Does getting chased by zombies feel any less terrifying if the undead have experimental theater credits?
Probably not. But even if most theater people might not have “The Walking Dead Experience — Chapter 1” on their radar, the immersive attraction, which precedes a national tour with a stop at New Jersey’s Meadowlands Dec. 4-6, comes from a team of names they’d probably recognize — starting with its creator and director, Michael Counts.
As the founder of edgy theater troupe GAle GAtes, Counts was staging sprawling, environmental theater in a cavernous Brooklyn space long before immersive theater turned trendy. Since GAle GAtes disbanded in 2003, he’s had a hand in everything from operas to art installations to Michael Kors’ brand launch in Shanghai.
His collaborators on “Walking Dead Experience” include Ryan O’Gara, the associate lighting designer of “Hamilton,” and props and set dresser Katie Fleming, who’s had a hand in immersive New York buzzmagnets “Sleep No More” and “Queen of the Night.”
They’ve all come together to scare the bejeezus out of you. “A property like ‘The Walking Dead’ needs an immersive experience that’s super dope, where people walk out and go, ‘Oh my God, that was the scariest f—in’ thing I’ve ever done,’ ” said Counts.
The matchup of downtown theater denizens and mass-market megaproperty “The Walking Dead” may not seem like the most intuitive one. But the work of Counts and his immersive-theater cohorts aims for the you-are-there immediacy and authenticity that are the same end goals for the producers of attractions like “Walking Dead Experience,” which is backed by the fan-driven Walker Stalker Con and Skybound Entertainment, the company led by “Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman.
Counts came aboard “Walking Dead Experience” when a connection at Skybound tapped him to spruce up “The Walking Dead Escape,” an obstacle course with zombies that has appeared at Comic Cons over the last couple of years.
What he came up with was a 10,000 square foot narrative attraction — six sets and a control room built into tractor trailers, plus five tents of different sizes — that drops audience members into the undead apocalypse of “The Walking Dead.” Participants, depending on which ticket they purchase, can role-play as a survivor or as one of the undead walkers (or both), with survivors going through the show either in groups of seven or, under the “sole survivor” option, all alone. Along the way they’ll encounter a cast of 16, plus 15 ticketed walkers (who, as part of the experience, don “walker make-up”).
As both survivors and walkers shuttle from location to location within the huge playing space, a story emerges — or at least, the first part of one. “Walking Dead Experience” comes with the subtitle “Chapter 1,” and Counts says he’s already written early drafts of the next several “episodes,” incorporating still-evolving visual effects tech. (In “Chapter 1,” look out for something called “holo-gauze.”)
After its soft-launch at the Meadowlands, “Experience” has mapped out a tour that takes it to Nashville (in January), Jacksonville, Orlando, New Orleans, Dallas, Denver, Chicago and Boston. (More stops will continue to be added.) With an avid fanbase stoked by a flagship TV series and a recently-renewed spinoff, “Fear the Walking Dead,” “The Walked Dead Experience” looks poised to draw mass-market crowds — who probably never expected to cross paths with the rarefied world of experimental theater.
“I wanted to make something that from a theatrical standpoint held its own, in the universe of immersive theater,” said Counts. “Something that would make people who knew my work early on say, ‘Sure, that’s how Counts would do a zombie apocalypse.’ ”