It was a dark and snowy night at the NorShor Theatre, and Sara Marie Sorenson, framed by tall, lit candles in an alcove called The Executive Suite, had a story to tell.
“Back when Manhattan was just a tiny town, the village of Sleepy Hollow sat along a bend of the Hudson,” the actor read the opening sentence of the story that scared her most as a child.
“When you say ‘scary,’ that’s what I think,” she had said earlier, as she prepared to record her spooky segment — an edited version of Washington Irving’s story of the headless horseman — for the Duluth Playhouse’s virtual production of “Tales from the Ghost Light.”
The show, which features more than a handful of local actors’ contributions of one-person shows, original storytelling and classic tales, will be available for streaming on the Playhouse’s Facebook page and YouTube channel at 7 p.m. Oct. 29 and will remain online through Nov. 1. It’s free, but there is an option to donate to the theater.
It’s the first production for the theater company that closed in March because of COVID-19 — just before it was scheduled to open “Spamalot.” The set from that show is still in place on the main stage, while the shuttered show’s director, Justin Peck, has moved on to creating the video for the Halloween-themed special with pieces by Eric Elefson, Diona Johnson, Rylee Kuberra, Matias Valero, Michael Kraklio, Cheryl Skafte, Luke Moravec and Sorenson.
And this is the first show in Duluth, full stop, for Phillip Fazio, the company’s new artistic director, who arrived in Duluth during Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order. Like other theaters around the world, Fazio said, they are trying to find a way to work.
“It all spawned out of, here I am, sitting in my office and I know there are a bunch of inventive, brilliant actors sitting at home, and I know they want to be doing something creative, and Halloween is coming up,” Fazio said.
He collected a group of performers — some he hadn’t yet met — and they brainstormed over Zoom about favorite ghost stories. The results include an original piece that plays on the lore of the NorShor and another about a ghostly figure at the Temple Opera, in addition to a one-man dramatic take on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."
“It’s a hodgepodge of all of our favorite Halloween things in a ghoulish pot,” Fazio said.
It's not quite filling the theater-theater void for Peck, who defines that as assembling and having a communal experience. That's a hard gap to fill right now, Peck said.
"As a way to continue doing some more experimental work, I think of it more as a video project," he said.
This past Thursday, the production was in its final stages of recording the pieces. The small cast and crew, masked and distanced save for Sorenson's recording, considered the effect of candles and houselights, the actor's pacing and pitch, and when to throw a meaningful look to the camera. Asked for the aesthetic he was imagining, Fazio said "Halloween-tastic."
Sorenson's story, edited to as close to 5 minutes as she could get it, covers the tribulations of Sleepy Hollow's new school teacher, a lanky and superstitious man in favor of free meals and smitten with Katerina Van Tassel. So, of course, is his nemesis, Brom Bones.
Could Sorenson, Fazio asked, say "Ichabod Crane" with both gloom and anticipation?
She could. And when asked if she could tell the audience with her eyes that she had a secret, she could do that, too.
Sorenson said she couldn't remember the last time she set foot in the NorShor Theatre, and her return to the space triggered emotion.
"I cried," she said.