“Depicting Lovecraft”, by Leeman Kessler (the “Ask Lovecraft” guy)

This post is by Leeman Kessler, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.

I didn’t set out to portray Lovecraft but when the opportunity presented itself, I was not about to turn it down. In the Spring of 2010, a friend and playwright, Stephen Near asked me if I would be interesting in performing in a short piece he had written called Monstrous Invisible which was an exploration of Lovecraft’s brief marriage with Sonia Greene. In the summer of 2011, he brought me in for a larger remount of the piece. Both times prompted me to start reading Lovecraft more fully and trying to get a notion for just how to portray this rather enigmatic figure but fortunately for me, Stephen had done the heavy lifting and his words really allowed me to find the character on the page.

By focusing on his relationship with Sonia, Stephen helped me to avoid what I think is one of the greatest pitfalls in trying to portray Lovecraft and that is to think of him as some sort of paranoid troll who sees demons and aliens in every shadow and shuns all human interaction. To be sure, the play did not shy away from some of Lovecraft’s idiosyncracies and had its fun with the Old Gentleman with such lines as, “You’re the first woman I’ve ever kissed… other than my mother… and aunts,” or “You’re not a jew, you’re a Lovecraft!” However, to make the play work and to be true to the story, Lovecraft had to be likeable and indeed, loveable and so we explored his passions and his insecurities.

The other side of his personality which had to be highlighted was the tension between two powerful forces that drove him, namely his scientific curiosity and his antiquarian sentiment. He was a romantic looking to the beauty of the past and a scientist, determined to refine his knowledge of the objective universe. Neither of these really lend themselves to some mad mystic trying to warn the world of some coming squamous Armageddon. Lovecraft may have had nihilistic tendencies but he was far from delusional and it was important that I not give the impression of that. He knew his stories were fictions and dreams and so to pretend otherwise would be dishonest. The whole experience really allowed me to discover a remarkable figure who would continue to pop up in my life.

Jump to last Summer and my friend Derek the Bard asked if I might be willing to play Lovecraft again, this time for his series of film and book reviews he titled “The Summer of Lovecraft.” This depiction of him drew more on Lovecraft’s literary notions and theories I would come to discover more upon reading his non-fiction works and letters and it gave me a somewhat broader, less narrative role with which to play. I was able to have a bit of fun with the character and explore Lovecraft’s reaction to the modern world. The whole thing inspired me to begin my own project which would become Ask Lovecraft.

Ask Lovecraft was born out of a moment of whimsy and a desire to make use of a new camera. After a few weeks of experimenting, I quickly discovered every single pitfall mentioned above and had to navigate my way through trying to come up with a consistent, entertaining, and honest depiction of Lovecraft. My greatest resource was a library with a remarkable science fiction reference section which had many of the letters of Lovecraft edited and published by ST Joshi and other tireless scholars. These proved invaluable in finding Lovecraft’s voice. In them you can hear a somewhat distanced but still charismatic, humourous individual who had keen loves and passions and was capable of deep friendship. There was cordiality, even in disagreement but at the same time, a sharp wit ready to slice when needed. My program is largely improvised and so I’ve had to focus on taking that voice and finding the elasticity within it so that I am able to answer very different questions in various, entertaining ways while keeping as close to the source as I can.

The final product is a homunculus more than a carbon copy. My Lovecraft has had to come to terms with some of the cultural changes of the 21st century and so some of his more… disagreeable opinions and notions have been watered down so that my program appeals to more than just White Power enthusiasts. However, what I hope comes across is that curiosity and that desire to find beauty and strangeness in the world which made up so much of Lovecraft’s writing. It has been a rather remarkable journey for me and as I read and learn more, I hope the performance gains more nuance and vibrancy. Since starting it, I’ve had the opportunity to perform Ask Lovecraft live which presents its own challenges and, depending on the crowd, allows me to cut loose a little. To date, my greatest challenge was being interviewed in character for the Lovecraft eZine by Mike Davis, Joe Pulver, and Wilum H. Pugmire for over thirty minutes straight. Not the crowd one would ever wish to fumble before.

For anyone else interested in putting on the suit and tie and jutting out your chin, I cannot recommend enough seeking out Lovecraft’s letters and barring that, reading any of his non-fiction or even some poetry to just find that rhythm and cadence and to help reinforce one’s vocabulary which, if you are an ignorant actor like myself, can only help. Lovecraft’s personality and his character are a fascinating study and his life makes an arguably more compelling narrative than many of his own stories and is worth telling from multiple angles and in a variety of styles. My hope is to entertain and at the same time, do the man a bit of honour in my depiction.

Oh, and to knock Jeffrey Combs off his pedestal and take his place as the premiere Lovecraftian actor but that’s more of a long term plan.

This post is by Leeman Kessler, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.

7 responses to ““Depicting Lovecraft”, by Leeman Kessler (the “Ask Lovecraft” guy)

  1. Leave Jeffrey Combs alone! Just kidding–there’s room for both of you in in my centuried, blasted heath of a heart. Thanks for all the ‘Ask Lovecraft’ videos, I thoroughly enjoy them.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this behind-the-scenes peek at your stagecraft! Your portrayal of HPL is precisely what you’ve set out to achieve — a lively mix of erudition, creativity, and a little bit of mischief. Bravo!

  3. A wonderful and insightful exploration of stagecraft (thanks Bamboo) and artsmanship. I’ll be looking into this presentation as a result — great job. It’s not often you get to see the scoop on how an actor works and this was well written. Oddly enough, I once wrote a short one act/one man play (never produced) about Al Jolson for a Jolson impersonator and many of the elements brought up here (such as the coming to terms of cultural changes) resonated with me. Well done.

  4. I just hope that you continue doing this–channelling your Lovecraftian homunculus–and, again, I want to thank you for answering the question of whether or not Lovecraft found his own “Silver Key.”

  5. Keep up the good work Leeman. Ask Lovecraft is one of the brightest things being done in the Lovecraft Universe at present, plus it add humor to what is sometimes an otherwise dark subject matter.

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