Pondering Poe, An Immersive Halloween Theater Experience in The Cube at VT

Oct 30, 2018

Edgar Allan Poe remains one of our most famous American writers, one-hundred and sixty years after his death.  But never before have his fans been able to immerse themselves in his haunting tales, in quite the way they’ll be able to, this Halloween.  That’s when The Cube in the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech, opens a special installation called ‘Poe’s Shadows. 

Credit Meaghen Dee

“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain but once the idea was conceived, it haunted me," actor  Austin Burch reads from The Tell-Tale Heart.

Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories are scary enough on paper, but what about when they’re literally all around you, surrounding you with dread.   That’s what the people at Virginia Tech’s School of the performing arts are looking to do, by immersing you in two of Poe’s scariest works, his poem The Raven and his short story The Tell-Tale Heart

The show is called Poe’s Shadows. Opening at 10: am Halloween eve, audiences will walk through the installation at 15 minute intervals, as scary scenes unfold. Amanda Nelson teaches in the theater arts and leadership program.  She says, “We called it Poe’s Shadows for a reason.  We’re really examining the concept of shadow; foreshadowing in literature.  Poe is particularly adept at his foreshadowing and using shadow in the space. And then sound shadows, echoes of sounds past, not sure where they’re coming from or where they are."

The show is meant to be a celebration of old and the new technology in the service of storytelling; that practically reaches out and grabs you, thanks to The Cube’s 360 degree cyclorama, projecting high tech imagery everywhere, as if from nowhere. Visual communications professor Meaghan Dee says it was inspired by an older version of that technology, called a Crankie. 

“In Appalachia there’s this older form of storytelling that goes back hundreds of years called Crankies, where you have a long scroll, whether it’s painted, or done in a different way, the visual is revealed.  As you turn these cranks, the scroll reveals more of the image.  And, our thinking was, that since Edgar Allan Poe grew up in Virginia, that he might have grown up seeing stories presented in this way. 

Is there anything scarier than a creaky old door opening in an Edgar Allan Poe story?  Blame Spatial Sound Designer Tanner Upthegrove if you run out screaming before your time’s up.   Its technology born of this century and it lives in only a few performance spaces on earth. 

As far out as Poe’s stories were, could he ever have dreamed of having his work performed in this way?

English Professor Ashley Reed, who curated the text for the show along with Nelson and Natasha Staley, says yes. In fact, she says he his writing oozed sensory experience; smell, taste, touch, and most chillingly sound. “Certainly, in the Tell-Tale Heart, there’s the the repetitive sound of the narrator’s inner monologue, but also the way that Poe uses the sound of the beating heart in the writing. The reader isn’t just reading this flat thing on the page, the reader is hearing the sound of the beating heart in his or her head.  What we’ve done in this installation is, we’ve tried to bring that experience to life, so you won’t be imagining you’re hearing a beating heart, you’ll actually be hearing that beating heart."

Poe’s Shadow opens on Halloween  eve and ends November 4th.

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A series of short expert talks on related and complementary topics called “Poe Ponderings” will be held in conjunction with the installation in the Grand Lobby of the Moss Arts Center. These talks will explore topics ranging from 19th-century smells to poetry as a theatrical art form, the balance between comfort and discomfort in virtual-reality experiences, the production of spatial audio, and Poe’s Virginia roots.

Oct. 31 at noon — A Poe Pondering: “Spatial Audio from Measurement to Reproduction,” presented by Michael Roan, professor of mechanical engineering, College of Engineering.

Oct. 31 at 5:30 p.m. — A Poe Pondering: “Fearsome Stenches and Whiffs of Disease,” presented by Melanie Kiechle, associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. — A Poe Pondering: “Edgar Allan Poe as a Virginia Writer,” presented by Ashley Reed, assistant professor of English, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Nov. 1 at noon — A Poe Pondering: “Cognitive Disruption in the VR Experience,” presented by Christopher Miller, digital humanities coordinator, University Libraries; Todd Ogle, executive director of applied research in immersive environments and simulations, University Libraries; and Dillon Cutaiar, a junior majoring in computer science.

Nov. 1 at 5:30 p.m. — A Poe Pondering: “Reading Poems as Theatre,” presented by Thomas Gardner, Alumni Distinguished Professor of English, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

“Poe’s Shadows” will be held in the Cube at the Moss Arts Center, 190 Alumni Mall, on the Virginia Tech campus during the following times: Oct. 31 from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Nov. 1 from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Nov. 2 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Nov. 3 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Nov. 4 from noon to 4 p.m.

Entry into the installation is every 15 minutes on the hour.

All events are free and open to the public. No ticket is required. This experience contains mature content and themes.

Parking is available in the North End Parking Garage on Turner Street. Additional parking is available after 5 p.m. on weekdays on Alumni Mall; in the Squires Lot, located at the corner of College Avenue and Otey Streets; in the Architecture Annex Lot on Otey Street; and the Perry Street/Prices Fork lots. Find more parking information online or call 540-231-3200. Additional downtown Blacksburg parking information is available online.