Bill Van Horn talks about adapting, directing and performing in Sherlock Holmes – The Adventure of The Speckled Band, now at Walnut Street Theatre

-Brenda Hillegas
feature photo of Ian Merrill Peakes and Bill Van Horn by Mark Garvin

When the Walnut Street Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director Bernard Havard commissioned Bill Van Horn to create an adaption of The Speckled Band for this season, Van Horn was certainly up for the challenge. He’s no stranger to such a task, and has written for the stage many times before- like right here in Philadelphia for the Walnut’s Independence Studio on 3 and the WST for Kids Series, including yearly productions of A Christmas Carol. As a director, his credits include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Peter and the Starcatcher, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Glass Menagerie.

Not only has he taken this classic Sherlock Holmes tale and updated it to the 1920s, Van Horn is also directing the production AND playing the role of Holmes’ familiar sidekick, Dr. Watson! Read below to find out where this story begins for Van Horn, how he decided to bring it to life in a new era, and more about this hilarious cast! For tickets (the show runs through March 27th), click here.

Q: When you were commissioned to adapt The Speckled Band, where did you start? What’s your creative process when creating a new adaptation of something like the original Arthur Conan Doyle three-act play?
A: Bernard Havard, the Producing Artistic Director of the Walnut, commissioned me to adapt a new version during the pandemic. I was living and writing up in Maine at the time. I started by comparing the original story with the 1910 Conan-Doyle theatrical adaptation of his short story. They are vastly different. I wanted to borrow what was best from both of these sources.

I don’t have one single process to start a project. Every play is different. I knew I wanted to update this story to 1920 because I knew I had to put women characters in positions of authority and power. We only have six actors in the cast. I wanted to set the play in a world where women were gaining more power in society. So, for this project, I started by doing a lot of research about England immediately after World War I. Conan-Doyle’s own adaptation was a great source since it was finished in 1910, pretty close to the time of our adaptation…but in those ten years, the world completely changed. It was interesting to think how Holmes and Watson would deal with these changes.

Q: There are six cast members but a multitude of characters. Tell me about the role you play!
A: There are six actors in the play and all of them play many roles…except for me. I play Dr. Watson and nothing else. He is the narrator of all the Holmes stories and novels. I see him as an Everyman, sort of the audience’s proxy within the story of the play. It’s also nice for the crew backstage; they don’t have to watch a 67 year old arthritic actor perform quick-changes. It isn’t pretty. Watson is the anchor of the play, it’s narrator, and, often, the straight man for the jokes. Our play has a lot of jokes.

Q: You’ve played Dr. Watson before, in Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville, A Sherlock Holmes Mystery. How is your current Dr. Watson different from your previous one? Any striking similarities?
A: I have played Watson before at The Walnut, and in Maine, at the Theater at Monmouth. Watson is a constant in the stories. He doesn’t change so much from story to story. But, in a play, he does change depending on who is playing Holmes. Our Holmes in The Speckled Band is Ian Merrill Peakes. He is brilliant and a joy to play against. He makes it easy. He is so inventive that I just have to react at the kaleidoscopic array of colors he presents as this iconic character. 

Q: You direct and star in this show. Did you ever find it challenging to manage both?
A: It is very challenging to direct and act in a play. You need a cast that is expert at collaboration. The six actors in this show (including myself) have worked together many times at the Walnut. We are a tight collaborative unit. It is very hard to determine where the actor’s ideas end and the director’s ideas begin. All six of us are responsible for the direction of this play. I made the final decision because, nominally, I was the director. But I’d be stupid if I didn’t listen to the ideas of this incredibly accomplished cast. So, decisions were often made democratically. By going with a choice that we all felt moved the story along.

Q: What is your favorite scene in this play? Or what makes you laugh the most when watching?
A: I have many favorite scenes in this play. But my favorite scenes are the ones I am not in. Then I can sit in the wings and watch these great Philadelphia actors say words that I wrote down on a blank sheet of paper in Maine two years ago. There is no better feeling in the world to me.

Q: Aside from Sherlock Holmes stories, are there any other mystery books, characters or television shows you’ve been enjoying?
A: I am currently working on an Agatha Christie adaptation, a Christmas open opera which will be produced by the New York City Opera Company in two years, and a musical about the English writers John Gay, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope. I am also getting ready to direct a play called Dead Ball by Dennis Hartin and Rob Wheeler. It is about Ray Chapman, the only player to die during a major league ballgame. On television, I watch old black and white movies all the time.

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