Interview: Playing Dead, by Dead Unicorn Ink

by Ottawa Fringe

June 15, 2011

It’s been hard to connect with Mike Doiron, the voice of Dead Unicorn Ink, to do the interview about their zombie puppet show, Playing Dead; our cell phone calls keep getting dropped. I figure it out when we reconnect: “We’re in Cafe Alt,” says Mike, the static already building up in the call, “but don’t go in the main door under the sign, it’s locked. Go in the side door and down to-” – and cut. Cafe Alt has been an unofficial Fringe venue for a few years now, but it’s two floors underground and the cell reception can be a bit spotty.

I arrive to see a work-in-progress; a black sheet and a riser form their stage, and several puppets are in various stages of construction. Mike and his affable crew are warm and welcoming, giving me the tour and introductions. “This is Joseph,” says Mike, indicating a yellow-skinned, ghoulish figure with a bloody maw, “he’s our first puppet zombie, we’ve been working with him since the beginning.” Joseph is being animated by Brandon Groves, who gives he puppet such a lifelike personality that I’m tempted to shake Joseph’s paw-like hand. But as I see Joseph has a tendency to snap at people, perhaps for a fresh dose of brains, I decide to keep my distance.

“Here is Molly… she’s our creepy little girl who got killed in bed,” introduces Mike, pointing out a pyjama-clad and bloodstained blondie, with an eye floating casually from its socket. Molly is animated by Jessie Lavallee, again, instilling a childlike innocence into the mangled toddler. “So, not necessarily for children,” concludes Mike.

Technically, it’s hard not to see the inspiration of, and resemblance to the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: you see the puppeteers on stage. “We show the puppeteers very early on,” says Mike, “When I watched Avenue Q, the first thing I thought was, you can see the puppeteers – but then, ten minutes in, you ignore them. So we’re playing with that idea.”

Playing Dead has taken a bit of a long road to arrive at the Fringe, a festival to which Mike isn’t a stranger: in the 2009 Fringe, Mike and his brother Jeremy produced a show called Duel. The idea to create a zombie puppet show came to Mike in the fall of 2009, following his Avenue Q experience; he wanted to stage a zombie puppet show at the Fringe, but when he heard that another company was doing a zombie show (Night of the Living Impaired / The Zombie DIEalogues), he decided he didn’t want to compete. This year he didn’t get a spot in the Fringe, but decided it was time to move forward, and secured the Cafe Alt venue (which they’ll be sharing with Peter and Chris Save The World). His brother Jeremy also penned the script for Playing Dead.

Telling a zombie story with puppets has allows the show to be affordably gory. “A zombie puppet show makes sense, for a low-budget production – to simulate a zombie horde – well, we can’t contract thirty people for a cast of the horde. That’s just impossible to do. So, people versus puppets.” Joseph and Molly nod with approval. “I can tell them what to do,” adds Mike, “and they’ll listen to me, unlike the actors.”

The company of actors are mostly all recent graduates of the University of Ottawa theatre program, with the exception of Sara Duplancic, an import from McGill. “It’s a really good group,” says Patrice-Ann Tremblay, the head puppet designer, and an actor in the show. “The team came together really well. The major thing for all of us working on it was to create something that would leave all audiences entertained. We wanted to make a show that people are able to enjoy, but they’re still able to understand everything going on. With the zombie puppets, people can laugh and have a good time, but with the human characters you’re still getting an emotional level, but you’re able to understand the script.”

Jamie Champagne, one of the human actors, couldn’t wait to get to work on the script. “That’s what attracted me, when Mike emailed me a brief outline – he said, ‘I want you to play a character who’s with his girlfriend on a vacation. A cottage in the woods, high school lovers, and then there’s a zombie apocalypse.’ That’s everything. I’m a big fan of Pablo Francisco, he’s got a phenomenal bit about pretty much the exact same thing, so I just thought of that right away, thought this will be a phenomenal idea. It’s pretty insane.”

So can the puppet genre sustain the mood for the horror setting? “On the whole I would say it’s a comedy,” says Mike, while Brandon adds, “There’s a little bit of spooky in there.” After some discussion, they think there’s a little of both in there. “That’s something I try to do,” says Mike, “I like the idea of laughter, laughter, laughter, laughter, and then something tragic happens. At first you laugh, but then you think, wait a minute, that’s terrible. Although it’s a comedy, the characters don’t think it’s a comedy. They don’t recognize the puppets as puppets: they’re zombies, coming to kill you.”

The zombie horde was still under construction while I visited: three were nearing completion, and another three still need some work to be ready for the show. “We also have an assortment of arms and limbs that will be taking part in it as well,” says Patrice. “Mike built all the skulls for them, and then I do all the covering, all of the bodies and the head work. Joseph probably took me about six hours total, he took the longest. Molly took me about four. The other ones have been getting faster. The best part is deciding what they’re going to wear. Molly was an old pyjama. Joseph’s actually my dad’s shirt.”

As we wrap up, Mike lets me in on a tidbit: in addition to the opening night two-for-one deal, you can see the show for free on Saturday the 18th – the 9:30 show – if you come dressed as either a zombie, or a zombie hunter. “It has to be a good zombie,” says Mike, “you can’t just have a little blood on you.” Patrice adds, “you need at least three weapons to be a zombie hunter,” to which Mike suggests, “preferably blunted and not dangerous for everybody.”

Playing Dead opens on Friday June 17th, at 8:00, at the Cafe Alt (BYOV G).