London Horror Festival 2021
Part Seance, part campfire tale and part roleplaying game, Lights Out is a tragic horror story told by dwindling candlelight, full of twists and turns even the performers can’t see coming. The outcomes of key events are decided by drawing tarot cards; the only certainty is that when the final candle goes out, the story ends with no survivors.
Hi Matt thank you for talking to The New Current, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?
It's been hard and lonely at times, but luckily I can cope with most things as long as I can prop myself up with a steady routine. All those weeks when I couldn't go out and there wasn't much to do, getting into a regular routine helped me feel like I was moving forward even when I was mostly staying put.
Has this time provided you with any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
One silver lining of it all is that it's been easier than ever before to get a regular roleplaying game group together. If you want to play a game like Dungeons & Dragons or Monster of the Week, you need four or five people to be free at the same time fairly regularly. It's a running joke that the heroes you play in these games never face a challenge anywhere near as tough as finding a night when everyone's free! But everyone being locked down and willing to try playing games online has led to some great regular games, and the stories coming out of those sessions have been really inspiring and energising.
What does it mean to you to be bringing your new show Lights Out to the London Horror Festival 2021, are there be any nerves ahead of your run?
There are definitely nerves! All of us in the cast have been on stage before, but never doing anything quite like Lights Out. There's no script, and we'll be throwing ourselves curveballs by drawing Tarot cards throughout the performance - each card could mean a significant victory or setback for the character that person is playing. It's one thing to do that kind of thing on a podcast recording, when there's no live audience and you can always pause or edit the performance, but doing it live is a whole extra level of pressure.
Can you tell me a little bit about Lights Out, what was the inspiration behind your new show?
Lights Out is the tragic untold story of the so-called Blackout Four, the last four passengers on the last tube one night, who disappeared without trace in the London Underground tunnels, along with the train they were riding. Each of us will take on the role of one of the four, making the decisions they would have made - with the Tarot providing the unknown elements of the story. The whole thing is performed by candlelight, with candles going out one by one until darkness falls and everyone dies. That's the one certainty in among all the improv and random chance: none of the Blackout Four makes it out alive.
The inspiration came from a roleplaying game called Ten Candles, designed by Stephen Dewey. It's played by candlelight and you know from the start that all the characters are going to be dead by the time all the candles go out. There was something so dramatic about that, and the game led to such an intense experience, that we immediately started thinking about how we could create that kind of experience for an audience.
What were the biggest challenges you faced bringing Lights Out to the stage?
We had to design a whole roleplaying game before we even started rehearsing! And the thing we've had to keep our eyes on all the way through is making sure every game element - the cards, the candles, all the rules and elements of chance - makes the story better, clearer, scarier and more thrilling for the audience, not less. It would have been all too easy to get distracted by designing a clever game, but then the audience would be stuck watching five people play a game together, instead of watching five performers tell them a good story with the help of some game-y bits.
Have you always had a passion for theatre?
Yes! I have strong memories of going to Panto growing up, and my brother and cousins and I used to dress up and improvise plays for our parents and grandparents when we were little. I've been more backstage for the past few years, so it's exciting, if a bit scary, to be getting back on the stage.
What is it about horror that interests and inspires you so much as a creator?
It's about seeing people in extreme circumstances. I think we all go through tough times, these past couple of years especially, and there's something both reassuring and cathartic about seeing characters in horror going through that x100 and still persevering. In a strange way it makes me feel hopeful, like maybe we're all more resilient than we think, and if a horror character can be faced with all that and still struggle to survive, maybe I can find the strength to struggle with whatever I'm facing too.
How did Merely Roleplayers come about and how much has your approach to your work changed since you started out?
I ran a roleplaying game for a big group of friends that included several members of Blackshaw Theatre Company. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and I knew Blackshaw were already working in audio and podcast drama, so I pitched Ellie Pitkin (the Artistic Director) an idea for a podcast where theatrical people - members and friends of Blackshaw - play roleplaying games. Merely Roleplayers launched around Hallowe'en 2017 and we've been releasing an episode a week pretty steadily ever since.
It's definitely changed the way I approach character, whether that's in improvised stories or scripted plays. I used to be a very 'characters serve the plot' sort of person, but characters and the choices they make are absolutely central to roleplaying games - because the characters are played by your friends, and they want to have a fun time playing the game, not to be pushed through a series of plot points you came up with earlier. My approach to story nowadays is a lot less like planning a route from beginning to end, and a lot more like putting some interesting characters under pressure and wondering what they do next.
"...they want to have a fun time playing the game, not to be pushed through a series of plot points you came up with earlier."
What's the best piece of advice you would offer fellow theatre-makers?
Get the right team together, and look out for one another.
And finally, what do you hope your audiences will take away from Lights Out?
I hope they'll remember the thrill of a story emerging right there in the room with them, one where no one knows the next twist until it comes, not even the performers. And I hope they'll feel that, even when you know the story's going to end in darkness, it's always worth holding out hope for a little light.