“With debutantes women were announced into society as being worthy of being seen essentially,” Nicol says. “We play with what the pressure of that meant, for the women and men, and what happens if you don’t conform to that ideal, even to this day. How does that affect you?”
Beginning with the cast breaking into the hall, the show is punctuated by vignettes in 13 spaces, announced by screams, cries for help, knocking on walls and figures running through the space in the dark. Audience members, wearing the provided masquerade masks, begin an hour-long choose-your-own-adventure.
Nicol, who conceived the idea of Haunted, workshopped similar ideas with Punchdrunk, the British theatre company behind the acclaimed site-specific work Sleep No More. Based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth it features a labyrinthine, multi-level interactive set inviting visitors to wander at will.
“Immersive theatre is as close as you can get to walking into a dream,” Nicol says. “There’s something inherently playful and uneasy about it because the rules of theatre are thrown out the window.”
Unlike Sleep No More, Haunted has no set or props. Petersham Town Hall, a 1938 brick art deco building designed in the stripped classical style with walnut panelling, teal velvet curtains and British Imperial Axminster carpet, acts as the stage. Fear and dread builds via unexpected noises, erratic light-spill from exit signs and street-lights and unannounced brushes with the cast.
“Half the fear comes from not knowing,” Nicol says. “Whatever the threat or terror it’s better that the audience imagine it rather than us show it to them.”
Cast member Tirian Tanious, 19, anticipates the show will trigger discussion of issues facing young people while profoundly scaring audience members.
“There will probably be a few things happening that aren’t part of the show,” he says. “Doors flinging open in the wind, loud bangs. You’d be pretty freaked out here by yourself at night.”
Those seeking extra Halloween thrills can join a community game of zombie tag led by inner west senior citizens before Haunted’s October 31 and November 8 shows.
“It’s approximately 20 over 65-year-olds re-enacting a zombie apocalypse,” Nicol says. “They all absolutely love doing it.”