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Dothan native brings nightmares to life with theater company – Miami Herald

Posted in Tattoo Nightmares on Aug 23, 2017

Running off to the big city to chase a dream is an age-old story. Occasionally those dreams are unsettling, because storybook plots can have dark shadowy corners where frightening things take raspy breaths.

That’s where Brian Williams seeks the sort of jolt that has thrilled him since his childhood models of witches and vampires menaced him from atop his bedroom dresser after lights-out.

Williams, a Dothan native, will see his nightmares come to fruition in October, when his nascent theater company, Dark House Theater, opens its first season in New York City.

The venue for the inaugural Dark House Theater show could not be more appropriate. Amble along St. Marks Place in the East Village and you might not notice that you’re right in front of the twin five-story tenements at Nos. 98 and 96 that graphic designer Peter Corriston used on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s iconic 1975 release “Physical Graffiti.” But you won’t miss Big Steve’s World Famous Cappuccino and Tattoo – “Manhattan’s Oldest” – marked by its devil-red faade situated at No. 94. Just below street level is the entrance to UNDER St. Marks, a subterranean 45-seat cave beneath the bustle of the city – an intimate setting for an evening of fright.

“I think horror works well if it’s in your face,” Williams said. “I hope we can always be in some tiny theater space where you can see every facial expression and drop of sweat. It makes it so much more intense.”

The season opens in October with “East in Red,” a contemporary take on a Jack the Ripper story written by playwright Ryan Sprague as a commission for another theater company. He began by moving the killings from Victorian London to New York City in the 1990s. “It was a fresh take on one of the biggest unsolved cases in history, and I absolutely loved the outcome,” Sprague said. “Since the first production of ‘East in Red,’ it has received several other readings and workshop productions. This production with Dark House Theater will be its first production by an independent theater company, and I couldn’t be more honored.”

Sprague heard about the inception of Dark House through friends who had worked with Williams on other projects. “I jumped on the opportunity to share this script with him. I can’t wait to see what he and Dark House Theater come up with to bring this script to bloody life!”

Working in a dark genre of theater genre isn’t simply happenstance; it’s a confluence of two of Williams’ longtime interests – the first forged by trips to Dothan’s Village Theater with his cousin Clyde, who would take young Brian to see a Disney movie, the Pink Panther or the Apple Dumpling Gang.

“We’d be sitting there, eating popcorn, and suddenly a preview would come on for ‘Carrie,’ or ‘Food of the Gods’,” Williams said. “To a kid as young as I was, they were both terrifying.”

That led to a fascination with the Wicked Witch of the West and other scary fare. “I loved watching monster movies whenever we had a babysitter, and I found out about Dracula and Frankenstein and, after that, I think I was a vampire for Halloween every year,” Williams said.

As Williams’ interest grew, so did his creativity, leading to a succession of haunted houses created with his neighborhood buddies in the family’s garage on Stanford Road, complete with “severed heads” crafted from Styrofoam wig stands and old stage makeup contributed by his uncle, then-Dothan High School drama teacher Larry Williams.

But it wasn’t until he attended a production of “Dracula” that Williams was truly bitten, and perhaps that can be attributed in part to the actor in the lead role.

“When Wallace College did ‘Dracula’ at the Opera House with Mr. Bencze, my mom took me and a couple of neighborhood friends,” Williams recalled. “There were maybe three of us, getting scared to death watching that play. I’d never seen a scary play before, and I loved it.”

In his late 60s then, Mikls Bencze, who died in 1992, brought an international pedigree that made a turn as Dracula a natural progression. His timber-rattling bass helped make him an opera star in his native Hungary in the 1940s and ’50s before he and his wife emigrated to America when Soviet troops marched on Budapest to crush the Hungarian revolution. After continuing his career with performances at Carnegie Hall and other opera houses, Bencze turned to the academic world as artist in residence at Baylor and Ole Miss, eventually landing at Wallace College.

“We did ‘Dracula’ with Mr. Bencze two times,” recalled Terry Schembera, who taught theater and communications at Wallace College for 37 years. “The first time was in 1977 in the old gym at Wallace and the second time at the Opera House in 1981 or 1982. We thought he would be perfect for Dracula with his deep bass voice and, of course, his Hungarian accent.”

With his combed-back hair and widow’s peak, bushy eyebrows and elastic face, Bencze strongly favored another Hungarian, Bela Lugosi, who is known for his portrayal of Dracula on Broadway and in film. With a bit of makeup and stage lights, the opera star was transformed.

“Mr. Benzce was very frightening in his portrayal of Dracula,” Schembera said.

Williams was not the only young theater patron entranced by Bencze’s portrayal of the undead count.

“They had brought school children to see the play, and Mr. Bencze was so real in that part that children ran from him when they saw him out and about in Dothan,” recalled Janet Hinton, who taught art at Wallace College. “One unruly child ran screaming in the grocery store when Mr. B took out his bridge and scolded the child showing his remaining eye teeth.”

A fan of the stage since he saw “Hello Dolly” as a child, Brian’s theater career almost ended before it began. “A friend and I went to SEACT to audition for Of Mice and Men,” Williams recounted. “I was 15, I was loud and I spoke too fast, and everything was sort of sing-song. I’m sure I was slumping, my hair in my eyes, and never looked up once from the script.

“I didn’t get cast. I sucked, but at the time I thought I was awesome, so I spent a few days sulking in my room, listening to The Cure and being all humiliated,” he said.

A note from an assistant director on the show turned him around. “It said – and I’ll probably never forget this – ‘Please understand that it wasn’t a lack of talent that prevented us from casting you, but the small number of available roles’.”

High school brought a different challenge: because Larry Williams was then the drama teacher at his school, Northview High School, Brian feared he might never get a chance to act. “He was my uncle and everyone knew it, so how would it look if I got a part?”

However, Larry did cast his nephew, and Brian eventually had a role in each production during his high school years. Brian studied theater at Wallace College under Schembera before moving on to Auburn, and then to graduate school at the University of Florida. He developed his own style of directing, and was soon teaching theater at Dothan High School. As peers, he and his Uncle Larry would critique each other’s shows. “We had a great time talking about theater.”

Then he had an opportunity to move to New York. “Some friends needed a roommate, and I just decided to go. I felt really sad about leaving my students at DHS behind, but I knew I would always regret not giving New York City a shot,” he said.

There were no footlights for a while. Williams set out to learn the city and pay the rent, working as a bartender, a waiter, and a manager of what, at the time, was “a very hot restaurant owned by the first winner of ‘Top Chef’.” For a decade, he has taught yoga, and has managed a couple of yoga studios.

And there was the occasional stint as a director, which led to a summer upstate in 2010, helping to shoehorn six shows into eight weeks for a theatre festival.

He and a lighting designer, Scot Gianelli, became friends, hanging out after rehearsals drinking beer and watching horror movies. “We’d talk about how fun it would be to start a little horror theater company,” Williams said.

After the summer season, it was back to the city, where Williams managed two restaurants.

Two years ago, he ran into his friend Scot from the summer theater festival, and they visited over a couple of beers. On a spur-of-the-moment, Williams blurted out a suggestion: “Let’s do what we talked about – let’s try to start a horror theater company.”

They raised some money – not as much as they’d hoped for, but enough to put on a night of one-acts. “They had a campfire vibe to them, and Scot came up with this idea of lighting them from the ground with amber gels so they looked like you were around a campfire,” Williams said.

They staged the show in a townhouse yoga studio and set up a cocktail party space on the downstairs level with food and wine. The turnout surprised them.

“It was sold out,” he said. “Packed. We had to turn people away.”

This spring, they put together another night of “quirky, short, and scary theater.”

“It was after that night in March that I felt like I could make this company work,” Williams said. “We picked a season’s worth of plays, and we’re raising money for it now.”

And at least one specter has come back to haunt Brian Williams – Dark House has just set its spring show, “The Transylvanian Clockworks,” Don Nigro’s adaptation of Dracula written about the time that Bencze’s Count sealed Williams’ professional fate. Bring your stakes and garlic braids.

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Dothan native brings nightmares to life with theater company – Miami Herald

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