Something wicked this way comes: ShakesFear opens Oct. 15
calendar icon12 Oct 2021 user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen
Lincoln, Neb.--The Nebraska Repertory Theatre presents “ShakesFear,” Lincoln’s only haunted attraction this Halloween season, which opens Oct. 15 in the Temple Building.
“It’s an immersive theatre experience, and audience members enter the demented mind of Shakespeare,” said director Andy Park, the artistic director of the Nebraska Rep and co-director of the production. “The show’s story is about a lost play that the University of Nebraska archives have recently uncovered. It’s called ‘Cardenio,’ and it’s an actual play that has been lost to time. Everyone who performed it is dead. Everyone who saw it is dead. That’s actually just due to time, but we turn it nefarious. All of Shakespeare’s characters are jealous because ‘Cardenio’ is the Bard’s greatest work. At the beginning, you’re introduced to Shakespeare, who is very excited for his play to be shared again. And then the characters from his other work begin to impose on the experience. The audience goes on a journey trying to rescue the play while all his characters try to thwart you.”
Christina Kirk, executive director of the Nebraska Repertory Theatre and director of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, said it’s been exciting to watch this project develop over the months.
“The entire creative team has been so innovative,” she said. “Nebraska Rep opened our season with William Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and now our audience is going to experience Shakespeare in a completely different context.”
It’s one of the most technologically ambitious productions the Nebraska Repertory Theatre has taken on, led by a technical crew that includes Jill Hibbard (M.F.A. 2020) as scenic designer, Jeff O’Brien (M.F.A. 2006 and Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts Director of Technology) as sound designer, Assistant Professor of Theatre Michelle Harvey (B.F.A. 2004) as lighting designer and Jason Hibbard (Production Manager/Technical Director for the Glenn Korff School of Music) as technical director.
“The artistry that Jill has brought to this through her design is pretty incredible,” Park said. “And then there’s other designers that have done incredible work like Jeff O’Brien. It’s not like a traditional show where the stage manager is pushing buttons or calling cues. It’s being triggered by the actors, and it’s being triggered automatically by the audience. Jeff figured that all out. And then Jason Hibbard from the Glenn Korff School of Music has also done an incredible job bringing all these elements together. We’re using tons of pneumatics in this show, which is something in my time here, we’ve never done.”
Pneumatic systems use compressed air to power motion. In this production, pneumatic systems are used to power the animatronics used in the production. In addition to around 20 live actors, the show also includes traditional Haunted House animatronics.
“It’s a layered system of scares, which Andy has pretty much mastered,” Hibbard said.
“We’re going to scare you in the classiest way possible,” Park said.
The audience will experience the set design of the production in a new way.
“You kind of get the luxury of being able to walk through the set that you normally sit in the house and look at,” Hibbard said. “We want to create this immersive experience where there’s texture to it, and the lighting is real, and it just feels extremely authentic. You’re actually walking through these worlds. Most people sit in the house, and they look at it from a distance, but now they actually get to walk through it, 360 degrees. You’re engulfed into this world.”
Park added, “And then by the same token, the actors are engaging with you on an individual level. Ten people enter the experience at one time, and then that group is further divided into groups of five. You get a chance to interact very, very closely with the actors, which is a unique and really cool situation.”
Hibbard said she learned a lot of new techniques on this production and was tasked with creating the most random items.
“I learned how to make a stained-glass window in the chapel, and I think that’s one of my favorites,” she said. “In there, there’s hundreds of candles that are all just warm and flickering. I also learned how to make masking tape corn, which is the most random thing. We have a whole bunch of corn that is just masking tape and wire until you put it on that stick and bend it, and all of a sudden, there it is. We’ve gone from a list that just says ‘build 100 walls’ to now we’re into details that are like ‘hang herbs’ or ‘finish putting in some cobwebs.’ I’m just looking forward to the cobwebs stage.”
There are 14 immersive rooms in all, which they began building six months ago. Pre-planning began more than nine months ago.
“Everything is hand sculpted stone,” Hibbard said. “It’s all built to be put up and taken down every single year, so we’re making it temporary, but it looks permanent.”
Park said it’s important for the Nebraska Repertory Theatre to try new things, like immersive theatre experiences.
“There is a whole move toward immersive theatre, and I want us to be a part of it,” Park said. “It’s really gaining in popularity. I think that today’s audience, especially the younger generation, they’re used to engaging with video games, going on journeys, engaging in a different way through VR and other technologies. I think that the theatre would miss the boat if they failed to move in those directions. I think it’s an exciting time to try to move in those directions.”
Park has co-directed “ShakesFear” with Kevin Rich, an associate professor and director of theatre at the University of Colorado Boulder. Rich served as the artistic director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival from 2012-2017.
“Many years ago, I guess around 2014, he brought me in to work on ShakesFear the first time out there, and that ran for several years,” Park said. “The big question was will a Shakespeare audience like going to something that’s haunted, and will a haunted house audience like going to something that is Shakespeare? And the answer was a resounding YES. It was a big hit and ran for several years.”
Park had wanted to revive the idea for a long time. The moment was right this year at the Nebraska Repertory Theatre.
“You have to make sure you have the right creative team in place, and when we had the opportunity to do this with Jill, Jason, Jeff and Michelle, we realized we have the team that can pull this off,” Park said. “And in a way, that is pretty extraordinary.”
They hope to make it an annual event at the Nebraska Repertory Theatre and next year, they’ll also open ShakesFear in Boulder, Colorado.
“Kevin will take the lead on that, since that’s his space,” Hibbard said. “We will adapt what we have done here to facilitate how he wants to run his show, what his environments are, what his spaces are, his cast. Even though we have ShakesFear as a framework, it’s always going to be individualized and cater to what location we’re going and what their technical capabilities are. The learning curve on this has been insane from the beginning, and we just keep leveling up.”
Several members of the team attended TransWorld’s Halloween and Attractions Show, a Halloween trade show held annually in St. Louis.
“It’s the biggest collection of haunted attraction people in the country, and they all gather there,” Park said. “There’s a trade show where you can get ideas for your show. And then you can also attend training and workshops. We were there for all of that. And I remember thinking, ‘Who are these people?’ And then it occurred to me, they are theatre people that have figured out how to make a living, doing something related to what they learned in school. And I thought, this is going to be valuable to our students in ways they have no idea. We’re equipping them with a skill set and with an approach that they can find work in haunted attractions all over the country. It’s another way they can make a living doing what they know and love. So that’s really exciting about what we’re doing.”
Park said audiences will find this to be a different experience than the typical haunted house.
“When you go to haunted houses, oftentimes it’s the local high school kids that are jumping out at you in a mask and a robe,” Park said. “What you’re seeing here are exquisite period costumes. I think it’s the level of production values that will surprise people. It’s not just a black hallway and a strobe light. It’s the artistry of this thing that is remarkable, from the care that’s gone into programming the animatronics to the planned scares to the Shakespeare. Kevin is a Shakespeare expert, so he worked with all the cast. They’re using the language in a really wonderful way. There’s that balance of narrative and carefully crafted experience. You’ll get a level of story that makes it very unique.”
“We really wanted to make sure we created all of those layers,” Hibbard said. “It truly feels immersive, and it truly feels like you stepped into another world. Each of our locations has its own feel, its own smell, its own sounds.”
Park sees ShakesFear bringing Shakespeare to more audiences.
“At some point in time, Shakespeare became elitist, and that’s not what he intended,” Park said. “He was a populist. His plays were attended by all the classes of the day. They all gathered in the Globe Theatre to watch these shows. They all participated in the art. Somehow, along the way, it lost touch with his intention. I think ShakesFear has the potential to do for Shakespeare what Cirque du Soleil did to the circus industry. They came in and revived the industry and made it relevant again. I think that’s what Shakespeare needs. I think even people that are not familiar with Shakespeare’s plays, people that are afraid of Shakespeare for different reasons, I think they will enjoy ShakesFear. It may be a gateway to the greatest dramatist in the English language.”
Park hopes Lincoln audiences embrace ShakesFear as a new haunted tradition.
“I’ve never heard of another Shakespeare-themed haunted attraction,” he said. “I think we have something very unique and special. I’m hopeful that given a couple of years, this will really take off here, and maybe it will be a way we can gather the Lincoln community to celebrate Halloween.”
Performances of ShakesFear are Oct. 15-31 in the Studio Theatre, on the first floor of the Temple Building. For showtimes and tickets, visit https://nebraskarep.org. This immersive theatrical experience is not recommended for children under 13 or the faint of heart.