A few years ago, I bought tickets to a retelling of Macbeth in an immersive theater experience at NYC’s McKittrick Hotel. The award-winning play was called Sleep No More and was created by Punchdrunk Enrichment, a UK company. During the production, masked audience members wandered through five stories (and 100 rooms), interacting with the props and observing the actors up close rather than from a seat. It was clever, scary, heart-breaking, mind-bending, atmospheric, and unforgettable. I loved it and went back to see it a few times.
Why am I telling you this? Because thanks to an Eastern Shore resident and former member of Punchdrunk, Easton and the Avalon Theater are about to experience their own immersive drama, Stage Fright, in celebration of the Halloween season.
But this will not be any kind of haunted attraction, so don’t expect goblins and ax-wielding clowns to jump from behind doors to scare you. It is more of a psychological exploration of how tragedy and grief can lead to insanity. To tell you too much about the production will take away the fun you will experience as you wander through the minimally illuminated areas in the theater that have been set up to allow the audience to become part of the scenery. To distinguish you from the actors, you will be given a zorro-esque mask to wear. Look and listen for clues in each room. Can you figure out what (and who) is real?
Throughout the 90-minute evening, concurrent events will take place in various locations throughout the theater. Which order you experience these scenes is not important, and although the path you take is your choice, an initial one will be selected for you to follow. All audience members will assemble at the same place for the finale. Their recommendation? Take a chance and do your own thing; you’ll have more to discuss after the show.
Written by Casey Rauch and directed by Cecile Storm, the action is set in 1927 in the fictional ‘Avalon Hotel’ in the actual town of Easton. It’s based on the real Avalon’s most famous ghost—Marguerite, or, more importantly, how she got to be the ghost. It was a play that was meant to be written and performed right here and right now.
But it all started nine years ago when Rauch and Storm were part of a holiday production of The Santa Diaries at the Avalon. “While we were in rehearsals,” said Storm, “we had a bunch of run-ins with Marguerite. If you spend any significant amount of time at the Avalon, you will have an encounter with Marguerite.”
Wait. What? A real ghostly encounter?
Yes, said Storm, and that’s how Marguerite became a muse for writer Rauch who was inspired to create a human back story for her. Fast forward to earlier this year when Storm and Rauch were cast in a Tred Avon Players show. In reminiscing about their time at the Avalon, they began to wonder if, for the theater’s 100th-year celebration, it might be time for Rauch’s play. It would be the perfect Halloween show, they thought, one that didn’t involve your standard haunted house.
But Rauch didn’t exactly write it as it will be presented. “His script did not give me the vision of a straight play,” said Storm. “There’s something about the dialog and the story itself that I couldn’t see on a three walls static stage. It was just something in my gut and it all kind of clicked in my brain.”
Using the script as a framework, Storm pitched the idea of doing the show as an immersive drama. After some maneuvering, everyone agreed: the play had a unique theatrical element, had been written explicitly for the Avalon, and, more importantly, the Avalon staff trusted Storm’s vision and her ties to this theater. In 1994 Storm’s grandfather John General and his wife at the time, Ellen Vatne founded the Avalon Foundation. Vatne’s daughter is Jessica Bellis, Avalon’s COO/CFO.
However, if you think this translates to bias, you couldn’t be further from the truth.
Storm, who is also the co-owner of Storm and Daughters Ice Cream shop next to the Avalon, has strong theater experience that goes beyond family and beyond the acting and directing that are part of her resume. She also holds a degree in Contemporary Theatre and Film and is no stranger to immersive theater, having worked for Punchdrunk as an intern.
“My training is about pushing boundaries,” Storm said. “How can we give people a storytelling experience that is outside the norm? How can we change people’s lives? How can we talk about politics, religion, and other taboo subjects in an impactful and meaningful way? The biggest piece of my training involves working collaboratively with writers and actors and creating a team–a theatre company where everyone has skin in the game. And this is the first time in my hometown where I’ve been able to apply the exact thing that I was trained to do.”
Clearly, Storm is ready. But is her hometown? From the ‘buzz’ that this play has garnered, the answer is –ABSOLUTELY! Who around Easton hasn’t seen the posters with the provocative picture of the 1920s ‘chorus girls’ with blood dripping from their eyes (side note—rumor is that the actual Marguerite is third from the left)? Then there are the chalk outlines on the streets, posters in every store, and the social media spooky reels (which have generated hundreds and hundreds of views). Everyone wants to know more about what is going on.
When the Spy previewed the play, it was immediately noticeable how this type of theater experience was unique – and not just for the audience. This was also a new experience for the actors and for the director, who took on such a huge venture.
“It’s been great,” said director Storm. “Yes, this is all very different, and it’s sometimes scary to do new things, but we have the best production team and some outstanding actors, so I don’t have to micromanage. Then also, having the writer in the room (Rauch is also one of the actors) has been huge because anytime we come across something, we can ask him. For instance, what is this character’s motivation? Or how can we tell the story better by simplifying the dialogue.”
Besides being unique, what else is apparent is how much fun it all is. There are hidden messages throughout the show, so keep your eyes and ears focused. And I won’t spoil who is interviewed by the real-life news anchor Paul Berry (it made me smile).
Then there is the music — an integral part of the show, taking a role in the production as if it were an actor, setting the mood and telling the audience what to expect and where to go. Musical director Shea Springer and his wife Jess Newell brought about the intricate ideas that Storm envisioned. This included that 90% of the music be played live, that songs should be covers of the music by rock band Radiohead, but done in the style of 1920s gypsy jazz. Adding to that, Storm also wondered, “What kind of weird instruments can we put in? So among the weird instruments, we have a Celesta, which is very exciting. And we have a Dobro, which I don’t know what it is, but it sounds cool. For the prerecorded sounds, Shea is playing records backwards and melting things and doing all kinds of fun stuff.”
To add to the mood and to feel completely immersed, people are encouraged to come in Halloween costumes or 1920s attire (another reason why the theatrical mask you’re being asked to wear will help differentiate audience members and performers). There will also be two bars with prohibition-style cocktails (look for some possible surprises there as well).
As much fun and unique as this is, there are some disclaimers (the full list will be found on the ticket page). This production is not for everyone. Although not Interactive, the play is active. Audience members will be walking up and down stairs and standing for most of the 90 minutes. Intricate lighting, strobe, haze, and smaller-size acting areas will be used, which may feel claustrophobic to some. There are possible triggering themes of body shaming, sexuality, family tragedy, murder, and revenge. The event is best for adults, and the recommended age is 16+.
The age restriction is something Storm struggled with. “I was a very mature teenager, and this would have been something I would have absolutely died to go and see, and begged my mom to take me. She would have because she knew I could handle this sort of thing. So we didn’t want to alienate or cut off anyone for who this could potentially be an inspiring theatrical experience. That was one of my goals from the start – to inspire our community about what is possible inside community theater. I want them to expect the unexpected.”
So there you have it. This production is a limited run. There will only be seven performances, and tickets are limited to 125 people per performance. Wear something fun (and comfortable), but mostly be ready to have an immersively fun time.
Besides, who knows, you might even run into the real Marguerite ghost! Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Early shows: Wednesday, October 26th – Sunday, October 30th – Cocktail Hour 6 pm, Show 6:30
Late shows: Friday, October 28th & Saturday, October 29th – Cocktail Hour 9 pm, Show 9:30
Stage Fright is sponsored by:
Out of the Fire
Rise up Coffee
Other Half Brewing
The Boutte Family
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.