‘Forest of Mystery’ is a fall treasure | entertainment

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 scary but funny story.

James and Jess Gelter, a couple from Brattleboro, have been writing and directing the outdoor show for 11 years now. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this production will be their 10th.

“Forest of Mystery” has existed for almost 30 years. Patti Smith, a naturalist at the education center, credited a board member with coming up with the idea for the event. He said several directors were tapped for the project between the first, local mystery author Michael Nethercott, and the Gelters.

Smith found Gelters’ scripts “hilarious”.

“They are great,” she said about the couple. “I love working with them.”

James recounts how Nethercott asked him if he would be interested in taking on the show, as Nethercott had a book deal and didn’t have time to direct it. James says he will do it on the condition that he can be with Jess.

About a mile of the trail in the center is lit for the show, mostly with torches and candles. Depending on the theme, electronic and special effects lighting may be added.

“We have glowing holes in the ground,” says Jess, “laser lights that illuminate the trees.”

Jess says the lights help create “magical and surreal feels.”

As the audience ascends the trail, they stop at a dozen areas that are being cleared for scenes to be performed by the 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 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 kids can join their parents in the show.

“It can be a wonderful, multigenerational creative experience,” says Jess.

Each year, the couple tries to make the theme as different as possible from the previous year. Themes played in “The X-Files,” JRR Tolkien and Scooby-Doo.

“Last year was very dark, very heavy,” James said. “It’s a very ‘Mad Max’ inspired, apocalyptic story.”

This time, 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 path itself and have never struggled to find a story to tell. These include messages reflecting on the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Centre, on topics such as invasive species and climate change. They ask the actors what kind of parts they want to play or skills they want to demonstrate. They were particularly keen on finding crew members to help with lighting, feeding the cast and other logistics.

Jess mentioned how the audience often becomes the protagonist of the stories.

“So there’s a lot of fun ways that we give them clues or tools to defeat the bad guy or come to the right conclusion, which leads the story to its happy ending,” he said. “It’s great to see how excited people get when they become part of the story.”

Most theater performances have what is called “the fourth wall,” where the characters are not supposed to know the audience.

“Usually, that’s not the case with these shows,” says James, explaining how audience reactions can affect the actors.

The show has no jump scares or chain saws. Since it’s traditionally the weekend before Halloween, creators are going for “spooky and mysterious.”

This year, the shows will be held on October 20, 21 and 23. The rain date is set for October 23.

Each night, the show is performed eight times, with an interval of 15 minutes. James cautions people to get tickets early if they plan to go, as 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 a great way to get people out who enjoy the forest at night and feel comfortable in the forest. It’s Halloween time, and therefore, if necessary, there’s a scary element. But overall, we like people to have an enjoyable but not scary time in the forest on an October night.”

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