By Jim Buchanan

“Unto These Hills” wrapped up its season performance Aug. 14 following its return to Cherokee’s Mountainside Theatre this year after a COVID-induced break in 2020.

But Mountainside Theatre isn’t done for the year.

John Tissue, executive director of the Cherokee Historical Association, said numbers at “Unto These Hills” and Oconaluftee Village were encouraging as the nation emerged somewhat from the COVID pandemic and then began dealing with the resurgence fueled by the Delta variant.

Tissue said attendance was doing well but due to Delta “we lost a little momentum. But it’s been a really strong season, with probably the best set of reviews we’ve had on TripAdvisor, etc. It was a great jump into getting back to doing what we like to do.”

Attendance for the season at “Unto These Hills” as of Aug. 11 was 23,000, with 28,000 at Oconaluftee Village. And revenues were up 20 percent, thanks to an increase in sales of ticket packages with VIP upgrades.

All in all, Tissue’s assessment was that “people really wanted to come back.”

“Unto These Hills” has been a Mountainside Theatre staple for more than seven decades. In 2019, a new show, “The Sleepy Hollow Experience,” set up in the outdoor venue as autumn rolled in and temperatures dropped. It was the first non-“Hills” production in Mountainside’s history, and an appropriate one as Halloween neared and a chill filled the air.

This year, Mountainside might be downright frigid as one of the signature characters of horror takes the stage in the inaugural production of “Dracula: The Failings of Men.”

Unlike the dramas that have been the traditional fare of Mountainside Theatre, which followed action through the park, “Dracula” will have the audience walking with the production to follow the action, which will be taking place all around them.

“It’s experiential theatre,” said Tissue. “It was developed by Jake Guinn and Havoc Movement Productions. We picked it up because we know him, know his work as our fight director, fight captain, and for his work on tour with Marvel Universe.” (A Q&A with Guinn accompanies this article).

Because of the nature of the production, the audience is capped at 199 patrons for each performance, with 20 VIP experiences available per show.

The show is a re-imagining of Bram Stoker’s version of the classic Dracula tale. This telling is set in motion when a ghost ship washes ashore near London in 1897. It’s not recommended for children under the age of 10.

Tickets sell for $30, $20 for enrolled Eastern Band members, with VIP upgrades available for $20. Shows run from Oct. 1 to Oct. 31, with first release productions Thursday-Saturday and Wednesday and Sunday dates available for overflow productions. Doors open at 7 p.m. with the show starting at 7:30 p.m. and running approximately 90 minutes.

To purchase tickets or learn more, go to www.cherokeehistorical.org, havocmovement.com or call 497-2111.


Editor’s note: The Herald caught up with Jake Guinn of Atlanta’s Havoc Movement Company for details on the upcoming production of “Dracula: The Failings of Men” set for Mountainside Theatre in Cherokee beginning Oct. 1.

The Herald: Tell us a little about yourself, where you grew up, your connections to Cherokee, and how Havoc Movement Company began.

Guinn: I grew up doing outdoor theater. My dad is a director and a fight director and worked at several different outdoor theaters, and while I was growing up I got to tag along for those jobs. I followed in his footsteps and became an action performer and choreographer and moved into producing original work in recent years. Havoc Productions LLC started as a way to produce that original work with my co-owner and collaborator, Kristen Noonan. You’ll get to see her handiwork as aerial choreographer in Dracula.


What was the inspiration for the Dracula production?

I personally love stories of monster hunters. I enjoy the work of Anne Rice, but I’m definitely more in line with the story of “Castlevania” when it comes to vampires. The current, pop-culture script around vampires is a pretty sympathetic examination of undead life. For this show, I really wanted a return to a good ol’ fashioned monster story. The world itself is in so much turmoil that I wanted to tell a straight up good vs. evil story with high action, good music, explosions and flying.


How does this production differ from the standard Unto These Hills production?

First off, you sure aren’t sitting in a seat. The show has the audience walk along with the story. Scenes take place in different locations around the theatre and ends on the stage. The main difference here is that audiences will get to be up close, and within the story. If you’re in the theater, you’re in the show.


What’s the size of the cast?

We’ve got a cast of six powerhouse performers from all over the country coming in for this show.

We see you participated in the Go Safely Project. Can you tell us a little about that?

Yes! The Go Safely Project is an initiative funded by the Centers for Disease Control in order to assist the vaccination effort in Georgia. It is a multi-episode digital series that explores the science of vaccines, discusses vaccine hesitancy, and sparks conversation between folks about the benefits of vaccination. Expect to see the videos sometime in November.


On the same general topic, do you have the outlines of COVID protocols for this production?

We do. We have a COVID safety compliance officer that works directly with our company to ensure that we are currently up-to-date on the best practices to curb the spread of the disease. Our performers and staff are vaccinated and will be tested regularly. Audiences will be able to follow up on the website to see the most up-to-date information for audience requirements.


In general, is Dracula a horror story, action story or both? Any light moments in the tale?

I think it’s a bit of both. For me, action is in everything. Whether it’s a scene with fight and aerial choreography or not. Where I think the horror really stands out is when an audience gets to laugh along with a character and then suddenly that character is fighting for their life. So, yes, there are several light moments in the show, but also there are several very dark moments as well.


Any butterflies regarding rolling out this type of a premiere production?

Ya know, not really. I have such confidence in our team that I’ve felt pretty confident from the beginning. I mean, as a director, you’re always too nervous to make sure that you’ve got enough time. But luckily, I know that if I can just get out of people’s way and let them do their jobs, the work will be stunning!


We see it’s advised that this show is not recommended for children under 10. Without giving away any spoilers, what types of chills and thrills might the audience expect?

Lots of blood, crazy action and just a good ol’ spooky time.


Who are the leading cast members?

Tiza Garland will be playing Van Helsing. Benedetto Robinson will play the big bad Dracula. Vinnie Mascola is Renfield. Bailey Frankenberg is our Lucy. Jon Meyer is Jack. Michael Brewer is Arthur.


Who drafted the script for this production, and how long did it take?

Benedetto Robinson drafted the script and Darby Guinn (my sister) was our editor. We pulled heavily from the original Bram Stoker novel at the beginning. The script then went through 13 iterations before we landed on our final draft. We had originally intended to do the production last year, but COVID made that somewhat impossible. That unfortunate circumstance, however, gave us the time to go back and really dive into the script and get it to where we really wanted it.


What’s a typical day like at Havoc Movement?

A hoot and a half, let me tell you. In the grand scheme of things, we’re a pretty small company, but you get a big bang for your buck with us. A typical day with us, includes anything from filming some fights, teaching classes or writing scripts. Most importantly, we are constantly thinking about the future. In being small, we’re pretty blessed because we can pivot quickly if something new comes up. All in all, we try to work towards the values that we hold dear: healthy work/life practices; honor creative efforts; create space for new and interesting work to be seen.