The Unholy Birth of Z-Day

3 09 2010

Monday Fringe reviewer Chris Felling delves into the guts of the local zombie musical

foto by David Bukach

By now, dear Fringer, you’ve no doubt caught wind of Z-Day: The Anthem for the Post-Zombie Apocalypse. Lots of people at the venues have been chatting about it, it stirred up lots more people at preview night. However, at the risk of sounding like some sort of vintage-clad theatre hipster, I saw Z-Day before it was cool and I, like, totally know Jay Mitchell. Yeah, that’s the guy behind it.

Earlier this year, Z-Day was a little-known but much-talked-about show in UVic’s theatre department and, like any good zombie, it’s mutated a little since I last saw it. The move from the cramped and catwalked 80-seat McIntyre theatre at the Phoenix to the spacious Metro has changed things, as has a new cast, longer songs and new material. Surely, dear Fringer, you’re a little bit curious about Z-Day‘s life in the lab? Good! I chatted up writer/director/composer Jay Mitchell before their Monday night show to satisfy that for you.

If through some stroke of bad luck or poor judgement you haven’t seen Z-Day yet, well, spoilers ahead. Tread carefully and don’t let them see you or they will devour the novelty of the show, leaving you a dark and shambling husk of your former self driven only by a ceaseless hunger that blasphemes against nature and I’m sure you’d much rather see such a neat show innocently, without already knowing its surprises.
An Infectious SATCo

Skill-testing question: what was the first piece of Z-Day ever performed? The answer has surprisingly little to do with zombies. It’s the song “Fuck You, Brian,” which Mitchell improvised at a party to take a few jabs at one of the UVic Theatre department’s more aggravating Brians. At the time, Mitchell had played in a band called The Refreshments, charmed crowds at Atomic Vaudeville and, of course, was a busy theatre student. He was looking, however, for a way to combine his artistic interests into a hybrid theatre beast that would show them—show them all!

The answer: write a musical. Why zombies? “Zombies are what I knew best,” says Mitchell, “I love them.” So much, in fact, that he’s watched nearly every zombie flick in existence—even obscure Australian ones like Undead and George A. Romero’s direct-to-DVD shame Survival of the Dead.

Mitchell pitched the germ of his zombie apocalypse musical to the Student Alternative Theatre Company (SATCo), massed his cast, composed and recorded the music and filled in the dialogue. Deadlines and time restrictions were particularly ominous for a SATCo show of Z-Day‘s scale. Rehearsals—from chorus to choreography and back—lasted only two weeks. As for the writing, “There just wasn’t time,” Mitchell says, to do everything he wanted. He did, however, capture the core of the zombie genre. “There’s all the archetypes . . . there’s the jock, the pregnant girl who has a zombie baby . . .” and he laughs—ever, ever so slightly maniacally.

What Mitchell is particularly happy with is the affection his script has always had for the genre and the unfortunate characters who tend to populate them. “I sat the cast down and said ‘okay, lets take away the zombies, what are these characters like?’” Despite their circumstances, the kids from Green Oaks are caught up in personal troubles. “Teen pregnancy, virginity, these are things I remember growing up,” Mitchell confides, and he made use of their drama to add a little more to Z-Day‘s plot. And a zombie baby. “There has to be a zombie baby that kills someone.” Indeed.

And so Z-Day: The Anthem for the Post-Zombie Apocalypse invaded the McIntyre theatre. It was a massacre. Mitchell’s mad experiment sold out all three nights of a three-show run, even turning away 30 to 40 people at the door each night after the floor filled up with eager audience members. It was a hit, second only to the year’s “Best SATCo” winner, Geez! (which Mitchell was also involved in) and second-to-none in pulling in an audience. The lights dimmed, static roared on a junked TV set on centre stage, the cast slayed the undead menace on the catwalks and “Thriller” swelled up as the audience cheered for more.

Just as planned.

Spreading Off-Campus

Campus conquered, Mitchell and the rest of Bring Back Pluto Productions set their sights on something bigger. The decision to infect the Fringe was made and BBPP reopened auditions. The results? “My dream cast,” says Mitchell. “We’ve got a real family dynamic.” For the next two months, Mitchell did daily rewrites of the script, testing and editing new lines with BBPP artistic director Scott Hendrickson and choreographer Karoline Piercy.

Back in the lab and unconstrained by SATCo boundaries, Z-Day could grow new scenes and new songs with new themes. The SATCo draft of Z-Day lacked “Waiting for You,” sung by Mama and her brood of cannibals, for example, which reveal a theme Mitchell had always wanted, hoping to cast zombie carnage in a less campy light. Mitchell had always wanted to further muddy the moral waters of the genre. The lamenting of innocence lost in “Am I Still Human?” hints at this, but for Mitchell it didn’t raise the opposite question: whether the iconic shambling horde of the zombie genre were still people. “What if you can cure them?”

Practically speaking, the move to the wide open but comparatively flat Metro presented some challenges. “We wanted to install catwalks, but there was no time.” The four panels that now make up Z-Day‘s set were hopefully going to be mobile. “The idea was they’d be up front like the exterior of a building, and then two would move back and we’d bring the cast inside.” The idea was scrapped for time. Also, “that last dance. We needed the space.” Mitchell is pleased nonetheless by Hendrickson’s work with the projections, lights and other substitutes for the original set and the McIntyre theatre’s industrial look.

A live band was brought in, replacing the recording that played for Z-Day‘s SATCo run. Practical reasons for this aside (“If someone’s slow, the band can compensate. A recording can’t.”) Mitchell loves the feel of live music. “It’s another layer of performance,” he says, “if the audience is feeling it, they pick up on that.” BBPP is all about interacting with the audience and playing up the theatricality of theatre, Mitchell says. Otherwise, well, “it’s just watching television.”

Future Mutations

While Z-Day has plans to remount somewhere in Vancouver, Mitchell and BBPP are hatching more farsighted schemes as well. “I want to finish the Green Oaks trilogy,” Mitchell says before detailing plans for Z-Day‘s prequel of sorts: a slasher movie musical set in the ’90s. The third part to this diabolical theatre machine? Something playing with “the curse genre. The Grudge, The Ring . . . but that’s in the future.” In any case, Mitchell wants to keep writing for theatre since it lets him “do everything,” he says, with just a touch of mad science in his voice. Luckily for us, he also says BBPP wants to continue premiering shows in Victoria.

Z-Day itself has two shows left if you still need to see it (or, if you’re like me and plan to see it again) but you’ll have to show up early to secure a spot! Lines have been stretching up Johnson street for this one like an exceptionally lanky hand bursting forth from a grave. The remaining shows are Saturday, September 4th at 5:30pm and Sunday September 5th at 9:15pm. Shamble down to venue 2 and try not to get bit.

Happy Fringing!

—Chris Felling

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3 09 2010
I wrote a little something on the side. « Canon Fire

[…] John Threlfall at Monday tapped me for a little bit about Vic Fringe hit Z-Day: The Anthem for the Post Zombie Apocalypse for Monday‘s blog. It never hurts to go to school with stars! Anyway, you can read my post here. […]

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