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September, 2012

My Mind is Disintegrating

I think I must have read my first H.P. Lovecraft story when I was in college. It was in a round-about sort of way. I had read Robert Anton Wilson’s trippy and surreal Illuminatus! trilogy, and found out that it was full of Lovecraft references. So I bought a few anthologies to get the references.

I must have read them, or bits of them. They appear well-worn. I remember some of the stories at the beginning. But the details are gone from my terrible memory.

When I joined the cast of the Black Vault, I used it as an excuse to bone up on my Lovecraft. I decided to read all of his fiction, in chronological order… including his collaborations and ghost-writings.

A big factor in that decision is the excellent H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast at hppodcraft.com, where hosts Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer guide you laughingly through the stories. I’d read one story, and then listen to the next podcast. So in a way I was making the journey with them.

It’s been fun. Sometimes Lovecraft’s earlier stories are a struggle to get through, but it’s super cool to see his distinctive style emerge… to see certain patterns and themes come to fruition, and to watch it all coalesce in master works like The Call of Cthuhlu.

What I didn’t expect, though, was that I would lose my mind.

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The Shadow Out of Austin, Chapter 2 (by Jay Michael)

Roy here. Right now the Hideout’s Saturday Mainstage show is The Black Vault, Improvised Horror in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. As part of the cast’s preparation, we’re writing a collaborative Lovecraftian story. 

In case you missed it, here’s a link to the first chapter.

The second chapter is by Jay Michael, and continues the narrative of Ezra Sandstone.

An Occult Reference (Jay Michael)

It is unfortunate, I see now, that I still had about me my alumni pass, that allowed full and unfettered access to the deepest, dankest corners of the Perry-Castañeda Library at the University of Texas, that bastion of science and learning, brimming with such potential yet brazenly unaware of even the slightest horror that lay beneath its primrose walls. Originally a branch of the Miskatonic University in Maine, it was bought out by the state and transformed into what it is now. But there are certain buildings and underground spaces that still echo the occult knowledge that Miskatonic research had unearthed. One of those spaces was in a dank basement alcove of the PCL, hardly even seeming like the same library. In fact, I had often noted how difficult it was to navigate these subterranean passages, winding one’s way through a maze of tall filing cabinets and shelves overflowing with musty old tomes that never seemed to be arranged in quite the same way upon each visit.

It was a Wednesday evening on the 25th of July, I had made arrangements to forage the bounty of the library with my two fellow classmates. The first, Roy “Danger”, as he liked to style himself, was a foppish fellow with a Cthulhu-like mop of unruly hair, almost tentacle-like in their chaotic display. He was quite interested, almost unreasonably so, in the possible fruits of our upcoming labours. The other, one Jay Michael, was hardly taking the trip seriously at all. For an older fellow, he seemed quite youthful and spry, and prone to not take anything too seriously. In fact, he saw this outing as a lark, a mere way to while away the hours between the end of an unproductive workday and the beginning of an unfortunately late rehearsal. He muttered something about having been compelled to write down a story that had been occupying his brain for a few days, but that has little bearing on the events that were to follow.

We were consolidated into one vehicle, as the available places for resting such upon the noble campus were few, or expensive, or both. I was more than happy to provide transportation, as it allowed me to show off my prized possession, a fully restored 1930’s Studebaker Royale, gleaming black in the bright afternoon sun. We made the trip without difficulty, and soon we were plunging into the depths of the lower floors of the library. As usual, there was some difficulty in finding the exact place I had fixed in my memory, and after many false turns, dead-ends, and reversals that had our merry party completely discombobulated, I espied that to which our goals intended. A small alcove, on ancient shelving, supporting even more ancient and decrepit tomes, down a narrow, musty hall.

Imagine our great surprise to find our director, Marc Majcher, already there. I inquired as to how he found the place without my assistance, but he just grinned and pointed to a pile of huge works, stacked like Cyclopean blocks upon a massive oaken table, already selected and laid out for our perusal. I shuddered at his unseemly genteelness, but was too drawn to the material at hand to give much pause. We each selected a volume, and slowly perused their mysteries.

If only we had known the peril we were in! Heedless of consequences, we sampled and read, the time flowing by without notice. Most of what I saw, in an untitled volume, was unintelligible to me, despite my years of research in ancient languages. I could only verify that it was written in a script unknown to any modern scholars. My fellow castmate, Jay, was content to look at the elaborate etchings scrawled on the vellum pages before him, and amuse himself ironically on their horrific depictions. But one image caught his eye more than the others, and he spent long minutes or hours seemingly transfixed, occasionally mouthing some of the mysterious writings therein. Though, surely only in a phonetic sense, as he was no scholar of ancient texts.

It was with a sudden and unexpected movement that he slammed the tome shut. His hair, previously a salt and pepper grey, had gone stark white in an instant. I glanced at the writing engraved on the binding, I just caught the words “De Vermis Mysteriis” before being distracted by a guttural utterance by my friend.

“We must leave. Now!” It was barely a whisper, but the way he said it made my spine shiver. We made to leave at once, leaving the books upon the table. Oddly, there was no sign of our director, Marc, who had disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as he had arrived. A quick search did not locate him, and Jay’s rantings had become more urgent and frantic, such that we were compelled to leave at once. Adding to the urgency, the lights in our basement den began to extinguish themselves, accompanied by the loud snap of a switch. These, I believed to have been automated due to the closing of the library. If we were not to move quickly, we would soon be plunged into total darkness. The thought terrified me; as having recently been exposed to a hint of what nightmares lurk in that ebon void, I did not want to join them.

We reached the base of the stairs as the last of the lights went out. Jay had become weakened by his ordeal, such that I held him up braced over my shoulder. Somehow we managed to get him up to the next floor, despite his protestations about the stairs. It was an obsession with him, to avoid the stairs at all costs, but it was the only egress from our location available. He was visibly relieved when we made the next elevation without incident, though what horror he thought we might encounter I could not guess. From there, an exit was at hand and we burst out into the open air as if having been underwater.

The air, fresh and cool feeling after the close dankness of that horrid cellar, refreshed and invigorated us. We managed to return to my Studebaker, and I saw some color returning to Jay’s cheeks as we drove off. He was muttering incoherently, but I did catch a few words and phrases. One seemed to me to be a name of some sort – “Esquiloth” or some such, though its origin and meaning were unknown. The other phrases more obvious in their intent, though garbled, I will summarize them here. He insisted that we return to the Hideout immediately. Underneath the stage within the second floor theatre, there had been place a ward of sorts, I believe he mentioned an “Elder Sign” to ward and protect those that would perform. We would be safe there, as long as the sign still existed, unmolested.

I hardly remember the journey there, but the events aftward have seared into my brain, such that I have been compelled against my very will to write them down. Roy ran ahead to the upstairs to verify that our safety would be ensured. Jay was hale enough to walk on his own, though he lagged behind my progress. I had reached the top of the steps, distracted momentarily by a strange sound coming from the theatre. Was that Roy? I would have investigated immediately, but what was happening down the stairs drew my eye like a siren pulls sailors to their watery deaths. My friend Jay was laboring up the stairs as best he could, frantically even. Though he took them two, three at a time, his distance to me never grew shorter. It appeared as if, impossibly, the stairway grew longer with each passing second, with more and more steps appearing betwixt us. The landing, now impossibly far below, wavered and shimmered, as if losing its foothold in reality. Vertigo overcame me, and I clenched with all my strength on the top of the bannister, beads of sweat dripping off my brow. I watched helplessly as the figure below me shrank into the distance, screaming and reaching out to me. The stairs and landing beneath him melted away into an inky blackness, accelerating in its appearance much faster than Jay was able to ascend. In moments, he was floating in the void. The staircase, such as it had originally appeared, now shrank and coiled into a gigantic tentacle, lashing out and wrapping around the limbs of the unfortunate soul below. My vision collapsed as into a tunnel, and with the greatest of efforts I turned my gaze away from the horror below.

Staggering, I fell into the theatre. The last thing I can remember is Marc, pushing one of the stage blocks back into place before coming to my aid. As for Roy, there was no sign of him.

I awoke to find that the rest of the company had arrived for rehearsal. They did not think that anything was amiss, and a quick reconnaissance of the stairwell and neighboring areas shewed that everything was exactly as it always had been. Though, strangely, there was no sign of Roy and Jay, and rehearsal, at least for me, was an uneasy one.

Was it a mere imagining or fantasm on my part? Had I gone to the library alone, and in my overly fanciful imagination produced such imagery, such imagery that overwhelmed me to the point of collapse? Uncertain, I decided not to tell my fellows, but to write these thoughts down in a private journal. If only I had let them know then, if only I had, the doleful tragedy as was yet to come may have been averted.

The Black Vault runs Saturdays at 8PM in September & October. Tickets available here.

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The Creeping Laughter

By: Roy Janik

The rehearsal process leading up to the opening of the Black Vault has been an interesting one.

The Black Vault tells improvised dramatic horror stories in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. Since 90% of all improv is deliberately comedic in nature, that’s kind of an intimidating prospect.

Will the audience get it? Will they like it?

But last week’s debut cemented and proved something that we experienced with shows like The Violet Underbelly, Austin Secrets, and Charles Dickens Unleashed. The audience will find the show hilarious, even if you’re not (especially if you’re not?) trying to be funny. And not in a making fun of your bad acting kind of way. They’ll find reasons to laugh. This happens for several reasons.

Dramatic Tension

When you really commit to a serious scene, you build tension in the audience. Everyone gets quiet. The further you go towards the uncomfortableness or danger, the more tension you create. The audience is still, on the edge of their seat, waiting to see what happens next.

This is scary, because it’s hard to tell if they’re bored or interested. When you’re on the stage you can’t really see the audience at all, so you only have audio cues to go off of. I daydream about sensors being installed in all the seats that measure the amount each audience member is leaning forward in interest. Maybe if we made everyone sit on Wii Fits and… anyway, it’s not practical.

But the thing is, the more that tension builds, the more the audience craves release. That’s where the payoff comes.

The very first thing that happens that is the slightest bit funny will get a HUGE laugh. It’ll burst forward in an explosive wave.

It actually can be a little disconcerting in the moment. You’re up there doing a creepy story of death and horrible mind-destroying forces, and the audience is laughing!


And that’s another big part of the equation. There’s an expectation at an improv show that it’s okay to react and laugh. I love that. I love that the audience doesn’t feel like they have to stifle their responses. They’ve come to have a good time, and they’re loose enough to laugh when they feel the urge.

Winning by Not Trying

Something we teach from the very beginning of level one is that you should never try to be funny. There are some super clever, quick-witted people out there, but I am not one of them. But by reacting realistically, being obvious, listening, and committing to my character and the presented situation, I can still make an audience laugh. The comedy will come out of the situation, out of the truth of the interactions, out of the unintentional mistakes that become gifts, out of the absurdity of existence. The fastest way to kill the comedy is to try to be funny. If you sell out the reality of the scene for a laugh, the scene is over. You’ve broken the universe, and destroyed the trust of the audience.

I guess all of this is to say that while The Black Vault is a non-winking study in improvised horror, it is also hilarious. And that’s awesome.

The Black Vault runs on Saturdays at 8pm in September and October. Tickets are available online.

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The Shadow Out of Austin, A Black Vault Story

Roy here. In preparation for The Black Vault, improvised horror in the style of H.P. Lovecraft, I thought it would be fun to try my own hand at some Lovecraftian writing. 

One of the biggest challenges in the show is to try and recreate the essence of the overly-wrought and  verbose prose of Lovecraft in the midst of an improv show. So we spend a good deal of our time in rehearsals practicing narration. I thought maybe I could get a better feel for it if I tried to actually write some. Plus, it sounded fun.

The resulting ongoing story is a Lovecraft tale about rehearsing for the Black Vault. 

The plan is/was that each member of The Black Vault cast would write a chapter of a story that detailed a fictional account of the rehearsal process.

Here then is the first chapter, penned by yours truly.

The Shadow Out of Austin
Chapter 1: The key to the Mind

That my name is Ezra Sandstone and that I was a cast member of The Black Vault are about the only facts of the sorry affair that I can with any authority assert as being definitely true. If you gentlemen care to keep haranguing me indefinitely about details which my feeble mind refuses to piece together, you may do so, but with the understanding that wishing for something unexplainable to be explained is a fool’s wish, and I have seen enough of fools for this or any other lifetime.

That I enrolled in courses of improvisation at The Hideout Theatre of my own misguided free will and volition I readily admit, though with every time-cursed fibre of my woeful being I wish it were not so. At the time, some seven months ago, I believed that I was entering into a paradisiacal utopia of support, community, and inner awakening. I was incorrect.

There are certain tools and tricks of the mind that are passed down from teacher to student in the oft-misunderstood world of improvisation… secret techniques that serve as skeleton keys to unlock the gates of the soul. Behind these portals lie our fears and nightmares, and perhaps the fears and nightmares of the great and slumbering universal consciousness of mankind. It is taught to ignorant, trusting people like myself that by opening these doors we can free ourselves to be better people, to conquer our fears, and to know our innermost selves.

But some fears should not be conquered. Some nightmares must stay behind locked doors. And sometimes to know our innermost selves is to know true insanity.

Seven months passed as a day while I studied improvisation. While others my age partook in wholesome activities out in the sun-drenched world such as skiing, wrestling, and hiking, I spent my time within dusty, poorly lit “theatres” (though they resembled not so much the grand, majestic stages one naturally calls to mind, but rather musty black boxes of self-delusion and dark shrines to the ego).

As I have already related, in my seventh month of this journey I was cast in a production known mysteriously as the Black Vault. It was to be a completely improvised performance in the style of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, that boorish antiquarian known for being the father of “cosmic horror”, the creator of the Cthulhu mythos, and a notorious racist.

Marc Majcher, our director, had a queer and ominous aura about him. He looked human enough at first glance… until one saw his hands. The first time I gazed upon them, I felt as if I and the entire world were shrinking before their immensity. I could not help but imagine those slabs of animated meat wrapped around my bare throat and choking out my very life. In the darkest hours of sleep that vision haunts me still, despite all the other horrors I have now seen and witnessed.

The first few rehearsals were heady explorations into the darkly delightful world of a reclusive genius. A lonely man, H.P. Lovecraft shrank from the world, and in doing so turned his vision outwards towards the haunting vistas of space, forgotten time, the deep ocean, and the dark, foreboding corners of the Earth.

These were exciting places to live. For live in them we did, using our crafty and wiley improv techniques to call up these lands from the pages of dusty books and bring them to a sort of shuttering life on the stage. The first time I entered these dizzying realms of dream as a waking man, I knew bliss unimaginable. Would that I had known eternal sorrow instead, and kept these dismal fancies of a dreary man properly dead instead.

I remember that in our very first rehearsal we spun a tale of an ancient and withering willow tree, with pale flesh and bare branches. Just under the bark of the tree lived countless multitudes of spiders, endlessly questing and crawling over one another. The spiders soon invaded the thoughts and dreams of our haunted protagonist, until he swore he saw one in the waking world skittering over the face of his recently deceased sister.

We were used to crafting stories from thin air, but this tale had a different cast about it. Even as the spontaneous words spilled from my own lips, I could feel the dry bark of that willow tree, hear the slippery scurrying of the senseless throngs of spiders, and smell the the disquieting and strange odor of decay that accompanies the remains of the dearly departed. Oh how quickly the borders between reality and illusion, dreaming and waking, pretending and precognition break down when we begin to prod at the seams that keep the world compartmentalized.

But perhaps my preamble has grown tiresome. If I delay in my relating the horrors that were to soon come, it is only because I fear to walk that way again, and fear even more so to bring others down that dark path with me.

Gentlemen, let me be brief and say that the first real trouble began with a simple message thread in the Black Vault’s private Facebook group.

I have sworn to myself one thousand times that I would never speak of that field trip or the events that transpired afterward, but I feel now that I must.

Look for more chapters written by other cast members soon. 

The Black Vault runs Saturdays at 8PM in September & October. Tickets available here.

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Important Message from The Hideout Theatre

The text below went out to roughly 2,000 Hideout Theatre customers at 10pm on 9/7/2012. If you did not receive the email, it is because you were not potentially affected by the site security issue.

Dear Hideout Customer,

You are receiving this email because you purchased tickets or classes through The Hideout website between 1/1/2012 and 9/7/2012. It has been brought to our attention that our website was hacked, compromising the credit card information that you submitted to complete your purchase.

We have already put numerous security measures in place to prevent something like this from happening again, and there are more details about that further down in this email, if you care to read them.

Right now, the most important thing for you to do is to check your credit card statements for suspicious transactions and call your bank to cancel the credit card you used for your HideoutTheatre.com purchase. We have heard reports of fraudulent charges coming from World Wildlife Fund, Facebook, ClickInks.com, and Gamefly. This is probably not an exhaustive list, but it will give you a few charges to look out for in your statements.

As a precaution, we are taking the following steps to make our site more secure:

– We are moving our website to a more secure web-hosting company. From what we can tell, this problem originated from an incident that occurred in late January when our hosting provider, Dreamhost, was compromised. (http://wpgazette.com/2012/dreamhost-one-million-domains-hacked-wordpress-blogs-infected/) At the time they sent out a security alert. We changed our passwords and tightened our security, but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary at the time.

– For the time being, all credit card processing on HideoutTheatre.com will be handled through Paypal. Paypal is a large, well-established company, and we are confident that Paypal is more secure than any stand-alone hosting company.

– We are currently evaluating third-party ticketing systems. Most ticketing sites will charge our customers high per-ticket fees, which is why we have avoided them in the past. In the absence of an acceptable and cost-effective third-party system, we will switch to Paypal as a permanent payment solution.

– Credit card numbers are not currently, nor have they ever been, stored on our servers in anyway, so there is no action we need to take to remove card numbers from our site.

Please accept our humble apology on this matter and know that we are doing everything we can to make sure this does not happen again. We are absolutely mortified that this happened, and while this particular security threat has passed, we will be moving to a new, more secure hosting company as soon as possible.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me at kareem@hideouttheatre.com or (512) 443-3688

Kareem Badr
Owner & General Manager
The Hideout Theatre

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