Zombie musical creators take ‘Francis’ to Seattle

Ami Tian

Many upperclassmen will remember “Francis,” last year’s student-produced zombie musical, which was held in Reid Ballroom and involved trash bags, fake blood and an epic dance party. Sophomore Michael Hanley described it as “an overwhelming sensory barrage” and “the greatest night of [his] life.” As seniors and creators of the show Peter Richards and Ian Jagel prepare to graduate, they recently sat down with The Pioneer to discuss their plans to take “Francis” to Seattle.

PR: We’re going to expand “Francis” from a 45-minute play it was last year into an hour and 15 min long play, and write two new songs for it and revise old songs, and kind of give it a better sense of leitmotif throughout. Then we’re going to have a couple events before the initial one- or two-weekend run of “Francis” in Seattle.

IJ: We’re hoping to do it on the either the middle weekend of August or the third weekend of August, or maybe both of them, but definitely before students are going to be returning back to Whitman if they’re from Seattle, so that you can be able to see it, you can be involved. We’re hoping to use as many Whitman students as are interested and we already have a lot of people interested, which is great, but Whitman will be well-represented.

We’re looking for a warehouse, or just a big room. It’ll be a total theatrical environment: there’ll be no lobby, there’ll be no transition area: you just walk in and you’re in the world of the play.

PR: Preferably the audience would be surrounding the action of the play in a way so that they can at any moment get up and participate in it.

IJ: We’re trying to liberate the audience member. Sitting in a rigid seat tells you where to look, and the most you do is turn your head maybe with a proscenium stage. But with the staging in this theater, people are going to be standing up, people are going to be turning around, people are going to be dancing maybe . . . people are going to be activated in a way that is really appropriate for this play.

PIO: How are you going to fund this project?

IJ: There are arts foundations we’re definitely applying to . . . and we’ll start applying basically once we graduate. There is an umbrella organization that allows us to accept donations under the 501c3 status, which means that people will be able to use donations as tax breaks without us being a 501c3 feeder ourselves. It’s called Fractured Atlas. We’re looking for individual donations on a small scale, and then on a big scale hopefully.

[Fractured Atlas would allow Jagel and Richards to accept tax-deductible donations as a 501c3 organization without actually having 501c3 status, via a system known as Fiscal Sponsorship.]

We’re mostly hoping for just enough money that will let us say we’re producing this in a pretty legitimate way. We’re not looking for tens of thousands of dollars by any means.

We’re also looking into using a lot of the network of theatre performance in the Seattle area, such as schools like UW, Seattle U . . . we want a lot of youth involved. We also want a lot of professionals and established people involved but we don’t want this to be a show for the people who are already doing theater. This is the new theater in Seattle.

PR: We’re not trying to make plays for people who go see plays, we’re trying to make plays for people who don’t go see plays.

We were talking to Cindy Croot, a theater professor here, and she said something that really resonated with both of us. She said, ‘Theater’s like a party, you invite people and they don’t come to be entertained by you, they’re going to come to have their own good time, and everybody at a party has their own good time.’ And I really like that description of theater because it gives everybody there the freedom to play like the actors play, because for me that’s one of the best parts about life, is this play, performance, whatever. But to allow other people to have it without the anxiety associated with performance is a really fun trick. I hope people fall for it.

The Pio: Will this project be the start of something larger?

IJ: We want to use this play as the jumping off point for future works, obviously.

PR: The other projects I’ve been thinking about really push the audience in more uncomfortable ways than this one does.   For instance, live sex onstage, really long duration of drug use onstage . . . These kinds of things that would make it kind of difficult to access in a way, but kind of thrilling in the same respect.

IJ: Nancy Simon, the theater professor here, has said to me that in the ’60s and ’70s it was the vogue to always have nudity, you didn’t do a play without nudity. Of course that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it was such a thing to do that you always did it and then people got over it, and in the theater I’ve seen you don’t see it anymore. We want to re-shake things up a little bit.

PR: I’ve seen a butt like once in the past 22 years I’ve been going to see plays in Seattle; what have I been doing wrong?

The Pio: Basically it sounds like you’re starting your own theater company: what gave you the confidence to attempt such an ambitious goal?

PR: It was Whitman that gave us this kind of confidence . . . to just be able to fail in front of a lot of people really shows you where success is, and I think we’ve seen this and we’ve had ideas about how other audiences are and how we can reach them.

IJ: We’ve been given a lot of tools in our education . . . so in a sense we don’t just have the responsibility, but we are entirely capable of producing interesting theatre of a high caliber. And even more importantly, what we are doing is not being done enough.

The Pio: Are you worried about audiences not being as receptive in “the outside world”?

PR: That’s something that’s really scary, but at the same time I think we’ve managed to convince people so far, so it just seems like, why not just push it and push it and see how far we can go? We’re just out of college you know, there’s nothing lost. It’s not like there’s other stuff we’d rather be doing. I wouldn’t rather get a job; I’d rather make art, and it’s sweet that we have the confidence and entitlement to be able to make art. It feels good, and so I think that’s another big reason, despite all the very real precautions that I’ve been hearing and I’m sure Ian has as well. Those kinds of fears just kind of get in the way of making something as good as it can be.