Exclusive Interview: Hannah Raven of ‘A Midnight Visit’

A few weeks back we got out of our comfort zone and reviewed a theatre piece. If you’ve been in my general vicinity since then you’ll have tolerated me telling you to get a ticket to said piece, ‘A Midnight Visit‘, at every opportunity. Now we’re taking it a step further and bringing in one of the performers for a chat!

Enjoy a listen or a read:

GF: Welcome, we’re talking with Hannah Raven. Would you like to tell people who you are?

Hannah Raven: Of course. My name is Hannah Raven, I am an actor from Sydney. I play the character of Ligeia in ‘A Midnight Visit.

GF: I’ve also heard that you’re heavily involved with the Edgar Allan Poe Association, is that correct?

HR: Yes, yes I am! I started Edgar Allan Poe Australia back in, I believe, 2015. The reason I started it is that I always had a deep love and affiliation for Poe and his work. I went over to Baltimore to visit his grave and to see where he used to live and to get a sense of the history and the actual person that he was. When I was over there I met a few people from the Baltimore Poe Society and they were so passionate about him and his work. I knew a lot of Poe fans here in Australia, but there wasn’t a Poe Society. The reason for that is that he’s an American. In America they really hail his work, whereas here he’s known but he’s not part of our immediate history. I created a Facebook page and an Instagram page, and it was all purely to celebrate Poe and share his work, and encourage more people to read him. He is my muse and I wanted more people to know his work.

GF: I do want to talk about ‘A Midnight Visit’, which is heavily influenced by Poe’s work, but my first question is: with your heavy association with Poe’s work in your performances, is it a coincidence that your name is ‘Raven’?

HR: Ah, no. I wish. The long and short of it is that when I finished drama school I was a ‘Smith’. My head teacher recommended that I pick a stage name because ‘Smith’ is probably already taken, which (surprise, surprise) it is. I had to pick a new stage name, and that was very tempting…I thought of all these exotic names like my mother’s maiden name was “Van der Hagen“, so I could be very Dutch and exotic. But obviously the love of Poe came to mind first and I chose ‘Raven’. Hannah Raven is the name I go by as an actor.

GF: I was wondering, because I saw your name in the programme and thought that was quite a coincidence.

HR: I get that question a lot because people think that I started reading Poe because my name is Raven, but no – it’s the reverse. It’s not as exciting, but for me it is because I’ve adopted Poe as a part of my identity.

GF: ‘The Raven’ was my introduction to Poe because, and I’m assuming that this was true for a lot of people of my generation, was because ‘The Simpsons’ gave me that introduction.

HR: Yeah, it’s funny. When I talk about Poe in Australia I would say maybe 75% of people I talk to go “who is that?” And then I’ll say “he wrote ‘The Raven'” and they’ll go “what is that?” Then I’ll ask if they saw ‘The Simpsons’ episode, the Halloween special, and they go “oh yeah, I have seen that!” That is Edgar Allan Poe. And I don’t mind that, a lot of people, the Poe fans in American, say “you only know about that from ‘The Simpsons’, but I think that means Poe is still present with us and present in pop culture, and he’s a bit of a rock star for the underdog, and the struggling artists, and the emos and the goths.

I think ‘South Park’ did an episode with him too. He comes back as an emo ghost, it’s pretty funny! He comes back to the Goths as their inspiration to get something done. He’s very emo, it’s quite funny.

GF: Regardless of what people think of the ‘The Simpsons’ rendition, I think it’s pretty respectful and it’s what introduced me to it. I think it’s very positive.

HR: Me too. I think the reason so many artists and TV shows have used Poe is because his work is so accessible. There’s so much imagery in his work and so much grandeur in the text that he uses. He uses a lot of exclamation marks, he draws from mythology…his work is incredibly inspiring for artists. Which includes musicians and film-makers and the guy who invented ‘The Simpsons’…Matt…

GF: …Groening. Also Arthur Conan Doyle based the structure for the ‘Sherlock’ stories on ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’. Dupin was a template for Sherlock.

HR: That’s right, he did, yes, oh my gosh! We have a Dupin in this production, this is a new addition from the Sydney show. We didn’t have a detective in the first addition. We have two new characters, we have Detective Dupin and Lizzie Reid, which is a fictional character created for this production. She’s a schoolgirl who’s become obsessed with Poe’s work and is stuck in the dreamscape of the girl’s school seeing all these Poe stories come to life.

GF: Let’s talk about the show: when I’ve spoken to people about ‘A Midnight Visit’, it takes me a long time to explain what it is. What is the pitch for ‘A Midnight Visit’, for people who aren’t familiar.

HR: ‘A Midnight Visit’ is an immersive theatre experience, it’s an experience like no other done in Australia. It is pitched as a ‘choose your own adventure’, but it’s also a piece of theatre. If someone is a theatre-goer they’re going to come to this space and see scenes that have been created with character’s who are going to interact with each other. If you’re not a theatre-goer you can come and choose your own adventure, walk through the different spaces, go wherever you want, discover things about the architecture or the installations, which are incredibly succinct and creative…

I guess the elevator pitch is ‘an immersive theatre experience, a choose your own adventure, inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe’.

GF: The first thing that struck me about the show is the scale of it. It’s such a big, big space…three storeys and, I don’t know, thirty or forty rooms with installations.

HR: It’s got thirty-four plus. It’s massive. Coming from Sydney, where the original production was in a warehouse. It’s a huge, big, two storey concrete block. A lot of the rooms were literally built in the space of the warehouse. Here the rooms are already there, they’re either old classrooms, or old boardrooms, and even an interrogation room that is literally an interrogation room. After this building was a school for girls it became a police station. There’s actually an interrogation room that we use as an interrogation room. This space lends itself more to our creativity and our stories, we can set everything up and padded the rooms out…the history of the space really speaks to Poe’s work as well.

GF: The exterior of the building is really perfect for it, especially when you walk down the street and you can hear the tell-tale heart reverberating around you.

HR: When we first got to Perth and first saw the venue, this big gothic mansion, I must admit that I got a little teary. I was excited that we’d got this big, gothic building to work with. Even before I set foot in there I was pretty excited.

Girl’s School, Perth

GF: How long did it take to set the show up? It feels like you turned the entire building into a performance piece.

HR: We really have…surprisingly it was over a two week period that everything was put together. From the Sydney season, that took a lot longer because things were being made and created to go into the space. A lot of the things in the Girl’s School were created in Sydney and brought up. Over a two week period the entire building was transformed and created to be what it is now. Everybody working on the project has worked incredibly hard, with a lot of heart and soul and effort going into making sure it’s ready on time. We’ve been blessed to work with so many dedicated people.

GF: I’m shocked that it was only two weeks, I expected at least a month.

HR: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy.

GF: I’ve been to see the show twice already, and one thing I wanted to ask about the performance side of things: it feels like it must be an endurance track, are you on for the whole evening running in a loop?

HR: It has been a wake up call for all of our fitness levels. The whole show can go for one hour up to three and a half hours. It really depends on when audiences come to show, how many audience members come each night. The longest we will run is three and a half hours, with the audience let in on the half hour. The show itself runs for one hour and then we, as the performers, begin the loop again. If you’ve been in there for an hour and you decide to stay for a whole other hour, you’ll discover things you didn’t see in the first show in another room. That’s why it’s such a wonderful experience, a choose your own adventure, because you discover different things. Obviously we do get breaks, we get time to pop out and hydrate, that’s very important. As an actor it has been a really interesting experience to stay in character for three and a half hours, to interact with people in character and in costume. It’s been quite a blessing because a lot of actors don’t get to do something like that. You get up on stage and play your role and then go home, but for us this is living the role and existing in the girl’s school.

We’ve had to take really good care of ourselves: eating well, getting lots of sleep, hydration…that’s the other thing about the cast, we’re really good to each other. We’ve got each other’s backs, make sure we’re all safe and taken care of.

GF: That’s not how you act in character, though. You all seem to hate each other.

HR: That’s the fun of it! That’s why it’s called a play, we all get to play these horrible, sadistic roles! Especially my character, she’s not the happiest chappy. Very sadistic and very menacing. As an actor, to play a role like that, it’s fun! It’s really fun!

GF: Tell us about the role you play.

Hannah Raven as The Nurse

HR: My character is the Nurse. My character is inspired by Edgar Allan poe’s ‘Ligeia’, one of his most famous short stories, and also the caretaker from ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. Those two characters are amalgamated into the Nurse. The Nurse is highly intelligent, very tactful, sadistic…you could label her as a psychopath. I have taken inspiration from characters like Hannibal Lector, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, that kind of highly functioning sociopath. The reason we made an amalgamation of those characters is because, in Poe’s work, all of his women are either very sick and dying or highly intellectual and inspiration. The Nurse character does have a death moment where she unravels…like in the story ‘Ligeia’ where she is shrouded, and the shrouds come off as she comes back from the dead. There’s a moment for the Nurse where she dies, and she’s reborn and comes back as the Nurse again. That’s the thing about the women in Poe’s stories, is that they are beautiful and they are sick and dying, but that’s because Poe found a lot of beauty in death. The women that inspired his characters, the real life women, were incredibly intelligent, passionate, creative, artistic women. He did say…I can’t remember the quote…but he was very inspired by the women in his life, but they really took care of him and inspired him as an artist.

GF: What’s really fascinating is that you’re telling me about your character dying and being reborn…I’m been in the performance space for about four hours total and I haven’t seen that part.

HR: This is the amazing thing! Because there are thirty-four plus rooms, you would need to come thirty-four plus times to see everything.

GF: You really would.

HR: That’s the joy of the space…it’s a huge big candy store of experience and moments that you catch or don’t catch. So you’ll have to come again.

GF: I’d like to!

HR: But that’s what we wanted it to be for the audience. Every corner you turn you discover something new. That’s what we wanted it to be. That’s why there’s so much detail put into the show, the actors working very hard to create these multi-layered characters. You might meet the characters in one room, but when you meet them later they are in a completely different scenario, doing something different that is interesting and shocking.

GF: That’s one of the really surprising parts, because on my first visit I was quite intimidated by the King, who seemed to be hounding me, and then on my second visit I had a much more positive interaction with the character where I returned to him his crown and got to roll with it (the performance), it’s a fascinating piece from an audience perspective because you can go twice and have a different experience.

HR: Yeah, you can! In Sydney we had people who came five or six times, they would keep coming back every weekend and they knew they were going to get something different every single time. With your experience, having a different experience with the same character, is something we want people to have. The character’s in Poe’s stories are multi-faceted. They’re not stereotypes, they’re not archetypes, they are flawed – like humans. Poe works a lot with psychological introspection and that’s why a lot of people really enjoy his work because they can relate.

GF: Especially from a modern perspective as a lot of the disorders he describes now have names and diagnoses to go with them. Back to the show though, there’s always an unpredictability that goes with audience interaction. Have you had anything strange or unusual happen when interacting with people?

HR: Um, yes? Let me count the ways…

The one that definately comes to mind is…well, the Nurse spends a lot of time in the hospital area, and people are encourage to play and explore…I remember coming into the hospital area and someone has already put themselves to bed, tucked themselves in, so the Nurse walked over and began an entire scene around this person in the bed. That’s the other thing as an actress, we need to be alert and aware of the little gifts the audience give us as well…

GF: Was this last week?

HR: No, this happened in Sydney, the one I’m talking about, but it has happened again since we were in Perth.o It’s lovely, the audience can really inspire us into something interactive involving the audience members, so this person definitely got an interactive experience. They tucked themselves into bed and the Nurse comes up with the medication and off with a monologue we go. Then what we find is that when something is happening and when we work people do flock to us. It’s not our responsibility to run around and find the audience, they find us. And that’s fairer to the audience because they can choose to engage or choose to disengage.

GF: Last week I was taking a rest and you fluffed up my pillow and later came back and covered me up with a sheet.

HR: Oh, was that you? Yes! There you go!

GF: My friend hadn’t been before and wanted to go off on her own, so I said I’d wait here. Then you came back…

HR: That’s fantastic! I’m just doing my job…

GF: It was a lot of fun! It is a really unique play, and a lot of people are saying they wish they’d seen it, want to go see it. How do you give people the push to get out the door and come see it?

HR: Gosh, well, the push is that we close on Sunday. That might light a fire underneath them. Look, to be blunt, you’re not going to see anything else like this in Australia. You’re not. There’s an interactive theatre show in New York called ‘Sleep No More’, which is taking New York by storm. People were flocking to that, they said it was amazing and there was nothing like that in Australia. While this is not ‘Sleep No More’, it follows a formula of interactive theatre that Australia hasn’t seen before. It means that people who love theatre can come and experience theatre. People who hate theatre, who don’t want to go to the theatre and sit there and behave can come to this show and explore and interact. This show is for everyone, it really is.

GF: And you can crawl through secret tunnels and get chased by a Jester!

HR: Yes you can, absolutely!

GF: We’re going to continue to promote the show because we promote things that we love and I have been obsessed with it since I first saw it. It really is a unique experience.

HR: That’s awesome.

GF: And you scared the crap out of me last week.

HR: (Laughs) Well, just doing my job!

GF: Doing it well!

Poe and Virginia, sharing a quiet moment.

HR: That’s awesome, and that’s the thing with the characters. I believe the director, Danielle Harvey, has tried to create or engage with as many of Poe’s character’s as she can within the world. You do meet the gentle and the flawed, then you do meet the sadistic and the mad and the guilty. It’s not one big happy Poe story, it is real Poe. Poe’s work is so so eclectic. He was even considered a romantic because he wrote during the Romantic Period, and a lot of his poems and short stories do fall into romance. Many people wouldn’t know that because they think of Poe as the weird drunk who married his cousin, and that is a gross misunderstanding of the man Edgar Allan Poe was. He was a gentlemen, he was very hard working, he was actually the first American writer who tried to make a living out of writing. He’s the poster boy for the struggling artist. I wish he could come back and see how loved he is.

GF: A wonder how he’d experience ‘A Midnight Visit’, especially if he came face to face with himself!

HR: Absolutely, I have thought about this too, and people have actually asked me what I think Poe would think about having his face on a tee-shirt, and talking about him and doing shows about him…

Well, A: he would love it. He had performers blood in him, both his mother and father were actors. He would tour America, performing his poetry at small gatherings and lectures. He definitely did want praised. However, I do think he would kick up a stink with people taking his work and flipping it, or changing it, or creating things around it, just in terms of it being HIS work. I think he was a very proud man, and he might stomp his foot and say “no, that isn’t my work…this is my work!” But he can’t do that, so we’ll do what we want!

GF: He might be a bit taken aback by the song choices in finale

HR: (Laughs) That’s true! However, it’s all one big party so I’m sure he’d at at least appreciate us. It’s all for you, Edgar, it’s all for you!

GF: It’s a tremendous show, and people can still book tickets for the website, and they can check out the Edgar Allan Poe Association on Facebook…

HR: Edgar Allan Poe Australia, on Facebook and Instagram.

GF: I’ll be checking it out, I love his work. Especially now, after ‘A Midnight Visit’, I’m all energised to revisit it.

HR: We’d love people to come back and see us again before we go. The beautiful thing about this show is that we’ve been running for about six weeks, we’ve had a ball with the audience members who have come through, so please come and see us, come and have a play before we close our chamber door.

GF: And have a nap in the asylum and you might get a more interaction.

HR: Absolutely.

GF: I tried in the interrogation room, but no-one came in.

HR: You’ll have to try again.

GF: I will, I will. Thanks very much Hannah, for taking the time to talk to us. It’s quite a contrast to our last interaction with you.

HR: Haha, yes…I’m not as mean as I appear to be.

GF: No, I think you actually declared me ‘forgotten’ and just left the room.

HR: Amazing.

GF: I stayed there for a while and my friend came and kicked me out of the bed.

HR: She’s doing my job for me, I ought to employ her.

GF: I think the Raven looked a bit put out that I’d taken the bed he normally uses for the Black Cat.

HR: (Laughs) That’s the thing, we have to navigate around you guys. The audience really is the thirteenth performer, all of you. You’re the heart of our world, so Raven will have to deal with that and use another bed.

GF: They did very well. I loved the whole cast, I thought they were phenomenal, how well you all kept character for that duration and in those circumstances is remarkable.

HR: Thank you, thank you for saying.

GF: Thank you for the show, and the interview, and we’ll let you go!

HR: Thanks so much!