It must be said right off the bat that I am a tad biased towards Festival de la Bète Noire. A multidisciplinary horror theatre festival, it runs from February 19-23 at MainLine Theatre. I have the honor of being the illustrator for one of the festival’s shows, Quagmire Productions’ How to the Kill Your Baby 101, a one-woman show about post-partum depression.

Festival de la Bète Noire was founded in 2018 by Mylène Chicoine, who is now its Executive and Artistic Director. It features a wide variety of live performances from solo shows to storytelling to stage plays to dance shows, though it welcomes everything from puppetry to burlesque to shows Chicoine cheerfully refers to as “unclassifiable”. I had the opportunity to sit down with her to talk more about the festival and why she started it.

When Chicoine founded the festival she immediately got to work collecting a team. Among them are Tyla Webster, Assistant Director and Artist Liaison, Technical Director Eric Wrazen, Christian Menard, Finance and Director and “Professional Boring Guy”, and their Administrative Assistant Robin Friedman.

I’m not a horror fan so I was curious as to whether Bète Noire is truly for everyone. Chicoine says that it’s for anyone who wants to experience something truly unique.

“Part of the reason I put this festival together is because I use fear the same way other people use laughter. For me it is a form of therapy, it is a form of catharsis, it’s a way to deal with those deep dark hidden things inside that you don’t want to deal with but then you put it on the stage and you deal with it together.”

She compares the Bète Noire to the Montreal Jazz Festival, noting that you rarely actually hear any jazz at the Jazz fest. She points out that horror is a huge and diverse genre that includes everything from murder mysteries to psycho thrillers to ghost stories and not just blood and gore.

When asked if there would be blood in these productions, Chicoine admits there will be blood and maybe guts, but nothing will be sprayed on the audience. She also adds that there will be content and trigger warnings and things that are meant to push boundaries, adding that some shows are scarier than others.

“But once you do it, you did it, and you survived.”

The Festival’s offerings this year include the aforementioned How to Kill Your Baby 101, Marissa Blair’s BDSM horror piece Triptych, The Malicious Basement’s Maintenance on cyberspace, Kay Komizara’s Monstrologyka about monsters and witches and many more. You can see the full lineup on the festival’s Facebook page.

The shows vary in length but are generally about an hour long. Chicoine said that she has not seen the shows yet. Her and her team selected participants based on the overall message and boundary pushing.

“Something that’s a little out of the ordinary as opposed to ‘here’s some horror’.”

Applications took place online, with people submitting a blurb of about 25-50 words. Though she admits the team knows some of the artists and has seen their shows, the overall criteria was interest with her team taking votes on what to include in Bète Noire.

In addition to the shows themselves, the Festival includes open mic Fright Nights, the Opening Night Horror Gala featuring horror skits, an art exhibition throughout MainLine theatre, as well as horror trivia night – about ALL horror, not just movies. Originally started as fundraising efforts to cover the costs of the Festival, these events adjacent to the festival have become a way to bring the community together.

When I asked Chicoine if there’s one thing she could say to prospective audiences, she invited people to join her on this journey.

“Go check it out. Go fight your demons. Go love them. Go embrace them. That’s what the Festival is for.”

Spurt of Blood is NOT production for the faint of heart. It will make you uncomfortable physically and psychologically, but if you can tough it out I guarantee you a theatrical experience like you’ve never had before.

I had a chance to speak to Director Marissa Blair about what audiences should expect. She informed me that they are active participants as well as observers.

The layout of the performance is not your typical theatre layout. The audience is brought into a room with an oval of chairs surrounding the stage area, with only a couple of gaps to allow the cast in.

Each audience member is handed an LED light and instructed to turn on the light and swirl it above their heads if they decide they want to leave. Should they decide to do so, there will be no re-admittance and no refunds.

Disclaimers out of the way, the stage area’s only door is sealed with black duct tape and the lights are dimmed.

Spurt of Blood was written by philosopher Antonin Artaud when he was developing his Theatre of Cruelty philosophy.

“The show is what Theatre of Cruelty calls for, an attack on the senses. It is aggressive, and I take some risk in creating sensations – the Cruelty is the body’s necessary response. An audience member will hear, see, smell, feel, and possibly taste. It’s primal, and very effective.”

True to what Blair said, it IS an attack on the senses. Audiences are left in the dark half the time, with only flashlights, lit matches, or video projectors allowing us to see what’s going on.

You’ll hear recordings of music, and of noise. You’ll see images and videos projected onto the ceiling. And you’ll hear a variety of languages from French to English to Dutch and some you may not recognize.

There will also be riveting performances; Kathy Slamen was particularly powerful as the spotlight illuminated her harrowing tale of being diagnosed with cancer. Later in the show, she sang along to The Eurythmics’ Here Comes the Rain Again with the vocal prowess that would make Annie Lennox proud. Tofunmi Famotibe was beautiful as the joyful, dancing seductress in a red dress.

Some performances will make viewers uncomfortable. Jeroen Lindeman was so effectively creepy, his performance led to a couple of viewers raising their LEDs. He remained perfectly still as the lights went on so they could be led out of the room, before it was re-sealed, the lights dimmed, and the show went on.

Marissa Blair warned me that audiences should expect to be splattered with non-toxic washable stage blood, purchased from a small company in Chicago, Illinois. What she didn’t say is that the venue only has one bathroom, and the blood is VERY sticky – “a wonderful sensorial experience!” but only if you like being covered in syrup.

Some audience members – myself included – embraced being sprayed with blood, for in the moment it feels great and you truly feel part of what’s going on. Unfortunately with nowhere to clean off after the show, those considering seeing it should invest in a pack of wet wipes or pray that it’s raining when you’re out of the venue.

I had sticky fake blood in my hair, on my clothes, and all over my hands and arms. I marched straight from the theatre to the nearest shower as fast as I could.

What the author’s notebook looked like after the show

Though the massive spurts of blood were a truly climatic moment, the show continued, something I felt was unnecessary. The spraying blood was so powerful why not end on a high note?

That said, I had no idea what to expect when I went into Spurt of Blood, and I found myself enjoying the mindf*ck it gave me. If you’re afraid of the dark or squeamish around blood, don’t see this show. But if you’re feeling brave, and you have a raincoat and wet wipes, check it out!

Just don’t wear white.

Antonin Artaud’s Spurt of Blood plays at the Montreal Fringe until June 15. Tickets and info: montrealfringe.ca

Photos by Samantha Gold