Rowan Jang provides an example of the zombie-vampires audiences can expect to encounter in The Zombie Syndrome: Dead in the Water. (photo by Emily Cooper Photography)
Last year, I was one of a group of “specialists” who gathered outside Trout Lake Community Centre to embark on our mission, which related to a downed alien spaceship. While the details of that mission must remain confidential, one aspect can be revealed – it was loads of fun. It was also a great cardio workout, not just because of the running from zombies, but the screaming, both from fear and excitement.
This year, the Virtual Stage is gathering teams (audiences) of 18 on Granville Island every 30 minutes from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. nightly until Oct. 31 to help find Special Forces operative Frank Johnson. As per the mission description, Johnson “was hunting down former government geneticist Mattias Van Cleave when he fell off the radar. Van Cleave, a suspected vampiric psychopath, is believed to be responsible for a string of recent murders, and the sudden appearance of zombie-vampire mutants across the Lower Mainland. The audience must determine Johnson’s whereabouts and ensure his mission to stop Van Cleave is completed at any cost.”
As with the four previous Zombie productions, The Zombie Syndrome: Dead in the Water makes use of the latest technology – this year, it’s Apple’s new location-based iBeacon.
“I am very interested in how emerging technologies can excite live audiences and breathe new life into theatre as an art form,” Virtual Stage artistic director, Zombies series creator and Jewish community member Andy Thompson told the Independent. “I am very narrative-driven as an artist, and the iBeacons have been a delightful tool in the creation of The Zombie Syndrome: Dead in the Water.”
The decision about what technology to use, Thompson said, “involves a process of questioning what is readily accessible and available, not only for myself as a producer, but also for today’s audiences. What is free within smartphones today? What is new and exciting? How can these gadgets drive a story forward? What can people afford? What can our company afford?
“I am also constantly imagining what the next big thing in technology might be, as well as its potential future societal impact,” he added. “My vision of concern for the future with ‘social media on steroids’ in my musical Broken Sex Doll is one example of this. I am also assessing what exciting new technologies are present today and how they may aid in live storytelling. In the particular instance of this show, the iBeacons roll out narrative content in a very interactive and engaging way as the audience moves from site to site.”
As the audience moves quickly along – both because they are “racing against the clock” and because there are scary things lurking in the dark – the possibility of an accident, miscue or technical glitch is much higher than for a standard production.
“We rehearse as many possibilities as we can,” said Thompson, “but the most important preparation we have is to be ready for anything: the ‘known unknowns,’ as Donald Rumsfeld might say. So far, the audiences have been completely surprising to us in how they navigate the problems we present to them. So, it is fresh and exciting every performance. The personalities of the individual audience members also greatly affect the flow and feel of each show. We did a lot of improvising in the rehearsal process so the actors are very prepared and on their toes.”
One unexpected moment – of which Thompson said “there have been many” – took place during last year’s mission, “when the entire site flooded on our closing performance at Trout Lake. We had about one hour to physically relocate most sites to higher ground, rehearse it in the new areas, and get as many technical elements in place as we could. We managed to pull off a derivative of the show, which was a miracle and a testament to our amazing crew and performers.”
As to what participants can expect this year, Thompson said, “Audiences will be traveling by sea at one point, which we are thrilled about. They will be confronted with a new breed of mutant zombie-vampires that cannot be killed. The iBeacon technical aspect to the show is also a Canadian theatre première, so people will be testing that tech out with their smartphones in a live entertainment environment like they have never done before. And yes, there might be running….”
For mission tickets, visit thevirtualstage.org/zombies. Participants should dress for the weather and moving quickly; the show is rated PG-13.