With haunted houses and scary corn mazes cropping up all over the region this time of year, a theater project on the North Shore is putting a different spin on Halloween: letting child actors turn a 450-acre state park into an outdoor stage for spooky skits.

Now in its thirtieth year, Haunted Maudslay will start its brief two-day run this Saturday and Sunday at Maudslay State Park in Newburyport.

Last year, as families with kids waited in line along broad open field, a ten-foot tall grim reaper, draped in black cloth, lumbered after kids and adults on a state park trail.

It’s not often that laughter and death mix like this, but shrieks and giggles erupted as death’s long, grizzled fingers lunged after anyone.

The use of handmade masks and stilts are trademarks of Theater in the Open in Newburyport. Here, the grim reaper meets up with a toddler and parent on the way to Haunted Maudslay.
Simone Bui

A big presence at this annual event is Teddy Speck, the artistic director of Theater in the Open.

“Anyone wanna try on a raven head?” Speck called out, cajoling kids to try on a raven’s mask and headdress as they queued up on a main trail into the park.

Speck’s theater program all unfolds amidst the rolling hills, fields and forests of Maudslay State Park – no walls, no stage lights and no cushy seats.

Theater in the Open pushes back against the idea that making or seeing theater can only happen in a fancy, controlled setting.

“It’s the kind of acting where you’re looking the audience in the face,” said Speck. “If you are in a scary mask, there might be a scary reaction.  It’s why we have magic pebbles.”

Even little veterans of the event know all about the pebbles’ power along these trails.

“If you’re scared of something in the skits around the woods, then you put your rock out and they won’t come to you and won’t scare you,” explained one little girl last October.

Most of the roughly a dozen skits along the trails are performed and created by children actors and playwrights.

Speck, now a bearded, bespectacled 35-year-old, used to be one of them.  He started attending the event  at age 12, and he found a place to fit in and get his hands dirty.

He said he fell in love with the nuts and bolts of theater, sawing wood for sets, creating costumes and making masks. But what pulled him into Theater in the Open was its unorthodox setting – the great outdoors as a stage.

Speck loves to tell stories of all the times nature became part of the plays he has taken part in  like when a red-tailed hawk swooped onto a tree right above an actor singing about the joys of living in green space.

“The audience, the actors, and the hawk experienced an unplanned, beautiful piece of art in that moment,” said Speck. “The hawk is an actor, and that’s just the way it goes,”