True Crime is a genre burgeoning in popularity, as it captivates audiences in a web of reality, deceit and mystery within whatever medium it chooses to appear in. Among the plethora of criminal tales of murder and mischief is Deadhouse: Tales of Sydney Morgue, a new immersive theatre production staged by Blacmange Productions and Actors Anonymous in The Rocks Discovery Museum from April 24th to May 19th. Nothing is more thrilling than true crime, with its ability to show you the sinister side of the everyday society you think you know so well. Deadhouse is no exception, as the real life horror stories coming out of the Sydney Morgue will turn the Sydney streets you know so well into a grungy, ghetto host to the kidnappings, assaults and poison of years gone by. Backyard Opera spoke with the mastermind of the show, executive producer Stephen Carnell about all the hard work, and preparation that has gone into such a fiercely innovative show, and discussed his history with theatre that informed the creation of Deadhouse.
“One day, it dawned on me, that the Sydney morgue was a block away, and it had been for 120 years before it moved to Glebe. There was 100s and 100s of stories that passed through the morgue and coroners court” Carnell says of its conception. Deadhouse: Tales of Sydney Morgue puts on display just two of these hundreds of stories, with hauntingly unique shows based on the lives of Leonard Lawson and Louisa Collins, both criminals from Sydney’s past whose tales had been laid to rest in the Sydney Morgue’s archives. Running for 4 weeks, each story will be performed for a week at a time, alternating so that audiences are given a chance to discover both stories within the haunting historical venue.
Deadhouse seeks to take immersive theatre to the next level and engage audiences in ways that have never been allowed before. “With immersive, you need a connection to place, so I was looking for something in the immediate area we could connect to that would generate stories,” says Carnell of his thought process as to how to create a meaningful theatre experience outside the normal theatre/audience relationship. And as far as interactive theatre goes, this is one that will haunt your body and your mind. Deadhouse is an immersion into not only the gruesome acts committed by Lawson and Collins, but the motivations and politics behind it, all brought to you by Morticia Addams-esque guide Kyla Ward who ensures you won’t escape the horrific events that unfold.
The stories to be told on the Deadhouse stage were chosen by Carnell’s writers, with Robert Armstrong choosing the tale of Leonard Lawson and Gina Schien taking on the Louisa Collins mystery. The first story, running in weeks 1 and 3, is the Leonard Lawson ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Murderer’, and is set in the period of 1954 to 1972. Deemed a modern Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Lawson’s story about a successful photographer and comic-book artist turned murderer takes audiences on a journey throughout Lawson’s horrific record with the law and his bloodthirsty tendencies towards women. “Lennie Lawson was a crazy psychopathic rapist and murderer that didn’t stop” Carnell says, and Lawson’s actions, including the sexual assault of five teenage models in Terry Hills, and the killing of a SCEGGS school girl justifies this bold characterisation. “The interest is and what we spent a lot of time on in rehearsal is what was his motivations; trying to show that to the audience. Why would someone do that? It’s the Jeckyll and Hyde syndrome. We’ve all known people like that to a greater and lesser degree. And it’s one of the scarier things in life, seeing people change so drastically.”
Set in the period of 1886 to 1889 is the trials of Louisa Collins, who’s story named ‘A Poison Crown’ written by Gina Schien highlights a tale of affairs and arsenic, and the process of conviction Louisa endured after the suspicious poisonings of both her husbands. “They put her through 4 trials until they finally found her guilty and within 7 to 10 days they had hung her. This was 10 years before the vote, and the pushing for women’s rights, and here they’ve just kept trying her until they can get a jury to find her guilty” says Carnell, “So there are bigger social ramifications in this, other than the crime.”
Carnell’s role as executive producer is, like the Deadhouse stories, not as simple as it seems. Being responsible for not only the conception of the Deadhouse idea, hand selecting the entire cast and crew together, assistant directing as well as controlling the financial and promotional aspects of the production. “I’m like the ringmaster of everything that’s going on” says Carnell, “It’s a mixture of slightly exciting stuff and a bit more boring stuff”. And Carnell is most definitely qualified for all the roles he plays. Not only has he held roles as director and produce for over 20 shows throughout his career to date, Carnell has also tried his hand at acting, sound, light and stage management, “I figured if I’m going to direct I should know what I’m putting people through. So I did all the jobs.” It’s no surprise that Carnell ended up in the theatrical world. When asked how he got into theatre, he cites his older brother as a big influence. “So when I was in primary school he was in high school doing theatre … I liked going along as a kid and watching him in Shakespeare and playing John Proctor in the Crucible. It was exciting, I got to go backstage” cites Carnell.
Deadhouse aims to cater to a niche aspect of indie theatre goers, as well as attract those who aren’t well acquainted with typical theatre shows. As Carnell says, “ [Deadhouse] aims to attract indie theatre goers, people who like experiences, they might go to other immersive’s, like hallowed scream in Luna park. And because its very crime and history based, it definitely targets those who like Sydney history and true crime”. Deadhouse is an exciting new step in not only Carnell’s career but also in the realm of theatre itself, as its inclusive concept and interest to non-theatre goers could mean the revival of theatre itself. In a fast paced city like Sydney, immersive theatre such as Deadhouse is cultivating itself as an exciting new past time for the culturally-savvy and curious minded.
“What I like about theatre is the immediacy. Theatre is like smoke, it dissipates and then its gone”. Deadhouse: Tales of Sydney Morgue will be opening Thursday 26th of April, and will be running for 4 weeks. Get in quick before they disappear.