A climactic theatrical experience [by Matt Baker]
Idle hands are the devil’s playthings, but it seems they might also be responsible for a zombie outbreak in Auckland. Conceived via procrastination, actors David Van Horn and Simon London turned their hands to writing and created what is being dubbed in the theatre industry as the most immersive theatrical experience to date. “We joked about zombies chasing the character of a play into the theatre and then realised there was a show in it… and when Charlie [McDermott] came on board as our producer he encouraged us to develop the bigger picture.”
McDermott, general manager of the Basement Theatre, saw it as “…The opportunity to market a show to an audience rarely catered to in the theatre world; young men.” As a player of video games himself, McDermott loved the idea of bringing a video-game experience to the stage. “I’m like lots of guys out there: I am secretly the hero of a tonne of apocalyptic fantasy worlds. With this show, we wanted to create the same feeling you get when you play a kick-ass game.” The society of online gamers is a universal one, devoid of cultural barriers, and it’s with this in mind that the show holds international potential. “We want to have a show that will adapt to whichever city it plays in. So the audience feels personally connected from the first time they see a poster or book their tickets,” adds Van Horn.
Aotea Square seems to be an apt performance space for the production’s purpose-built military zone, so what came first, form or function? “Zombies came first and the interactive elements followed right behind. The zombies gave us a dramatic storyline to develop and it made sense that we thrust the audience into the thick of it alongside our characters. By the time it was decided we were doing it in the square we were onto the third draft. Luckily, the ideas we were playing with at the time allowed us to adjust accordingly.”
With patrons being given nothing more than a backstory as to why they have arrived at this site-specific theatrical event, no one seems quite sure what to expect, but be reassured, there is a story to be told. “We’ve always held story as our highest priority when developing this. Being the genre that it is, we knew we’d be under scrutiny with people expecting it to be a mindless action and boys playing zombies. We wanted to develop a story about characters dealing with a crisis and holding it in the realm of reality as much as possible. What interests me are the universal themes. If you take away the zombies you have a story of humans being tested when the world they know crumbles around them. It’s how humanity faces the threat of being wiped out.”
Statistically, zombie films have proved most popular when democratic governments are in power, due to a theoretical underlying fear of conforming to an extreme communist regime, so how will Apocalypse Z fare under New Zealand’s current political and social climate? “Audiences are savvy to the zombie genre and in some ways I think they look past any political comparisons and what grabs them are the human struggles.”
After so many years of vampire-based horror, it seems that zombies are finally getting their time in the sun. With movies such as ‘Warm Bodies’ earning over $20 million in its first 3 days, and AMC’s television series ‘The Walking Dead’ pulling 12.4 million viewers in its season three finale, it seems the right time for a theatrical endeavour of the same nature. “I’m not surprised the resurgence of the zombie genre comes within the midst of a recession. There’s a reason ‘The Walking Dead’ is one of the highest rating shows in the states right now. When people are struggling in their real lives they don’t want to watch shows about how awesome it is for the privileged. They want to relate to the characters through their struggles. I’m sure we’ve all thought about what it would be like to start again and reinvent ourselves. We all dream of rising up in the face of darkness and saving the day, don’t we? Or is that just me?”
It’s a valid question. One with which I agree and the advertising uses to tantalise its potential patrons, “…Enjoy the spectacle… or step up and become a hero.” As Van Horn concludes, “We’re trying to cover a wide audience, so that a young non-theatre going video gamer would appreciate it alongside a seasoned theatregoer who will hopefully experience something different to what they’re used to. I’ve always been interesting in making theatre for people that aren’t regular theatregoers. Theatre should be about challenging your audience and giving them an experience they can’t get at home.” If the hype is anything to go by, it certainly should be.
Apocalypse Z is presented by Royale Productions and plays at Auckland last Zombie-free outpost in Aotea Square, 12-27 April. Details see THE EDGE.
Warning: This show contains controlled theatrical effects including blood splatter, fake gun fire, and fire, as well as realistic depictions of violence and disturbing imagery. R restriction (13+): Parental supervision recommended. Due to the nature of the set construction, this event is not wheelchair accessible.