Abel Flores as Hixon with Toby in Dead White Zombies’ production of KaRaoKe MoTeL. Photo by Alisa Eykilis.
The Rebirth of Dead White Zombies
The modern theater-going experience is rather predictable, is it not? You find your seat and remain there until curtain call, politely quiet and distanced from the action happening onstage, your phone firmly switched to “off” or “silent.”
At a Dead White Zombies show, those rules do not apply. The rogue Dallas troupe—formed in 2011 by Thomas Riccio, Lori McCarty, and Brad Hennigan—is known for its site-specific performance installations, staged everywhere from warehouses to a real (former) stash house. The original scripts are fluid and not confined to any one playing space; audiences are often left to wander in and out of the action, which can span rooms and even into the outdoors. And taking out your phone to post on Facebook or make a Vine is completely encouraged.
Dead White Zombies’s latest offering is KaRaoKe MoTeL, running Nov. 20-Dec. 13, the final piece in a trilogy that includes Flesh World and (w)hole (both performed in 2012) and written and directed by Riccio. Those previous shows explored death and the afterlife, while Riccio says MoTeL represents rebirth.
“Like the first two parts of the trilogy, it is a performance immersion… Audience members are identified as ‘Strangers’ who enter to consider how they want to be reborn,” explains Riccio. “What do they want to bring from their previous life into their next life? Each of us is reborn every day—what values, concerns, objectives, and awareness do you choose to carry forward? What do you leave behind?”
Upon entering a former ice house in West Dallas, with the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and popular restaurant compound Trinity Groves looming nearby, audience members (only 16 at a time, for a total of 48) are first “processed” to prepare them for the experience, and then they are confronted with a choice: Which narrative thread would you like to follow?
Much like DWZ’s controversial 2013 production T.N.B, there are multiple plotlines happening at once. The use of closed-circuit television makes it possible to follow what might be playing out in other spaces within the 20,000-square-foot building, but it’s up to each audience member to choose when to move on, and to where.
“We like people to feel at home,” says Riccio. “Though you might be seated or moving in one room you could overhear, as if a member of a family, the doings from other parts of the building. The homey atmosphere offsets the discomfort some might feel because of physical proximity.”
The cameras serve another purpose too: “With this, another layer is given to the performance, with audience members watching other audience members watching the action,” says Riccio. “It makes everyone a vicarious performer.”
So what, exactly, are we watching? DWZ shows can rarely be boiled down to a straightforward plot, but MoTeL does have a basic premise. The manager, Pasolini, and his wife, Tao, run a “forgotten motel on the edge of consciousness”. Lost lovers, a detective, a Sphinx, Manny the Manikin, and a roster of other colorful characters inhabit each nook and cranny of the mysterious motel, and are ready to question your approach to “karaoke culture,” or the remixing and copying of what already exists—a search for the orderly in a disorderly world, according to Riccio.
DWZ has assembled a roster of actors who are integral to the creation of each production. They are also adept at performing in unusual conditions, without a backstage area to flee to but instead with their audiences constantly surrounding them on all sides.
“We look at performers as creators, not simply interpreters,” says Riccio. “I can design and anticipate audience flow, proximity, and interactions, but when you get an actual audience, anything goes. Performers have to be attentive and responsive and when in such close quarters, they have to keep it real and grounded.”
That continuous alertness is at the heart of Dead White Zombies, so named by Riccio in deference to when he manned a suicide prevention hotline in Cleveland. One caller was obsessed with “dead white zombies,” a notion that Riccio didn’t fully understand until he watched hordes of people ambling around a mall. The name can now be interpreted as being “pale reflections of what once was, yet still walking around seeking life.”
“KaRaoKe MoTeL, like the first two parts of the trilogy, communicates with language, but is also sensorial, moving through sound, video, and installation spaces, narrative moments, chance interactions with characters and other audience members,” says Riccio. “It will be as alive as you want it to be. We don’t impose or make you do anything. Be as you will, how you will.”