Cthulhu Calling: An Interview with Actor Michael Sabbaton

Web Cthulhu Francis

By Keri O’Shea

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to catch a theatre performance which made a sizable impression on me; this was an adaptation of a lesser-known H P Lovecraft story, ‘The Temple’, and the writer & performer behind this one-man show was Michael Sabbaton. I reviewed the show at the time and since then, I’ve become a big fan of Michael’s other work; his ambitious, atmospheric and pitch-perfect adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories deserve to be seen and enjoyed, so well do they capture the otherworldliness of the source material. I was interested to know more about Michael’s career so far and he’s been kind enough to give us this interview.

BAH: You’ve adapted several Lovecraft short stories so far…my first question is, where did the idea to adapt Lovecraft for the stage come from, and what sorts of challenges are involved with the process?

MS: Weeeel, it’s a bit of a tale to tell really and an unexpected one…
Back in March 2010, I was working for a theatre company for the whole month working with a close knit team devising a handful of short pieces for various projects. During this time, I was also waiting to see if I would be offered a part in a particular play for the long, summer tour that I had auditioned for earlier in the year. As it happened, I wasn’t offered a part in that play but in another one but after a bit of soul searching, I decided to turn this down as I felt it wasn’t really for me. Now, this is a tough decision for a jobbing actor as essentially you are turning down four months of secure work in an already overpopulated profession with not enough work to go around. Four months of company, four months of travel and four months of paying the rent but…I turned it down.

So, what to do was the next thought. Back on the audition trail, I supposed…but then I had another thought. It was one of those moments where you are kind of desperate and don’t think that logically save for having or rather needing to do something that you truly believed in. The thought was that I had always day dreamed about going to Edinburgh and doing a show in the festival. Why not? At this point, I had no knowledge of the logistics, the cost or anything for that matter to do with The Edinburgh Festival but the seed had been sown and a fire lit beneath it. I would at least think about it for a while.

I went into the town to find a bookshop. Originally I thought that I could perhaps do an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story, The Man Who Would Be King, as I had always loved the movie and I remembered reading the book years ago. Well, it turned out that the shop was out of Kipling but as I looked over the shelves, I came across this Lovecraft anthology with, The Call of Cthulhu, prominently on the front cover. At this point I had never read any Lovecraft and the only connection I had to him was a very distant teenage memory of an advert in White Dwarf magazine. The advert was for the Cthulhu based role playing game (never played it btw) and showed picture of an old haunted house (you know, like in Psycho) and all around it were weird tentacle like creatures and men in trilby hats so I got a kind of latent ‘dark Indiana Jones’ vibe from that first book and the instant visual memory that must have lingered in my mind since I was sixteen.

All I knew really was that the material was weird, science-fiction horror based and very VERY dark. It all sounded like it was up my street so I thought, why not? A one man play based on the classic, The Call of Cthulhu, to take to Edinburgh later that year. I won’t bore you with any more detail save that it all went ahead and did pretty well and since then I’ve never really wanted to do anything else.

In terms of challenges, there are many and thy are on-going. As far as the material and actual work are concerned, my main emphasis is to stay true to Lovecraft’s vision and depth of scope both artistically and philosophically. This is difficult in terms of marketing work such as this as well as trying to keep it ‘authentic’ and ‘real’. The material is obscure enough so it is tricky to try and convince commercial venues sometimes of its worth but I am determined that the work do justice to itself and its audience so we shall just have to hope that I can recruit a ‘Sabbaton Army’ (of the dead!) to support it all. Time will tell…

The other important thing to mention here is that all of these plays (wot I wrote) are definitely adaptations – that is to say, not just a literal throwing of Lovecraft’s original text onto the stage and hoping for the best. Theatre just doesn’t work like that because it’s not literature in the same way that a novel is not a play to be performed. They are two very different mediums and must be respected as such. What I try to do is create and maintain a concentrated and intense, character driven world where Lovecraft’s original ideas are re-worked, expanded and elaborated on. As an actor this is absolutely important to me – it ain’t storytelling!

Other challenges basically revolve around logistics issues and admin – making sure everything is done when it need to be done and to standard (I’m a terrible perfectionist!). I have always believed in a ‘total theatre’ attitude and an holistic practice so I really enjoy designing the whole show from costume, props and scenography to writing, music and sound design. Saying that, I’d love someone to come and save me from marketing and tour booking – trouble is, I’m always skint!

BAH: How have you so far selected the stories you have performed, and how difficult a task is this?

MS: ‘Ya know, it’s kinda difficult to remember to be honest as I tend to mash loads of ideas around at once but from out of the general maelstrom, one of Lovecraft’s stories emerges. Cthulhu was an easy choice because firstly, it was the only one I knew of at the time and secondly, I knew it was very well known so I hoped people would come. With The Temple, that came from just a random conversation with someone I met at a party who was a real Lovecraft fan with lots of story knowledge. I had said that I had this kind of submarine fixation and that I would love to do a ‘horror’ show based around that and he recommended The Temple. After I read it, I thought it was a perfect foundation for a dark, claustrophobic piece of madness…I started to think about a kind of Alien under the sea. The Statement of Randolph Carter started life as a montage of different stories but after a while The Statement started to dominate so it seemed obvious to change tack. I’m glad I did as I was really pleased with it, flipping the story ad telling it from Harley Warren’s perspective. Also it has the mad Arab, Abdul Al Hazrad introducing it so that was fun to do. I hope we can hear more from AAH in the future!

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BAH: You are about to embark on the preparation of a show based on ‘Polaris’, one of HPL’s rather lesser-known tales and one of his earlier works. What attracted you to it?

MS: This new show, POLARIS, has been even more challenging so far and I feel this show will be a real stretch of what I and the story can do. It’s very short but when you start to unwrap it and follow certain references etc you start to uncover a giant rabbit hole that has taken my research to Earth circa one billion years BCE and up, into the stars. It’s the first in Lovecraft’s ‘Dream-Cycle’ works but is different to the others as it actually goes into the main character’s ancient past as opposed to directly travelling to the dream lands. Saying that, reality is certainly challenged and there are several connections with that and the mythos in general so I expect to form lots of connections. There’s much more work to do yet before I start to properly write it but I hope it will be quite an epic play. What attracts me to it is its scope for unwrapping one’s perception of reality, sense of self and place in ‘it all’. Everything can be questioned including our own sanity so it is quite a philosophical piece, I think. There are other aspects to it but these are the areas that interest me most.

BAH: In your opinion, why and how do solo performances such as yours so well suit the kinds of horror Lovecraft created?

MS: I think it’s the intensity and concentration of these ideas that allows Lovecraft’s world to come alive on stage. Lovecraft’s work is the horror of the mind and where that takes us – our larger, philosophical as well as psychological fears come true. It would be futile and silly to try to literally show those fears…they belong in the mind – the best special effects designer in the business!

I’m not a ‘story-teller’, I’m an actor and for me that means living through well designed and thought out characters in the moment of whatever they are experiencing and thinking. I don’t want to tell the audience a tale of what has ‘already happened’, I want them with the character RIGHT NOW. I want them feeling the weight of Francis Thurston’s terror and isolation, I want them trapped with Altberg’s madness in his sunken and stinking submarine and I want them with Harley Warren as he steps down into the rotting tomb. It’s not because I want the audience on a kind of cheap, theatrical ghost train ride – nothing could be further from the truth. I want them to think with and feel with the characters as things happen so they can live that Lovecraftian world and feel that level of cerebral fear. I like to create an intense world where these characters can really live through their predicaments. It is a strain though, I can tell you. To quote Hugh Jackman’s character in the movie, The Prestige, I don’t know if by the end of the performance, “I’m going to be the man in the box or the prestige…”!

BAH: If you had no constraints of time, costs or the other factors which impact upon a show, are there any particular tales – Lovecraft’s or otherwise – that you would especially like to adapt in future?

MS: Lots…I’d like to do a great space opera! I have been thinking about this for a while now but haven’t quite got there yet so will stay on it. One way or another, I’ll get there. That’s the thing with me – I’m a bit obsessive really. I really want to do The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I have several ideas for this but the thing I want to do would costs loads so not sure if that will happen but you never know. Also, quite fancy doing a whole epic show telling Johansen’s story from The Call of Cthulhu. In my Cthulhu show, I never physically told his tale although Johansen’s presence is in every scene really. Still, I’d like to get a whole ensemble together to do the ‘terror from the seas’ – Johansen’s discovery of R’lyeh, Cthulhu rising (not sure how I’d do this yet!) and the fate of the crew. I’d still like to do, The Man Who Would be King still too. Well, you never know…

Oh, and Sinbad – I used to love those movies!

BAH: Lovecraft notoriously disliked the cinema…nonetheless, I’m interested to find out whether you have watched and enjoyed any adaptations of HPL’s work. Are there any film or TV versions of his tales which you enjoy?

MS: I didn’t know that! Still, I’ve always said that I’m really no Lovecraft expert – only through the work I’ve done. Mmmmm….let’s see. It’s a bit cloudy really. I might have seen a bit of Sam Neill in, Re Animator (I think), and Dagon. Both not my cup of tea, I’m afraid…just came out as straight horror movies to me. Enjoyable in their own right but not Lovecraftian at all, I’d say…not dark enough!

BAH: You have spent some time working in recent months on a ‘Mechanical Turk’ concept, which I understand has been put to one side for the moment. What can you tell us about this project, and do you still intend to resurrect it?

MS: Yes. Yessssss…Ah, The Turk. Her has been with me as an idea in one form or another for quite a few years now. I’m fascinated by his real life story – an 18th Century human-sized automaton that actually played chess. It’s a story full of mystery and intrigue and raises issues of machine intelligence et al – so Ex Machina in wood, cogs and brass…

Thing is…in the last round of research I did on the project, I found myself more interested in the last, Barnum-like owner of The Turk. His name was Johann Maezel and I really have a sad empathy towards him…showman to showman. So, it looks like this is where the story is taking me but I don’t think I can call it, The Turk, as the focus has now changed somewhat. So, any suggestions – answers on a postcard please! Anyway, I really want to do this show but not sure when the true ‘face of The Turk’ will reveal itself yet. Mmmmm…

BAH: Do you have any ambitions to work in film?

MS: I would love to. Nobody ever asks!
(would also like to make film too…)

BAH: When you are on stage – how aware are you of the audience in front of you? Does this impact upon your performance at all?

MS: I’m aware of them but they kind of become part of me. We are all the character. We are the collective consciousness. If I’m doing my job right, there should be no real distinction at all in terms of perception. Very Zen!

BAH: What, for you, has been the high point of your acting career so far, and what else do you want to achieve?

MS: Tricky one but I think that the high point was doing that first solo show in Edinburgh. Just so empowering creating and producing something yourself. Ironically, it’s all I ever wanted to do really. In terms of achieving more…basically I’d just like to continue making new work on my terms. The only thing is that it is hard to get established and keep going – it’s not necessarily a money issue (although that does come into it) but getting venues to take the work. The only thing is to keep on keeping on and not to wallow. I’d love to do some film and TV work but I’m not sure if that will happen as my career has taken this independent turn – which has its pros and cons like everything else. Still, you never know what’s around the corner…

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BAH: And finally…tell us what we can do to help bring your performances to a theatre near us…

MS: I guess just spread the word. I’m an independent artist so word of mouth is the power behind getting it out there. Apart from following, liking, subscribing, commenting, tweeting, re-tweeting, linking, sharing et al (I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube), anything to keep the social media flowing as I am rubbish at it, maybe you could write to your local venue with my details. It all helps. And…if anyone could offer me a floor for the night anywhere whilst I’m on da road that would be ace as accommodation is sooo expensive. Oh, and maybe buy an AUDIO VERSION of the shows or a signed poster from my site…Oh, I’m such a tart!

BAH: Thank-you very much for taking the time to talk to us, Michael!

MS: It’s been my absolute pleasure, Keri. Thank you!

You can support Michael by visiting his official webpage, his Facebook page and of course Twitter. Spread the word!