- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

Lynton V. Harris doesn't do "boo." The head of "The Fright House," a Halloween attraction at the D.C. Armory, is telling his cast before opening night that he wants energy and disciplined scaring instead of "haunted-house tricks."

"The audience should find themselves very distressed and scared in a controlled environment by your performance," said Mr. Harris, 40, to the cast at a rehearsal earlier this week.

The chairman and chief executive officer of Sudden Impact Entertainment Co., a New York entertainment studio, said that he's ready for the opening of the $2 million haunted-house production.

The joint venture between Sudden Impact and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission was postponed last October after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"We can't stop this year," said Mr. Harris, an Australian who is applying for U.S. citizenship, referring to concerns about the recent sniper shootings that have plagued Washington area suburbs.

"Clearly, this is going to have an impact on our business but it's an indoor event and we have tight security so it's a good way for people to leave the scary stuff happening outside and come be scared inside."

The attraction, which opened yesterday, is a "linear tour," Mr. Harris said. "Basically the whole 65,000 square feet we're using here is a stage, and people coming through see one experience at a time in a controlled manner, rather than having them run around in a regular haunted house."

Audiences start in at the White House and wander into four barely lit rooms, including the Freezer, where trick wires, smoke, mirrors and camouflaged actors are designed to disorient.

The audiences end up in the Mall area, with dead presidents strolling around models of the Washington Monument and the Capitol.

Mr. Harris said that he started the Halloween attraction after seeing the Rockettes perform in New York. "I saw the show at Radio City Music Hall gross millions over a weekend and figured I could do the same with a Halloween show."

He did the first show for a Sydney company and profited enough to form his entertainment company in 1992.

"All the sudden, I was the Halloween expert, and I was putting on a yearly show in New York," Mr. Harris said.

The production has already run four years in New York, evolving into a more organized affair that gives Mr. Harris more time to direct additional horror-themed performances in London, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

"We originally sold the beginning product of this show to Paramount for their theme parks and then decided to make it better and put it on tour ourselves," he said.

The challenge has been finding enough performers to cover the day and nighttime shifts. "In New York, I'd have 600 to 700 people auditioning for parts so there would basically be a day and [a] night cast," Mr. Harris said.

With about 85 performers in all, he said that his main responsibility is figuring out which actor is best suited to what role, from dead presidents to Victorian neurotics.

"It's all about seeing where each actor's energy can be best placed," he said. "Because there are quite a few amateurs in the crowd, the costume will sell the experience, while in other cases the mannerisms and actor's flair will be the seller."

During rehearsal, Mr. Harris prepares actors for the long hours ahead, highlighting personal experience as a performer.

"This is a very cathartic and fun experience, but there will be no softies here," he told the cast as construction crews worked overtime to finish the set. "If you're not ready to make people cry, wet their pants, scream or have heart attacks, then you're not ready for this."

After the preliminaries, Mr. Harris gave the cast a walk-through of the set, explaining reactions that he envisions for specific areas. "The way the sets are designed, audiences have a chance to be scared, then take a breather before being scared again," he said. "It's very important that the timing is there so you're catching the crowd when they aren't expecting it."

While some actors will have "in-your-face roles," others will blend into the background, using subtlety to catch unsuspecting children and adults off guard.

"You can't put an emphasis on one part of the show, like the actors, because there is a triangle of parts that make the whole effect," Mr. Harris said. "While my main role is giving them guidance, I also have to make sure they're in balance with the lighting, the sound effects and the set so there's unity."

Local actors say that the show is a chance for them to have fun while making contacts for further productions.

D.C. resident Shahid Turner, an actor with the Living Stage Theater Co. in the District, has been doing such horror shows since 1989.

"The fun thing about it is creating your own style and knowing when people shout or curse that you gave them that thrill," Mr. Turner, 40, said. "It's just as good, if not better, than having an applause from a packed theater."

Betty Entzminger has done acting stints with Mr. Harris before and said that she was excited to come on as an Elvira-type witch. "This is a chance for fun with this job," said the 44-year-old independent vocalist and actress. "I'm really looking forward to developing my character, and Lynton's great about giving targeted direction."

By the break two hours later, Mr. Harris had his lead-role actors in set spots and was making final decisions for secondary actors.

"Not everything is going to be perfect by opening night," he told a mummy performer. "There are going to be some loose ends to work out, but as long as you're disciplined and willing to give 100 percent, you should scare the hell out of the audience."

The show takes about 90 minutes for groups of six or fewer. Mr. Harris said that he expects from 50,000 to 60,000 to attend the show, which will run daily until Oct. 31.

"I'm just hoping to go outside and watch families laugh, talk, cry and reflect on the one instance or experience they remember the most from it," Mr. Harris said.

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