When it comes to creepy tales in keeping with the spirit of Halloween, it doesn't get much creepier than Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." In some film adaptations, the story, complete with Headless Horseman, might be too intense for small children. But if anyone can adapt the timeless classic into something comfortable for all ages, it's Leslie Hormann, executive and artistic director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre. With children's education and entertainment a key ingredient of the organization's success since 1934, Youtheatre's production of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow becomes not only a family-friendly performance but a unique theater experience as well. Aside from its appeal for Youtheatre audiences, Hormann says she has long had affection for the story.
"I love Washington Irving and the whole series of stories set in the Catskill Mountains, including "Rip Van Winkle." I also love that whole period of time after the Revolutionary War and that area of the country where the Dutch settled. I find the geographical area fascinating and love all those spooky stories. It just seemed a perfect fit as our first show of the season since it fell in October during the time for magical and creepy stories."
It's not only the story which will provide families with some fun Halloween magic. The production itself is a new approach for Youtheatre, providing a far less passive experience than sitting in a seat being entertained. Staged in the ArtsLab black box at the Auer Center, Sleepy Hollow is going to be a theatre experience the audience won't soon forget.
"This is the first time we'll have an audience immersive show," says Hormann. "The show starts in the black box and sets up the premise of the Headless Horseman. But then the audience moves for the party scene into different areas of the Auer Center. The whole building will be decorated and part of the scenery. There's going to be a lot of audience participation with members being pulled from the audience as the scenes unfold. There's going to be live music and action going on in different rooms. It'll be very festive."
While there will be a sense of controlled chaos - with cast members ushering audience members in organized groups through the different areas of the building - Hormann admits that planning for that easy ebb and flow come performance time hasn't been easy.
"It's a logistical nightmare, but we'll have four sections of the audience, each having a set area to go. Of course, it all had to be planned with the help of others in the building. We had several meetings with Fort Wayne Ballet because we're using a couple of their studios during the performances, and all of that had to be worked out. It did require some coordination."
Helping the cause is that, while there are obviously children in the cast (the youngest cast member is seven), many adults are also cast in roles as parents. Included in the cast are Christopher Murphy, Youtheatre's new outreach and technical director, and Corey Lee, well-known in the theater community for his lighting design. With two characters played by those with a hand in the production, there's some inside help in keeping things running smoothly. But the immersive aspect of the production presents some interesting challenges for the young actors involved.
"The actors have to learn to stay in character even as they're interacting with members of the audience and as they're moving them around to the different areas. They have to maintain their character through the whole time as the audience becomes part of the story. Then the adults will act as the traffic facilitators."
The idea for this kind of immersive, interactive theater experience has been brewing for some time in Hormann's creative mind.
"Fort Wayne Dance Collective had been involved in some audience immersive show, and I kept thinking, 'This would be dynamite with some dialogue.' I think having the audience traveling is more dynamic if there's a story and narrative. I sometimes find it hard to understand what's going on when there isn't any dialogue and context for the story.
"Then recently I went to a theater convention where we talked about utilizing the theater audience to make it more engaging, and I thought it would be a great way to teach my actors about staying in character during those kinds of performances."
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the first of four performances this season for Fort Wayne Youtheatre, and it's one of three at the ArtsLab black box. The next production is the one which takes them to a different stage - First Presbyterian Theater - and will mark a return to a Youtheatre tradition.
"We'll be doing The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in celebration of the 45th anniversary of the book's release," says Hormann. "We had a long tradition of doing that show every year for Christmas, but we had broken that tradition for awhile. But with the anniversary this year, we decided to bring it back."
In February Youtheatre will continue its Young Heroes of Conscience series which in previous years featured plays about Ryan White and Ruby Bridges, both written and directed by Gregory Stieber. This year Stieber and Youtheatre will tackle the weighty story of Anne Frank in Remembering Anne, which goes beyond Anne's own well known story and looks at the friends, family and peers of the young girl whose story has touched millions over the years.
Youtheatre's final production, as always, will be Fairy Tale Fest in May, and this year's tale is James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl's delectable tale of young James, his wacky aunts and the cast of characters who rescue him from his dreary and oppressive world. While there is plenty for the staff of Youtheatre to do as they gear up for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and this new immersive theatre experience, they, as always, are already looking ahead.
"We already have the peach," says Hormann.