Photo by Leigh Webber

If you hear a loud scream coming from Festival Hall, don’t be alarmed. It’s probably just a ghost. 

Or maybe it’s the throngs of theatergoers menaced by a ghost — the titular spirit at the center of The Woman in Black, which opens during Spoleto May 28.

The play, adapted by Stephen Mallatrat from the 1981 novel by Susan Hill, has a long history of inciting such screams. Originally directed by Robin Herford in 1987, The Woman in Black has been scaring British audiences for more than three decades and holds the record of the second-longest running show in London’s West End (the top spot goes to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap). 

The Woman in Black tells the story of young solicitor Arthur Kipps who, while settling the creepy estate home of a recently deceased widow, encounters all the things one hopes not to see in a desolate, darkened manor: windows and doors that swing open or shut on their own, rocking chairs that squeak and creak under the weight of nothingness and, of course, the ghastly woman herself, not too keen on uninvited visitors.

The show is produced stateside by Tim Smith of Pemberley Productions, who has a personal history with The Woman in Black. He saw a production of the play in London when he was 17 and planning to join the Royal Air Force. But Smith’s future was rerouted that night. He left the show knowing he wanted to work in the theater, and he has a theory as to why the show has remained so popular.

“There’s nothing like being scared in the theater,” Smith said.  “And it doesn’t happen very often. There aren’t very many things out there like that.”

Smith also produced the touring production of The Woman in Black, which started its American tour in 2018. It was the first time the original staging was presented in the U.S., and the show was so successful — in cities like Chicago, Seattle, and Cleveland — that Pemberley Productions mounted another version in New York City at the McKittrick Hotel. 

That New York show was a hit as well, delighting audiences and garnering a coveted “Critic’s Pick” from The New York Times, but the run was cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When it opens in Charleston, it will be the first time The Woman in Black has played onstage since March 2020.

“The excitement, from our point of view, is just putting on a play in front of people,” Smith said. “And I think the audience will come on that journey with us as well.”

The play is inherently barebones in some regards. As an adaptation, it’s already set in a theater and therefore requires very little set. And with only two actors (Peter Bradley and Nick Owen star in this production), The Woman in Black was originally conceived so it could easily tour around the U.K. But it does require some very specific lighting — or, lack thereof — for the spookiness to land.

Smith said ensuring a space can become adequately dim is a huge consideration when mounting the show in different cities. The smallest amount of light makes a difference in The Woman in Black — at the Royal George Theater in Chicago, for example, aisle lights had to be covered. And since they were working on The Woman in Black remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions, Smith and his team relied on Spoleto’s director of production, Mike East, to help iron out the details.

“Darkness in the show is very, very important,” Smith said. “Because if it’s not dark in there, it’s not scary. So we had to think about the darkness, and how to control the environment, which Mike has been brilliant at.” 

To set the mood, the play won’t begin until the sun has set — curtain is at 8:30 p.m. That time was originally chosen to accommodate the outdoor venue at the Charleston Visitor’s Center bus shed, where the show was originally booked. But the production team was finding it difficult to controlnoise with foot traffic patterns around downtown; the venue change to Festival Hall should deliver an experience more closely aligned to the play as it was meant to be staged. 

Smith is convinced the Charleston audiences will have as much fun — and frights — as theatergoers have had in the past.

“The beauty of The Woman in Black is that when you’re sitting together, you experience a communal fright, and a communal terror,” he said “That’s how I came to love it.”

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