Director Andy Thompson talks about the Virtual Stage’s latest interactive theatre experience
The Virtual Stage’s Alien Contagion: Rise of the Zombie Syndrome, directed by Andy Thompson, is a not your average theatrical production. It’s an interactive show that actually takes place on the streets of Vancouver. Instead of merely watching characters being chased by a horde of zombies, you get to be the bait. This is the fourth year for the zombie-themed series, and having attended last year, I was eager to compare this new installment.
Participants are assembled into a ‘expert’ team in a high-stakes mission, and the mystery location of the show is only disclosed to participants a day before their respective mission. Zombies prowled the area, lurking in the shadows and dark corners and lurching towards us when we least expected it. This year, the production centres on aliens that crash-land on earth. Anyone that tries to find the mysterious aliens returns as zombies. Fun fact: there are more zombies this year than last. Double the scare.
Having done these zombie productions for three years already, Thompson had to up the ante for the fourth season. This is the first time Thompson’s roped another monster into his play, and the inspiration for that actually came from his stepson Finn. They were just hanging out, watching an alien movie, when Finn suggested, “Maybe the aliens can make the zombies?” And that was the story of how nine-year-old Finn began his career as a writer.
Thompson absolutely loved the idea. “So, it’s like Earth’s calling out for help because humans are destroying it, and the aliens are answering the call. Okay, so what if they’re doing that by killing off the humans and turning them into zombies? That’s why we have the line in the play: ‘You eat the earth, and now it’s eating you. Poetic justice.’”
Thompson’s zombie productions aren’t solely for the Halloween scares and frights. As an artist, Thompson wants his work to have more substance. “One of the challenges I’ve given myself is to explore a zombie subculture every year.” Last year, Thompson explored the world of drug addiction through his zombies. “Looking at this year, I just completely abandoned any need to stick to any previous narrative. I just want to stick with zombies, and explore the world of zombies from different angles.”
As you might suspect, it’s not easy putting on a production like this, and on such a scale. There are so many factors to consider — the budget, the safety of the actors, participants, and passers-by, the props, licenses, and so on. “So many artistic decisions are derived by finances, sadly,” Thompson remarked. “The zombies are [high school students] on work experience.”
Actress Eva Butterly shares her experience performing in this unique show
Miranda MacFarlane the pleasure of co-interviewing up-and-coming actress Eva Butterfly on her play Alien Contagion: Rise of the Zombie Syndrome on air on the CJSF Arts Magazine Show. She and Jacob Gradowski discussed interactive theatre, aliens, and zombies with the Irish actress.
Miranda MacFarlane, The Peak: Can you tell us a bit about Alien Contagion: Rise of the Zombie Syndrome?
Eve Butterly: It’s basically a quite specific, highly interactive, alien/zombie-themed theatrical scavenger hunt. It’s in its fourth year running now — it’s a different kind of theme every year — so this year we’re doing zombies and aliens and the whole idea of UFO abductions.
MM: What can tell us about your character, Lucy?
EB: Yeah, Lucy Peterson. She is a very paranoid alien/UFO enthusiast. She claims that she’s been abducted many times by aliens, and she kind of has a post-traumatic stress disorder over this whole ordeal. And so she runs a website called aliencontagion.com, which offers support to people who have been abducted by UFOs. There’s various things on there; for instance, there’s a tonic you can make for after you’ve been probed by an alien.
So yeah, she’s a pretty wacky character. I’m really enjoying playing her.
MM: What prompted you to get involved with Alien Contagion?
EB: Well, I’d done the show in 2013, and I got into it through Andy Thompson, the creator of the show. I was in a college course that Andy was teaching. We became friends, and I’m glad to be collaborating with him again this year.
Jacob Gradowski, CJSF: This play touches upon my childhood fears. Eva, I was wondering what are some of your childhood fears?
EB: Well in Ireland, there is this thing called the wooden spoon. There used to be this thing when you were a kid, if you were being bold, you’d get a whack from the wooden spoon. So that was every Irish kid’s greatest fear — their mammy coming after them with a wooden spoon.
JG: Zombies and aliens have a been a thing in pop culture for the last couple years, and going way beyond that, going back to the 1960s. I’m just wondering how do you think the whole zombie thing manages to stay fresh?
EB: I think, as you were saying, it is so prevalent in pop culture, and I think one of the reasons for that is it’s an escapism of sorts for people. There’s so much atrocity around the world happening and we see so much of these zombies, these adverse situations, such as apocalyptic, nuclear warfare, all this mad stuff. I think that zombies for people is a way of expressing these things in a creative way.
JG: Do you get any moments in this play to scare any of the attendees?
EB: Well if you count the personality flaws in my character scary then, yeah. I’m not playing a zombie this year so. . . you might just be freaked out by my aura, who knows.
JG: What was the transition like from contemporary theatre, where there’s no interactivity, to an interactive-style production?
EB: It’s completely different, and it’s probably a bit harder, and more rewarding in a sense in interactive stuff because you’re battling with the elements. It’s all outdoors, you don’t have the comfort of being on a stage in a theatre. It’s the same with the audience — you’re up close and personal with them, and you have to jive off what they give you. So it does test you to the limits of improvisation, and every group is different.
We’ve got like five different groups a night, and you’re giving five different performances basically. That’s very exciting as a performer.
JG: You have to perform Alien Contagion five times a day, for almost a month. How do you keep that up?
EB: Thankfully I do not work during the day, so I sleep in, get up and eat good food, do a bit of exercise, then I’m usually good to go. But I remember when I was doing the show in 2013, I was working full-time, and that was absolutely the most hectic time of my life, I would say. I was so surprised I got through that.
JG: Are there a lot of ways that the interactive nature with the attendees changes the way the play progresses?
EB: At the end there are a few different possibilities of the outcome, but pretty much through the story it is just the characters finding out clues […] Andy figured if you had that at the start of the show where they’re choosing things that could happen, by the end of the show there’d be hundreds of different possibilities and it would just be too hard.