For the last decade, the Arizona Curriculum Theater has presented Edgar Allan Poe’s work in a unique format, from the perspective of his characters housed inside a 19th-century insane asylum.
This year, Poefest, the organization’s largest fundraiser and celebration of Poe, will commemorate its 10th anniversary with performances at the Hotel San Carlos, Don Bluth Front Row Theatre and Rosson House until the end of October. The actors will also be doing readings at local schools throughout the month of October. Along with performances, the theater company will hold séances on October 20 and 27 at the Hotel San Carlos, and audiences can see dramatic readings of the famous poem The Raven every 20 minutes on Halloween night, October 31, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the historic Rosson House.
Poefest, which was ranked “Best Halloween Tradition” in 2017 by Phoenix New Times, has a simple premise. It doesn’t rely on a grandiose set, costumes, or makeup. The sets consist of a single chair, and the actors wear simple white costumes.
“It’s just a chair, and it’s just the actors, Poe’s words, and the audiences," says founder James Porter. "What more do you need?”
From the start, method acting has allowed the actors to bring Poe’s stories to life.
“We try to bring a lot of truth to the characters that we’re performing. As a result, it brings a level of reality to those characters that the adult audiences rarely get to see from Edgar Allan Poe,” Porter says.
The experience can be intense for audiences as well as the actors. Rookie performers have been known to back out on occasion.
“People get creeped out because they’re spending an hour or a little more than an hour with some truly deranged individuals who did some depraved things,” Porter says.
Although many of the actors perform the same pieces for multiple years, the stories allow for new interpretations each time.
“It’s just so well-written, and it’s so meaty. There’s so much there to grab hold of as an actor that there’s no problem bringing it back and bringing it to life year after year,” Porter says.
Even after a decade with the company, co-founder Jim “Doc” Coates still finds himself changing up his story, even in small ways, each year. In The Cask of Amontillado, his character, Montresor, lures his adversary Fortunato into a wine cellar and buries him alive, and the actors often draws from different versions of the story for his interpretations.
“Staying creative and staying fresh with it is exactly what I need in order to keep from going insane while I try to crawl into Poe’s basement and wall up Fortunato once again because for some odd reason, he has offended me,” Coates says.
Porter, a classically trained actor, came up with the idea for his theater company and Poefest while doing educational outreach for the Southwest Shakespeare Company. A desire to bring more educational programming to Arizona schools propelled him to start his own company. His lifelong fascination with Edgar Allan Poe’s work and yearning to perform it inspired him to create Poefest.
“I recognized how vital the arts were in my life in shaping me as the adult I am today," Porter says. "It all starts with that connection with a writer, with Edgar Allan Poe, that you keep your whole life. Without that, I don’t know. I’d be pretty lost as a person. It took me down a certain direction as an artist."
Over the last decade, the event has built a steady audience, some of whom have been attending every year. The first night the company opened Poefest, they only had six audience members. By the year's final performance, they had a full house and were turning people away. Since then, it's been able to scale up production values, adding lights and music, and move from their original space at Sol Invictus on Grand Avenue to the Hotel San Carlos during its third season. The hotel, considered one of the most haunted spots in Phoenix, is the site where Leone Jensen jumped to her death following a jilting from her fiancé. During its heyday, the hotel hosted famous guests such as Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Cary Grant.
Poefest's success has allowed Arizona Curriculum Theater to fulfill a greater mission of entertaining, educating and enlightening youth around the state. Porter says through their programs, students develop a greater understanding of works of literature, historical events and figures, and mathematical and scientific concepts.
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Arizona Curriculum Theater offers re-enactments of historical events, workshops on William Shakespeare, dramatic readings of classic literature and children’s books, and workshops that teach fractions through music notation and scientific principles through movement. In the past, the company has traveled throughout Arizona with a multimedia presentation dedicated to The Grapes of Wrath, done re-enactments of the Salem Witch Trials and taught audiences about seasonal traditions around the world through its musical show Yuletide.
“When you get an actor up there, and he’s putting truth into those words, you don’t have to necessarily understand them all," Porter says . "You don’t need a dictionary. You get it. I think the students really like that they are able to connect with schoolwork.”
Poefest. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, October 5 to 27 at Hotel San Carlos Ghost Lounge, 202 North Central Avenue; 7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, October 29 and 30, at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, 8670 East Shea Boulevard, Suite 103; Every 20 minutes from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. October 31 at Rosson House, 113 North Sixth Street; poefest.org. Tickets are $22 to $27 for Hotel San Carlos performances, $25 for Don Bluth Front Row Theatre shows, and $14 for Rosson House performances, and are available at poefest.org.