Monsters. You see them at the movies and on television. You read about them in books. You might even see them lumbering around town Saturday.
But one place you usually don't see them is the theater.
Transylvania University aims to change all that this weekend with Beware Wolf ... And Other Nightmares at its Lucille Little Theatre.
The theatrical evening features a series of five short world premieres featuring monsters from Appalachian, Japanese and Malaysian folklore as well as American twists on classic monstrous creatures, including werewolves. Transy commissioned works by notable American playwrights Naomi Iizuka, Mark Stein and Janet Allard, and by Transy students Mattie Bruton and Jessica Wilson.
Act I will feature five short monologues titled Creatures by Allard, Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Bruton, Postpartum by Wilson, Hold You by Iizuka and Wolfman by Allard. Set in a present-day nightclub, the monologues will encourage the audience to discover the monsters in surprising and jarring ways before the stage transforms at intermission for act two, the short play Beware Wolf by Stein.
"This is not a fright night. This is not a haunted house," says Michael Dixon, assistant professor of theater at Transy. "These are thinking person's monsters."
The event is the culmination of the school's Monsters on Stage project that began last winter with an international call for monster-themed works. Organizers received more than 500 original works from 400 playwrights from the United States, England and Canada. A collection of 32 of the best essays, monologues and one-act plays will be published by Smith and Kraus Publishers.
"We tapped into something," Dixon says of the large number of submissions received.
He says they were looking for works about actual monsters — not monstrous humans — whose "unnaturalness, unpredictability and unfathomableness were impactful for us as readers and offered good visual possibilities and good roles for actors."
To Dixon, who directs the student-written piece Raw Head and Bloody Bones, opening the theater's parameters to include monsters, specifically monsters who talk and think and interact with the audience, opens up new avenues of thematic exploration about what it means to be human, or not be human, as the case might be.
"Theater being a verbal as well as a visual medium, it opens up all kinds of new metaphors for playwrights, and possibilities for stories and audience interaction," Dixon says.
"We're not dealing with traditional tropes that horror films deal with. People haven't had these encounters in the theater, so everything is start lingly fresh for the audience."
Why are there so few monsters in theater?
One reason is technical limitations.
Michael O. Sanders, the Transy theater program's technical director, taught a theatrical creatures course this semester that trained students in the art of special effects makeup for the stage, including prosthetics. The students also worked in tandem with the costume department to create original monster costumes that live up to the realistic standards set in part by the film industry.
"The workload is tremendous," Sanders says of bringing monsters to life onstage.
And then there is the cost.
"For the longest time, the cost of all the supplies have been prohibitive to most theaters, but in the last 15 to 20 years, there's been huge advances in all the products that we use," Sanders says.
As the film industry has moved on to cutting-edge products, or even computer-generated images, costs for the supplies Sanders and his students used to bring the monsters to life have gone down.
"It's a unique skill set that includes about 60 skills in that skill set," says Sanders. "Finding people to fill those roles can be difficult. It's not something that is taught in many theater programs anymore, so there's a lot working against us in that respect."
But Transy is spending all year training students to question and explore the role of monsters in the theater, with the monster-themed She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen slated for spring.
Dixon says, "We're at the university with the right name for that."