Just last week, I sat down with Nell Quinn-Gibney, who has written “Zombie Apopalypse: A Brainless Pop Musical,” which premieres in Fine Arts 306 on May 10 at 8 p.m. and May 12 at 1 p.m. The show is free to the public and produced by Acid Flashbacks Theatre Company.
Can you give some background on the plot?
It’s set at UMBC about 20 to 25-ish years after the zombie apocalypse. It’s about the first generation of kids who were born in this post-apocalyptic world, who are all teenagers now and who have grown up knowing nothing but killing zombies and trying to survive. One of them has decided that his goal is to end the apocalypse and cure zombies so that everyone can live in peace. Eventually he discovers that he might have a way to do that, but there are other humans who are very opposed to that since they’ve always been used to killing the zombies and they’re afraid of being killed.
How did you come up with this idea?
I was obsessed over winter break with this movie called “Aaah! Zombies!!” It’s this hysterical B-movie — well, it’s not a B-movie, it’s a very modern movie but it’s made in the style of B-movies — about this group of teenagers who get turned into zombies, but you see it from their point of view, and they don’t realize that they’re zombies. To them, they look normal and everything else looks like it’s in fast speed and everybody else is trying to kill them and they’ve been told that they’re secret agents. It’s just this very clever, funny, upbeat take on that and so I watched that over break and I really loved that. I had been trying to write a different musical about a survivor reality-show-type-TV show and it wasn’t happening and it wasn’t happening and it wasn’t happening. I finally just sat down one night and I started writing this and the first song was “Cake by the Ocean” and just immediately I had that song and I sat down and wrote the zombie version and I was like, “Guess I’m writing a zombie musical now.”
Did you go into your senior year wanting to write a musical for AF?
I had gone back and forth on it a lot because last year when I wrote a musical I co-wrote with my friend who graduated. I was definitely really interested in writing a musical but I was worried about doing it by myself because she had left and I was also worried about the time commitment because I’m in the department show this semester. I kept saying “I wanna do it, I wanna do it, I wanna do it,” but I don’t think it’s a good idea. Even all through break I was like “I don’t think this is a good idea.” Then I sat down and wrote a third of the show in three days and I thought “Great, I guess I’m doing this now.”
Can you describe your creative process?
It sort of started with two songs, “Cake by the Ocean,” which I knew was going to be “Brains by the Ocean” and was going to open the show and was going to be zombies fucking eating people, and then the second song was “Shut Up And Dance.” So that was the basic premise; I had a song about zombies and I still didn’t know what it was going to be about. So I was just hopping through music and I came to “Shut Up And Dance,” which is one of my favorite pop songs, and I immediately just had the thought of the “Ooooh” part being a zombie who can’t talk trying to sing. So I sat down and wrote that and thought “Okay, it’s a love story between a zombie and a human.” The plot sort of came from there. [My writing process] varies from thing to thing. I haven’t written enough to solidify my writing process, but for this it started with those two songs and then I just went back and started from the beginning and started writing through. I wrote about a third of the show without any outlining or anything and then got back to school and got completely stuck and didn’t know what I was doing and had already submitted that chunk to be looked at by AF and they had already said “Great, we want to do your show,” and I was like, “Well, now I’m committed.” What I did after that was some outlining, which has always been my weakest suit. My roommates can tell you I had sticky notes all over our wall and each sticky note was a different scene because I kept trying to reorder the scenes and figure out where songs went so I came up with a very basic plot outline of what I wanted to happen. I didn’t have the ending written. I had it written up to the second to last scene, plot-wise and then I put in my songs and I had these freaking sticky notes all over the wall and I just forced myself to write through it and I wrote a lot of really terrible shit. I didn’t know what the ending was going to be until I actually wrote it, which has been something consistent that I’ve found [with my writing]. I often can’t figure out the ending to a piece until I’m almost there. So then I have a read-through; I invite friends to come read the different parts for me about a week before I have to send it out to the general population. So I have one more week to make edits based on that and then we send it out with the audition announcement. For this show in particular, it wasn’t done when we sent it out and we basically said that in the email. I’m still not done with the script, actually. It’s been written beginning to end, but every time we sit down to work a scene for the first time I have them [my cast] read and I make live edits on the scene as they read it aloud because hearing the actual actors say lines changes things. I changed a song the day before I was supposed to teach it; I sat down and I was like “I hate this song,” and spent two hours going through angry girl pop music on YouTube until I found a song I liked better. I think the rest of my production team wanted to kill me. So it’s very much still a work in progress that’s continually growing and changing. It’s helped a lot to have actors in it and to know who I’m working with, what type of people they are, what they bring to the part, to be able to cater more specifically towards them.