On the Wellington waterfront, over several dark and stormy nights, a documentary is being filmed – and they need extras. Josie Adams, who had blood to spare, spent the night at Second Unit’s new, undead theatre experience.
The only thing I knew about my night was I would enter something called the Cathedral of Despair. I can tell you now, it’s not very holy. This is theatre, Vlad, but not as we know it. Second Unit’s new show takes a film set and turns it into a choose-your-own-adventure game set in paranormal Wellington.
If you cast your mind back to 2014, you’ll remember the local and international phenomenon of What We Do in the Shadows. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement teamed up to film the mockumentary about Wellington’s undead community, the climax of which occurred at the Wellington Vampire Society and the Lower Hutt Witches Club’s annual Unholy Masquerade. Part of the horror comedy focussed on Clement’s character, Vlad the Impaler, and his tumultuous relationship with ‘The Beast’.
Second Unit’s show What Will You Do in the Shadows? is a theatre experience following the making of a follow-up documentary. I can’t tell you who the star is, but I can tell you that being an extra in this film isn’t the safest choice a budding young actor could make.
For many, the word combination “immersive theatre” is as repugnant as garlic to a vampire. You need fear not, the minds behind Second Unit are among New Zealand’s best and brightest. First, there’s the flawless collaboration between local production company Tāwhiri (NZ Festival, Wellington Jazz Festival) and design studio Koko (Silo Park, I-D). Next, there’s the star-studded creative team: Stella Reid as performance director, Benjamin Henson as lead dramaturg, and Andrew Foster as design director. The creative producers are Chris Morley-Hall and Anna Wooles.
Notable members of the theatre world independently, together this group has the knowledge and power to redefine audience experiences. Second Unit, their brainchild, beautifully blends theatre with film and immersion with voyeurism.
The audience’s role is the on-set experience of a film extra, combined with the undead experience of paranormal Wellington. Suspending your disbelief, you must survive and thrive alongside the undead cast as you move through the film’s different sets, interacting with actors, other extras and the production crew. In the days leading up to the show, you’ll receive a call sheet, just like a real extra, and an online quiz to best determine your character. I got Human, which is classic me.
Arriving for my 7 pm slot, I go through processing: no phones or large bags allowed. You’re given a mysterious translucent watch and a security briefing with the on-set stunt guy, Johann, who asks that we treat the undead with respect “just like you would any normal human being.” Past him, I was officially inside the show – what would I do in the shadows?
Every person’s experience with Second Unit is different, so there’s very little I can definitively say about what will happen to you in there. However, I can give you some advice: don’t use the ‘b’ word (beast), run as fast as you can, and find the zombie candyman. He’s lovely.
The set decoration is beyond complicated, and is the audience’s to use. Throughout the night actors and audience alike are constantly moving parts of the set around. Performance director Stella Reid says the hardest part of each day is putting the hundreds of props back where they belong. I did my bit by high-fiving actors with disembodied hands, and one fellow audience member spent a solid ten minutes pretending to wash dishes in a corner. Ornate golden stands held thick blood, imitating holy water at the entrance to a church, so my idiot sister performed the sign of the cross and covered herself in body juice. The stagehands have their work cut out for them.
Reid is passionate about the city of Wellington, and her work here reflects that. In an extras shot, we’re running away from a vampire through a windy alleyway. “Think about those Wellington winds!” yells the director. “They’re pushing you back! I want to see the struggle!”
Seeking refuge from the director, I discover a dim, lush lounge with a long bar serving mulled wine, vampire cocktails, and vegan blood balls. I grab a mulled wine and, tired from all the stunts, head to a long white bench to sit down. A woman with a trolley of blood bags and needles follows me in. Ah, I realise, this room is for harvesting.
“What’s your blood type?” asks Moz, the bloodsucker. “A-,” I tell her. “Is it OK that I’m drinking?” She nods enthusiastically. Vampires love a good drop of booze, apparently. My dumbass sister once again practices poor health and safety by challenging Moz to a “drain-off” and hooking herself up to three tubes. Before our anaemia gets worse, our watches start to flash: this means it’s time to go to the Cathedral of Despair.
The Cathedral of Despair is not a cathedral nor any kind of place of worship at all. It is, however, a… transformative experience. Before my visit Reid refused to tell me about it and, in turn, I won’t spoil the experience for any potential visitors either. All I can say is I returned to the theatre with a new set of eyes – I could do another full circuit and experience it all from a completely different angle.
On my circuit, I have my eyes peeled for local celebs. “People from What We Do in the Shadows are in it,” Reid confirms, “just not Taika or Jemaine.” I’m on edge each time I enter a room, looking for Colin the IT guy or Nick the new blood, who never messaged me back on Bumble. The first star I see is better: it’s none other than the Beast, Pauline Ivanovich herself. I have a small vial of human blood in my tech crew kit, and I offer it to her in thanks for my newfound immortality. Acting.
After being blessed by Pauline, I look up to see Reid wandering around the room, watching the action. She beckons me into a heavily-curtained cinema, where I’m confronted with something truly embarrassing. If you venture into a place called “the audition room,” please bear in mind the cameras there are very real, and you should only beat-box to “Wonderwall” if you’re happy for that to be publically witnessed.
Nailing the feeling of What We Do in the Shadows was vital to the set and performances. Reid and her team were able to visit the set of the spin-off TV show Wellington Paranormal, which let them know they were on the right track with regard to set design and character direction. “It’s a very New Zealand comedy,” says Reid. “I think we got the tone right.”
Inspired by Secret Cinema in the UK, Reid has been a fan of blending film and theatre for a long time; she’s also hugely passionate about immersive experiences. Her 2014 detective mystery The Mountebank is still considered one of the most innovative pieces of theatre in Wellington’s recent history. Audience members were hotel guests who could eavesdrop, witness, or question characters regarding a murder. Similarly, What Will You Do in the Shadows allows audience members the chance to interact with the show however they like: you could move through the set as an observer, or throw yourself in and get your face on the big screen.
The scope of Second Unit is incredible. There are 39 cast members, some of whom die in the process of making the film. This is a sacrifice the director is willing to make. The experience is so expertly designed that each of the 400 audience members going through every night comes out with a completely personal and unique story.
Outside of Reid’s previous work, I haven’t seen anything like this before. Even compared to The Mountebank, this is a whole new beast; the film element affects both the audience and the cast. The cast must devise a new show for each audience member, and potentially have each one recorded. A cameraman swang by and recorded me scrubbing a bloody bath, and I found myself transported into an actor’s world: remember my angles, don’t look at the camera.
The team behind this show hopes to put on an immersive experience each year, always based on a movie. “I’d love to do Scarfies,” laughs Reid. “We’ve got to figure out how to make that Wellington-based.”
Second Unit’s flagship show is an incredible launching point for the future of Wellington theatre. It’s immersive without being kitsch or stressful, and it honours What We Do in the Shadows while remaining a fantastic piece of unique theatre that stands on its own.
Head into the dark and stormy night before the end of June to achieve immortality.
This content was created in paid partnership with Tāwhiri. Learn more about our partnerships here.