Remember when you’d head to the horror section of Blockbuster to get your Halloween scares? Well, now a night of indie theatre is becoming a new October tradition in Vancouver.
Forget watching The Blair Witch Project on your couch: there’s a show this year that sends you into a real nighttime forest with your flashlight. No need to sit through a double bill of Fright Night and Dawn of the Dead: another interactive offering will have you hightailing it from zombie-vampire hybrids. And pass on Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: another production takes place entirely in a pitch-black room.
It’s clear audiences are looking for real frights—the kind that only come from live performance.
The range of inventive works speaks to the growing popularity of Halloween-time theatre. The site-specific, interactive The Zombie Syndrome is a mainstay on the scene with five years under its rotting belt. Newcomers for 2016 include Alley Theatre and Level-Headed Friends’ Three Stories Up: Theatre in the Dark, set disorientingly in a black-as-a-moonless-night space. There’s also ITSAZOO’s woods-set murder tale Hidden, which sends audience members out with flashlights into the UBC Botanical Garden. And then there’s Nebula Company Theatre’s Frankenstein, 1945, a film-noir-style reimagining of Mary Shelley’s classic.
Determining what audiences are looking for at this time of year has become a fine science for The Zombie Syndrome’s Andy Thompson. “Scares have been something I have been really focused on in terms of analysis,” the Virtual Stage artistic director tells the Straight over the phone, referring to his full-audience-participation show that changes locations and mixes it up each time. “Last year we stumbled upon this amazing dynamic in Trout Lake where the audience had to go into the forest in the dark. It was creepy and the zombies would lunge at them and completely freak them out. And people loved that! It really hit home for me how people love running from zombies. Halloween audiences are the thrill seekers who want to be freaked out.”
That puts pressure on Thompson to give those adventurers a new scenario each year. (Past renditions have explored everything from alien plagues to chases through downtown streets.) For this year’s installment, called The Zombie Syndrome: Dead in the Water, he’s introducing blood-sucking zombies and setting the action on Granville Island, sending his audience out on water for the first time (thanks to a partnership with False Creek Ferries). “I physically want to move my audience in this show as much as possible, so I’ve always brainstormed different modes of transportation,” he says. “I certainly want to retain the audience and keep them excited year after year.”
The other key to the hit, he says, has been its interactivity, including the use of cellphones to help follow clues and solve puzzles. For 2016, that means using Apple’s location-based iBeacon for tracking down the monsters.
“In one sense it’s a living, breathing zombie board game,” he says, adding it’s up to the audience to determine how things are going to work out as far as the zombie apocalypse goes. “They’re empowered to save the world.” And if they fail? “Everything goes to hell in a handbasket,” he says with a hearty laugh.
Audiences will get a completely different immersive experience at Alley Theatre’s Three Stories Up: Theatre in the Dark. Working more of a suspenseful vibe than a horror one, its spookiness comes from being performed in the pitch black. Director Marisa Smith tells the Straight that audience members will be led into the space blindfolded, then asked to remove those blindfolds once the lights are off.
She says the inspiration for staging local playwright Mack Gordon’s new script this way came from a trip to Dark Table, the light-free Vancouver restaurant with blind servers. “There was something about just looking out into a sea, an abyss, and then you sort of relax into it, like learning to see again,” Smith says over the phone between rehearsals. “There have been studies done that show that your senses heighten quite quickly when you can’t see.”
The script had the feel of a radio play, she says, and because she and her team were going to stage it with sparse sets anyway, they decided to tweak it to take place in that “abyss”. The story is a suitably twisty noir suspense, following a female transit cop as she tries to find her husband’s murderer.
In another disorienting wrinkle, the audience will be surrounded by the actors, with whispers, sound effects, and conversations coming from unexpected directions. “You don’t know how many characters there are or who comes on next. There are no usual expectations,” says Smith, who’s been rehearsing with her actors in blindfolds. “What I’ve noticed is it’s really heightened the listening and the stakes so much.
“We spend so much time on a screen and working on a computer and social media,” Smith continues, “so I’ve kind of enjoyed working on this play, because there is absolutely no visual component. It’s almost like a novel, where you imagine what the characters look like. We get so much media at us all the time, but we don’t necessarily get the visceral experience that you get from a rock concert or a roller coaster.”
The hope is to give viewers that visceral experience through theatre.
The larger aim is that these indie Halloween shows are also going to introduce the art form to people who might not otherwise go out to plays.
“We are definitely attracting people who are not theatregoers per se, but adventure seekers,” says Thompson, adding that the audiences for his shows skew young. “Hopefully, by exposing those people to live theatre, they’ll go on to see more of it.”
Three Stories Up: Theatre in the Dark runs from Thursday (October 20) to October 31 at 805 East Pender Street.
The Zombie Syndrome: Dead in the Water runs to October 31 on Granville Island.
Hidden runs from Saturday (October 22) to November 13 at the UBC Botanical Garden.
Frankenstein, 1945 runs from Monday (October 24) to October 30 at Studio 1398.