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The maggots may already be feasting on its bones, but New York Avenue NW’s Fort Fringe—a summertime D.C. theater destination that’s been on death row for years—is getting reanimated through Nov. 2 as the site of the “zombie survival experience” DC Dead.
To the casual ticket-buyer plunking down $35 ($40 for Halloween weekend) for the privilege of blasting actors made up as the walking dead with Nerf guns, this live-action video game might just be a fun thing to do with up to five of your friends in between bar visits. But to at least some of the 60-plus volunteers who showed up during DC Dead’s first weekend to snarl and smear fake blood on people and get shot at, it’s a way to say a final farewell to the Capital Fringe Festival’s former home. At least that’s how DC Dead’s writer/director Rex Daugherty and writer/producer Vaughn Irving sold the actor-volunteers on the idea.
Our terrifying tale begins seven years ago, when developer Douglas Jemal bought A.V. Ristorante Italiano at 607 New York Ave. NW from the family that had run it since 1949. He planned to demolish it and put up an office tower. But then, a strange and terrifying pandemic swept through the real-estate business, and the corpse of the old bistro with the all-opera jukebox rose to its feet again: Instead of destroying it, Jemal leased the 21,000-square-foot site to Capital Fringe CEO Julianne Brienza, who for seven summers made it the nexus of D.C.’s ground-level theater community, with four performance venues and a bustling beer garden.
The roof leaked. There were rats. The makeshift theaters were suffocatingly hot. There weren’t enough toilets. But despite the paint visibly rotting off its walls, the festival shuffled ever onward, seeking healthy new hosts for the theatrical infection that turns emotionally continent humans into Drama People.
After years of vague announcements about its pending relocation, Capital Fringe at last closed on its permanent new headquarters at 1358 Florida Ave. NE earlier this month. But the very liabilities that made its crumbling New York Avenue digs an unfit home for a growing arts organization looking to go legit—vermin, exposed plumbing, poltergeists—are desirable qualities in a haunted house.
It was the first place Daugherty and Irving thought of when they decided to stage a game combining the adrenaline rush of a paintball shootout with the puzzle-solving challenge of a treasure hunt.
“This building is terrifying,” says Daugherty on a break from rehearsals at the Fort, four nights before DC Dead opened last Thursday. “The stairs up to Redrum”—one of Fort Fringe’s stifling second-story theaters—“are like the Exorcist stairs. We knew wouldn’t have to do any set-dressing.”
They’ve still done some set-dressing, albeit mostly with old furniture and junk that was already on site. A bizarre collage of pasted-up newspaper clippings, old photographs, and notations and doodles in magic marker covers the interior of one of the Fort’s second-story windows, looking like something a mad scientist would put on the wall of his cell. Daugherty swears it was there when he and Irving moved in. They’re responsible for the fog machine downstairs, however.
The idea of building a show around a zombie hunt came when Daugherty and Irving realized they’d both organized them for fun. (Daugherty staged a “zombie-apocalypse surprise bachelorette party” for his sister last summer.) In the scenario the duo has cooked up, the audience/players must search Fort Fringe for clues to locating a vaccine for the plague that’s decimated Our Nation’s Capital while fending off attacks from the undead. Up to six players at a time accompany an actor/guide on a tour of the complex—including areas formerly off-limits to the public, like the old restaurant’s kitchen. If the players don’t piece together the clues they need to advance to the next stage of the game, their guide may start to offer hints. (With a new game starting every 20 minutes, they need to keep teams moving through the building to make way for the next group.) Each game runs about 45 minutes, and different endings are possible based on the choices participants make at key moments in the story.
Players are issued Nerf dart guns and T-shirts (“infection barometers”) and briefed on the rules of engagement: The zombies—called “staphers,” as their disease is believed to have mutated from staphylococcus bacteria—will try to tag you with “blood.” Two bloody handprints on your shirt and you’ll have to finish out the game as a stapher. Punters are to engage the enemy only with their Nerf weapon; you’re not allowed to take on the undead hand-to-rotting hand, which seems only fair since they’re not allowed to bite you. Staphers wear eye protection, so you can Get Some without fear of blinding the actors, if you’re the sort of person who worries about that.
It’s much more elaborately imagined than a mere haunted house, Daugherty says. By way of demonstration, he takes out his iPhone and cues up the believably fear-mongering fake news bulletin about the outbreak that players will hear while waiting in line to depart. “I made this in Garageband,” he says.
Whether it’s our pervasive fear of another doomsday epidemic—SARS, bird flu, or a new, allegedly more virulent strain of Ebola—or a creeping existential sense that we’re shuffling through our days half-awake, zombies have been resurgent in the culture ever since 9/11: There was the epidemic flick 28 Days Later from Danny Boyle and Alex Garland and the start of the comic book The Walking Dead in 2003; then Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s parody Shaun of the Dead in 2004; Max Brooks’ fictional-but-convincing oral history World War Z in 2006; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in 2009; TV’s The Walking Dead starting in 2010; Colson Whitehead’s “literary” zombie novel Zone One in 2011; and World War Z (the movie that had little to do with the book, but still wasn’t bad) in 2013.
Or maybe it’s a yearning to be free of our obligations to our loved ones that makes these stories so popular. After all, DC Dead’s vaccine premise aside, there’s no cure for a zombie bite. If your spouse/child/parent/best buddy gets infected, the most merciful thing you can do is kill them before they turn. Bring the kids!
Daugherty declines to state what this is all costing him and Irving, but he says Brienza cut them a generous deal on the sublet of Fort Fringe and that the duo’s fronting the production’s entire tab (and accepting all the risk). “We’re not a theater company,” he says. “We’re working actors.” Indeed, Daugherty gave up a steady gig performing in Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center for the last eight months to direct DC Dead.
Daugherty says he and Irving will end up in the black if they can sell out a full weekend of performances plus one weeknight. Last Saturday, they sold all but 11 tickets for 13 performances they put on sale. Daugherty expects business to tick up as Halloween gets closer. To their benefit: Because DC Dead isn’t a Capital Fringe production, you don’t need a CapFringe button to be admitted, a requirement that, in past years, has inspired almost as much shovel-swinging as the undead.
There’s a recurring cast of 10, but the dozens of actors Daugherty and Irving have recruited to play staphers throughout the run are all volunteers. While the audience may not be aware of the show’s significance as what’s probably Fort Fringe’s last production, the duo is counting on the theater community’s affection for the place to bring out the, er, dead. Both theater-makers have long ties to this building: Daugherty directed a play called Yours, Isabel for the Wattage Festival there in 2010 and rehearsed Solas Nua’s critically adored production of Disco Pigs there the year before that. Irving, meanwhile, co-wrote and performed in two back-to-back hit musicals in the 2013 and 2014 Capital Fringes: Disco Jesus and the Apostles of Funk and You, or Whatever I Can Get. The pair met when they interned together in 2007 at Wayside Theatre Company, a regional theatre in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley that shut down last year.
For Daugherty, watching another scrappy theater venue succumb to the tide of gentrification, no matter how much of a building upgrade it’s getting, is a bittersweet experience. His wife, Lee, was the managing director of Theater Alliance in 2012 when that company’s home, the H Street Playhouse, got priced out of the H Street NE neighborhood it had occupied for a decade. “That building is now a CrossFit gym,” Daugherty says. (His DC Dead character is code-named H Street as a nod to the old playhouse.) In the face of such pressures, D.C.’s community of theater-makers has banded together. DC Dead’s fake blood recipe, for instance, was contributed by Daugherty’s pal Casey Kaleba, a busy fight choreographer who handled the gore for Faction of Fools’ production of Titus Andronicus last summer. “He said, ‘What do you need it to do?,’” Daugherty recalls. “I told him, ‘I need it to stay wet.’ So we’re using Titus’ blood in this show.”
If DC Dead is a hit, Daugherty and Irving hope to make it annual event using other vacant buildings, or even export it to other cities. “L.A. Dead. Oklahoma City Dead. Chicago Dead. If we could franchise it, that would be amazing,” Daugherty says.
But if the show’s last three weekends flop and it suddenly dies, don’t toss aside your lobotomizer (or Nerf darts) just yet. Unless you destroy the brain, you can’t keep a walker, or a zeke, or a skel down.
Photo by Wilder Photography, courtesy of DC Dead