The show goes on: Amherst Regional hosts immersive theater program outdoors, COVID-style

  • Background to the left is Emma Nicolau, and Tyler Schwartz, with Meagan Nicolau kneeling in the front, Amherst Regional High School students in a play called “Drive-Thru!” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Aiya Thomson, left, Emma Nicolau, middle, and Kendra Saunders perform in “Drive-Thru!,” a play put on by Amherst Regional High School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Anya Khashu performs in a play called “Drive-Thru!” put on by Amherst Regional High School. It looks like two people, but is only one done by the lighting. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Aiya Thomson (foreground), Kendra Saunders (silhouetted behind), in a play called “Drive-Thru!” put on by Amherst Regional High School students. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jackson Aller-Cohen performs in a play called “Drive-Thru!” put on by Amherst Regional High School students. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Anya Khashu (shadowed inside), and Luke Ross (silhouette out front) perform in a play called “Drive-Thru!,” put on by about 40 theater students at Amherst Regional High School over two days last week. The immersive show took place outdoors and the cast interacted with audience members who drove from scene-to-scene in their vehicles. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tyler Schwartz, left, and Kendra Saunders actors in the play put on by Amherst Regional High School called “Drive-Thru!” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Back left, Kendra Saunders and Finn Hicks in a play called “Drive-Thru!” put on by Amherst Regional High School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bridget Griffin greets a car at “Macky’s Wacky Snacky Shacky” fast-food shop, one of many scenes in “Drive-Thru!,” an immersive show put on by Amherst Regional High School students. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Aiya Thomson (foreground), Kendra Saunders (silhouetted behind), in a play called “Drive-Thru!” put on by Amherst Regional High School students. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer 
Published: 10/20/2020 4:18:31 PM

A line of vehicles waited outside the entrance to Amherst Regional High School with their lights on during one brisk fall evening last week, ready to partake in a unique theater production that involved interacting with the cast from their car.

At the first stop along the journey, each car pulled up at the drive-thru at “Macky’s Wacky Snacky Shacky,” where incomprehensible fast-food items were listed off at laser speeds and Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” played in the background.

The only person working at the small satirical fast-food shack walks out of the restaurant to greet the driver. This was the first scene in “Drive-Thru!,” an immersive drive-thru theater production — pandemic-style — by a cast of more than 40 students at Amherst Regional High School. Audience members enjoyed this outdoor show by driving from scene to scene across the school’s campus, taking part in unique conversations between actors.

Some of the other scenes that unfolded during the roughly 40-minute production included a silent-era inspired cops and robbers slapstick farce, where audience members had the ability to yell out the location of the robbers; a Victorian-era tea side chat; a science fiction-inspired first contact; and a car wash where audience members became famous celebrities.

John Bechtold, an English teacher at Amherst Regional and theater director of the production, said the immersive theater piece is much like an episode of 1980s science fiction TV series “Quantum Leap,” where main protagonist Dr. Sam Becket leaps through time, inhabiting different people throughout history.

In the limited-run production, which took place over two days last week, audience members drove from different scenes with wildly contrasting tones and had to figure out who they were and what role they played in the scene, he noted.

“Drive-Thru!” was partially born out of necessity with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic limiting indoor productions, he said.

“This year marks our 10-year anniversary of running an immersive theater program at the high school,” Bechtold said. “And at the end of October marks that very first production. In this 10th year, we got hit with this kind of world where theater-making in conventional environments simply is not possible. In some ways, this came out of the blue and we modified for it, but in other ways, this is just another show we’ve been making for the past 10 years.”

For the production, students also designed and built props and the outdoor set pieces, such as the fast-food shack and order menu and a stage for the production’s finale where a sole female singer performed a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Bechtold added that the production of “Drive Thru!” is also inspired by the work of London-based immersive theater company You Me Bum Bum Train that have been creating new works since 2005. The Amherst High theater team members thought it would be cool to give individual audience members the freedom to be the protagonist of their own stories.

“We’ve done shows literally all over the building,” Bechtold. “In this case, outside. The theme is kind of similar. We want the audience to live in the world of the show. We really value the small numbered audience connections. One carload at a time is really special because it means everything that happens is for and about you.”

Grant Powicki, a senior from Amherst who served as stage manager, said he’s been taking part in immersive theater productions every year of high school. For him, the production was a powerful capstone.

“It’s really unlike something we’ve ever done before,” Powicki said. “Being able to work with all of these amazing people and have the common goal of creating art for people in a time when they might be lacking art is really something that I’m happy to be a part of.”

Bridget Griffin, a junior from Amherst who transferred to the school this year from Pioneer Valley Performing Arts in South Hadley, said this was her first immersive theatrical production as a performer at Amherst Regional.

“I had no idea what to expect,” she noted. “These people drive in and I have no idea what they’re going to say to me and it helps me develop my character and every time a new person comes I have a new way to experience my character in a scene.”

Shreya Venkataraman, a senior from Leverett who served as student tech director for “Drive Thru!,” was in charge of the many students serving as traffic controllers, directing cars filled with audience members to more than a dozen locations across the high school campus.

“As a techy, even though we’re not directly interacting with an audience, it’s really rewarding to see audience reactions to everything,” she said. “Even just hearing little exclamations while you’re guiding people around like, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool!’ I helped create this big thing that people are really excited about.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.


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