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“The Sleepy Hollow Experience” is an inclusively spooky show

Standing in a crowded, dark meadow is likely not anyone’s idea of an ideal fall evening, but “The Sleepy Hollow Experience” has brought audiences to Serenbe Playhouse for seven years now. 

The show combines a traditional play with aspects of a haunted trail. Guests are led through a path of torches to an eerie clearing surrounded by several stages. Five actors, as well as a crew of costumed volunteers, guide audiences from stage to stage as the piece progresses.

“The thought behind everything we do is completely immersive, sight-specific theatre,” Hannah Beth Turner, the director of guest experience at Serenbe Playhouse, said. “We choose a location that lends itself to the play that we’re doing.”

Serenbe Playhouse has been known for doing interactive shows such as this one throughout their 10 years as a theater company. Unlike a traditional theater, there isn’t a permanent stage. Each show takes place in an outdoor environment, connected to the natural world. 

“Everything is sight-specific,” Turner said. “We’ll always choose a location. We’ll always choose plays that lend themselves to the outdoors and then base our site and our location around that. They’re not all walking. Some of them are more traditional — you get to sit in a chair and watch a full-length musical.” 

One thing that makes the show especially immersive is the inclusion of a “headless” horseman. Observant audience members have the chance to see subtle appearances of the horseman at a distance throughout the show, until the headless horseman comes into full view toward the end of the performance, galloping past audience members in all of its spooky glory. 

“Automatically, there’s already this level of spectacle by setting a classic piece of literature or theater out in the woods where it’s not usually done,” Madison Welch, the actress playing the first storyteller, said. “Having a live horseman just makes it that much more real and adds that extra spooky element, which is special.”

For reasons like this, “The Sleepy Hollow Experience” has become a fan favorite throughout the years, despite Serenbe Playhouse’s location being 30 miles outside of Atlanta. 

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“We have audience members that come year after year because this has become a part of their tradition,” Erin Burnett, the actress behind the character Katrina von Tussle, said. “It’s cool that we can create that for people.”

One such audience member is Chris Hill, who came to see “The Sleepy Hollow Experience” three times.

“I really enjoy the outdoor atmosphere, especially with this play,” Hill said. “The stories are spooky and get you out of your comfort zone, but it’s all fun. I like getting scared but when I know it’s a safe environment.”

The purpose of “The Sleepy Hollow Experience,” in addition to connecting a live performance with the outdoors, is to create a spooky yet inclusive theatre environment. 

“You feel like you’re sitting around a campfire, and people are just telling you a ghost story,” Turner said. “I think it takes Halloween back to that level that maybe they had in the 1800s, which is the goal. But there’s no gore. There’s no jump-scares. It’s not like the Halloween haunted houses that you see now.”

Serenbe Playhouse even offers a daytime “Sleepy Hollow Experience” option for audiences, such as children, who may scare easily in the dark.

In fact, “The Sleepy Hollow Experience” is rated PG and can easily be enjoyed by onlookers of all ages, including younger kids. The actors in the show are trained to improvise the small moments of the show and banter playfully with children in the audience.

Other improvised moments in the show include the name of the second storyteller. The two storytellers of the show are responsible not only for explaining the narrative behind the show, but also for bringing the other characters of the show from a seemingly comatose state into the live world of the performance. Whether or not these characters are of the supernatural is ambiguous. 

“[My storyteller’s name] just changes every night,” Erik Abrahamsen, the actor playing the second storyteller, said. “It’s one of the fun things about the show. There is a set pattern as to how things are going to go, but then there’s some fluidity within that. We get to play around. I don’t have a name, and anyone can call me anything.”

However, the first storyteller’s name, Abigail, remains constant throughout the show. The title grounds the actress in the time period of the show. The first storyteller is the guiding force of the entire show.

“Storyteller One comes to life first, and from there, she’s able to bring everyone else to life,” Welch said. “She brings Storyteller Two to life and endows him with that power to also bring everyone else to life and to help her carry that story. I think there’s a lot of power in a female figure guiding a story.”

The production brings a unique Halloween tradition to Georgia through performance, song and a staggering sense of community. 

“This is just a great way to kick off Halloween and the whole fall season,” Burnett said. “Not only are we telling ghost stories, but we’re singing songs, we’re playing games, we’ve got hot cider, and there’s a communal nature that we have with the audience.”

What makes this show truly so special for audiences of all ages is that underneath the spooks, songs, and apple cider is a fun, playful show. The actors are having fun taking pictures and playing games with the theatregoers and this infectious attitude radiates into the audience.

“This is our seventh year doing ‘The Sleepy Hollow Experience’ here in Serenbe,” Burnett said. “I truly attest to the fact that what they’ve created here in the woods is something that that the audiences really love. It makes it new and different for us every night. Even though it’s spooky at the end, we always leave with a smile.”

“The Sleepy Hollow Experience” is playing at Serenbe Playhouse through Nov. 3.