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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

The first stage direction in The Zombie Life begins: “As audience arrives, various objects can be seen arranged carefully on the mostly bare ‘seminar room’ stage.” The script went through many many developmental changes during the rehearsal process, but that sentence remained the same. Why? Because it didn’t need to change. Ultimately, what’s on the page doesn’t matter. But what those words allow to happen on an actual stage does.

Also, it’s literally not my job. My vague “arranged carefully” was all that Todd Labelle, Firehouse Theatre’s production designer, needed. He sketched this ground plan:

Which became this actual stage design:

The stage directions later describe the Therapist (the play is his seminar as he tries to convince the audience to convert to being zombies to avoid human pain) “laying out a smorgasbord of objects with a reverential attitude.” The “reverential” is an actor’s problem, but AC Wilson, Firehouse’s prop designer, had to take my “smorgasbord” of weird objects (Liquor bottle, Rifle, Condom package, Pussy hat, Confederate flag, Crucifix, Child’s doll, etc.) and acquire, adapt, and/or make actual objects for the Therapist to use:

Each object contains the memories and personality of its former owner before they became a zombie–which is how my sister and I answered the dramaturgical question (before she become the show’s director, Joan played the role of dramaturg during our months of drafting): How can these zombies speak?

My stage directions say not a word about what any of the characters are wearing. So Annette Hairfield, Firehouse’s costume designer, had to plumb the script for inspiration. We talked a lot during early production meetings about whether the Therapist was part of a larger corporation (Todd dubbed it ZombieCorp), but we decided that, no, this guy is just a lone lunatic. That nixed the idea of a ZombieCorp logo on the convert’s polo shirts. But it still left room for other possibilities.

Annette wrote after a meeting: “So…We talked about zombie inner human self being evident in progressive wear on their clothing.. What if Mother showed the staining on the abdominal area from touching her baby. Father’s pant pocket area from clinching his fists in his pockets or rubbing his palms on his upper thigh. Sex Worker knee and lower leg area from, well, we know what. Chef’s apron front area from wiping his hands . Mortician’s pant hem distressed from all the standing and walking at funerals. No specific thoughts about Nun just a progressive overall darkness.”

Small production choices also steered the text in slightly different directions, as when the Zombie Chefs became Zombie Butchers because of the meat cleaver and bloody apron:

Joan’s directorial approach is also physically focused, helping the cast learn ways of embodying themselves that seem to lead inevitably to declaring the words in the script. I now can’t image anyone other than these six actors being these six characters:

Ken Moretti, Shalandis Wheeler Smith, Keaton Hillman, PJ Freebourn, Marjie Southerland, Jacqueline Jones.

Rehearsals began in a nearby church basement (either very appropriate or very inappropriate for a play about zombies) where Joan and Dan Plehal, Joan’s long-time dance collaborator and the production’s movement director, developed movement vocabularies for the zombies as they changed characters and scenes. One section of the script was entirely Joan’s idea and focused on the zombies’ accidental discovery of a harmonica and an ensuing rendition of “When the Saints.”

My wife has called me a “promiscuous collaborator” (exact quote), so I find all of these choices exciting. Joel Bassin, Firehouse’s producing artistic director, paid me a high compliment when he said I wasn’t like other playwrights–you know, the ones who think their words are sacrosanct and that the theatre’s main job is to satisfy the playwright’s preferences (not an exact quote). I’m entering theater from the lonelier realm of fiction writing, one of the least collaborative art forms. Usually it’s just me and my laptop clacking away, so the idea of my words lurching off to inspire new kinds of creative mayhem is horrifyingly delightful.

Grace Brown, Firehouse’s stage manager, kept meticulous track of it all, sending detailed rehearsal notes after each rehearsal. They tell a dozen stories themselves:

“The rehearsal knife has been further dulled.”

“We have tentatively cut the condom wrapper and checkbook lines, and permanently cut the flag and rifle lines on pg.13 in the Objects Hold Memories section.”

“Please note we may need to use a thicker knife for the chef’s knife so that we can dull it down further or perhaps a different prop entirely for the chef. We discussed perhaps using a wooden spoon or a more blunt kitchen tool instead. We will further discuss.”

“Please note the bourbon bottle should have tea in it.”

“We discussed potentially moving the sound board from SL to SR and moving all objects with sound to the table on the same side of the stage as the sound board.”

“Ken will not be wearing socks so that he can just take off his shoes when he’s eaten.”

I did stage crew in high school, so I couldn’t help but notice all the work that Emma Avelis and Scott Shephardson, Firehouse’s crew, did behind the scenes too. (Spoiler Alert: the seminar doesn’t end as “carefully arranged” as it begins.)

My one non-textual contribution to the production was the poster design–not something playwrights usually do, but I’m a promiscuous dabbler too:

It was even a thrill to see the digital art take physical form:

The larger physical context matters too. One of the “dangerous objects” is a Confederate flag that triggers a Klansman group monologue performed with “I Wish I Was in Dixie Land” piped over the stage speakers (which you probably didn’t notice changed position from Todd’s original design sketch). Richmond is the former capital of the Confederacy, and the empty pedestal for General Robert E. Lee’s former statue on Monument Avenue is two blocks from the theater:

Lee exited on July 10th. The Zombie Life closes on August 29th.

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