Theater News

A Killer Performance

Zombie star and author Bill Connington reveals what it’s like to play a serial killer.

Bill Connington in Zombie
(© Dixie Sheridan)
Bill Connington in Zombie
(© Dixie Sheridan)

After winning an Outstanding Solo Show Award at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival, the bone-chilling Zombie, adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’ novella about a fictional serial killer named Quentin P, has moved to The Studio at Theatre Row for a six-week run. TheaterMania recently spoke with Bill Connington, who both wrote the adaptation and brilliantly performs it.

THEATERMANIA: What convinced you that the story could be dramatized for the stage?
BILL CONNINGTON: A few years ago, I did a one-man-show which I wrote myself. I wanted to do another, but I wanted it to be someone else’s writing and I wanted it to be a great American writer who was still living. Joyce Carol Oates was one of the authors I looked at. Something about her voice really spoke to me, because she really “goes there.” In the beginning, I was so reverential that all I was able to do was rearrange things and make some cuts. But after I did that, I did change some things just to make the story clearer.

TM: Did you always intend for Quentin to interact on stage with a life-sized dummy or did that idea come later in the process?
BC: No, it came during the process. I knew I wanted to keep the set very stark and just have a little table, and initially there was just one chair, and then the chess set came because Quentin is smart and I wanted to have something for him to do. I think the dummy came to me just as a stand-in for the zombie (that Quentin imagines will be his slave). It wasn’t until when I was doing some research that I found out that when Jeffrey Dahmer was a teenager, he stole a mannequin from a department store and was having sex with it in addition to other things he was doing.

TM: How much research did you do on real-life serial killers like Dahmer?
BC: I wouldn’t say I did huge amounts, partly because it was so fast. I put together the script and the Fringe said yes, and before I knew it I was performing it. I trusted Joyce’s work. I think she’s a genius, and so much is there in the words and how she’s put it together. Also, you can go on YouTube and you can see Jeffrey Dahmer. I’m not doing an imitation of him, but I did get a lot of information from just watching him and how flat his affect is. There’s no affect at all.

TM: Have you encountered a temptation to pull back at all when you feel that a particular moment is disturbing the audience?
BC: No. I consider that part of my responsibility as the performer. In very early rehearsals, I knew all my lines. But when I got to some of the really terrible things that I had to say I would just go blank. But that just lasted a day or two. The audience is very close, that’s part of the experience. It’s deliberate that it’s in a very intimate theater. Depending on what’s happening with the lights, I can sometimes see people — and especially because I am talking right to them, there have been a number of times when I’ve seen people covering their face. If I’m talking about doing something to a man’s groin, I’ve seen men in the audience crossing and uncrossing their legs. I’m definitely aware of their reactions. The only time I’ve really gotten uncomfortable is when Quentin makes a number of remarks that are not politically correct about minorities. There was an African-American man sitting right in the front row at one performance, and I made sure to introduce myself afterward and to be extra nice. But he was absolutely fine.

TM: What kind of audience reactions do you get after a performance?
BC: There was a critic at an event who told me that she was scared to talk to me. What was more surprising was that friends of mine would be afraid of me. Joyce and I had not met before opening night at the Fringe, but we’d had a lovely email relationship. That night, she said she was afraid to shake my hand and that she was trying to decide whether she could ask me along with some friends of hers. Later, she said I seemed like such a nice man, but just a few minutes ago I was this monster. To put her at her ease I said “oh, I was just pretending.” She’s very quick, and she said “Anybody can pretend, but they can’t pretend like you.”

TM: How do you shake off the character after a performance?
BC: I’ve found it very helpful going for bodywork. Massage, Alexander technique, whatever, it somehow gets whatever he is out of my body. People also ask me if I have had nightmares from doing the show, but I haven’t. I’m grateful for that.

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Closed: May 15, 2009