By Chris Mays
Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center’s “Forest of Mystery” is a fun way to celebrate the fall season by hiking at night and taking in a haunting but humorous story.
James and Jess Gelter, a couple from Brattleboro, have been writing and directing the outdoor show for 11 years now. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this production will be their 10th.
“Forest of Mystery” has been around for nearly 30 years. Patti Smith, a naturalist at the education center, credited a board member with coming up with the idea for the event. She said a number of directors have been tapped for the project between the first, local mystery author Michael Nethercott, and the Gelters.
Smith finds the Gelters’ scripts “hilarious.”
“They’re great,” she said of the couple. “I love working with them.”
James recounted how Nethercott asked him if he’d be interested in taking over the show, because Nethercott had a book deal and wouldn’t have time to direct it anymore. James said he would do it on the condition that Jess can join him.
About a mile of trail at the center is lit up for the show, mostly with torches and candles. Depending on the theme, electronic and special effects lighting might be added.
“We’ve had glowing holes in the ground,” Jess said, “laser lights that light up the trees.”
Jess said the lights aid in creating “magical and surreal feels.”
As the audience hikes up the trail, they stop at a dozen or so spots cleared for scenes to be performed by actors. The climax always occurs at the top of Heifer Hill, which provides a 360-degree view of Brattleboro.
Past shows have ended with giant puppets, a broken-down spaceship, circus artists performing aerial stunts and a band of fiddlers.
The Gelters have seen the cast grow from about 20 or 25 to nearly 50 since they started. Sometimes, they’ll write in special characters, so children can join their parents in the show.
“It can be this wonderful, multigenerational creative experience,” Jess said.
Each year, the couple tries to make the theme as different as possible from the year before. Themes have played off “The X-Files,” J.R.R. Tolkien and Scooby-Doo.
“Last year was very dark, very heavy,” James said. “It was a very ‘Mad Max’-inspired, apocalyptic story.”
This time around, the couple is trying to do a total 180. They’ve written what James describes as a “through the looking glass type of story” inspired by “Alice in Wonderland,” “The NeverEnding Story,” “Neverwhere” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
They find inspiration from the trail itself and have yet to struggle to find a tale to tell. They include messages that resonate with Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center, touching on topics such as invasive species and climate change. They’ll ask actors what kind of parts they’d like to perform or skills they’d like to showcase. They’re particularly keen on finding crew members to help with lighting, feeding the cast and other logistics.
Jess noted how the audience often becomes the protagonist in the stories.
“So there’s lots of fun ways we’ve given them clues or tools to defeat the bad guy or come to the right conclusion, which leads the story to its happy ending,” she said. “It’s really fun to see how excited people get when they get to be part of the story.”
Most theater performances have what is referred to as “the fourth wall,” where characters aren’t supposed to be aware of the audience.
“Oftentimes, that’s not the case with these shows,” James said, explaining how audience reactions will affect those of the actors.
The show features no jump scares or chain saws. Since it is traditionally on the weekend before Halloween, the creators do go for “haunting and mysterious.”
This year, the shows will be held Oct. 20, 21 and 23. A rain date is reserved for Oct. 23.
Each night, the show is performed eight times, spaced 15 minutes apart. James warns people to get tickets ahead of time if they plan on going, because shows sometimes sell out.
Smith called “Forest of Mystery” the center’s “biggest community event.”
“It’s more of a friend-raiser,” she said, rather than a fundraiser. “It’s also just a great way to get people out enjoying the night forest and being comfortable in the woods. It’s Halloween season, and therefore, by necessity, there’s a spooky element. But overall, we want people to have an enjoyable but not frightening time in the October night forest.”
Chris Mays lives in West Dover and has been writing for the Brattleboro Reformer for five years. He spends his free time playing guitar, biking, snowboarding and hanging out with his Yorkie.