After a sell-out season at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, The Generation of Z producer Charlie McDermott and actor-writer Ben Farry share their future vision of theatre with Dione Joseph. And it’s not just a post-apocalyptic one, where zombies run rampant, but rather a force field where money is creative energy.
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“I’m a firm believer that the only way you can get better is through repetition,” says McDermott, “I began the Basement Theatre in Auckland because there was no opportunities for young creatives in New Zealand. I wanted to develop a risk share platform to allow young people to make bold choices without the financial worries.”
McDermott’s vision was that in such an environment the genesis of great ideas could take place. Five years ago the seed to Generation of Z was sown with just a few imaginative meanderings. And it all began with those two magic words: what if…
“…instead of in a foyer or reception we had the audience waiting outside in the car park? And instead of being nicely heralded in by ushers waving programmes they were suddenly chased by zombies? Then we bust open a roller door we get them inside and then….”
While it’s tempting to say that’s where a highly successful commercial show was born and became an overnight success, both McDermott and Farry are insistent that the real key to unlocking a genre of horror-based success has been the fact that Generation of Z is unabashedly a commercial entity orientated around the notion of money as ‘creative energy’.
“We need to re-conceive our notion of artists and the associated importance of earning a living from our work so we can make the art that we want – uncompromised and unrestricted,” says McDermott.
In addition, the approach taken by the team at Royale Productions is to acknowledge that an overwhelming majority of New Zealanders value sport over art and that is the target audience. “I’m not interested in the 10 percent of people who regularly go to the theatre – I’m interested in the 90 percent of people who think theatre is boring, old fashioned and staid,” says McDermott. “And the reality is for many it is just too exclusive.”
The result: remove the context of theatre from the theatre and put it into a site specific venue. This isn’t a brand new manoeuvre in the context of shifts in the performance landscape but what it does engage with, as both McDermott and Farry explain, is to “give people an arts experience without knowing they’re having one.”
As one of the writers, Farry explains its appeal not just on a theatrical concept but as an option where amidst the “multitude of distractions we are constantly bombarded with there is an opportunity to have a highly visceral response.”
A self-confessed zombie fan Farry is enthusiastic about the potential for transforming how we entertain both ourselves and our audience:
“Generation of Z is essentially within the field of the horror genre,” explains Farry, “In the past we saw various peaks and then the gradual morphing into torture porn and of course at some point we just seemed to care about how long it would take to saw someone’s head in half under fluoro lights – so while the dystopian future of surviving among the walking undead zombie is not the total future of the show it is a metaphor for our innate instinct to survive at all costs.”
McDermott also believes that “there is a limited life-span for the zombie context but what is possible is that any universe can be put in place and everything connects back to that universe.”
This is one of the fundamental features of transmedia, a concept whereby through technology and its multiple rhizomatic platforms “at every moment in any narrative, the story is always brought back to the now – and as a result is not just a very real experience but is in fact a reality.”
Generations of Z gives audiences a chance to participate and be active, manhandled and have an experience that doesn’t ask for rationalising or emotion gouging. Instead as Farry summarizes it is:
“An opportunity to engage with the very tenuous grip we have on anything – especially life. In this world you have a chance to kill without remorse, and a part of us is validated for having survived, overcoming one of the greatest fears of all – the destruction of ourselves as a species.”
However, this is not the high art of the Punchdrunk experience, clarifies McDermott:
“We want an unashamedly beginning middle and end Hollywood plot as opposed to allowing our audiences to find their own experience – and we believe audiences deserve that.”
As one of the potentially largest shows at this year’s Fringe with five sets, fifty local extras, an entire make-up team and only $28,000 (the rest was fund-raised or personal investment) Generation of Z earmarks a change in large-scale site specific theatre making. Nevertheless, as both McDermott and Farry insist it’s not just good enough to put the tag immersive on the work and leave it at that:
“This is effectively a multi-directional highway,” they insist. “Everything from marketing, audience development, creative process – from start to end has to be immersive. This transcends more than us just doing a show and people clapping at the end – this is the future of theatre where our realities demand us to be active not just in fulfilling a narrative, but in fulfilling a purpose – as people.”
After sell out shows at Edinburgh to add to their blazing trail back home in New Zealand the future, however dystopian it might be, leers brightly for the Generation of Z.