Theater course gets spooky this Halloween season

All the campus a stage, and all the students merely players in “Staging Terror”

As the sun sets across the UChicago quad on a rainy October day, some students put on their rain jackets and boots to head out to the dining hall, while others adorn costumes to act out scenes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth on UChicago’s gothic campus. 

“Staging Terror,” a distinctive course in the UChicago Arts Core, has taken on a new role for the 2020-2021 school year. Adapted into a three-week intensive course during the month of October, “Staging Terror” teaches students how to engage with environments outside of texts in order to breathe new life into stories of horror. With class sessions taking place in various outdoor locations on camps, the course offers opportunities for in-person performance in a year where most venues are closed and is helping students interested in the performing arts continue their studies.

“Staging Terror” also unpacks events that raise anxiety—including, for some, the pandemic—and how those feelings inform the works UChicago students encounter in the Core Curriculum.

“By learning how to navigate through our own personal terrors, we can better understand how to portray what happens in a person’s mind when going through something terrifying,” said third-year Ruby Massey.

Staging Terror’s classroom is in of itself a fluid space. Mixing both synchronous and asynchronous class time, the space of any given class transforms the performances of classic works including Oedipus Rex, Macbeth and tales from Edgar Allen Poe.

On the first evening of the class, students met in an outdoor tent south of the Midway Plaisance. Using flashlights as their only light source, students navigated the naturally camp-like environment of a tent to learn how certain environments naturally can engage terror and the supernatural and how to emphasize these elements.

As Halloween approached, “Staging Terror” investigated classic horror conventions. The course’s instructor Heidi Coleman, senior lecturer in the Theater and Performance Studies department and co-director of the current Alternate Reality Game, ECHO, explains how one common element of horror, darkness, naturally produces anxiety and terror:

“It is not the things that we see that are scary; it’s the things on the periphery. It is the things that we think are there or that we imagine that are there,” she said. 

The following week, the class shifted from the Midway to UChicago’s quad to stage supernatural elements of Macbeth, such as the witches. Coleman hoped to have students learn to create an immersive effect where the audience questions if the space is actually haunted—and devise a deeply memorable way to engage with the course material.         

 “The performance itself might create enough of an impression that, in moving through that space in the future, the space itself becomes haunted by the performance,” Coleman said. “At least for this small group of us, we can never walk through that archway again without remembering our performance; to me that is haunting.”