Live!” in 2016 employed 13 digital cameras, a cast and crew of 700, and the massive soundstages of Universal Studios in California. And yet, with only 8.9 million viewers, it was the lowest rated of all the live broadcast musicals to date.  

That is, until Fox’s presentation of “Rent” this past January, which attracted only 3.1 million viewers. Fraught with what Time magazine referred to as “dizzying camera angles,” “hyperactive editing (that) rarely allowed for a moment’s pause for reaction shots or to let songs sink in,” and “a swooping Steadicam (that) killed the emotional impact of the show,” the production led to NBC pulling the live-TV treatment of “Hair” from its upcoming spring schedule.

Clearly, art imitating art isn’t always an equitable exchange.

The advent of Electronovision

An early and monumentally unsuccessful effort to bridge the chasm in stage and screen storytelling modalities took the form of a production process called Electronovision. In 1964, producer/entrepreneur H. William “Bill” Sargent Jr. sought to capture live stage performance using multiple orthicon video cameras that recorded on tape 800 lines of resolution, with the high-definition images then transferred to film and distributed to cinemas. 

One of just a few stage-to-tape-to-film projects completed by Sargent captured a Broadway production of “Hamlet” at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, which featured Richard Burton in the title role under John Gielgud’s direction. The event was labeled “theatrofilm” in a promotional blurb in which Burton also claimed the Electronovision technology was creating the “theater of the future.” 

Unfortunately, a critic at Film Quarterly referred to the “Hamlet” production as “the worse movie of the year” due largely to the film’s “bad lighting,” “raucous sound” and an  inherent flaw in the black and white orthicon video cameras called “blooming,” where black objects had a white aura around them and white objects had a corresponding black aura. Also, the videotape editing of the period was very primitive, resulting in some epic hit-and-miss moments in the recorded production.

After one year, three films and $30 million in law suits over patent infringement, Electronovision Inc. closed its offices and the technology went the way of the Phantoscope, Silvatone and Kinescope.

A behind-the-scenes look at the NT Live Production of “The Tragedy of King Richard the Second.” | Marc Brenner / NT Live

NT Live and Cleveland Cinemas

More recently, the National Theatre in London attempted to overcome the complexities of live theater by taking a different approach to adapting them for the big screen, called NT Live. And Cleveland Cinemas, which is owned by Jon Forman of JRF Management in Cleveland Heights and operates a total of 46 screens at seven locations in Northeast Ohio, has been one of its local beneficiaries.

Inspired by the Metropolitan Opera, which had pioneered the concept in 2006, the National Theatre launched a live broadcast of its 2009 production of Jean Racine’s tragedy “Phèdre” to local cinemas. It did so with the intention of capturing the integrity of the stage work and replicate, as much as possible, the experience of actually sitting in the theater watching a live performance. The NT Live broadcast was seen by more than 50,000 people, which doubled in one night the audience for the play’s entire three-month run.  

“I recall watching that show myself,” says Dave Huffman, Cleveland Cinemas’ director of marketing. “There was a decent crowd for it and we felt like we were off to a good start.”

Since then, NT Live has broadcast live more than 40 productions while being performed in front of an in-house audience at the National Theatre, and on occasion, other theaters in the UK, the U.S. and elsewhere. To date, its broadcasts have been experienced by nearly 9 million people in more than 2,500 venues around the world, including the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights and Chagrin Cinemas in Chagrin Falls.

Marketing researchers have found that, far from cannibalizing audiences of local professional theater, NT Live has on average grown audiences for local theaters in London and reported a 6.4 percent increase in local theater attendance in areas nearest an NT Live screening in the year following the broadcasts.

Art imitating art, it seems, can be synergistic. 

“And we find that they can attract people to our (independent and foreign film) theater that may not otherwise come to us,” Huffman says. “While most of the NT Live films skew a bit older, reflective of the theater-going crowd, when we’ve shown things like Danny Boyle’s ‘Frankenstein’ (featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller), we definitely see a younger crowd.”

Benedict Cumberbatch in “Hamlet” | NT Live

Method behind the madness

Five to eight high-definition digital cameras, including one that offers gentle tracking shots, are strategically positioned throughout the National Theatre so as to be unobtrusive in their presence and relatively inconspicuous in their coverage. Shots from various camera positions are subtly cut live into a single feed by a camera director, giving the cinema audience access to the best seat in the house at all times.  

For these productions, the theater itself is transformed into something of a live TV studio, and while adjustments are made for lighting, sound and makeup, few changes are made in staging in order to preserve the integrity of the original theatrical design and transpose the stage picture to the screen as effectively as possible. At most, the camera offers heightened intimacy and accentuates the nuances of the actors’ performances and the stage director’s vision. And the actors are always reminded that they are doing a stage performance, not making a movie.

Satellites allow the productions to be filmed live and simulcast across the UK and Europe. In the U.S. and Canada, the majority of venues show it on the same day as the live filming while others in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico, India, Russia, Japan, China, Sweden and South America show it on a delayed basis within a few weeks of the original broadcast. NT Live productions are seen in 65 countries.

The National Theatre produces about 25 new productions each year, which vary from Shakespeare and classics to new plays, so the goal of NT Live is to offer a microcosm of its repertoire and showcase the diversity of what the theater can do.

“We used to think the ultimate success was someone seeing an NT Live, then coming to the theater,” says executive producer David Sabel on the NT Live website. “Now we see it as a success in its own right. Our audience isn’t just about the bricks and mortar. It’s much, much bigger than that.”

Early on, NT Live encountered skepticism about how the live broadcast would work.

“Most people, and I mean myself included,” adds Sabel, “believed that theater when it’s filmed becomes very static, very deadening and it’s so the antithesis of the art form.”  

Not anymore. C


On Screen

NT Live in Northeast Ohio

Upcoming NT Live broadcasts and the Cleveland-area cinemas showing them:

“All About Eve”

7 p.m. May 7 and 11 a.m. May 12 at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights.

“All About Eve,” the stage adaptation of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning 1950 backstage film classic, touches on celebrity, gossip, roaring ego, ambition, vanity and insecurity. It tells the story of Margo Channing, a legendary star of the theater, and her biggest fan, the young and beautiful Eve.

“The Audience”

  • 7 p.m. June 3 at Cinemark Tinseltown USA and XD in North Canton, Cinemark at Valley View and XD in Valley View, Atlas Cinemas Great Lakes Stadium 16 in Mentor, Regal Cinemas Crocker Park Stadium 16 & IMAX in Westlake, Regal Hudson Cinema 10 in Hudson, Regal Richmond Town Square Stadium 20 in Richmond Heights and Silverspot Cinema Orange Village in Orange
  • 7 p.m. June 4 at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights and Chagrin Cinemas in Chagrin Falls

For 60 years, the queen has met with each of her 12 prime ministers in a private weekly meeting. This meeting is known as The Audience. Through these private audiences, we see glimpses of the woman behind the crown and witness the moments that shaped a monarch. Academy Award winner Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth II. 

“Hamlet”

  • 7 p.m. July 8 at Cinemark Tinseltown USA and XD in North Canton, Cinemark at Valley View and XD in Valley View, Atlas Cinemas Great Lakes Stadium 16 in Mentor, Regal Cinemas Crocker Park Stadium 16 & IMAX in Westlake, Regal Hudson Cinema 10 in Hudson, Regal Richmond Town Square Stadium 20 in Richmond Heights and Silverspot Cinema Orange Village in Orange
  • 7 p.m. July 9 and 11 a.m. July 14 at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights and Chagrin Cinemas in Chagrin Falls

Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title role in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. As a country arms itself for war, a family tears itself apart. Forced to avenge his father’s death but paralyzed by the task ahead, Hamlet rages against the impossibility of his predicament, threatening both his sanity and the security of the state.

“The Lehman Trilogy”

11 a.m. Aug. 18 and 7 p.m. Aug. 21 at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights

According to the critic at the National Review: “The entire library of American cinema and theater contains few works that set out to celebrate or even dispassionately to chronicle, rather than savage or satirize, the details of how great businesses were made and the wonders they wrought. That’s why the three-hour staging of the history of Lehman Brothers is such a surprising – no, staggering – achievement. Housed in the suitably august Park Avenue Armory in New York City, ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ is one of the finest plays I’ve ever seen.”

“One Man, Two Guvnors”

7 p.m. Oct. 1 and 11 a.m. Oct. 6 at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights

In this fast-paced, hilarious farce, the down on his luck and permanently hungry Francis Henshall finds himself employed by two bosses who must never meet. Francis enlists the aid of willing and unwilling audience members in his quest to serve two masters and finally get a good meal. The play, starring James Corden, premiered at the National Theatre in 2011, with a subsequent Broadway production in 2012. 

Cleveland Play House recently announced its subscription series lineup for 2019-2020, which will mark CPH’s 104th consecutive season. 

  • “Into the Breeches!” (Sept. 14 to Oct. 6), a vibrant and big-hearted comedy, marks playwright George Brant’s return to CPH
  • Obie-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline” (Oct. 12 to Nov. 3) provides a look at the school-to-prison pipeline
  • “Every Brilliant Thing” (Nov. 23 to Dec. 22) is an intensely personal and uplifting story about the little things that make life worth living
  • “Clue, A New Comedy” (Jan. 25 to Feb. 23, 2020), making its Northeast Ohio premiere, is a murder mystery based on the cult classic film
  • “Antigone” (March 28 to April 19, 2020) will provide an urgent, contemporary take on the famed Greek tragedy
  • “A Doll’s House, Part 2” (April 25 to May 17), a play of fierce intellect and fiery wit, will make its Northeast Ohio premiere as well as serve as the anchor production of the 2020 New Ground Theatre Festival

In addition to the six-play subscriber series, “A Christmas Story” (Nov. 29 to Dec. 23) will return during the holiday season. 

“CPH’s 2019-20 season is a celebration of people coming together to make a more inclusive, joyous and compassionate world,” said Laura Kepley, CPH artistic director, in a news release. “In the plays, we will see people come together to create, to fight injustice, to honor family, to lift each other up and to blaze trails for future generations. There are also plays that focus on the forces that drive people apart. We look at the dangerous consequences of polarization and isolation that can drive us to dehumanize those on ‘the other side.’  

“We invite Northeast Ohio to come together at Cleveland Play House for a thrilling, mind-expanding and emotionally moving season full of comedy, drama, mystery and more!”

Subscriptions to CPH’s 2019-20 season are on sale now. Subscribers save up to 30 percent off individual ticket prices and receive benefits throughout the season. To purchase subscriptions or to receive more information, call 216-400-7096 or visit clevelandplayhouse.com.

Lead image: The audience at Allen Theatre (Cleveland Play House).