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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Hidden among the tree tops

Treewalk at the UBC Botanical Garden is location for site-specific horror story

For a theater professional who has developed a reputation for promenade-style productions, it may come as a surprise to know that Chelsea Haberlin is not a huge fan of the genre.

“I don’t like promenade theatre, but it is what I enjoy doing the most,” says Haberlin, who co-directs ITSAZOO’s newest promenade-style show, Hidden at the UBC Botanical Garden.

Described as a “bone-chilling, site-specific horror event”, it may also come as a surprise to hear Haberlin is not a fan of the horror genre either.

“I hate being scared, and hate horror movies,” confesses Haberlin. “But I think we are all attracted to things that intrigue us, and I am fascinated in all the ways we can scare each other. I think horror is fascinating, and we continue to look at ways that we can do with an audience.”

Written by ITSAZOO’s playwright-in-residence, Sebastian Archibald, the genesis for Hidden ironically came from Haberlin.

“She is not really a horror fan or buff, but after we did Debts at the Roedde House in 2012, Chelsea came up with the idea of expanding on that,” says Archibald, who also co-directs.

“One of the things I remember about Debts were these two men, who were strangers, holding each other in the corner of the Roedde House,” recalls Haberlin. “I was fascinated by the way in which horror could bring together people.”

“I was fascinated by the way in which horror could bring together people.” – Chelsea Haberlin

Haberlin’s original thought was to drop audiences in the middle of the forest and see what might transpire.

“What I wanted was for an audience to have this impulse that it was unsafe and out of control, even though it wasn’t,” she says.

Realizing that simply dumping an audience into the woods was not practical, Archibald built on Haberlin’s original concept. Adding his own fascination with murder tours, he began to explore how the two ideas could come together.

“I was reading about these murder tour companies, like the one in L.A. where they take you to where the Manson family murders happened,” explains Archibald. “We merged that with all of Chelsea’s impulses, and this fucked up way of monetizing death and horrific parts of history.”

The result is Hidden, where an audience of 13 (naturally) treads into the forest where their tour guide shares the gruesome story of a murder that took place in the forest exactly 20 years ago; and, of course, the restless spirit who still walks those very woods.

Taking place at the UBC Botanical Garden, the choice of the location for Hidden came after the play was written.

“We were scouting locations and we ended up at the UBC gardens,” says Archibald. “We met with the garden director and we were enamored by the space. On the one end there is this really dense forest, and then we saw the tree-top walkway. We knew immediately that we needed to incorporate it into the show.”

The Greenheart Treewalk at the UBC Botanical Garden, a 310 metre long aerial trail consisting of platforms linked together by bridges, tied nicely into the theme of the play.

“This idea of monetizing death, being at arm’s length from a tragedy and paying for this voyeuristic view was perfect for Hidden,” says Archibald. “The audience is on the walkway for almost half of the performance, watching the action below. They start out being the observer, but soon become the observed.”

A big part of Hidden, of course, is in creating the impression that the audience is in imminent danger.

“So much of this untapped territory for us,” admits Archibald. “How do we scare the shit out of an audience in the dark, and still have everything really safe? People have to buy into the illusion.”

Hidden plays at the UBC Botanical Gardens from October 22 to November 19. Visit for information.

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