The Maverick Theater and its founder and producer, Brian Newell, are bringing back one of its trio of annual holiday classics, “Night of the Living Dead,” for a brief Halloween run that, given the state of live theater since mid-March, will be anything but typical.
In doing so, the Fullerton company is attempting to test the waters of live performance since the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions statewide seven months ago mandating that all theater venues remain closed.
Theaters have been allowed limited activities like productions that are live-streamed directly to patrons, but nothing where audience members can be inside a theater space and attend a performance live and in real time – until now, with Maverick’s endeavor.
It’s ironic, then, that the first play to be attempted would involve corpses coming back to life and potential victims battling a mysterious virus whose effects are unknown but essentially lethal.
This is the 15th consecutive year Newell has brought his live adaptation of George Romero’s low-budget black-and-white 1968 horror classic to the theater-going public. Bringing a film to the stage requires making judicious changes to the story, but this time around, Newell has been forced to alter his original script yet again.
His goals were threefold: to draw parallels between the plague the characters are battling with COVID; to tighten the running time to allow for multiple performances per night; and to re-engineer the script so that audiences become absorbed into the storyline.
Making the Audience Part of the Story
To accomplish these goals, Newell settled on an “immersive” theater experience. Rather than sit still and watch things unfold on a stage in an enclosed venue, patrons become characters in the tale being told, following the actors around warehouses on Walnut Avenue two blocks from Maverick’s actual venue.
Each of the two 10,000-square-foot warehouses, located two blocks from Maverick’s now-shuttered theater, will house separate, overlapping performances. Like a Disneyland ride, a new performance gets underway once every 20 minutes (eg. 8 p.m., 8:20 p.m., 8:40 p.m.), each with its own discrete audience. Given the play’s subject and tie-in with the season, its presentation is akin to a home-grown Halloween haunted house.
Mindful of CDC guidelines, no more than six audience members are being allowed per performance. Prior to each show, patrons will have their temperatures checked, then will be equipped with an elaborate “costume” consisting of a hooded plastic poncho, gloves, face covering and clear-plastic face shield.
Newell said that while this protective gear will keep audience members safe from potential viral exposure from each other, it’s also designed to protect his actors from the public.
The warehouse spaces for the performances were part of Fullerton Civic Light Opera’s theater operation for years, and Newell began using them a year ago – but says it’s the first time he has ever used one to stage one of his scripts.
Newell decided in September that after six months of no live theater, it was high time Maverick produce a show.
He and his Maverick colleagues reached out to Orange County’s Health Care Agency but found little guidance other than the mandate that “your sector is closed.”
Newell said Orange County guidelines say theaters can have up to 25% capacity, yet aren’t allowed to use their spaces for performances. “In terms of all types of businesses,” he said, “we’re at the bottom of the food chain. (Those in charge) don’t know what to do with theaters.”
After settling on his Halloween perennial as his test case, he toyed with the idea of live streaming the show. Friend and local actor David Herbelin suggested Newell consider creating an “immersive theater experience” wherein audiences follow the cast around a chosen venue.
Herbelin, Newell relates, had participated in many such productions via Disneyland and other local theme parks, and though he hadn’t done one himself, he quickly settled on this method as the most viable, given the various state and local restrictions.
Newell said he reconceptualized his existing adaptation in just a few minutes, then spent a day reworking the script. In the process, he tightened the play to 50 minutes, moved it to the present day, and tilted the storyline toward looking at a community that’s been gripped by the outbreak of an unknown virus.
How a Virus Caused a Play to Mutate
The new version’s conceit is that audience members are tapped as members of a “volunteer search and rescue team” charged with the task of combing a “containment area” for survivors and helping move them to safety.
As such, patrons thus become a vital part of the story itself. Newell said that unlike the coronavirus, the one depicted in his play only affects a limited geographical area.
Rehearsals began in mid-September, with Newell concentrating on keeping his actors from possibly infecting each other or anyone involved with the production.
Newell said the hardest directorial task of creating and rehearsing the show was the fact that no one can touch each other.
So, how do you depict physical combat when your actors have to keep their distance? Newell’s solution is to use props: A character will grab a baseball bat or some other object and use it to strike a zombie. “It’s my way of getting around any contact.”
Audience safety is all the more urgent, Newell said. He’s supplying attendees with an elaborate “costume”– personal protective equipment (PPE) that includes a hooded, disposable plastic poncho, nitrile gloves, and both a face mask and a shield.
Guests are required to read and sign a waiver and bring it with them to the theater. Their temperatures are taken before entering the space. No more than six people are allowed to attend each performance, and if any aren’t from the same household, they’re required to stay at least six feet away from anyone outside their party.
If anyone removes their face covering during a performance, the show is halted until that person may be escorted to their car.
Having everyone wearing a mask, Newell said, carries not just a practical but also a dramatic purpose as well, “making the situation more believable.” (Even the zombies, who have come back from the dead, are wearing masks, suggesting they died with their masks on.)
Newell said that audience PPE gear also protects guests from the stage blood that’s spattered during the show, and he urges guests to avoid wearing anything you don’t want stained.
The multiple safeguards are meant to protect everyone involved. All actors, Newell said, “are masked at all times. I’m leaving no room for error.”
A Hybrid of Old and New
As per CDC guidelines, Maverick has two compliance officers on hand at all times. To qualify, Newell’s wife Heidi and longtime staffer Lauren Shoemaker took and passed an online test.
Taking no chances, Newell said the majority of the action occurs outdoors. “Guests are in enclosed spaces for just a few minutes of the action.”
Newell calls his fictional deadly virus “ROVID,” his way of tipping his hat to George Romero, the classic film’s creator and director. His new version of the show carries the tagline: “Don’t take your mask off!”
Newell said loyal fans of Maverick’s Halloween perennial should expect to see its familiar hallmarks, albeit in a different format.
This includes the characters Romero fashioned more than 50 years ago: the stoic Ben; jittery, withdrawn Barbara; and perhaps most memorable, Helen and Harry, a bickering, chain-smoking couple whose daughter was bitten by one of the flesh-eating zombies.
The twists and turns of Romero’s original story (and Newell’s adaptation of it) remain intact, as does one of the seminal moments of Maverick’s production – the adrenaline-fueled crashing of a pickup truck through a wall. Newell notes that since the script of the stage adaptation is his, he has full creative control to make revisions. This allows him to realize his artistic vision while fashioning a production that adheres to all county and state health and safety guidelines.
Rick Stein, president and CEO of Arts Orange County, notes that “a number of organizations have dipped their toe into the water of offering live experiences in a socially distanced way, with a list of safety protocols they practice and enforce among attendees.”
“These include outdoor movies and concerts at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, outdoor concerts at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens in San Clemente, and the Irvine Barclay Theatre’s outdoor/tented jazz presentations at the Bayside and Bistango restaurants.”
Of these three examples, the Barclay’s jazz lunches perhaps come closest to what Newell and Maverick are attempting. The concert series was launched in August by Irvine Barclay head honcho director Jerry Mandel who, like Newell, felt hamstrung by regulations preventing him from using his Irvine theater space for performances. His frustrations grew with each new speculation that the lockdown on live entertainment would soon be lifted.
After five months of watching and waiting, Mandel devised a solution. Like Newell’s blueprint, it involves moving the performance from an indoor theater and replacing it with a model wherein COVID-19 health and safety guidelines can be implemented and enforced.
Are Immersive, COVID-Friendly Stagings the New Look for Live Theater?
Pandemic-inspired theater has also just sprouted across the line between Orange and Los Angeles counties.
In Los Angeles, Slauson Rec. Theater Company, a new nonprofit co-founded by Shia LaBeouf, Bobby Soto and Donte Johnson, is testing the waters of COVID-19 theater with “5711 Avalon.” Their new play is set in the early days of the pandemic and depicts its concomitant chaos, thus tying in even more directly to the crisis than does “Night of the Living Dead.”
Plays fashioned around moving or stationary cars aren’t anything new, but like Newell’s handling of his story materials, the staging methods of “5711 Avalon” exist not by choice but of necessity: An outdoor parking lot is made to resemble a drive-up coronavirus test center. Patrons park in designated spaces, then watch from the safety of their parked vehicles
The Slauson Rec. set-up most resembles a drive-in movie, right down to the audio portion being piped in through each car’s radio.
The run dates and running times of these Fullerton and Los Angeles plays closely overlap: “Living Dead” runs Oct. 16-31 and is 50 minutes in length; “Avalon” runs Oct. 16-Nov. 1 and the performances are 45 minutes.
Can Maverick’s new, interactive production serve as a model for future live shows similarly saddled by the restrictions being heaped upon us all?
Newell said only time will tell. “Doing theater with current CDC guidelines is nearly impossible. For right now, it’s simply a survival tactic. The public has become exhausted getting their entertainment from a screen and seeing live events streamed. If this is the only way the Maverick can turn a profit, it might be our only choice.”
One promising sign: many of this weekend’s performances are essentially sold out. However, tickets for the final weekend are still available (as of the writing of this story). During opening weekend, the cast performed the production 43 times.
Newell reports that the cast was exhausted, yet elated with the results. “In doing this production, we’ll learn a lot about immersive theater,” he said. “Perhaps this is the new landscape for live theater – we’ll see how this goes.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].