Chris Mayers has been entertaining audiences as the skittish school master Ichabod Crane in Serenbe Playhouse’s The Sleepy Hollow Experience, a unique theatrical experience that combines theater with a haunted house. In this Quick Chat feature Mayers discusses the production, the character and his Halloween memories.
What three words would you use to describe The Sleepy Hollow Experience?
Fun, frightening, immersive
What do you enjoy best about being in The Sleepy Hollow Experience at Serenbe Playhouse?
It’s such an untraditional place to do theatre. I think what Brian Clowdus has done at Serenbe is revolutionary in the world of theater, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see other playhouses begin to pursue new ways of doing theater in the future. Rather than have plays on a traditional stage, all of Serenbe’s productions are site-specific, so for Hair, a musical set in the 70s, the “stage” was in a meadow. For Sleepy Hollow, it is set in a stable, and we lead the audience through different parts of it, and the exploration of the space coincides with the characters’ explorations of each other emotionally. We often have the ability (and were greatly encouraged) to break the fourth wall and interact directly with the audience, which guarantees that every night will be a different experience for all involved. Live theatre is like a living organism, and to me the best theatre is the kind that grows and changes every night, and I already see that happening with this show.
Have you approached playing Ichabod in a traditional manner? Or, have your brought a newer interpretation to the character?
Brian Clowdus, our director, wanted to make the show a blend of traditional and contemporary, maintaining the feel of a period piece yet making sure it moves quickly with a more modern sensibility and sense of humor. You can hear especially in the music and sound design a mixture of classical and modern music. Having that mix was one of the more challenging aspects of our character work, as we wanted to make sure it felt like we were in the 18th century and paid homage to the many adaptations that had come before while forging a new identity as a very 21st century show. In looking at previous incarnations — from the old Disney cartoon to Johnny Depp to the television show that just started this fall — we wanted to make sure Ichabod didn’t become a caricature of any kind. I think the balance we found has been enjoyable to play, keeping his timidity and fearfulness towards the supernatural while introducing a more relatable aspect to his personality. In the original short story, none of the characters are very likable: Brom is disdainful and arrogant with both Katrina and Ichabod, Ichabod seems to be using Katrina to get to her father’s farm rather than truly being in love, and Katrina uses both men seemingly out of boredom. So, we wanted to make sure each character was much more complex, with both likeable and unlikeable parts, just as we all are. Here we made sure to focus on the love story at the root of Sleepy Hollow. Again, in the short story, there isn’t much of a traditional story arc, as the ending is a bit abrupt without much leading up to it, so we wanted a tale that raised the stakes for all the characters involved. In our version, Ichabod is desperately in love with the fair Katrina, so as he walks through these different fearful moments, the audience feels more deeply that they want him to survive, not merely because he’s the main character but because they want to see love triumph.
What do you find most interesting about Serenbe’s The Sleepy Hollow Experience?
For me, the sound design and the stables are the two most fascinating parts of the production. The original sound and music by Bobby Johnson and Jevares Myrick helps to immerse both the audience and the cast in the gothic-tinged reality of Sleepy Hollow. Once we introduced the sound elements into the production, our rehearsals took a huge leap forward as each of us just felt very deeply the assumed reality of the play, where the supernatural is very present and seems to haunt Ichabod’s every step. And then you have the stables, which by themselves are very creepy at night. Add in the overwhelming lights and sounds and “boo” moments, and I was often frightened just as a performer.
What surprised you the most during the live performance of The Sleepy Hollow Experience?
It probably shouldn’t have surprised me, really, but I’m continually amazed at how immersive the experience is for the audience. To hear them gasp and shout and laugh and scream is very enjoyable as an actor because it means you’re doing your job well. Most actors try not to read reviews because it may change the way that the actor and the director had decided to take the characters, so the best feedback we get is from our director and from the audience. That electrifying connection between actors and those watching is something you can’t replicate anywhere but in live theatre, and to be in a play where we can directly interact with the audience brings a whole new level to that connection. Any time an audience member screams or exclaims that they may have peed their pants, you know you’ve done your job.
If you were going to a costume party, what would your costume be?
I would dress up like Danny Zuko, John Travolta’s character in Grease, but whenever someone asks who I am, I’d say I’m Nicolas Cage from Face/Off. Why? BECAUSE NICOLAS CAGE THAT’S WHY.
Do you have a favorite Halloween memory?
When I was eleven, I saved up all my allowance and lawn-mowing money to purchase a Darth Vader mask. My mom told me that she would make me a costume if I wanted her to but that if I wanted a mask, I would have to purchase it myself. It was $40, and I wanted it so bad. To actually be in Star Wars was basically my life goal at the time, so that moment when I had finally saved up the money and was able to purchase this glorious rubber replica of the most infamous villain in cinema is one that has seared itself into my memory as one of the highlights of my childhood. Of course, I didn’t have any other money to purchase the rest of the outfit, so my mom graciously made me a cape and passable black suit, but when I walked around trick-or-treating that year, there was no question in my mind that I was actually the Sith Lord himself. I tried to force choke people as I walked around so I could get their candy, but it never worked, which is probably for the best because all that candy would have just made me sick, and I hear they put razor blades in the apples that year.
The Sleepy Hollow Experience plays through October 31, 2013. For tickets and more information, please visit our Now Onstage listing or the theater’s website. Most shows have already sold out, but some late night performances have been added.