One night a couple of years ago, Ben Evett was driving home from a theater conference, and he couldn’t stop thinking about his latest Big Idea. He had just spent several days with the best and the brightest in American drama, pondering ways to keep the art form relevant at a time when folks are glued to their electronic devices. How do you combine the all-consuming quality of social media with the intimate nature of live theater? How do you build a lasting community around an event that takes place in a dark space for a few hours and ends when the lights come up?
Somewhere on the highway between Baltimore and Boston, Evett came up with an answer: ghosts.
Evett, a longtime fixture on the local theatrical scene and the founder and former artistic director of Actors’ Shakespeare Project, is about to launch his latest venture, a production called “Blood Rose Rising,’’ which opens tonight and runs through April 7 at the Davis Square Theatre in Somerville. A supernatural romantic thriller, it will unfold in installments, like a live version of, say, “Lost,’’ but with a phantasmic twist. Each “episode’’ is a self-contained play that will run for a month or two, to be followed by another episode. The first installment, which is billed as the pilot, is called “Immaterial Girl.’’ The tale centers on a history professor named Robert Blackwood who encounters a mysterious Victorian ghost when he moves into a house he inherited from his late father.
“I’ve been thinking about these long narrative television series and how people become passionately invested in them and talk about them with friends and write about them on Facebook,’’ Evett says. “I am trying to create that connection with an ongoing story in a way that only theater can do - by providing an intense, immediate experience and a chance to socialize with other people.’’
The play will unfold in a sort of cabaret atmosphere, with bar service and the alt-rock band Alchemilla performing live music before, during, and after the performance. Theatergoers are encouraged to stay after the show and hear the band or grab food and drinks at Saloon, the new bar down the hall from the basement theater (which used to be Jimmy Tingle’s Off-Broadway Theater).
The production features multimedia effects as well as some old-fashioned prestidigitation. But what exactly is it? Steve Barkhimer, a local playwright who partnered with Evett to write the piece, is hard-pressed to pigeonhole it into a specific genre. “I was afraid you might ask me that,’’ Barkhimer says. “Is it a drama? A comedy? A magic show? A serious cabaret? It’s sort of all of that.’’
The story is loosely based on Book 11 of “The Odyssey,’’ in which the Greek hero Odysseus visits the underworld and must offer blood to the spirits of the dead so that they will talk to him. Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that the character Robert Blackwood must sacrifice lives in order to revive the ghost, who is somehow linked to his family’s tangled history. It’s also safe to say that someone dies in each episode. In the segments Barkhimer and Evett have already written, that character is played by the same actor, Casey Preston. “The show should be subtitled ‘Sixteen Ways to Kill Casey,’ ’’ Evett says, adding that when characters die in this saga, they still manage to stick around.
‘Is it a drama? A comedy? A magic show? A serious cabaret? It’s sort of all of that.’Steve Barkhimer (above right with Ben Evett), co-writer of “Blood Rose Rising’’
Both Evett and Barkhimer are adamant that this isn’t a slash-and-gash gore-fest. The goal is to create an experience that is fun but also has thematic weight. “Ghost stories allow you to talk about big issues like life and death and loss,’’ says Evett, a self-described “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’’ devotee. “What happens after you die? How do we get our loved ones back? You can explore all these big questions but still have a rollicking good time.’’
Shakespeare it’s not, but the creators are aiming for a story with the breadth and depth of an epic. “A ghost story that merely frightens me is entertaining, but the ones that interest me most are the stories like ‘Hamlet,’ where there is something in the past that needs addressing,’’ Barkhimer says. “There is a conflict to be resolved, demons to be exorcized. The past demands some sort of mindful action.’’
They are hoping that audiences will latch on to the gruesome tale and be inspired to come back for installment after installment. This is a commercial, not nonprofit, enterprise, similar in structure (if not subject matter) to “Shear Madness,’’ the long-running comedy whodunit that was created in Boston and has become an international franchise. Its record of success is one that “Blood Rose Rising’’ aspires to emulate.
Evett, who spent 20 years at the American Repertory Theater, wholeheartedly embraces many forms of entertainment. “I’ve done all different kinds of theater - from the highest-brow to the lowest-brow - and I think they’re all really great,’’ he says. “They all serve different functions and are equally valuable.’’
His company, called Honest Ghost Productions, offers yet another variation in an ongoing trend both here and nationwide: theatrical events that keep pace with today’s rapid-fire mode of constant communication, including site-specific performances and shows with audience interaction. Evett envisions an audience that will participate after the performance, using Facebook and other websites to create a vibrant online community. If the “Blood Rose Rising’’ concept takes off, the company might post video recaps of past episodes online and use its website to announce special live events. One idea is to have two characters meet at a certain place at a certain time to stage a mini-scene that those who are in the know can watch.
All of this is very much a work in progress; the website so far has been fairly static. Some commercial theater ventures (such as “Rent’’ in the 1990s) gathered a fan base simply through word of mouth, but the creators of “Blood Rose Rising’’ are endeavoring for their show to go viral by design.
“I don’t know if we are aiming for cult status, but it wouldn’t hurt. I would take that,’’ Barkhimer says, his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek. For now, he and Evett are just launching the so-called pilot, hoping for a theatrical miniseries to take on a life of its own.