“The Vanishing” is a new outdoor theatrical experience, to provide literal and metaphorical chills just in time for Halloween.
The new two-person play — written by the prolific Aaron Randolph III of Davenport, directed by Noah Hill — features Kira Rangel and Max Moline. “The Vanishing” has a runtime of 90 minutes and is appropriate for ages 13 and up. It will be performed at Blackhawk State Park in Rock Island at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, Oct. 26-28 and Nov. 2-4, with potential rain dates on Sundays at 6:30 p.m.
You are encouraged to bring lawn chairs as there is limited picnic table seating. Payment for the show is “Pay What It’s Worth” — this means you see the show first and then pay what you think the experience was worth on your way out, as it was when Randolph was artistic director for the Davenport-based QC Theatre Workshop, which ran eight seasons and had its last production in fall 2019 (“The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?”).
“We’re trying to really absorb the audience into the experience of it, so hopefully some of the stage magic that’s in the play seems more authentic,” Randolph said of the new play in a Monday interview.
“The Vanishing” will be held in the woods near the Singing Bird Nature Center, with parking at the shelter off 15th Street and Blackhawk Road.
“We wanted to have something that felt secluded but was safe, so if people needed to get up and leave in the middle of it, they could,” Randolph said.
He’s had the idea for years about doing a spooky play outdoors, around Halloween. Randolph’s last play for adults was the former Theatre Workshop’s “Broken,” in 2017, which was about the topic of human trafficking.
“Every time I do a play like ‘Broken,’ it’s such an emotionally exhausting thing, it’s something I can’t do super often,” he said. “This play is not nearly as emotionally draining. It’s nice to be able to write for different sensibilities. It does have some emotional depth to it.”
In “The Vanishing,” Max Moline’s character does a podcast about missing persons cases, and he’s at this campsite about a case from 10 years earlier. He’s there to do his podcast and an investigation about the circumstances of the mystery.
This wooded site was where the vanished people were last seen, Randolph said.
“He wanted to go there and see everything with his own eyes, what had happened,” he said. “He’s there on the anniversary of these people disappearing.”
It was a couple, their son, and another couple. A park ranger saw them, and the next morning they were missing, leaving behind a tent and their stuff, Randolph said.
Rangel’s character shows up to go camping there, and she didn’t want to provide details.
“It’s a mystery story, so you really have to come and see,” she said. “You can’t do spoilers. It was written in a way, can I trust these people?”
“There’s an unreliable narrator element to the play, that adds some of the mystery to the play,” Randolph said of both their characters. “Are these people who they say they are?”
“It’s like a combo of whodunit, ghost hunting, family trauma,” Rangel said.
“The Vanishing” touches on how people pick up the pieces when something big happens in their life and how they deal with it, Randolph said. There will be plot twists in the story.
The podcast is focused on missing persons cases that have paranormal aspects to them, Moline said.
“It’s a true crime podcast that also is scary,” he said. “There are things that are not explained.”
“In digging into the situation, people believe there’s a cult element to why these people disappeared,” Randolph said. “That’s where the paranormal gets involved, like maybe there was some cult ritual or spiritualism that was involved with the disappearance.”
“What I like the most about it is, it really makes you think about when horrible things happen to people, you pay more attention to the lore around it, rather than the people it happened to,” Rangel said. “This play really shines a light on that — it makes you think about the people affected by it and how we as people deal with those kind of things.”
Randolph also wanted to address our obsession with true-crime culture, that turn real people’s tragedies into mass entertainment.
“And it’s lucrative,” Moline said. “They’re making thousands upon thousands of dollars off of a family being destroyed, or people’s lives ending or being completely irreparable. Some random person talks about it into a microphone and will make more money in a year than that person will ever.”
“They’re exploiting the subject,” Randolph said.
Dealing with an outdoor play
Being outdoors is difficult in not controlling where the audience will be, Moline said, but an advantage is, actors can react to nature actually happening.
Rangel said she noticed acorns falling during one rehearsal, and she was surprised.
“I’m excited – I’ve never really done a piece outside like this,” she said.
Hill is excited that as the play goes on, people will be able to see less and less, adding to the mystery and scare factor of the night.
“It encourages the audience to lean in, like it’s a campfire story that’s happening,” Moline said. “The audience has to lean in, get even closer. They have to pay attention and be vulnerable to any spooky, scary things that may be happening.”
“I’m scared for sure, as an actor and a character,” Rangel said. “I just think – you don’t have to hear everything all the time as an audience. A great part of this is, they can endow it themselves, this is what’s happening.”
Randolph wants this to be a unique experience to be immersed in.
“If you don’t hear every piece of dialogue, you’re still gonna get it because you’re immersed in the experience,” he said. “By the end, the audience will come to a conclusion as to what really happened, but we don’t spell it out. There’s never like the Scooby-Doo moment, where they pull something off – it was really you the whole time.”
Randolph actually cast Moline and Rangel before he had a script – just the concept a couple months ago, based off a draft he wrote for a Minnesota Fringe Festival years ago.
“It was about two people going camping looking for UFOs,” the writer said, noting he wanted to completely re-do it.
“I like the idea of doing something – if you did a ghost story play in a theater, it gives a certain sense of safety, if you will, that isn’t necessarily there in the middle of the actual dark in a forest,” the playwright said. “I don’t want people to feel unsafe, but ‘unsettled’ is a better word.”
Randolph created the feeling of hearing a ghost story around a campfire, and the audience is immersed in the ghost story (without an actual fire).
Director Noah Hill (an Augustana graduate) led an outdoor, beach-themed production of “Pirates of Penzance” on the Rock Island college campus in April 2021, and directed a 30-minute original musical (by Ryan J. Hurdle), “A Scarf and a Sweater,” outside in fall 2022.
“I love being outdoors, and I don’t think this could be done indoors, because you’d lose a vital part of the feeling,” Hill said of “The Vanishing.” “It’s very central in multiple ways.”
It’s performed without intermission, and people can bring food and beverages.
“We’re encouraging people to bring their own seating,” Randolph said. “You’ll want to be bundled up, ‘cause who knows what the weather will be like?”
An accomplished resume
Randolph is an award-winning playwright, composer, actor and has served as artistic director of the QC Theatre Workshop and the Susan Glaspell Playwriting Contest. His works range from light-hearted children’s musicals to thrilling contemporary dramas. “The Vanishing” is his 13th original play.
Randolph studied theater and music at St. Ambrose University, where, as an undergraduate, two of his plays premiered on the school’s main stage; a feat that had never happened in the school’s history.
He received national recognition in 2021 from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival for his original music and sound for “An Enemy of the People.” He also received the Quad City Arts Lloyd Schoeneman Community Impact Award for Outstanding Artist in the area of performing arts in 2016 and is the 2015 recipient of the Hilton Worldwide Award for his play, “A Green River.”
“A Green River” (which premiered in 2013) at QC Theatre Workshop) was subsequently produced by the Mississippi Bend Players under the direction of Tony-nominated director, Philip McKinley.
His original adaptation of “The Little Prince” which premiered at the QC Theatre Workshop went on tour to The Beverly Arts Center in Chicago, and was selected to be performed by SAU at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in 2020.
Moline and Rangel both perform for ComedySportz Quad Cities, and Randolph and Moline are veterans of Davenport Junior Theatre.
Moline has directed the latest DJT production, “The Skokie Detective Charter School,” which opened last weekend. “I do not sleep,” he said. “I work, I go to rehearsals at Junior Theatre, I spend a couple hours memorizing, I sleep and wake up at 5 in the morning and begin the process again.”
Moline has been part of DJT the past six years, including as instructor and leader of an improv troupe. He’s planning to move to Boston in December.
“Part of the reason Max and I are doing this show – Max and I have wanted to work together for years, we just haven’t been able to find the right project to work on,” Randolph said. “With Max leaving the area, it was kind of like, now or never.”
Moline is thrilled to do this show, which he says is reminiscent of “the best theater to have ever been in the Quad Cities – rest in peace, Workshop,” he said. “I’m very excited to do my last show with this and very excited to finally get to act in an Aaron Randolph play – after they’ve been emotionally gutting me for the past eight years.”
Moline had directed QCTW’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” and was in the Workshop’s “Peter and the Starcatcher.”
Randolph said that QCTW was never revived after COVID partly since it lost its lease at the old west Davenport location, plus veterans Jessica and Tom Taylor, and Mike Schulz found that family obligations took them away from theater.
“It felt organic,” Randolph said of ending the Workshop, which specialized in edgy, contemporary, intermission-less pieces. “I think when it’s ready for that organization again, the right people will come together and the right circumstance will happen and something like that will spring up again. Hopefully, it will be an organic thing. That’s the only way you end up with people that genuine – that it’s people doing it because they’re super passionate about doing a particular play.”
“I just really wanted to do this play; there’s no obligation,” he said of the new one. “We have no theater company. We don’t have the space to pay the rent for. It’s just something we really wanted to do.”
For more information on Randolph, visit his website HERE.