Nightmares await as spine-tingling storyteller returns

Nightmares Three Ghost Stories performer Adam in a suit, his image is mirrored but his reflected face is that of a monster

Are you sitting comfortably? You won’t be for long. Spine-tingling storyteller supreme Adam Z Robinson returns on 29 October for Nightmares – Three Ghost Stories. We lured him out the shadows for a bit to cast a little light on what audiences can expect. 

For those not familiar with your company The Book of Darkness and Light, can you tell me more about yourselves?

We make unsettling, thrilling, chilling theatre. Since 2015 we’ve been making both original and classic ghost story shows and we’ve toured nationally with seven productions since we started, the latest of which is Nightmares – which we can’t wait to share.

Where did the inspiration for this show come from?

I love the challenge of taking these incredible classic tales and transforming them for the stage. Last year we toured Haunted. We brought it to The Garage, and it was one of my absolute favourite audiences on the tour.

I loved celebrating and sharing some of my favourite ghost stories with people up and down the country. Because audiences seemed to love that show, I wanted to do another set of tales this year. I think the stories in Nightmares are even scarier!

How do you choose the stories you’ll tell and why did these three stand out for you?

I love classic ghost stories – I’ve enjoyed hundreds over the years. These are three of my absolute favourites. They’re all so chilling, even when read on the page. So I’m unbelievably excited to perform them on stage, live.

The Kit-Bag by Algernon Blackwood is one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read – I mean that. It’s simple, yet so effective. It’s about being isolated with your own increasing sense of fear, being pursued by your most frightening thoughts. Is there a scarier idea than that? There’s this horrifying murder trial at the centre of it, too. It’s just thrilling.

John Charrington’s Wedding is a beautiful, sad and, frankly, really disturbing story. E Nesbit was famous for writing The Railway Children, so people might be surprised to know she wrote some of the very best ghost stories in existence. This is my favourite of hers. It’s also really funny in places – really dry humour.

The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker is an intense spinechiller. Written before Dracula, it has all the hallmarks of Stoker’s brilliance at creating Gothic tension and a monstrous villain. The sense of dread grows and grows as this student discovers that the peculiar rumours about the house he’s occupying may well be true.

All three are so visual. They each lend themselves so well to being brought to life as a live storytelling experience. It’s a delight to be able to share them in Nightmares.

How have these shows gone down with audiences?

We have some incredible reactions. People screaming, jumping, laughing, even tearing up and having a little cry, depending on the tale. Theatre is a live space – we want these human reactions. It means (I hope) that we’re doing our jobs well when we get them.

We did once do a show in an abandoned house and someone on the back row fainted. It was at this particularly tense moment, too. The person was helped right away by the team at the venue, and they recovered almost immediately.

As soon as I knew they were absolutely okay, I did feel a tiny bit pleased that we’d been so spooky as to cause that reaction. I found it was because they’d given blood a few hours before. Nothing to do with the show at all. But the effect on the audience was the same. Somehow, the play seemed scarier to everyone after that had happened.

In Haunted last year, there was this very dramatic jump at the start – and every single time, we had someone scream, and then usually laugh at themselves right afterwards. It’s just perfect – again.

I want audiences to feel like I’m telling the story to them, and them alone. We get this feedback a lot – that our shows feel intimate. I want it to feel like my character, The Storyteller, is almost confessing something to each person present.

Scares and jumps? Absolutely. But the investment in the story is also incredibly important. I’m so proud when audiences tell us they were unsettled, spooked, unnerved, riveted, spellbound.

Of course, I want you to feel engrossed. We work with a combination of storytelling and limited props and limited set and immersive sound.

If you feel you can see, hear, smell, taste, touch the bleak Bloomsbury flat in The Kit-Bag, the church yard in John Charrington’s Wedding, the cursed old cottage in The Judge’s House. If it feels like you’re there with me and the characters, that’s mission accomplished.

Why do you think human beings love being scared?

I’m always asking myself this question. I think there’s a genuine excitement in seeing something thrilling play out in front of you while knowing that you’re safe. There’s a rush of adrenaline, the hairs go up on the back of your neck. But you’re inside a cosy theatre auditorium with your friends and family. It gets your heart racing. It makes you feel alive.

The ghost stories in Nightmares are beautifully written and are charming and witty and just really great tales, even aside from the scary bits – and there are plenty. So, there’s this cosy pleasure in it, what ghost story writer MR James might have called “a pleasing terror”.

We always ask for feedback from our audiences and I’m thrilled when people tell me they were terrified by the shows. They often tell me this with a huge grin on their face, “I was scared, but I loved it”.

I’m delighted, too, when people say they were moved by the stories or that they made them laugh. We’re trying, in theatre, to make the audience feel something, to experience something. And I think ghost stories are especially good at delivering on that.

How do you make your shows so intense?

Lots goes on behind the scenes when creating a show like this. Adapting the stories, designing the soundscapes and the lighting and the set, rehearsing and seeing how we might show and tell these brilliant classic tales.

Knowing the script inside out is the start, of course. The aim, for me, is to know the story so well that it feels like it’s in my bones, like it’s my story and I’m telling it for the first time.

I have to get myself into the mindset of each of the characters, to put myself into the terrifying situations, to imagine what it might be like to be faced with these supernatural horrors. I also want to bring the audience along with me. I want them to feel what I feel as I’m telling the tale.

I have a pretty rigid routine before a show. I take an hour to warm up my voice and body, to get myself into a calm and focused place. Then I allow myself to build the energy back up a few minutes before I step onto the stage.

Our incredible stage manager Charlotte spends hours on the day of each show getting the lighting, sound, set and props ready. So, by the time we begin, we both feel absolutely calm and safe and ready to do the best show we’ve ever done.

Also, before (and during) tours, I watch lots of TV shows and movies and really pay attention to the performances. I didn’t go to drama school, my training has been, and continues to be, doing these shows live. I’m always learning and trying new ideas and approaches. That makes each performance a little different which, I hope, keeps the performances fresh and energised.

According to a 2023 study, seven in 10 people believed in ghosts. Four in 10 have been unnerved by witnessing something paranormal. One in five people believed their house is haunted. Do you believe in ghosts, or have you had an eerie encounter? 

Wow! That’s incredible. You know, I’ve never seen a ghost. I’d love to. I remember as a kid my parents and grandparents all had ghost stories from their own lives that terrified me. I suppose that was the start of my interest.

I’m a bit of a sceptic. But, at the same time, I believe people when they tell me they’ve seen a ghost or had a weird experience.  The brilliant Danny Robins has this expression, “do ghosts exist? If not, why do we see them?” which, more or less, sums up how I feel.

Actually, that measure of scepticism makes the phenomenon all the more interesting and fascinating to me. I’m left with the question, ‘what was it, if not a ghost?’

Nightmares – Three Ghost Stories descends on The Garage on 29 October. Suitable for ages 14+ it starts at 7.30pm and runs for two hours. Tickets are on sale now.

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