The Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, N.Y.
The Gateway Playhouse is located in Bellport, N.Y.—a coastal village that lies on Long Island’s south shore, 60 miles east of Manhattan. The Gateway, now a non-profit organization, was first established in 1950 and remains the region’s oldest professional theatre. Since the early days of summer stock shows, limited staff and shoestring budgets, the organization currently employs over 200 theatre professionals who cast, design, build, stage and perform in nearly ten Broadway quality productions each year. Gateway’s Haunted Playhouse first launched in 2009, during the middle of America’s “great recession.” Paul Allan, the theatre’s managing producer, recalls that this haunted house move had been discussed for several years prior, as a way to compliment the theatre’s main business. “Our staff originated the idea of doing a haunted house. We would talk about it at the end of production meetings for our summer shows — or often times after work over a few drinks,” Allan said. “Our summer season of musicals ends in September and many of our creative staff and technicians worked at haunts in New York and across the country during our down time. Gateway’s Haunted Playhouse was born because they were enthusiastic about creating our own haunt.” For Allan, a haunted house has all the elements of a great theatrical performance and also allows the theatre’s artists to exercise every fiber of their creative muscle. Compared to a theatrical production that has a predetermined script and setting, the haunt provides a blank slate that is ripe for creativity. One such creator is haunt director Michael Baker, a longtime aficionado of haunted attractions. Every year, Baker, Allan and the theatre’s staff set a new theme and concept for each version of Gateway’s Haunted Playhouse. These stories are built on historical facts and are often spun from the theatre’s rich history. One such story involved the horrible creations of a demented prop maker from the early days of the theatre, while another showed the lasting effects of a vengeful caretaker. These tales come to life when placed against the backdrop of the Gateway property — a mix of different architectures that create a macabre visual appearance when properly lit. Some buildings remain from the original settlement, now centuries old, while others were constructed by the prominent Mott family after the Civil War. It is widely believed that members of the Mott family still haunt the playhouse and its surrounding buildings. Recently, the theme has been borrowed from strange occurrences outside the theatre. Long Island is home to many government laboratories — each with their own unique lore — which provided the groundwork for the creation of a government controlled airborne virus brought havoc to the surrounding community of Bellport. As a result, 2012’s haunt was christened “Hellport” and a dystopian version of the tranquil village was reproduced inside the walkthrough attraction. Once a theme has been decided, Baker begins conversations with wig and makeup designer Trent Pcenicni, who sketches specific characters that deepen the storyline. Each room in the haunt will be themed around the lives of these individuals. Baker and Pcenicni take great care to include a wide assortment of characters and types of scares so that people of all ages and backgrounds — from those who plunge head first into the haunt, to those who cower at the tail end of each group — are affected by what’s inside. This mixture of characters and effects is designed to assault all bodily senses for the scariest haunted house experience possible. In some rooms, pungent odors of rotting flesh and raw sewage clog the air. In others, patrons wade their way through a sinking floor and feel their way through a dark room, blockaded by bodybags suspended from the ceiling like hanging meat in a haunted butcher shop. Around another corner, patrons cower in fear as they come face-to-face with a shower of sparks created by a burly, chainsaw wielding psycho who wildly slices through an electrified fence. While these haunting characters provide ample scares for patrons, their sensorial assault is also used to setup a deeper, subtle, more lasting fright: the “psychological” scare. This haunt technique utilizes the character’s inner emotional state — not just what the character is doing — to achieve its outcome. Pcenicni describes a “naked man” character in order to illustrate how a “psychological” scare can be effective when placed against other types of terror. During one haunt sequence, patrons had their senses jarred by a sequence of moving floors, a loud “startle scare” in an electrocution chamber, and an eerie environment filled with televisions emitting static. They then discovered a character that appeared to be nude, lying motionless and speechless on the floor of the following room. Despite not having to speak or move, the actor accomplished his scare, because he remained true to his story. Moreover, patrons continued to rave over the existence of this ‘naked man’ long after exiting the haunted house, even as they walked to their cars. This type of committed, live actor gives Gateway’s Haunted Playhouse its unique intimacy. Quality acting has long been synonymous with the Gateway name, as actors such as Robert Duvall, David Carradine and Gene Hackman have trod the boards on its stage. The theatre is also home to the Gateway Acting School, which trains nearly 300 young actors annually. Baker, a Gateway Acting School instructor and member of Actors’ Equity Association, teaches and rehearses each company of haunt actors. Although many are trained stage, film and television actors, the entire cast undergoes a general audition to assess how each could be suitable in particular roles and scenes. During the audition, actors assemble into groups and are first encouraged to utilize their senses of smell and taste as they act out facing cold, wet or arid conditions. Specific rehearsals are devoted to voice, which helps each company member produce a catalog of sounds — from loud screams and dizzying cacophonies, to low groans and slight whimpers. As the improvisations become more specific, all actors explore three different character types: victim, aggressor and helper. Baker believes that this process lays a foundation for any scene that would be included in the haunt. “We rehearse over and over because it’s important that the actors are comfortable in their circumstances. These sessions give them the tools necessary to stay in character,” Baker said. “There’s no ‘right or wrong’ in how to act. It’s about commitment to the situation. Even transitions in our haunt are still scenes and require the same level of commitment, in character. After each scare, our actors are trained to maintain their focus as they reset and prepare for the next group of haunted house victims.” This dedication to the actor’s body and mind bleeds through into design and technical decisions. Although full, over-the-head masks are often used for intimidation, Gateway’s Haunted Playhouse prefers not to depend on them solely, because they constrict the actors’ emotive abilities. Instead, costumes and makeup applications are relied on to make a distinct, visual look that is specific to each haunt character.