A hauntingly devious University of Nebraska–Lincoln stage show is giving Huskers a chance to sink their teeth into real-world theater experience.
Taking part in the Nebraska Repertory Theatre’s “ShakesFear,”, 27 Huskers from the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film — 17 performance students and 10 design tech majors — have worked for nine months to create a spooktacular experience in the Temple Building.
The production has been guided by professionals Andy Park, Kevin Rich, Jill Hibbard, Jason Hibbard, Michelle Harvey and Jeff O’Brien.
Park, artistic director for the Nebraska Repertory Theatre and co-creator of “ShakesFear,” said that immersive theater is taking off, as demonstrated by companies like Punchdrunk and Meow Wolf.
“ShakesFear blends immersive techniques with tried-and-true haunted attraction techniques to create a haunted, immersive experience grounded in a narrative,” Park said. “Students are getting the chance to bridge these two industries and learn from both.”
Jackson Wells, a freshman theatre performance major from Concordia, Missouri, said he’s loved learning these new techniques and skills, such as trade secrets on how to scare people safely and how to preserve vocal cords through back-to-back shows in his role as Friar Lawrence. Wells said the experience has added to his acting toolbox and opened his eyes to a new side of theater that’s entirely unique, right down to the audition process.
“Usually, auditions will either have you read monologues for them or read a cool piece of script, but what Andy did instead was, he would ask us to act like a zombie or a traditional haunted house character, and then he asked you to think of an animal, and he puts it together to create a very interesting zombie that’s based on that animal,” Wells said. “It was a really cool audition process that was way different than anything I’ve done before.”
Senior design student Lucy Rodriguez expressed similar sentiments from the technical side of the production. Rodriguez is an associate costume designer for “ShakesFear” under Hibbard. In this role, Rodriguez has learned to manage a tight costume budget and how to alter clothing to fit a designer’s vision.
The immersive theater concept has added an extra challenge and in turn more advanced experience for Rodriguez.
“In theater, you have the 40-foot rule where no one’s very close to the actor so you can hide certain things, but in person, they can see the little things,” she said. “Specifically with my Titus character, he’s a butcher, so he’s grinding people in a meat grinder as you walk by. I had to develop a method of making the blood on his apron look super realistic.”
Wells and Rodriguez both got involved in “ShakesFear” through the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film’s curriculum requirements. The requirements ensure students audition for and work with numerous Nebraska Repertory shows, providing students with experiential learning opportunities that will set them up for success.
“Experiential learning is a critical component to every degree program within our school,” said Christina Kirk, director of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. “Our students are performers, makers, builders, creators, and innovators. A project like ‘ShakesFear’ challenges students to extend their notions of what’s possible.”
Experiential learning even altered the career trajectory of recent graduate Kate Schini, who attended Nebraska with the dream of becoming an actor. Through her undergraduate experiences and under Park’s guidance, she discovered her love for directing.
“I was in Andy Park’s directing classes at the same time as the show, and I started falling in love with the art of directing, as well as performing in the theater,” she said. “Through his vision and his teaching, I realized that I have my own vision as a director.”
Schini graduated in May 2020 and recently moved to Seattle to pursue her theater career. When Park asked her to be an assistant director and show manager for “ShakesFear,” she returned to Nebraska. The Halloween show is Schini’s first professional assistant directing credit, and she views the experience as a bridge between her undergraduate and professional careers.
“This experience was really eye-opening because I never thought about what it would be like to direct a haunted house,” she said. “That opened my eyes to all the different possibilities you can pursue as a director, and haunted houses specifically I could see myself doing in the future. I think it’s a really unique experience that encompasses all the things I love about directing in theater and also being in the theater, but in a totally new light.”
“ShakesFear” ultimately exposes Nebraska students to opportunities beyond the traditional theater stage. Park said it’s easy for students to decide what theater is and ultimately limit themselves, but that professional actors and designers often find themselves at museums, zoos, amusement parks, aquariums, haunted attractions and other immersive theater experiences.
“Our students are working with cutting edge techniques and technologies while also meeting the demands of creating a believable Shakespearean world,” Kirk said. “The capacity to adapt, adjust and problem-solve on the spot are the skills that will ensure that our students can succeed in an industry that is rapidly evolving.”
“Our students, through these experiences, are poised to shape the future.”