5 + 1 Questions for Katie Naka ’13 about The Walking Dead Experience

December 7, 2015

Alumna Katie Naka ’13 is working on an interesting, immersive theatre production. The Walking Dead Experience is a unique event that combines live performance, horror and a world already known to audiences through comic books and television. Naka began assisting and associate directing for the creator of the project, Michael Counts, while she was still getting her MFA in Directing at Columbia. “In 2011, I saw an opera Counts directed [Monodramas] and asked a mutual acquaintance to introduce us,” said Naka. “Since then, we’ve done several projects together besides The Walking Dead Experience—including Play/Date and The Ouroboros Trilogy [which premieres in fall 2016]."
Can you describe the experience the audience has during this event? Are they excited about getting out of their chairs and becoming a part of the show?
The experience is extremely immersive. Before something like Sleep No More, the closest thing you could equate this to was a haunted house. I am loathe to call it a haunted house, though, because there is so much more agency and interaction in TWDE. The audience is supposed to feel like they have walked into an episode of the show. With a cast of 15-plus performers and over 10,000 square feet of sets, I think we get them as close as it comes. Michael was extremely adamant about realism. The props and sets are extremely elaborate. I definitely think people lose themselves in the experience. It can be disorienting in the best way. They lose track of where they are and never know what is behind any door.
How did your training at Columbia prepare you to work on an immersive theater project like this?
There are the practical elements of my training that came into play here. Our program at Columbia is designed to always keep us fresh and on our toes. This is accomplished by making us do a punishing amount of work. Besides the actual directing, we were constantly casting, designing and, in essence, producing. The TWDE production process definitely kept me on my toes as well. Every day there were new challenges and a lot of things that didn’t happen as we had planned.

In terms of actual directing, I worked a lot with the cast on establishing status. Every audience will be different—everything from terrified fans to giggling teenagers to agro-bros to passive bystanders who won’t participate. I wanted to prepare them to give the best performance, no matter who they ended up with in the room. It also took some time to get them to stop and listen to the audience. It’s not just saying your lines and shuttling people from place to place. We found the most effective and gripping moments were when cast members ask an audience member to tell them what they’ve seen, where they came from, and the actor just stops and listens. This is not the default setting for most actors, but I feel like our cast got to a really good place with it. And of course we used a lot of Anne Bogart’s viewpoints exercises to train the zombie movement. (Just kidding! Or am I?)
What are some of the challenges of working on a project like this?
The biggest challenge I found was in doing “something that no one has ever done before.” Going into a project with that mindset (for some people, and definitely for me) can be blindingly exciting. There were, however, so many times during the development and production process that I just wanted to go find “the example of how someone did this before.” But that didn’t exist for TWDE. Everything from the nature of the partnership between Skybound (creators of the original Walking Dead comic book), and Walker Stalker Con (our primary producers)—not to mention how these entities interface with AMC and the actual TV show—a lot of these partnerships were new and being tested out aroundTWDE. There was just a huge learning curve for everyone in terms of what it takes to build an attraction like this, which is, again, really one of a kind.

And just to shout-out to the designers, one of the biggest problems we had to solve in order to make the business model viable was that we needed to be able to have audiences coming through constantly for hours, with groups starting before the group ahead of them finished. This meant there was no way for crew or stage management to come in and “reset” anything or even to cue things accurately. as there would always be multiple parts of the show running at once. Our engineers and programmers, Matthew Haber Design, were able to build us a pretty much totally automated system where all the tech resets based on triggers coming from other places in the attraction. So essentially as the first group moves through, they are unknowingly cuing the resets in the rooms behind them—everything from lights to sound to 3D video effects. We had some pretty hairy moments wrapping our heads around how this would work, but it does!  
The Walking Dead Experience was a Halloween event this year. Can you see it growing beyond a seasonal event?
TWDE was actually conceived by Michael, Walker Stalker and Skybound to be a touring attraction with a long life beyond Halloween. We just happened to open in Atlanta at Walker Stalker Con on Halloween weekend. As I write this,TWDE is being set up in New Jersey for another convention, and in 2016 it will make stops all over the country as it travels to meet Walker Stalker Con at their various dates in Chicago, Boston, Dallas, etc.
What are you working on next?
To take things totally in a different direction, I am currently the line producer for Angel’s Bone, which is a new chamber opera making its world premiere at the Prototype Festival in NYC this January. Angel’s Bone is a co-production of Beth Morrison Projects, HERE Arts and Trinity Wall Street. We open January 6th, and have various dates through January 17th. It’s a beautiful, fascinating and dark piece. I’m super excited to be working for Beth Morrison. I have been a big fan since I was at Columbia.

Is there anything else we didn’t ask that is important to know or keep in mind?
I think this is a good encapsulation!