October 12, 2015

STRANGER: Vaughn Irving
LOCATION: The Lost Dog Cafe, 808 North Henry Street, Alexandria, Virginia
THEME: Hearing about planning a Halloween attraction

The zombie apocalypse began in a Chicago alleyway in November 2011.

That’s when Vaughn Irving and his friends confronted the undead. He was in town for a friend’s bachelor party. They’d had a few laughs around town, drinks here, arcade games there. They hopped in a taxi to the next destination. Their driver got lost, winding up in an alleyway. A minor annoyance. The driver got out to ask someone nearby for directions. Then it happened.

The figure who’d been in the darkness lurched forward, tearing at the driver. Zombie attack! “All of a sudden he bit the driver, there was bloody everywhere,” recalled Vaughn. The bachelor freaked, ready to use his martial arts training to take down the creature.

That’s when Vaughn had to tell the bachelor what was going on. He had organized a zombie attack to occur at the end of the bachelor party, roping in friends to play key roles. The driver was in on the shtick, and the plan was to use the alleyway attack as the start of a night of hunting zombies. Vaughn had rented a nearby theater that he and his friends would run around, armed with Nerf guns to fight off the advancing undead. But he hadn’t bargained on the bachelor’s fighting spirit.

Despite the extensive planning that went in to the zombie hunting night, “what we didn’t think about was the fellow who was getting married didn’t know this was going to happen, and he was a trained martial artist. So when the driver was attacked, all of us had to hold him back. He was ready to fight some people,” Vaughn said with a laugh as we started our dinner together.

He and his friends came up with the idea of a zombie attack game for the bachelor party because in college, they’d all loved zombie movies and would gather every Wednesday to watch films about the undead. “We burned through all the good ones and had to go to really B films, making fun of them, and talking about the sometimes heavy handed social commentary,” Vaughn said.

Once the zombie game was underway, “the whole thing probably took about eight minutes because everyone’s adrenalin was running so high,” he added. They partied after the game and that was the last he thought about the event — until Halloween 2014 was approaching.

Vaughn, an actor and writer, was living in town and mentioned the bachelor party, and some friends in the District thought it’d make a perfect Halloween attraction. But there were problems to solve. How could they make the situation long enough to attract people? Nobody would pay for just eight minutes. And how on earth would they make something like this profitable?

As I’d learn during dinner, they eventually came up with “DC Dead” — an interactive quest and Halloween attraction in which groups of friends, again with Nerf guns for defense, make their way through a spooky building for 45 minutes, solving puzzles and fending off zombies. The attraction debuted in Washington, DC, in 2014 and the 2015 sequel is already underway.

Haunted houses, scary mazes, ghostly woodlands and zombie quests are a uniquely American thing, as far as I’m concerned. Back home in England we don’t really embrace All Hallow’s Eve in the same way, and certainly don’t have many attractions like DC Dead.

Now living in the States, I was curious to learn more about this phenomenon. I reached out to Vaughn, and he was happy to explain all. “I tried to see if there were any zombie-themed restaurants we could go to, but the only one was in Des Moines,” he said, smiling.

Instead we met at the Lost Dog Cafe, which has three locations in Virginia. We met in the brightly lit Alexandria venue, which also includes a substantial beer store on site. The walls are fittingly covered with colorful paintings of dogs, and the place has a welcoming feel. The reason for the restaurant’s name and venue is that its owners are huge dog lovers and for more than a decade have been involved in rescuing and homing hundreds of abandoned and unwanted animals.

Many of the dishes on offer have dog names (the “pitbull” pizza being just one example) and there’s an eye-popping amount of bar food to choose from. So while I weighed the many options, Vaughn told me about how hectic his life has been with DC Dead 2015.

“These last two weeks have been incredibly busy,” said Vaughn, a tall, amiable 30-something. He speaks quickly and confidently, smiling and cracking jokes as he talks.

Vaughn is a producer of the show and so every night he’s in the box office, monitoring the event and making sure the games start on time. There’s a rigid planning to the course which means that the groups taking part have to leave at their allotted time otherwise everything goes to mayhem and they’ll clash with other customers. People are led through by “guides” (hired actors) who help tell the story of the zombie attack, and they’ll report any problems back to Vaughn.

But even before the doors open each night, he’s slammed with work — such as finding last-minute replacements when zombies call out sick. “I’m there to run interference, and I’m there from 5pm to midnight every night that it’s running” he said, letting out a comical sigh. He praised the cast and said their dedication to the show helps motivate him to put in the long hours.

The decision to launch the first DC Dead last year was made by Vaughn and his friend and fellow actor Rex Daugherty. Around April 2014 they agreed to try and make it a reality, working on a thorough budget to see if it was even worth it from a cost-benefit standpoint.

To help, they hit up their friends in the theater community and got several who were either in-between gigs or wanted something fun to do — many of last year’s zombies were volunteers, or willing to work for a low wage.

With the undead horde secured, it was on to finding a building. Again, their connections in DC’s theater scene helped out. Vaughn had done two successful shows at the fringe festival. The theater where those plays had been performed had been slated for demolition, and he asked whether it might be usable as a venue for DC Dead. It was. They got a good deal on renting it, with the bonus that the building already looked post-apocalyptic as it was run down and deserted.

Having a bunch of strangers running around an almost-abandoned building isn’t the safest idea from a liability perspective, but Vaughn said the fringe festival covered them under an umbrella insurance package. “That was incredibly fantastic because when you go to an insurance agency and say, ‘We’re going to send people through this building full of concrete debris and they will shoot each other in face with Nerf guns’…” and he trailed off, laughing at the absurdity of the pitch.

While we sipped on our drinks — a sweet lemonade for me, beer for Vaughn — he told me that after locking down the cast and venue, it was time to fund the project. Rex and Vaughn invested $14,000 of their own money in DC Dead “without ever knowing if we’d get it back. That was terrifying. We’re actors. We don’t have that kind of money to lose,” he said.

“But we believed in the project,” he added. To get word out their teamed up the website Goldstar to push pre-sale tickets, and even secured a spot on NPR to promote the event. Another big boost for visitors came from an ad they placed on (the website, as you can probably guess from the name, has a list of all the big Halloween attractions in the area).

The first crop of visitors loved the game. And then the positive reviews came in. More customers. More great reviews. In fact, Vaughn credits word of mouth with driving the most ticket sales. The success meant that he and Rex made their money back, with a little left to invest in 2015. After the triumph of the first zombie apocalypse, they knew they wanted to revive it this year.

Once again a big question mark was where to host the event, as the fringe theater had since been demolished. They tried to find an empty school or city building, but couldn’t find anyone in the DC government to talk with about it. Then Rex went back to his theater contacts and found that the Anacostia Playhouse had a vacancy for the last few weeks of October. Perfect, except for the fact the venue was a little too small. And so this year has a novel twist. During the game the teams are hurried into a van by their guide and transported to a second location.

The event runs through November 1 and Vaughn said ticket sales are already strong. The first weekend alone they sold 75 percent, and that’s before word really got out. The success has even led to another friend possibly hosting a future event in Oklahoma City.

It’s an unexpected interest for Vaughn, whose career lies in the world of theater and not scaring strangers. “I’ve never been in love with haunted houses, I don’t necessarily see the appeal. I’m not in love waiting for something to jump out at you,” he said, shrugging.

The distinction between regular haunted houses and DC Dead, Vaughn believes, is that DC Dead has a complete narrative. The groups taking part have a mission to accomplish. They must solve puzzles while fending off the zombies. “That makes it a lot more dynamic for me, makes it more of a narrative and interactive experience,” he said. “So it’s not just me smiling nervously and waiting for something to scare me, it’s us having a goal and fighting back.”

Customers also interact with characters as they make their way through the game. For example: they come across a survivor chained to a radiator. But something seems suspicious about the scene. It could be a trap. Does the group rescue the person? Or leave them behind?

“We try to put in real world quandaries for the patrons,” Vaughn said. Last year the storyline concluded with the groups finding the cure, but only in sufficient quantity to either save just themselves or self-sacrifice and save humanity. “And yes it’s all fiction and nobody is really infected with a zombie virus, but it’s interesting to see people react to those situations,” he added. “It’s a game, but when people get into a situation that extreme it no longer feels like a game.”

Vaughn and Rex enjoy creating the storylines for DC Dead, which last year they tried to make a metaphor for the gentrification of Washington. The undead were the result of staph infections, making them “staphers” — a homonym of staffers; the underlings that work in Congress who some blame for gentrifying DC neighborhoods. “So the staphers started on Capitol Hill and it’s moving out, infecting everyone,” Vaughn said. “I’m not sure anyone picked up on the fact it was a metaphor for gentrification,” he added with a laugh. “Not that we need to be so heavy-handed about it, but it makes it satisfying for Rex and me.”

It’s also satisfying for the performers who act as the guides or zombies, Vaughn said. So satisfying in fact that some of the cast return even when they’re attacked by the customers.

Last year there was one zombie who had the unfortunate role of having to jump out and scare the tours at a particularly tense moment. On one of the trips, a patron punched him in the face. “But he came back the next day,” Vaughn said. “I guess he loved it that much.”

Another time, one of the customers took a zombie down with a Nerf bullet, then kicked the corpse hard to make sure it was dead. “Really? You’re taking it that seriously?” Vaughn said out loud as he recalled the story. “Thankfully nobody has gotten seriously injured.”

Managing the living dead in DC is a big change from Vaughn’s childhood in Sante Fe, New Mexico, he told me as our waiter arrived with the pizza we’d decided to share.

Vaughn said he’s enjoyed the Lost Dog Cafe’s typically thin crust pizzas at other locations. We settled on the whippet pie, which features roasted red peppers, sliced chicken breast, mozzarella and fontina cheeses and some basil.

The chicken was served in generous, fresh chunks and the peppers were liberally sprinkled about the pizza. But as tasty as the toppings were, I think they might have overloaded the pizza because it made the base slightly greasy and impossible to pick up slices.

Instead, Vaughn and I attacked our meal with a knife and fork. And it’s a testament to how delicious it was that we only left two slices.

As we ate, Vaughn told me that he thought Sante Fe was a “terrible” place to grow up because it’s mostly art galleries and pretty vistas — not much to entertain a child. He went to Wesleyan College in Illinois, where he studied musical theater. After graduation it was on to performing in a host of regional theater productions, which eventually brought him to DC.

Now however “I’m in a very transitional phase of my life,” he said, because he’s just secured the job of artistic director at the Santa Fe Playhouse. “So I’m going home.”

Technically he started the job in September but worked out an agreement with the theater through which he’d be able to come back to DC to oversee the zombie event. He’s also going to be back in the District early next year to remount You, or Whatever I Can Get, a production that he and his friends staged at the last DC fringe festival to rave reviews.

In Santa Fe, Vaughn will be in charge of the artistic season for the theater company, as well as the quality of the work that goes on stage. “I’ve been acting and writing enough that I’ve seen a lot of mistakes get made, and I know how to fix a lot of them,” he said.

“From my perspective theater is about the storytelling and engaging the live audience because that’s what makes it more interesting than film. I’ve watched too much theater that that’s not taken into account, where it’s more about a concept or gimmick or emotion that people are trying to convey and not about telling the story and engaging the people,” Vaughn added. He’s pitching a season that mixes the traditional — their Christmas production is a live radio play reading of It’s A Wonderful Life — with some more modern works, aiming for a good breadth of shows.

“I’ve been out doing professional theater for 11 years and been all over the country and seen great shows that I thought were done poorly or poor scripts but still great productions,” Vaughn said. “It’s really exciting to me to be bring all that material that I’m passionate about to an audience. Then he grinned. “But talk to me in a year and I may be singing a different tune.”

Despite the fact he didn’t care for Santa Fe when he was younger, Vaughn is now happy to be heading home. When he drove across country for the interview, he came in from the north through the mountains, and he said he was “awestruck with the beauty. I saw these views every day until I was 18, and didn’t think it was special. Then all of a sudden I think this is something gorgeous. That’s probably a sign I’m gown up enough to come back here,” he said.

While he’s in Santa Fe he hopes to continue producing the zombie events and also keep at his love of writing for the stage. His past work includes Disco Jesus and the Apostles of Funk, a musical that tells the story of Mary, who quits her bar tending job and is lost and alone, only to meet a potential savior in the Son of Man. For Vaughn, acting and writing are both big passions.

“I think my favorite is acting, but the older I get, the more I like writing. There’s something really special about seeing my writing on stage and watching other people breathe life into lines I’ve written, and make things I created be even better than I imagined,” Vaughn said.

His ideal world is to make a success of his time in Sante Fe while still playing a role in promoting — and hopefully growing — the DC Dead franchise. “The biggest surprise has been that it works. It’s hard. It’s long nights, several times a week. But it works,” he said.

“It’s exciting enough for the patrons and valuable enough for us that it should keep going if it can,” Vaughn added. “People are really excited about it, and that’s great.”

“I still can’t believe that we have entirely 5-star reviews on Facebook. But we didn’t bribe anyone to make reviews, these are people I don’t know and they are saying amazing things about it,” he said with a smile. “While it’s not Shakespeare, we’ve tried to make it artistically fulfilling enough for the people that are doing it. And to hear that people love it, that’s incredibly satisfying.”

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