by Mallory Moad
Halloween is fast approaching, bringing treats and attractions from the ridiculous (candy corn) to the sublime (anything that isn’t candy corn). In-person events are returning in full force with traditional family friendly trick-or-treating in your neighborhood, trunk-or-treats, corn mazes, and pumpkin patches. And for the adults, there’s the ever popular haunted house/forest/asylum/whatever. Depending on your age and entertainment preferences, you can dress up and get a sugar high or be scared silly.But on October 22 and 23, the Fresno City College Theatre Arts Department will take the spooky factor one step further with the Festival of Fright and Teasers Trilogy of Terror. A hallway – yes, a hallway – in the Theatre Arts building will be transformed into a haunt experience, the Festival of Fright, which is based on actual historical events (Google “Hartford circus fire 1944”). This will be followed by three original short contemporary plays, Teasers Trilogy of Terror, taking place in the Black Box theatre. As Professor Maria Coon, instructor and director of Festival of Fright and Teasers Trilogy of Terror, describes it: “The concept behind the Festival of Fright and Teasers Trilogy of Terror is to transport audiences through a scary, immersive themed haunt walk-through,” involving sets, costumes, makeup, and sound.
OK, you’re probably thinking that’s how every haunted house works, right? Sort of, but not exactly. Think about what you may have encountered before: Characters sneaking up behind you or jumping from behind doors and laughing maniacally; a guy with a chainsaw; blood, lots of it. More than a series of vignettes that aim to freak participants out with gore, guts, and noise, the Festival of Fright invades your head in other ways, in a venue that is far from the usual ghost abode. “This is not the average haunted house with a jump scare around every corner. It’s a story of terror of the mind, the paranormal colliding with the material,” Maria says. “We have a mixed bag of tricks to scare audiences that will involve psychological terror, special effects, and sensory design.” The end result is more embellished storytelling than gratuitous shock.The Festival of Fright came about when instructor and set designer Christina McCollam ap-proached Maria about creating a Halloween production for the fall semester. Together, they worked to come up with a truly unique piece, the likes of which have never before been seen in Fresno. But their motivation went beyond giving the audience goosebumps. According to Maria, “Our inspiration stems from a desire to give students the opportunity to devise and design their own horror show and to provide a place for original plays, written in the genre of horror, to thrive.”
The three short plays that comprise the Teasers Trilogy of Terror are scripted, but the Festival of Fright is not. Instead, it is devised theatre, in which the actors create the story and characters from scratch. Maria defines it like this: “Rehearsals are intense as actors are literally writing their characters, with improvisational and writing exercises combined.” The process demands im-agination, dedication, and mental stamina. The actors conducted extensive research to develop characters who are authentic to the period and true to their chosen professions, whether they be dead or alive. Vee Husted plays Francis Lambert, an investor in the doomed road show. The backstory he has created for his angry, disdainful character is extremely detailed. Vee chose the name Francis because it had an aristocratic ring, and Lambert because, as he explains, “It sounds like someone who is upper class.”It isn’t only the actors who have faced the task of inventing something original from the ground up. The design team, responsible for transforming a boring, downright unattractive hallway into something that is creepy and immersive, had to accomplish this task while adhering to the rules and regulations of a public place. Dominick Callahan, Lead Student Design for the haunt, ex-plains the situation: “There are safety measures we need to consider, and we have a very, very limited budget and what we have to work with.” It’s DIY to the max involving much out-side-the-box thinking, disguising walls, and incorporating doorways and alcoves into the set. Even a restroom is being utilized, as a fortune teller’s tent. Exit signs, security sensors, and fire alarms will have to remain visible and functional, but Dominick isn’t concerned. “While those things can break the immersion, we will have enough interesting things within the haunt to distract people from those items.” Appropriately, that’s a technique illusionists have used for years, and it works every time.
For instructor and costume/makeup designer Rich Fine, the biggest challenge has been ?“working on the fly and being able to adapt as things change in the rehearsal process.” While this isn’t unexpected with devised theatre, it still requires a certain degree of problem solving when “trying to create a world that is grotesque and has heightened theatricality.” Many of the characters in the Festival of Fright are ghosts who lost their human forms under horrific cir-cumstances. This has led Rich to make use of some interesting special effects techniques, including painting skin with instant gelatin to realistically mimic burn wounds.Teasers Trilogy of Terror happens in the Black Box theatre, the event’s final destination. Here, the audience will be treated to three original short plays by local writers, Summer Session, Jorge Ramirez, and Tabitha Harlow. Although linked to the Festival of Fright, the settings are modern. The stories deal with paranormal activity and include ghosts, monsters, and a deadly virus. It’s a little bit Twilight Zone, a little bit X-Files, and a whole lot of be-very-afraid.
Plans are already in place to make this type of event a regular occurrence on the FCC campus. But for now, Dominick sums it up: ‘We want an experience that is fun for everyone involved, but at the same time we want people leaving feeling thoroughly creeped out and to think twice about turning off their lights when they get home.”
As for Maria, the experience has been “A nightmare-dream come true!”
The Festival of Fright and Teasers Trilogy of Terror is for mature audiences only and will take place on Saturday, October 22 at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. and Sunday, October 23 at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are a suggested donation of $5 and will be available at the door. Visit www.facebook.com/FestivalOfFright for more information.
My name is Mallory Moad, and I ain’t scared of no ghost.