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Pictured: Marsha Harman and Micah Kronlokken in a publicity image for Akvavit Theatre’s production of “GHOSTS & zombies.” Photo by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom.
In this 4-part series, PerformInk takes you inside Akvavit Theatre’s “GHOSTS & zombies” through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past INSIDE articles, click here.
By Violence Designer’s Victor Bayona and Richard Gilbert
In its day, Henrik Ibsen’s GHOSTS was lambasted for its indecent treatment of the taboo venereal disease syphilis. Gustav Tegby’s modern adaptation, “GHOSTS and zombies,” replaces taboo with vogue, employing the popular theme of zombie outbreak to tell its version of the story. The replacement of syphilis with zombies takes the internal demons of the original GHOSTS and brings them out into the world. “GHOSTS and zombies” clothes them in rotting, hungry flesh and forces them into physical confrontation with the central characters, flipping the genre from drama to horror. To tell the story, “GHOSTS and zombies” requires effective and carefully considered violence design.
Effective violence design supports the themes and style of the production, reveals aspects of the characters’ natures, and advances the story. Violence can be stylized any number of ways, from Hollywood swash to slapstick to brutal realism. For a play like “GHOSTS and zombies” where the horror element in the play is also fantastical in nature, we decided to approach the violence as realistically as we could in order to engage and scare the audience. The horrific needs to be real and the fantastic needs to be relatable. We didn’t want to risk wandering into the realm of camp.
For this production, we are fortunate enough to be designing for a proscenium; in Chicago storefront theatre, we don’t always have that luxury. We often have to design for sets in the round or on an alley stage, with audience members as close as three feet from the action! Such staging limits the illusions that we can create, even if we do love those challenges. Often for such staging, we will use light contact body hits, attacks to the head that fail, and some carefully designed magic tricks (sometimes literally) to fool the audience. Designing for a proscenium allows us to use perspective and sight lines to create realistic illusions. But we still like to mix it up with contact techniques whenever we can in order to heighten the realism of our fights.
One of the most important techniques for creating realistic fights is for the characters to have realistic martial intents. Each fighter has a plan in mind. It may not be a great plan, but it’s the best that character has. The various fighters’ plans crash together during the fight. If one fighter’s plan is better and it wins the initial engagement, that fighter continues to pursue that plan. The other fighter must adapt by developing a new plan to survive or win. Fights often come down to which fighter has the better plan or which fighter can adapt more quickly and effectively. When zombies are involved, the zombies only have one plan: grab the nearest living person and eat them. That plan never changes; zombies never adapt. But the living characters can adapt, and often must in order to avoid getting overwhelmed by zombies, or to protect their loved ones, to stand against the zombies’ unnatural strength and resilience, or simply to recover from their own mistakes. Audiences are more interested in seeing this rapid shift and crash of plans than they are in seeing “cool moves.”
Part of any good plan in a realistic fight is selfish initiative. Fighters do not take turns in combat of any sort. Perhaps a fighter will choose to give up their initiative, baiting, provoking or simply waiting for their opponent to attack in order to respond with a counteraction. But even then, the fighter will give up the “tempo” only with the intention of responding to a committed action and thereby reclaim the initiative, with no intention of giving it up again until their opponent is defeated. Each character must always want to be thinking “my turn, my turn, my turn…” until the fight is done. Of course, the actors must take their turns as dictated by the choreography. But realistic fights should be designed with this principle in mind. And the resulting choreography should express this principle when acted well.
Another vital concept is something we call stubborn acting. Often in stage combat, actors learn that “the victim is always in control.” On this point, we disagree. Most of the time, the audience can tell when a victim is in control of a stage combat technique, which spoils the illusion. We contend that it is possible to teach actors how to actually struggle onstage safely. Indeed, we often prefer to start work on productions by teaching actors how to do just that, using gradually escalating force and constant, respectful communication. When it is possible for actors to actually struggle with one another without risk of injury, they should do so for real. When it comes to stage violence, rather than simply “saying yes” to one another, we encourage actors to tell each other to “make me.”
These elements formed the foundation of our design for the fights in “GHOSTS and zombies.” Indeed they are principles we use often in what we like to call our Chicago-Style: gritty, messy, even brutal realistic violence. Upon this foundation, we added our stylistic choices for fighting zombies: zombie physicality predicated on insatiable hunger and the movements of otherwise broken, dying bodies; a series of horror tropes pioneered by the original Ghosts and honored in Ghosts and Zombies; and one character’s nigh-superheroic ability to stand against the horde. But these distinct choices work because the realistic design elements upon which they stand allow the audience to engage with them.
Akvavit Theatre’s “GHOSTS & zombies” runs September 28th – October 29th. For more information visit chicagonordic.org.
Victor Bayona is thrilled to be a part of Akvavit Theater’s production of “GHOSTS and zombies,” both onstage and behind the scenes! Rarely a performer himself, Victor can usually be found with R&D Choreography, working to develop exciting and seamless moments of violence for productions all throughout the Chicagoland theatre scene. Tremendous thanks to Brea, Kristin, Chad Eric, and the Akvavit company for their trust with this incredibly fun and wonderfully physical role.
Rick Gilbert is a founding member of R&D Choreography. He came to Chicago in 1996, and has been happily designing shows,training actors, and studying violence here ever since. He got his BA in Theater from Brandeis University, and in 2013 got an MA in the Humanities, with a focus on Violence Studies, from the University of Chicago. He is currently a Ph.D. student in the English department at Loyola University. His wife Libby is also a sought-after violence designer and co-artistic director of Babes with Blades theater company.