4. Publicity and Interview with the Director

Publicity Blurb

“Society has collapsed, the University of Hawaii is a wasteland, and zombies are roaming the island of O’ahu after a recent accident on one of the nuclear submarines off Pearl Harbor. To increase their ratings, a major network has turned Kennedy Theatre into a television studio for their regular broadcasts of their new reality show Masterpiece Theatre and Zombies. The contestants on this show not only have to act in a classical play but also to survive its performance to win a flight into a “safe zone” or coupons for food no longer available to regular civilians. The major challenge for the contestants is to stay in character and get through the performance alive while fending off zombies released into the arena by the popular host of the show. After the peak ratings of last month’s The Tempest and Zombies, the producers have decided to go for a classic example of realism this time, Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1897).”

February 24, 2012

The Wicked Stage Blog:


We have our first piece of publicity! More than 6 months away, and we’re already making waves.

May 7, 2012

On March 9, I sat down with director and UH Theatre Professor Markus Wessendorf where we chatted about the production, his influences, and any special events that are connected with the show. You’re going to want to mark your calendars!

YL: Why Zombies?

MW: I was looking for several weeks in the Spring 2011 for a play that I would want to do next at Kennedy Theatre, and I usually try to find classical plays that resonate with current events, so when Fukushima happened, I was definitely looking for a play that would resonate perhaps, with regard to its environmental message, with this awful event. So for a couple of weeks, I was looking for plays that I could use as a director to address this larger environmental conflict, and Fukushima is only one part of the environmental issue, in a way that I would still be able, at the same time, do a classical play and I was thinking, “How could you deal with Fukushima from this angle?”

In 1986, I lived through Chernobyl and I still remember living in Bavaria, a few hundred miles from the Ukraine, and we, a few other theatre students and I, had a little glass house in the back of our house where we grew tomatoes and vegetables and we had to throw away our produce for the next two years because it was radioactive and this still resonated with me, the idea of Fukushima triggering the earlier Chernobyl accident in my mind.

I remember it was a Saturday morning when this idea popped in my head to perhaps use Russian material to address the Fukushima accident. That’s how I came up with the idea of a Chekhov play that would feature Zombies, which of course, in many films, are the result of a nuclear disaster. A number of 1950’s, 1960’s B pictures feature Zombies as a result of the mismanagement of nature, the abuse of nature by humankind. So there was this link between the Russian play and Zombies.

I looked at a number of plays, but then I reread Uncle Vanya and this resonated the most, not only with Fukushima, but also with other things that were happening last year. The play is not just about a doctor who spends his spare time growing trees to regrow the Russian forest, it is also a play that represents the 1% versus the 99% movement, and I felt that this play could address both of those issues.

YL: What is your own interest in Chekhov? In Zombies?

MW: Chekhov, to me, is really interesting. He was one of the very first playwrights I studied when I begin to study theatre in the 1980’s at a Bavarian University, and a professor with whom I studied had written his dissertation on Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre. I still remember studying Chekhov then, and what was always stunning to me was that Chekhov considered his plays comedies. All of his plays are extremely difficult to stage successfully. In that sense, they’ve always represented this major challenge and fascination for me. What is so interesting about them is that, on one hand, they are considered naturalist and realistic, but on the other hand, of course, they are considered precursors of Samuel Beckett, with their use of pauses and subtle stylization. I like the fact that as a reader, director, actor, or spectator, of these plays, you really have to read in-between the lines to really figure out what is going on. Also his biography, the fact that he was a medical doctor and had already written thousands of Russian short stories before he even turned to drama was kind of appealing, that this guy really had some x-ray knowledge of Russian society in the late 19th century and this knowledge, in a certain way, would make its way into very subtle observations about peoples’ lives at the time.

YL: In Zombies?

MW: Zombies, ok. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, when it opened it opened in one of the largest movie theatres in my hometown in Germany in the late 1970’s, the distribution title was actually, Zombi. Of course, that is something that often happens, that when movies are distributed internationally, they are not necessarily translated correctly, or translated at all into the target language. I still remember watching this film, which is a little shorter than the American one, and edited by the Italian horror director Dario Argento. I remember walking out of the movie theatre quite traumatized. I was 16 or 17 years old at the time and I was really shocked by the level of violence and brutality in the film and it took me several weeks to get over that, I had nightmares. But I’ve always had interest in the Zombie genre ever since. The genre was big in the 70’s, and perhaps early 80’s, and now it has come back with a vengeance over the past 10-12 years and particularly over the last two to three years. The usage of the word “Zombie” has become inflated: we now talk about Zombie borders, Zombie banks, Zombie computers, and Newt Gingrich was referred to as a Zombie candidate a few weeks ago. There is something ubiquitous about the term. There’s this post-Biblical, post-apocalyptic element to the Zombie. Prior to the 1960’s when the genre was revamped by George Romero, the roots of the Zombie were in Haitian voodoo culture, and when you look at the oldest Zombie film, called White Zombie from 1933, Zombies are basically living dead who work as serfs or slaves for white plantation owners, and I think that’s another reason why this movie resonates so well right now because it’s about labor. Labor that is unthinking, totally exploited. That’s also why the entire Zombie figure relates to outsourcing, globalization, and to the exploitation of labor in developed as well as in less developed countries.

YL: What do you hope the audience will take away from this production?

MW: This production combines a number of different elements. On one hand, there is a modern 21st century adaptation of Uncle Vanya, a fully staged version of Vanya, that transfers the play to Russia under Putin, so we are no longer dealing with a country estate, but with a mobster safe house in the country.

YL: Which is interesting because Putin was just reelected.

MW: I wanted to address the current situation of Russia, of a corrupt autocratic, capitalist, post-communist system. This is then related of the larger narrative of the production: that there has been a nuclear accident involving one of the nuclear submarines in Pearl Harbor sometime ago —referred to as “Pearly Harbor II”— and we, the residents of Hawaii, are now living in the aftermath of that disaster. Several months after the attack, zombies are roaming all over O’ahu, the infrastructure of the island has broken down, the University of Hawai’i no longer exists. It’s a wasteland and a major television network from the mainland has taken over Kennedy Theatre to broadcast a monthly reality/game show. So what the audience is going to see is an event that is not staged for the actual audience at Kennedy Theatre, but for a mainland television audience. There will be a host guiding the show, and the idea is that the actors are not primarily actors, as they would be in a traditional Chekhov performance, but contestants competing in a game show that they have to survive. They are performing for their lives, literally. They are performing Uncle Vanya in a cage, behind an electrified fence in a television studio. The set of this modern Russian version is behind this electrified fence. The host, who is in front of the fence, controls how many zombies are released from their holding pen into the staging arena. The contestants have to get through the performance they have rehearsed in a quarantine camp, while fending off the zombies at the same time. Those contestants that survive the performance will win major awards, which include coupons for food no longer available to residents on O’ahu, free tuition at a great mainland college, a corporate job with a major Fortune 500 company, and a flight to a safe zone on the mainland if the game ends before round 3. So that’s the structure of the play.

So what the audience will take away, on one hand, is the hopefully first successful example of a theatrical production using the zombie genre. However, I would also like the audience to think more about environmentalism as well as the voyeurism of mass media culture.

YL: Going to the script now, do you expect it to be like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where the characters spend time polishing swords and drop any reference to zombies they can? Is it going to be straight Chekhov, or are there references to zombies?

MW: In the play itself, there won’t be references to zombies because it is just a production that actors are trying to get through. However, the play will be a heavily edited version of Uncle Vanya that is also updated to a more contemporary Russian context. And then there is another layer, the game show, which features a host that functions much like a Brechtian narrator, but one of dubious quality. He’s the one who lays out the rules, interviews the contestants, and introduces video segments that will be produced by ACM students: fake commercials and fake documentaries. Also, Uncle Vanya and Zombies is only one installment of a greater show called Theatre Masterpieces and Zombies. Last month’s installment was The Tempest and Zombies, next month’s will be Death and a Salesman and Zombies. Since the last show was Tempest and Zombies, the losers of that show now appear as zombies in this show.

The Zombie element is constantly there, but it is more evident in the framing of the game show than in the Chekhov text, which changes according to the rules of the game. What happens in the play is that, one by one, the cast members turn into zombies. The only act that we will see more or less intact is Round One. The play becomes exponentially shorter after this because there are fewer and fewer contestants left who can speak Chekhov’s lines. So there are no direct references to zombies, but towards the end, they have essentially chewed up the script.

YL: So, do you see a winner?

MW: That’s undecided.

YL: Any special events attached with the production that people should be aware of?

MW:  There will be a public event series called The Zombie Renaissance: Why Now? It will include a number of speakers, public panels, and make-up workshops. We will have a number of presentations and panels at Kennedy Theatre and at the Doris Duke Theatre in October and November. Kyle William Bishop, the author of one of the major recent surveys of the zombie genre in American culture, American Zombie Gothic, will give at least two presentations. We will also have two academic panels, organized by UH faculty and PhD students from the Political Science and English Departments.

YL: Thanks!

  1. Elise "Zombie K.E.A." Shuford says:

    Awesome! So excited! Our blurb is already making blog headlines!


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