By Cheryl Knight
Mysterious happenings, a Civil War ghost, and a family in turmoil. these themes feature prominently in the play the Quickening, which uses a unique storytelling approach to engage and invoke fear in the audience.
Playing at the Fells Point Corner theatre from June 8–July 1 in Baltimore, Maryland, the Quickening stars amanda Spellman (Beth), Debbie Bennett (Philomena), Marianne Gazzola angelella (rosemary ), and David Shoemaker (Matt). the Quickening’s playwright, Mark Scharf, and director, Ann Turiano, recently spoke with Paranormal Underground about the play and its paranormal themes.
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Q: Where did the concept of The Quickening come from?
Mark: The Quickening is a result of the confluence of many impulses, experiences, and I guess you could say tastes. When I was 12 years old, my parents let me stay up to watch a movie while the rest of my family went to bed. alone in a darkened room, I watched the Haunting of Hill House, made in 1963 and based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel. it scared the hell out of me, earning a permanent place in my heart and head. and it did so by suggestion — by relying on my reactions and thoughts to create fear.
You never saw a creature or apparition; you saw empty rooms and stairs and the reactions of people to sounds. You saw writing that had appeared during the night on a wall. You heard banging on a door echo like timpani on steroids and watched as a door knob ever so gently turned, but the door never opened. the technique and the effect stuck with me, and I have always wondered if i could write a play — a ghost story for the stage — that employed the same approach to engage and frighten. It was an idea that kept appearing in my notebooks, but one that always ended up taking a back seat to a different play. I think now it hung around until i was ready to tackle it.
Q: How did the play begin to take shape?
Mark: During the summer of 2014, a new draft received a staged reading at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which I attended as a Participating Playwright. in spring of 2015, the play won for me a Maryland State arts Council individual artist award in Playwriting, which included a staged reading during the 2015 Baltimore Book Fair. Later that year, the play was accepted by the Comparative Drama Conference and given a staged reading during their 2015 Conference.
There have been seven drafts by my count on the way to this production. I began the Quickening in earnest in 2013 and completed it in 2014. I was excited enough about the first draft to put together an in-house reading of it — in our house. a notable thing about that reading was the reaction to the dog in the play. Buy me a drink sometime and ask me about that.
In the fall of 2015, the play appeared as a staged reading presented by Dramatists Guild Baltimore Footlights Series at the Spotlighters Theatre in Baltimore. It was there that Anthony Hinkle and Steven Shriner from the Collaborative Theatre Company heard the play and expressed an interest. in 2016, the play was a Finalist in the 5th annual What if? Playwrights’ Festival and Competition in Charleston, South Carolina, where it received a staged reading, and was a Semi-Finalist in the 2016 Beverly Hills Theatre Guild Julie Harris Playwright Award Competition. I also learned that the Quickening had been selected to close FPTC’s 2017–18 season as a co-production with TCT directed by Ann Turiano.
Q: The play’s central story features a family who encounters a Civil War ghost. Why does paranormal subject matter resonate with so many people?
Mark: I think that resonance has to do with a fear of mortality and the feeling that death can’t just be the end. i think the combination of fear and hope is powerful in and of itself — and either breeds and/or is confirmed by stories of the paranormal.
Q: The Quickening features three strong female characters “trying to find where science and folklore/religion meet.” How does the central interaction unfold between these characters?
Ann: Beth, our main character, is pregnant for the first time and easing into her new life in Richmond. We’ve had some wonderful discussions in rehearsal about what it means to be “the vessel” for new life and how every mother herself becomes a sort of liminal space, a portal between two worlds. Whether you’re spiritual or not, the whole notion is kind of mind blowing.
The pregnancy itself plays a huge role in how and why the events of the play unfold. I’d say that Beth is about as religious as most Millennials — which is to say she isn’t — but her mother rosemary believes deeply in the occult. of course, everyone takes on aspects of belief from their upbringing, and it’s interesting to see where these echo and begin to resonate for Beth. add Beth’s neighbor, Phil, a math teacher and skeptic, to the mix, and suddenly we’re watching three strong women approaching a crisis from three very different (but all completely sympathetic) angles.
They need each other, and they need help. Mark has been exploring family dynamics in his writing for years, and his on-stage relationships feel very relatable to me. The views about the other side idea of history — whether for a family, a place, or a couple — looms large here.
Q: What other themes are central to The Quickening’s storyline?
Mark: Life/death/the permanence of death and how these questions and concerns have been addressed both by religion and science. the search for that knowledge.
Ann: All of these characters are reaching out for contact. They need each other, and they need help. Mark has been exploring family dynamics in his writing for years, and his on-stage relationships feel very relatable to me. The idea of history — whether for a family, a place, or a couple — looms large here.
Q: What is the main message of this play?
Ann: The play functions as a big “what-if” question. What if there really is life after death? What would that mean to us on a personal level? it’s a question that can be far too abstract to consider fully. This script grounds it in the familiar. It could all be happening in your kitchen.
Q: How do you think audiences will react after seeing The Quickening?
Mark: I hope it will start conversations and personal searching: people sharing their own experiences and researching the possible religious and scientific answers to these questions of eternity.
Ann: I have three goals for our viewers: I hope they are thoroughly creeped out, I hope they consider their own views about the other side, and I hope they are pleasantly surprised to discover that Baltimore is home to some wonderfully talented artists.
Q: The play runs from June 8 through July 1 in Baltimore. Where will it go after that?
Mark: It will go “out there” for hoped-for consideration by other theatres and theatre artists, agents, producers etc. I am hopeful that this play has “legs” and appeal. I have been heartened by a second production at the Acadiana Repertory Theatre in Louisiana and how their thoughts and reactions to the play have mirrored in so many ways what I’ve experienced in Baltimore.
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