I've seen enough zombie films to know there's not often a happy ending to the story. As the corpses pile up and society dissolves, the possibility of happiness in the face of an ever-pursuing zombie horde seems slim. Despite that, at least two people walked away from Blackout Theatre's annual zombie maze with their happy ending intact. “There's a couple that met at the very first Quarantine,” said Jeff Andersen, the artistic director of the theater company. They were strangers when they came to Quarantine, an immersive show that puts attendees right smack in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. After they navigated the maze together, they started talking about their experience. They've been dating ever since. “They're going to celebrate their anniversary by coming to Quarantine this year,” Andersen added.
“Quarantine forces you to bond,” Andersen said of the interactive bit of theater. While Quarantine is frequently billed as a haunted house, Andersen notes, “haunted houses have always essentially been live theater.” Rarely, however, are playgoers asked to participate in the action of the story that is unfolding before them. The enveloping experience of Quarantine is changing that and flipping notions of traditional theater on their heads. Say goodbye to the fourth wall, everybody.
Quarantine: Origins is the third installment in an ongoing live theater production created by the members of Blackout that takes place every October. Crafted across acres at Rio Grande Community Farms (1701 Montaño NW), this year actors tell the story of how the world came to be overrun with zombies. Through cult ritual, religious zeal and dark necromancy, the undead have inherited the world of the living and inevitably, they're hungry. Previous years of Quarantine have faced visitors with the challenge to escape from the city into the safety of New Mexico's wilderness and pitted them against a terrifying journey to a secured facility for the living. Each year, the story grows and expands, as does the number of visitors.
“I think theater should be visceral and immediate,” Andersen said in between sips of coffee. “We want to make theater something that surrounds you. That's what separates it from film and other art forms. You can really become a part of it, a character.” When asked if he thinks the shape of modern theater is changing to become more immersive, Andersen's answer is an emphatic “yes.” Finding yourself in the thick of the action, rather than passively observing a play from the darkened aisles of a traditional theater is a powerful and shared artistic expression, one that both the players and the audience get to create. “It's a different show every night,” Andersen said, “preparing and responding to how the audience will react is the most intriguing challenge for everyone involved in the production.”
“… You become a character in the play and self-revelation is inherent to that experience.”
That shared experience might not create the most positive reactions—Andersen mentions that attendees have thrown set pieces at the actors and kicked through doors when fear and adrenaline rile them—“but it does allow for connection, even if you walk away thinking, ‘Man, humanity sucks.’” Regardless of what fear can reveal in ourselves and each other, audiences are excited about the tangible connections that are created when fiction and reality become indistinguishable and they have a genuine experience together. “In modern society it can be really hard to connect with others, it's special and unusual to have these interactions with strangers,” Andersen said.
“Most forms of entertainment can't create these bonds and encourage introspection the way interactive theater can,” Andersen continued, “you become a character in the play and self-revelation is inherent to that experience. That's what makes me think that this is where theater needs to go in the future.” Audiences seem only too happy to be swept up in the action and play along with the story that the actors of Blackout Theatre, their guest artists and volunteers are creating with impressive acumen. There's no telling what effect the gore and terror will have on attendees. Powerful emotions like the fear induced by the brainless but hungry, fast moving zombies of Quarantine can be uncomfortable. “You question if that's how you would really react to an experience like this,” Andersen said.
The resulting effect of the story created when audiences and players interact is fascinating and revitalizes traditional notions of what theater can be. “Our greatest goal is making theater something that everyone feels they can participate in,” said Andersen. With Quarantine, “we're intentionally trying to remove peoples' bias about what a play is and where a theater can exist.” There's a potency in both the horror genre and Blackout Theatre's rejection of traditional dramatic values that increase theater's flexibility, expanding the possibilities of the genre. There are connections and insights to be had in the tangle of corn stalks, under the stars, and to the chorus of screams at Quarantine that can't be gained through a night at home watching television. “You can't put a show on on Netflix and become completely engaged like this, to become part of a different world the way you can with this show,” Andersen said. He pauses before adding, “we don't want people to feel like they can get away … until they do.” In the midst of this ambitious modern horror theater, actors and playgoers alike struggle to the exit of the maze with the undead at their heels, emerging having experienced some of the best theater that Albuquerque has to offer, and that in itself is a happy ending. Catch insights and an adrenaline rush with the living dead before Oct. 31. While those younger are permitted with a parent, the thrills of the maze are best enjoyed by guests 16 and up. Visit quarantineabq.com for times.