Cemeteries and mausoleums normally aren’t on the top of anyone’s list as places to go for a good time. But for the past decade, Jonathan Josephson and his theater troupe Unbound Productions has defied expectations by staging some of the most popular events of the Los Angeles-area Halloween season at the Mountain View Mausoleum and its neighboring cemetery in Altadena.
The troupe’s “Wicked Lit” series of audience-interactive one-act plays based on classic horror stories has played to sold-out crowds, drawing over 14,000 patrons to Altadena during the past five years alone. They’ve also bested the local theater scene by winning numerous Ovation Awards and have been picked as the “Best Halloween Event of the Year” by Hollywood Gothique.
While their daring concept has certainly paid off with both critical acclaim and popular success, Josephson recalls that even he was surprised that the owners of Mountain View were open to the concept. With this year’s smash-hit edition, titled “The Chimes and the Corpse,” presently running through Nov. 10, he took a look back to the earliest days of his idea coming to fruition.
“We did our first show at Greystone Manor in Beverly Hills and it was really successful, but we couldn’t go back due to construction there, and a friend from Pasadena Historical Society said Mountain View had been open to public performances in the past,” says Josephson. “These are stories of classical horror, and we admitted that dark things happen in the shows, but dark things happen in Shakespeare too. If we said we’re doing reckless murder stories with jump scares and blood everywhere, that would not be allowed.
“That was a big conversation, and obviously it’s an ongoing conversation,” he continues. “They’ve never asked for script approval, but we do tell them what we’re planning to do. We tell them murders and magic happen in the play but very little blood, that we’re very respectful of the space and don’t allow touching of monuments and crypts. The lights are freestanding, so they don’t touch anything. We’re very respectful of the space and so they’ve trusted us.”
There are some changes in this year’s production, as Wicked Lit is presenting two one-acts rather than the usual three, and is keeping the action indoors in the mausoleum this year as well. Josephson wrote the adaptation of “The Chimes: A Goblin Story” himself, basing it on a novella by Charles Dickens, while “Teig O’Kane and the Corpse” is a world premiere adapted by Kerry Mazmierowicztrimm from a short story by Ernest Rhys.
“The Chimes” tells the story of a conflicted father and the goblins that bring him to the brink of death and back again, while “Corpse” is the 35th play to receive its world premiere from Unbound Productions. Several of these plays have gone on to be produced by schools and theater companies across the country and around the world. including England, Scotland and Cameroon. This year’s production features a museum of props and costumes from past “Wicked Lit” productions in lieu of the brief and comedic pre-show segments of years past, but ticket prices are also lower this year than in the past.
“Mountain View said the show’s great and they love us, but they asked if there was a way to reimagine the show that could be much more contained and lessen the impact of the footprint we use all over their space,” explains Josephson. “They need to do their work running the mausoleum, with frequent guests and services. Every year, some people have mobility issues or say the show is too long, so we saw this as an opportunity to make the show more physically accessible and easy to navigate. But don’t worry. We’re still maintaining artistry, tech capability and everything we’re known for.”
“Chimes” was originally produced at Mountain View in 2010, but Josephson notes that Unbound opted to revisit it due to their having developed plenty of new technical capabilities in the years since then.
“Our tech abilities have grown up and it’s like doing it with fresh eyes now,” says Josephson. “Because that play was designed just to be set in a chapel, it really allows that play to be self-contained. It’s our homage to the literary greats and that kind of storytelling. It’s prime Dickens, an 1840s story about a very poor man in a remote church somewhere in the countryside who’s confronted by magical goblins who take him on a series of journeys to ultimately change his point of view about his daughter, who wants to marry a guy the father doesn’t approve of.
“That contrasts nicely with ‘O’Kane,’ which is a much more obscure story,” he adds. “But we’re creating a magical extension of a mausoleum in the art gallery on the second floor, and it has a folklore kind of feel to it. It’s about a guy making bad decisions with his life and relationships who finds himself magically attached to a corpse, and has to help it find a resting place before he can find peace.”
Unbound Productions presents “Wicked Lit: The Chimes and the Corpse” at 7:30 and 9 p.m. tonight, Oct. 11, through Sunday, Wednesdays through Sundays from Oct. 24 through Nov. 4, and Nov. 8 through 10 at Mountain View Mausoleum & Cemetery, 2300 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena. Tickets start at $30. Visit wickedlit.org or call (323) 332-2065