Playing dead with the 14th Grade Players

A national museum may look different than the Lisner Downstage, but for members of 14th Grade Players, a stage is a stage.

The student theatre group is performing at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment’s inaugural haunted house, a historical and frightful tour that runs from now through Halloween weekend.

The exhibit centers around an actual museum artifact: an electric chair that was used in the execution of 125 men between 1916 and 1960 in Tennessee.

“We realized that we have the right facility, we have the right lighting and atmosphere for something creepy,” said Janine Vaccarello, the chief operating officer for the museum.

A team of event planners spent the summer designing the costly set for the décor of “Dead Men Walking,” the name of the performance. Once the blueprints were decided upon, Vaccarello called the theatre ensemble to lend a hand.

“We gave them a template of what we were looking for, what themes we were doing the rooms in, and then we let them write the actual scripts,” Vaccarello said of preparing the actors.

Amanda Rhodes, the 14th Grade Players’ executive producer, said that the opportunity was something unique that offers her company members a one-of-a-kind acting experience.

“We make sure our actors get as many opportunities as possible, as much experience as possible,” said Rhodes, a senior who is also acting in the event. “It also is a great opportunity for them to try their hand at some [improvisation].”

For those participants, performing in the haunted house is a chance to interact with the audience and also have some Halloween fun.

Freshman Edward Churchill said a make-up artist is on hand to make the actors appear dead.

“It’s been fun riding home on the Metro, because we can’t really take [the make-up] off, so we get some really great looks,” he said.

Aside from the attention of District-area passerby, the event is expected to be very successful in tempting students and residents to enjoy the eerie fest.

“There’s really nothing for [students] to do in D.C. that I think puts out the same quality as this, where they’ll get the same type of scares throughout it,” Vaccarello said.

For student actors, it also has some rare benefits – like a salary.

“It’s hard to find paid acting opportunities for students,” Rhodes said.

Vaccarello said the museum is also offering an opportunity for other student theatre groups to raise some income during the event. For every group that sells tickets, a portion of the profit will be returned to them.

Though the event has just begun, the ghosts, ghouls and guests of the museum have been causing quite a scene.

“I just sort of stand here and then I’m supposed to scare people – but people have just been running by,” said freshman Jeremiah Kirstein of his experience so far with the attendees. “They’re not very open to stopping and being scared.”

“Dead Men Walking: Fright at the Museum” will be open from Thursday to Saturday this weekend and next, on Seventh Street NW between E and F streets, near the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station. Tickets are available for purchase at crimemuseum.org.

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