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SCENE SETTER: 'Epic' journey awaits with Written in Blood

'Halloween and immersive theatre go so well together. It is truly the spirit of the season to dress up, play pretend, and experience your community in a way that may surprise you,' says creator Griffin Hewitt

Horror movies, haunted houses, the thrill of the unknown — these are a few of the greatest gifts this season brings.

Before falling back into a favourite pastime of warm blankets and a scary movie, why not become the main character in your own unique and eerie experience?

For a limited time later this month, Barrie’s Talk Is Free Theatre (TIFT) will take audiences on a journey through the horror stories of the past in the site-specific and immersive theatre experience Written in Blood, created by Griffin Hewitt and TIFT artistic director Michael Torontow.

But what exactly does that mean? I had the opportunity to ask the creators a few questions about what people can expect from the experience.

RV: Where did the idea for the Written in Blood Trilogy come from and what went into the process for creating it?

GH: The idea first came out of some conversations Michael and I had about an immersive retelling of The Great Gatsby he had experienced while in London a few years ago. He knew he wanted to do something for Halloween, so from there we went about trying to find the right stories to tell that could create the same immersive feeling that he experienced in London — mainly getting to dress up and pretend to be a guest at a real party — while also creating that sense of mystery, suspense, and horror that we love to experience this time of year.

MT: The first thing said I wanted to do as artistic director of TIFT was create some sort of epic theatrical experience for Halloween. The details of the idea started out very different from what the trilogy has now become, but the original core inspiration still remains: an immersive adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which I saw in London, U.K., four years ago. I worked on the project on my own for some time, but it wasn’t until I brought Griffin on as a collaborator that we really narrowed the concept down to what it has become. We did independent research, had biweekly brainstorming and development meetings, and after several months — and a production of Sweeney Todd — we arrived at where we are today.

RV: What does an “immersive experience” entail for an audience member, and how does it differ from traditional theatre experiences?

GH: “Immersive” gets used for a few different things, but in general it refers to anything that allows the audience to live inside of the world of the piece instead of viewing it from a traditional stage. In this case, we are inviting audiences to play pretend with us, to walk with us through different venues, and to experience each piece more as an invited guest than just as an audience member. Halloween and immersive theatre go so well together. It is truly the spirit of the season to dress up, play pretend, and experience your community in a way that may surprise you.

MT: When the audience gets to feel like they are really part of the action rather than observing it from afar, they are experiencing a piece of immersive theatre. Even better when they feel like they are the protagonist of the story, which is what we strive to achieve with Written in Blood.

RV: After personally performing in the site-specific, and multiple Dora-award-winning, production of Sweeney Todd earlier this year, how does the Written in Blood Trilogy differ for you?

GH: I think a huge difference has been getting a chance to create the pieces from scratch with the venues we will be using already in mind. Stephen Sondheim obviously didn’t write anything into Sweeney Todd that was meant to directly reference or work around being set immersively in a church and food hub, so most of that work was the cast and creative team helping to make sense of things without changing the text. In this case, we’ve had the ability to create something not only for specific venues, but also for audiences, bringing in aspects that they will recognize about the surrounding community of these places. Instead of imagining they are somewhere else, audiences can imagine that they really are at the centre of the stories being told, which I think is pretty magical and, again, perfect for Halloween.

MT: When you decide to program a show with an existing script, then you are using that script as the code or rule book for who the characters are and what they need to do in a certain space and time. But when you create a new work, you can play God and change all the rules however and whenever you want. And in writing and rewriting those rules, we get to create ways of including the audience in even more exciting ways than Hugh Wheeler’s book would allow us to.

RV: As an artist, what excites you about creating this kind of work?

GH: I find this work exciting in so many ways, but mainly it’s the whole idea of breaking open the audience’s expectations. There are so many ways that audiences are used to experiencing theatre, and sometimes I think we can get into a game of trying to meet those expectations. But when you start with an activity that people are already used to experiencing in a different, more active way — like a gallery show, or a haunted house, or an outdoor ghost walk — you can use those structures to make something really unexpected and exciting.

MT: I sometimes forget when I create work like this that I really do have near-supreme power over how the story goes and what happens to everyone. That’s certainly exciting. But there’s also something extremely satisfying taking existing text, extracting little bits of it from here, huge chunks from there, rewriting portions for time, dialect, or logic — just making the entire puzzle work. Oh, and Easter eggs. I love putting those sneaky, hidden messages in a piece like this. Written in Blood is full of them.

RV: For anyone who is apprehensive about experiencing immersive, site-specific theatre, do you have any advice for them to try it?

GH: Try to think of it more like just adding storytelling and magic to something you might already be doing — a nice dinner out, an evening stroll, etc.

MT: Wear comfortable shoes.

RV: If you had an unlimited budget to create your vision of a bucket-list production, what would it be and what would make it unique?

GH: I’ve always wanted to do a certain musical in an entire floor of some sort of apartment complex, and have each suite feel truly lived in by the characters that call it home. I’d probably say that lies firmly in the “needs an unlimited budget” category.

RV: If you suddenly found yourself living in the world of your favourite book or story, where would that be and why?

GH: I’ve always been a bit of a myth lover, so I think it would be anything that involves old pantheons of gods, monsters, heroes, etc. I think there’s something so interesting about those shared imaginary worlds we keep recreating over and over.

MT: I recently read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, and I think it would be very interesting to experience that world for an evening, watching spirits in the in-between working their way to the great beyond. But that would also mean I’d have to be dead, too, so maybe I’ll wait on that.

The Written in Blood Trilogy runs Oct. 20 to Oct. 30 and is presented in three sequences at different locations around downtown Barrie.

More information about this immersive experience and how to purchase tickets can be found on the Talk Is Free Theatre website by clicking here.