On a late September night this fall, Luverne Seifert stood outside in a pouring rain, surrounded by acres of curling fog and a shadowy parade of zombies and ghouls sporting blood and very long fingernails.
It was the last rehearsal night for the 400 creatures who populate ValleySCARE, the annual frightfest sponsored by the mega-entertainment park Valleyfair in Shakopee. ValleySCARE 2015 would be opening to the public the next evening, so tonight—downpour or not—Seifert, a senior teaching specialist in CLA’s Department of Theatre Arts & Dance, as well as a respected thespian himself—was watching 16 of his students perform in an unsettling creation they’re calling “Human(e) Habitat.”
Populated with mad scientists, half-humans, and caged creatures of questionable DNA, Human(e) Habitat—one of a dozen spooky spots at this year’s ValleySCARE—is debuting as a first-time partnership between CLA and Valleyfair. In the process of creating it, Siefert, the students from his Creative Collaborations class, and visiting artist Jim Lichtscheidl have built and choreographed a maze designed not just to scare—although it certainly does that—but also to be a narrative and theatrical experience for both actors and visitors.
Seifert and Lichtscheidl—himself a respected Guthrie Theater actor who has designed many Halloween haunts in his own basement—worked for months to develop the broad outlines of an idea for the space. Then, in the three weeks between the start of fall semester and opening night, the students developed ideas and characters, created costumes, and practiced skills that stretched their creative, theatrical, and analytical skills.
“We wanted to go beyond the traditional zombies and vampires and heighten the story,” says Seifert. “So we started looking at DNA—and what it would be like if we had a lab that was actually creating half-animal, half-human characters. The students are extremely imaginative. They ask ‘What if?’ and they go full-force. This seemed like a great opportunity to explore skills in a setting that thousands of people walk through every day.”
If you are among those thousands, you’ll not only be frightfully amazed, but you’ll also be part of the story. As a would-be volunteer in the Human(e) Habitat “lab,” you’ll be scanned to see what kind of animal might be a good DNA match for you. Then, the scene will become progressively eerier as you meet creatures like an almost-porcupine, a nearly-there octopus, and creatures-in-transition who growl and screech from their respective cages. Fortunately, you will escape with your own DNA intact.
Nineteenth Century Horror Meets Twenty-first Century Science
Creating this exhibit has offered extraordinary opportunities for students. Learning about genetic testing was one, but the students also studied works like H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which a scientist creates human-like hybrid beings and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which it becomes ultimately impossible to tell whether creatures are pigs or humans.
Ellen Sansone, a sophomore theater arts major, plays a patient transforming into a bear.
“It was challenging trying to understand how we were going to create this entire world,” she says. “How would we keep a narrative and not just be scary? We looked at classical literature, but also studied scientific material, like images of hybrid and genetically modified animals.”
Tate Sheppard, a sophomore who is double majoring in theatre arts and Spanish & Portuguese studies, plays a bloody-bandaged, writhing patient who is rubber-strapped to a chair following his first animal-DNA injection.
“The most challenging thing has been that it’s a five-hour performance, but it’s not a stage performance where you have lines,” he says. “It’s an improv. I can’t scream the whole time, so I have to find a way take a break from freaking out but still be in character. It’s artistry. It’s not just, ‘I want to scare people.’”
Jim Lichtscheidl compares the experience to a mini theater-performance tour. “The theater experience is about listening to your audience, learning what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “Those are valuable tools for an actor, whether you’re scaring people or making them laugh. It’s like a Broadway tour: You play the same role, but it’s compressed. It’s a challenge to keep the character fresh and in the moment.”
This collaboration has been a great bonus to the ValleySCARE lineup, says Entertainment Manager Lance Heal at Valleyfair.
“So far this has really exceeded our expectations,” says Heal, who notes that the Halloween season attracts large crowds. “It helps us increase the caliber of our attractions. It’s certainly been a mutually beneficial experience for both the students and us. The students’ talent is amazing. They really understand performance. We hope to do more of this in the future.”