Indeed, life imitates art. On Oct. 8, a packed Browning Center for the Performing Arts room on the Weber State University campus in Ogden patiently waited for the first public performance of Plan-B Theatre’s Zombie Thoughts, the sixth play of its annual Free Elementary School Tour (FEST) program. Developed around the theme of generalized anxiety disorder by playwright Jenny Kokai and her 11-year-old son Oliver, the play is about a child and a pig who are navigating through various levels of a video game.
A police incident on the I-15 highway north of Salt Lake City during the height of rush hour had shut traffic in both directions, forcing motorists to find alternate routes. Among them were the director, Cheryl Cluff, who had all of the play’s props and Katie Jones Nall, one of the two actors. No doubt, many were anxious if the delay was so prolonged to cancel the performance.
In the meanwhile, Kokai came up with an impromptu exercise involving some of the many children in the audience. With suggestions from others in the audience about classic and popular video games, the children responded with convincing imitations of their characters and objectives. It set the right tone for the performance, which began approximately a little more than a half-hour after its originally scheduled 7 p.m. start. For many children, it was their first theatrical experience.
The performance was a smashing success, as indicated by the subsequent reactions and engagement. Plan-B Theatre has amassed an excellent collection of short plays for this project, proving that when adults in the performing arts community treat children as serious audiences for their work, they do not disappoint in their appreciation and, more importantly, their comprehension of the themes involved in the play.
And, Zombie Thoughts has plenty to offer teachers, parents and other adults when it comes to understanding children when they are dealing with anxiety. As noted previously in The Utah Review, the audience selects the avatar each actor will portray, as well as the scenes and elements in each game level. This means that both actors (Katie Jones-Nall and Alicia Washington) must be prepared during every performance to go with whatever the audience selects. Appropriately, each performance could produce the same sort of unexpected challenges one would encounter in playing a video game every time.
For this performance, Nall as Sam and Washington as Pig kept the pace riveting, just as one would anticipate in a video game that throws curve balls without a moment’s notice at each stage. In this performance, Sam and Pig must venture to the Whisperrun Ghost Town. Sam’s anxieties already manifest themselves: “To a ghost town? Um. I didn’t pack any sunscreen. My mom says not to go out in the desert without water. Also, there might be rattlesnakes.” Meanwhile, Pig’s eagerness is all-encompassing, punctuated by puns and snorts which Washington delivers with the utmost relish and flair.Both actors have such marvelous body language and without necessarily needing to see the actors swap roles as expected in other performances, one would be assured that Nall as the Pig and Washington as Sam would be just as effective.
Pig loves the thrills. “Was that a tumbleweed? Cool! Let’s go look in all of the buildings. We can pretend one of them is a saloon and order root beer! … Root beer floats don’t stand a ghost of a chance against me.” Meanwhile, Sam frets about the buildings in the ghost town collapsing without warning.
For the second level, the audience went with “demon wolf,” most likely helped along by the wonderfully exaggerated stress Pig used when explaining the available options. Moments later, the game is paused because “Sam is broken.” Pig is considerate and attentive to Sam’s anxiety, reminding her companion that while the ghost town seemed scary and they were supposed to fight the demon wolf, nothing bad has happened.
Kokai collaborated with her son Oliver on developing the video game purpose and elements as well as his way of explaining what he feels when he has to deal with anxiety. Zombie Thoughts is smart and elegant for what it says about the intrinsic values of games as effective motivators and training platforms for young people without having the stigma of fear or embarrassment attached to them. Sam says, “My brain really does just get stuck on all the bad things that could happen and my heart gets going really fast and it’s like there’s a tornado inside my head and I can’t think at all and I know I’m saying mean things to you and I don’t mean to but I can’t seem to help it.”
Even with moments of zany puns and silly relief, Sam and Pig speak seriously and sincerely as two characters would when they care about each other’s well-being. There are many instances that illuminate good ways for parents to respond. Sam admits she hasn’t been nice to Pig. “If you didn’t have to be my friend because of this game, you wouldn’t be either. And I don’t want to be mean to you, I just get really stressed out and then I start yelling. When I calm down I know it’s not nice but I’m not sure how to fix it.”
Pig is an effective listener. She acknowledges just how anxiety seems hard. That exchange also is a turning point for Sam, who manages to earn the copper mine shield for the game’s final stage, from which the play takes it title. The game gives Sam a well-grounded revelation: “Maybe what I have to do is think about whether or not something is really real and really going to hurt me or whether my anxiety is making me dream up this scary thing and be afraid for no good reason.”
Zombie Thoughts shines at every turn. It also proves that good stories and believable characters will keep young audiences entertained and alert without a whole lot of trappings. Plan-B’s finesse with minimal staging and convenient access to props is on display, thanks to Cluff’s direction and the work of Arika Schockmel, designer, and Sharah Meservy, stage manager. The play is on the road this fall with performances that will serve 8,000 students in grades 4-6 at 46 elementary schools in 12 counties across Utah.
One final note about performing arts outreach in the schools – activities that have become critically important especially when school districts battling limited budgets often look to reducing or eliminating creative arts programs. Many of Utah’s most accomplished small performing arts companies, who also operate on shoestring budgets, have made outreach programs a huge part of their mission. It also may be the most important element of how they approach the long-term challenge of building upon their legacies as they reach new generations and new demographics in their audiences.
For example, Plan-B’s FEST program includes a well-detailed study guide and suggestions for follow-up to accompany each play but they are not based in didactic approaches. There are many opportunities to leverage the enthusiasm children communicate after a performance for objectives beyond entertainment. And, there is a solid body of survey findings and related research that shows when young students are introduced to numerous arts experiences during their formative years, the seed for engagement with the arts as an adult will germinate with the astute support of teachers, parents and mentors.
For more information, see Plan-B Theatre’s website.