In recent years, "immersive" has become the most overworked buzzword in entertainment, being applied to everything from theme park rides and virtual reality games to museum exhibits and cinema screenings. But while most self-proclaimed immersive attractions are content with only stimulating two or three of the senses, New Generation Theatrical is literally going for the throat with productions that creatively pique patrons' taste buds, as well as their eyes and ears. I missed out on their sold-out staging of Sweeney Todd, which featured a pre-show meal of meat pies, so I was hungry to attend last weekend's world premiere of Gothic Manor, an original horror-comedy by Michael Knight that muddles together audience participation and alcoholic cocktails into a uniquely intoxicating experience.
The Duke (Gregg Baker) and his newly beloved Baroness (Hannah McGinley LeMasters) welcome you to their generically named palatial estate, where — with the aid of their ghoulish butler, Brennan (Brandon Roberts), and undermining minions (Megan Borkes, Josh Melendez) — they plan to unleash an ancient demon for totally altruistic non-evil reasons. Don't worry about the destruction of your eternal soul; just sit back, sip your drink — a red wine, followed by a mad scientist-style self-mixed gin & tonic, then a climactic rum punch shooter — while enjoying Knight's smartly stupid script, which spoofs Disney's Haunted Mansion ride and the Amnesia video games along with a campy helping of Rocky Horror.
"I'm just so ecstatic," Knight told me the afternoon after Gothic Manor's opening night, which was attended by an enthusiastic crowd including numerous industry members. "The audience reception was just more than I could have wanted, and people have been really, really supportive." Active in the Orlando arts and attractions scene since 2012, Knight is known for writing and directing Orlando Fringe Festival hits like Anne Frankenstein and Zombie Island (or How To Survive a Wedding With Your Ex). He's collaborated with New Generation Theatrical (previously Generation Productions) on a half-dozen shows since 2017, including participating in their 2019 Be Original festival and directing Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty in May ("Live Active Cultures: New Generation charges into an ambitious 2022-2023 season," May 4).
Knight credits a Chicago spoof of The Little Mermaid that he attended in September 2021 with inspiring the show's cocktail-centric structure, which he says found a perfect parallel in his friendship with New Generation producer Aaron Safer. "Aaron and I are big whiskey fiends," says Knight. "We love to go out, we love trying different drinks; it's kind of like in the DNA of our relationship, and when we were discussing this company, we wanted people to feel like they're enjoying a night out.
"We've not only created a show, but we've created an experience."
In addition to the trio of tipples included in the must-do "immersive ticket" upgrade ("We don't want to overdo it or under-do it," explains Knight, who thinks "three is the right amount for people to have a solid evening"), Gothic Manor also satisfied with atmospheric audio and lighting effects designed by Knight and venue technician Michael Citrinite, as well as slapstick fight choreography by Cody Stone. However, it's the stellar cast's pitch-perfect performances — especially the razor-sharp banter between the back-talking Borkes and slow-burning Roberts — that really gives this spookhouse satire its spirit.
If you missed Gothic Manor's one-weekend run at the Orlando Repertory Theatre, you might yet be in luck, because Knight says there has already been interest from other local venues in remounting the show. "We know that this thing has legs, and it can change and can be adapted for multiple different spaces," says Knight. He adds, "I personally would love to make it a yearly thing. ... Maybe it's a different theme, but similar to this format."
Until a return to Gothic Manor is announced, New Generation is preparing for their Heathers: The Musical benefit concert in August, and Patrick Marber's Closer at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center in September. Knight himself sounds most excited about Wingman, the upcoming world premiere by Lakeland playwright Gretchen Suarez-Pena.
"It's an original show, and that's something that we're really proud of," says Knight. "We are such an eclectic arts community with so many great creatives, and we're really trying to push the fact that a lot of our season is original shows. We are literally building these scripts from the ground up. ... People love to go see [original shows at] the Fringe, and we just believe, 'why can't we do that all the time?'"