Driving near the Burlington International Airport is turning into a creepy activity in and of itself. Buildings surrounding the airport lie empty, providing the perfect setting as I pull into Picard Circle. The abandoned circle is a hive of activity as the Nightmare Vermont crew are preparing for the next couple of weeks of theatrical haunting that’s descended on the otherwise quiet neighborhood.
It takes me a couple of minutes to locate Jana Beagley, the production’s director, and my guide for the evening. One actor points to one building, saying that she was there five minutes ago, and coming across another group on my way over, they point in another direction. The cast is friendly and enthusiastic as they get ready, and soon, I find Jana in the midst of what appears to be a small storm. I have to work to keep up after we’re introduced. Tonight is the Nightmare Vermont dry run, with their tickets for the opening night’s first couple of runs completely sold out, and others going fast. The pressure’s on to get everything ready.
I follow Beagley over to one of the abandon house’s garages, which serves as a briefing area for the entire cast. Not everyone has received a safety briefing, and Bob has to yell over the excited gathering to get everyone’s attention. One of the troops of dancers is missing, and someone runs out to find them. All told, the group numbers around 20-30 people: goblins in makeup, technical specialists and crew. The briefing goes quickly, running through what happens when the production stops midway through, when to kick someone out, and when to evacuate. The meeting is excited and bubbling with optimism, and ends with a resounding cry: NIGHTMARE!
At the end of the meeting, I follow Beagley as she talks about the production. Nightmare Vermont is both a theatrical production and a haunted house at the same time. A storyline guides the two lead characters and visitors through the five buildings, all rigged with splattered blood, weird lighting, fog and dark corridors. This is Beagley’s eighth year doing haunted houses, and her expertise shines through as we move from building to building. The paint isn’t quite done in one room, with an actor (Red Cap), applying just a couple more splatters of red paint. Each house has its own stage manager, who manages the actions of each set of rooms, each of which is akin to a stage in and of itself. It’s a complicated, detailed production, and Jana seems to have a thousand things on her mind. In one room, she asks the technical people about a pipe in the upper level of the building, to see if it’ll work well for a fog machine that isn’t quite working in another room. Outside, she tells someone to strip lights out of one place and move them to another. In yet another room, a fire alarm blares as the fog machine sets it off. She moves between problems with the set effortlessly, and it’s clear that the production is accomplished through sheer willpower.
The dry run is set to start up at 7:30, and I’m brought over to the front, along with a couple of extra actors, the directors and some technical staff. I’m given a pair of light-up devil’s horns: a teaser, I’m told, with the cast smiling knowingly. I put them on, unsure of what’s going to happen next. I had a feeling that I was going to be in for some extra scares. I’m told that people pay extra for the honor.
We start off in the first building with a creepy performance that orients visitors with some basic rules: No touching actors. Ever. Follow the leader, Stay with the group, no drugs or alcohol, don’t break things, be nice to the group, and have a good time. We go to the next room, where we’re brought a bit more into the story. So far so good, until the two lead actors pound into the room, panicked and yelling. From here on out, we’re part of the action, with a performance in each room, and a sometimes frightening transition from one stage to the next.
The story is clever, inventive and different. Jana explained later that they’ve done some of the usual tropes in the past: zombies, werewolves, etc, and that they didn’t want to retread old ground. This time, we follow our two leads into a dangerous fairy world, populated by monsters, dancers and mad scientists. It’s not just the scares here and there that make Nightmare Vermont so effective: it’s the story line that has real characters that have done some horrifying things. Along the way there’s quite a few small frights, more creeps, and quite a bit of horror that escalate until the end with a dramatic and unexpected finish.
The production is a well tuned machine, with a lot of moving parts: it’s an organizational nightmare (no pun intended), but it’s clear that Beagley has brought together an incredibly dedicated and well trained crew that puts their all into the production. There’s a festive, community feel to the entire evening, and I get the feeling that everyone involved isn’t just here for a paycheck: they’re here because there’s nowhere else that they’d rather be. I can see why: it’s an amazing production, and I can’t think of another place that I would want to be during the Halloween season.
Nightmare Vermont begins its run tonight at 2 Picard Circle in South Burlington, VT. Tickets are $10 online, and $15 at the door. Performances will run on October 19th, 20th, 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th.