An autumn wilderness theater experience by candlelight

The mystical Halloween journey

The trail begins uphill, so there is plenty of downhill to go. The bonfire crackles proudly as the voices of children shriek with customary delight at being outside in fresh air with friends. Dusk sweeps over the land and sky and grownups speak in softer tones.

There is great anticipation in the air. Beyond the rising haze of wood smoke, some older children are in the distance, dressed all in white from head to toe, carrying candle lanterns and looking mysterious. The gleeful expectancy of the gathering crowd is juxtaposed with the anxious rush behind the scenes which in this case, is literally behind the bushes.

Over a dozen performers are poised, some up in trees, some sitting on logs, some hiding in knotweed groves by the water’s edge, with only candles and starlight to illuminate them.

As director, I am front and center checking in with lighting crew, props, scenery and trail safety. All the while, I am bringing warm beverages to actors and artists preparing to spend a long, cold evening in the woods. Each is at their station resting, reviewing lines, meditating, communing with nature, preparing in their own ways. Helpers are running relays through trail blazed shortcuts, lighting dozens of jack-o-lanterns we carved only a night or two ago. They were stored under blue vinyl tarps to protect them from being eaten by wild deer before the big night. Now, they border the long loop trail, lighting the path to keep audience members from losing their way.

The stage running crew, mostly enlisted family members and a few rugged, volunteers, are literally running back and forth to check on over a dozen performers scattered throughout the forest. There are two walkie talkies, one for me and one for my twelve year old nephew, Rowan who is my main stage hand. No one else on the trail has any way to communicate, save happenstance.

The gnomes are causing trouble. They have their own designated spot in a small, hidden clearing not far from the water nymphs where they remain, unsupervised.

Over a dozen performers are poised, some up in trees, some sitting on logs, some hiding in knotweed groves by the water’s edge, with only candles and starlight to illuminate them. Maybe a string or two of twinkle lights hang nearby, if they happen to be positioned within reach of the power source. They are all getting ready to embody characters of Catskill history, legend, or folklore for hundreds of audience members who will wander through in small clusters throughout the night. These wayfarers will discover these humans, spirits, animals and fairies hidden in the night, as they follow a quest to search for light in the darkness of the forest on All Hallow’s Eve.

The smell of autumn surrounds the sounds of many feet coming and going in rustling leaves, accompanied by the taste of honey sticks and maple syrup candy. Later, homemade chili, cornbread and apple cider will warm up each traveler at the bonfire, helping to seal the memory of this particular night through all our senses for years to come.

The gnomes are causing trouble. Most of the performers are adults, but I have allowed my ten year old niece and a group of her fifth grade friends to portray a family of gnomes. They have their own designated spot in a small, hidden clearing not far from the water nymphs where they remain, unsupervised.

My niece, Kiara is doing her best to stay on task and keep everyone in order. She along with her older brothers, has been my theater student since about the time she could speak in full sentences. She has learned to take the art of performance and weaving stories seriously. Some of her friends however, are less dedicated and a little more rambunctious about the task at hand. Each time a crew member passes by, we unfortunately discover there is drama brewing among the gnomes. They are arguing, vandalizing props and finding ways to be disorderly.

“There’s no telling what you may see or hear in the forest on this night.”

After responding to the first couple of pleas for help by my niece who is trying desperately to keep her peers in line, the crew and I unanimously decide the best thing to do is to avoid the gnomes altogether. We are all too busy with other production needs to be plagued with the task of disciplining gnomes. It will be what it will be. Our whispered advice to each other as we pass hurriedly down the backstage paths is, “stay away from the gnomes”.

When I go through the trail in daylight the next morning to begin the process of striking the set, I come upon the abandoned gnome clearing. The furniture is tipped over and the grass and surrounding area is littered with clumps of toilet paper and discarded candy wrappers. The evidence. This is what comes of sugar high, hot cider filled, rowdy children left alone in the woods. Such naughty gnomes!

The Fairy Queen of the Forest will be the first to greet the travelers. When it’s finally time to invite the first audience cluster to begin their Journey, an “Angel” dressed in white silently holds up a candle-lit lantern to signal everyone to gather round. This is an alternative Halloween event for young children. I observe nonetheless, that for each child attending there are three to five adults traipsing after them, impatiently waiting to go into the forest for this experience.

The adults look eager like the children they used to be, wanting to discover and believe once more.

Once a group of twenty or so people is gathered, I kneel down to the eye level of the youngest children. They are all decked out in their Halloween costumes. “Are you ready to go on your Journey?” I ask them. They emphatically answer that they are. “There’s no telling what you may see or hear in the forest tonight,” I explain, “This is the night when the human world, the fairy world and the spirit world can intermingle. Anything is possible. Stay on the path. Look for the light. Follow your Angel Guide. Respect all the creatures of the forest, and listen closely to what they have to say.”

The children stare in wonder, their eyes widening and twinkling in the candlelight. The older children and teens look jaded and skeptical, with a hint of hope and reluctant curiosity. The adults look eager like the children they used to be, wanting to discover and believe once more.

They are led into an opening at the edge of the lawn beyond the bonfire, behind a cluster of tall hemlock trees. As they enter, they see a very small woman dressed in a dark green velvet gown. She has silver hair, a wise, kind face, and a crown of pine needles mingled with autumn leaves on her head. She sits among the old pines in a tall throne made of thick branches. “Hello children”, she says in a thick, genuine Irish brogue, “I am the Queen of the Forest.”

To be continued…

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