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Gore and terror: How we created horror movie effects for the stage

As Horror runs at the Peacock Theatre, the show's technical manager explains some of the challenges behind the special effects


With Horror, director Jakop Ahlbom creates a magical world live on stage. It is rare to see these kind of effects - usually associated with cinema - onstage and has been a challenge for us to translate the horror movie visuals for the theatre. And to do it in such a way that the effects can be performed on stage day in, day out.

Just like former plays by Jakop, Horror is very visual and without spoken words. But it isn't just a special effects show. We use them a lot, but they are woven into the storyline and choreography.

For Horror Jakop worked together with Dutch set-builder Douwe Hibma to design and realise the complicated set. In order to make quick changes like those which are normally edited in films, the idea was to create three spaces in one. When that basic idea was established, Jakop started rehearsals.

The set would barely fit into the rehearsal studio, because it left hardly any space to walk around it. But every time a new idea popped up, the set would be adjusted instantly - a door would be put in here and some stairs there. We changed the basic set every time we needed to until all the images, illusions and effects were there. For the special effects Jakop worked with the amazing Dutch prop maker Rob Hillenbrink.

The story of Horror is about the younger sister returning to the haunted house where she grew up in. It's unclear what happened with her older sister, but that is slowly revealed while she explores the house. In the show we switch from present to past using light and video techniques. The use of props and details help us a lot. We've spent hours figuring out what kind of wallpaper is the best, which paintings should be on the wall or what dresses should be hanging in the closet. For the light (done by Yuri Schreuders) and sound design (done by Wim Conradi and Bauke Moerman) we discovered the boundaries of the (im)possible. Everything you see in Horror only works when it is working together.

© Anna Karczmarz

Another aspect we needed to consider in the design is the Dutch way of touring. In the Netherlands it's usual to only perform in a theatre for one or a few nights. This means everyday loading-in and loading-out in a different theatre, five or six days a week. With its success Horror has evolved from a black box show into a piece suitable for proscenium theatres. The first year of touring the smaller theatres, it was a tough job for the crew. But as the theatres got bigger and bigger our workspace grew together with the technical facilities.

Being on tour was an important part of making the set easier to build. Remco Gianotten, who is responsible for the maintenance of the props, has been into the workshop of basically every theatre on tour to improve something while we were at it. Another reason our crew can make this show possible, is that we all work together on every department. Sound operator Allard Vonk might deal with more set elements than the stage crew, for example. During the show stage technician Michel van der Weijden takes part in the backstage choreography where actors and crew move around, most of the time in complete blackouts.

In the last year the success of Horror expanded and we needed to build a second set, to send overseas and make sure we are able to play all over the world. The process of working on the minuscule details of the set started all over again, with new challenges when some of the original material and props weren't available or our previous suppliers didn't exist anymore. Of course we used the things we learnt in the past two years for the new set. We also managed to improve the sight lines in the second set, so even more people can enjoy the show. But in the end we concluded that the intense process of realising the original set was more than worth our time and most of the clever and inventive build we weren't able to improve!

By Horror's technical manager Tom Vollebregt

Horror runs at Peacock Theatre until 10 June.