Will Poost and Xavier Michael are used to creating the tense, haunted atmosphere of Edgar Allan Poe stories. Both actors have toured with Chamber Theatre Productions, which stages theatrical adaptations of classic literature for middle and high school students.
“Onstage, and especially for student audiences who may be seeing theater for the first time, you rely on his vivid language to conjure his world,” Poost says.
But with the pandemic eliminating school field trips, Chamber Theatre pivoted to film, restaging four short Poe pieces — “Annabel Lee,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Raven,” and an audio version of “The Bells” — in Gloucester’s appropriately moody Hammond Castle.
“Each location was incredibly evocative,” Poost says. “There’s a gorgeous little library tucked in a corner of the castle where we filmed one scene, while another outdoor courtyard has gargoyles hanging down.”
“Poe has always been one of the most requested authors,” says Ashlyn Frank, Chamber Theatre’s casting director and creative director. “And we wanted to come up with another way to get this material to schools.”
The four Poe stories make up “The Midnight Collection,” which will be made available through a secure Web portal starting Oct. 1.
“These short films are a way to help students and teachers who are spending so much time with online learning this year,” Frank says. “The idea is to make learning fun and theatrical, to be enraptured by something that takes you outside your room.”
In addition to the films, students and teachers have access to a study guide, crossword puzzles with vocabulary words, and an animated biography created by Justin Dormitzer and voiced by actor Emma Payne.
Chamber Theatre has been producing stage versions of the Poe stories for years — except “Anabel Lee,” which is new to the company — and Frank says her goal is to create a visual representation of the stories that students “would not roll their eyes at.”
The initial idea, Frank says, was to rent a theater, install the set, and film the stage play. But it wasn’t safe or practical to bring the actors and production crews together.
“We decided to make a film in and of itself,” says Frank, “rather than a film of a play.”
Longtime Chamber director Pat Sankus suggested Hammond Castle as a location, Frank says, and the medieval architecture, along with the variety of indoor and outdoor spaces, made it a very “Poe-esque location.”
Frank says she, Sankus, Poost, and Michael availed themselves of the architecture and the landscape to tell Poe’s stories, while keeping the two actors separate and the crew socially distant from one another.
“I miss touring and feeding off the vibe of the students in the audience at any given venue,” Poost says. “I thought I knew these works so well, but reimagining it for the camera, and in these evocative spaces, adds another layer to these stories.”
A preview of ‘The Gay Agenda’
Joey Frangieh loves to meet people and hear about their experiences.
“I don’t really interview people,” says the director, whose Boston Theater Company produced “Finish Line: A Documentary Play About the 2013 Boston Marathon” with co-creator Lisa Rafferty. “It’s more of a conversation where I let people tell the story they want. It gives them the power.”
Frangieh’s newest work, “The Gay Agenda: A Documentary Play About the LGBTQ+ Community,” will have a virtual preview performance Sept. 19 as part of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s Fierce Urgency of Now festival (www.bostontheater.org, free, $10 donation to the Trevor Project suggested). Frangieh hopes to mount a full production sometime next year.
“There are vast differences and diversities within the LGBTQ+ community,” says Frangieh. “What’s really inspiring me is when I hear people from completely different upbringings and different experiences say exactly the same thing.”
With “Finish Line,” Frangieh, Rafferty, and a team of interviewers talked to 94 people who had firsthand experiences on that fateful day. For “The Gay Agenda,” Frangieh is conducting all the conversations himself.
“I started with a circle of friends and then used word of mouth,” he says. “I start the conversation by asking ‘How do you identify?’ and ‘What does it meant to you to be gay?’ and then let them take it from there.”
Frangieh says determining the dramatic arc of the play revolves around finding moments of heartbeat and heartbreak.
“I think we can all relate to the sadness of rejection,” he says, “so many people told stories of being kicked out of their homes [when they came out]. The question then is: Why did we get here, and how do we recover? I don’t want to just preach to the choir, I want to figure out what questions we need to ask.”
Casting the right actors to embody the interviewees is tricky, says Frangieh. For the preview, he has assembled Yewande Odetoyinbo, Sam Tanabe, Carla Martinez, Ahmad Maksoud, and Futaba Shioda.
“I don’t look for a particular type,” he says. “I need a performer who can be versatile and transform from one character to another, but I also need someone who can honor the true words of the story as if this was the first time they are telling it.”
The fact that “The Gay Agenda” is coming together at the same time that Black Lives Matter has refocused attention on social justice is very important to Frangieh.
“This is an opportunity to reinforce the fact that Black Lives Matter and Black Queer Lives Matter,” he says.