Hamilton resident Laura Kuhen poses as the mother with one of her plastic children in Blood Rite.

Phenomenal Animals to to unleash story of occult ritual this Halloween

When creator and director Rob Thompson began developing an idea for a horror show, he didn’t sit down and write a script.

When the Phenomenal Animals’ production of “Blood Rite” opens at Odd Act’s Warehouse Theatre Oct. 11, there still won’t be any scripted lines. Instead, the story of bones, blood and a haunting initiation ritual will depend largely on the audience to determine the characters’ actions.

The horror show is the Phenomenal Animals’ adaptation of a typical haunted house attraction in a way that is “psychologically chilling,” Thompson said.

“What I don’t like is people grabbing your ankles, or people popping out at you,” he said. “So we have created this environment that sends chills down your spine.”

The production is designed to captivate the audience by including them in the story, not just scaring them with ghosts and ghouls popping out of the shadows. Audience members will be able to experience “Blood Rite” in two different sections, and each visitor can have a different experience based on their reaction to the story and its characters.

The show will lead audience members through stages of eerie, creepy encounters and an energetic, bloody ritual. On a self-guided tour, the audience will have the chance to wander through a maze created by sociopathic bone creatures, where they’ll encounter a crazed hospital patient terrified of blood and obsessed with a broken TV, and a mother-grandmother duo who tortures their plastic doll “children,” and watch as a young girl, played by Sarah Knittel, is led into an occult initiation that celebrates the frenzied and gruesome blood ritual.

The production is what’s called a devised piece, meaning there is a theme or idea the cast explores but there is no set plot or script in developing that idea. Initial rehearsals, Thompson said, involved the actors discussing the concept of blood, talking about words that come to mind that are associated with blood, in a process that involves learning something new and “accessing everyone’s demons” each day.

The cast members are all involved with Odd Act Theatre Company, a theater group developed by Thompson seven years ago. “Blood Rite” is set to feature the Phenomenal Animals, an ensemble of professional actors, most of whom serve as instructors at Odd Act. The cast also includes an ensemble of community actors in addition to the professional actors.

For many of the cast members, a horror production was a new challenge, and preparing for the haunted roles in the show required some of the actors to actually get to know themselves on a deeper level, said Devin Arroyo, a Hamilton native who plays the role of the antagonist, leading Knittel into the initiation.

“We get to feed off energy of each other, we feed off the energy of the audience, and use that to inspire our performance and where we take our characters,” Arroyo said. “This is very actor driven, and it’s very personal and terrifying, you never know what’s gonna happen.”

Characters, like the masked, lurking doctor, were created by the actors’ own reactions and interpretations of the theme of blood, rather than having the actors portray a predetermined character.

Julie McNamara, a voice performance major at Westminster Choir College, said the time she’s spent working on “Blood Rite” has been a learning experience. In the past, McNamara had always worked from a script, and the idea of portraying her own reactions rather than a defined character’s drew her out of her comfort zone.

“For me the process taught me so much,” McNamara said. “You can be in classes all you want, but really being on stage and doing it is what teaches you the most.”

The Lawrence resident, who plays the crazed hospital patient screaming about a fear of blood and the doctor, said rehearsing was often emotionally draining, but the freedom of the production allowed her to go outside the norm and not hold anything back, which only makes the story more realistic.

“You care more about fulfillment of the story,” she continued.

Other cast members include composer and sound designer Dan Lehner, lead actor Laura Kuhen, Hamilton residents Sandra Carson-Price, Dani DiPierro, Angelina Paoline, Vince Valdora and Nick Kianka, Lawrence resident Hayley Gronenthal, and West Windsor resident Ginny Chang.

Each performance is set to last about 45 minutes, Thompson said. Cost is $10. Audience members should be 14 years or older.

Performances are scheduled for Oct. 11, 12, 18, 19, 25 and 26. The audience is welcome to come at any time between 8 and 10 p.m. Reservations are recommended, but tickets will also be available at the door. The theater is located at 200 Whitehead Road in Hamilton. To purchase tickets, call (609) 577-1384 or go online to phenomenalanimals.com.