Angry Young Men Ltd. has been staging productions of Night of the Living Dead Puppet Show for years. It’s a scene-for-scene parody/re-creation of George Romero’s classic 1968 horror film staged entirely with puppets. The show has been staged a number of different places over the years. This year the group celebrates the show’s tenth anniversary with a staging of the now classic puppet show at the Next Act Theatre space at month’s end. In honor of the show’s ten years, some of the Angry Young Men answer a few questions about the history of the show for today’s Small Stage.
Answering questions are the show’s creator Bill Olson, longtime Angry Young Men Steve Cooke and Josh Perkins. Also joining-in is David Kaye, who is relatively new to the cast of the show.
Zombie puppets as a concept seems surprisingly obvious and insanely clever. I don’t ever recall reading anywhere specifically where the idea came from to do a complete scene-for-scene staging of Night of the Living Dead might have come from. Where did you get the idea?
Back in 2007, there was a small local Horror Convention called "It Came From Lake Michigan.” They focused on regionally-made Horror films. This was its second year, and they wanted to offer something unique to add to the film screenings and Dealers' Room. I had a friend who has assisting with their marketing, and she suggested that a puppeteer friend (me) could create a horror-themed puppet show. Wayne Clingman, the festival's Director, told me I could have free reign to do whatever I wanted, and they would set aside a space for us.
Truth be told, I had only done large Festival Puppets at that point. (The Green Man at Locust St Days for a couple years with Michael Pettit, and a few things with Milwaukee Public Theatre) I had never built any puppets on my own, nor had I written anything puppet-specific. My work was cut out for me. I knew I wanted something familiar to any horror-minded audience, but I wanted something visceral & bloody. 'Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" were out, since they belong to big corporations (and I didn't want to get sued); "Frankenstein" or "Dracula" were out for not being bloody enough.
I had recently been to a showing of "Night of the Living Dead 3D" (remake with Sid Haig) at the Times Cinema for the Friday Night Freak Show. Man, this version of the movie was awful. I had always loved the original '68 Romero masterpiece. It had been the first "scary movie" that actually scared me. I thought I could do a better remake than what I was seeing onscreen.
Then it hit me. Due to a mistake while changing the title from "Night of Anubis" to "Night of the Living Dead", the original filmmakers had neglected to place the copyright notice on the title card of the film. This wound up, somehow, making the movie Public Domain. Here was a popular, even cult, film with all the bloodshed and monsters I could ever hope to have!
I edited it for time, and added jokes.
Josh Perkins: ...when Bill approached me (we had previously met in the UWM Theatre program and worked together on various theatre projects) about this opportunity. I believe his exact words were "Zombie Puppet Show. Are you in?" I believe my exact response was "[BLEEP] yeah!" I've never looked back since. After all the work we put into that first show that we did in the basement of the Tommy Thomson Center and after that very first audience cheered, we all looked at each other and knew that we had to do it again. We couldn't just let that one show be the end of it.
I was lucky enough to be in the audience back in either the first or second year, when the performed the show at the now defunct MOCT. I missed it the next few years, but there were things that stuck in my head (heads being blown off and the audience being showered with mini candy bars springs to mind). Because of that, I will always have a perverse fondness for those early years as an audience member. However, since I have worked with AYM, it has always been at the Oriental Theatre. In some ways, it's not an ideal location for a show like this. However, being in a movie palace with that sense of history always felt oddly appropriate since we are reinterpreting such a classic horror film.
Over the years, Angry Young Men has done THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD PUPPET SHOW in a whole bunch of different locations. What has your favorite venue been for the show thus far?
The Oriental Theater. We've been there for the majority of this first decade, and they've been great to us all this time. It's a beautiful old theater, and it's always a thrill and a treat to load in and take it over. It's really been like a home to us.
My parents had their first date at the Oriental, back in the early 60's. When we first performed there in 2010, I had them in the audience. That first year in that space, the house was packed up to the balconies. My folks were able to look around and see what that first date had wrought, lol...
Although not a venue, per se, I've loved performing this show at horror conventions. Particularly the first Con-Tamination in St Louis in 2011. That year they had invited as many of the actors from the original movie as they could. Taking our bows and seeing Kyra Schon (who played little Karen Cooper in the original), in the front row, weeping tears of joy, and many of the other actors giving us a standing ovation, is something that stays with me.
Josh Perkins: Ye gods that's tough. There was It Came From Lake Michigan, there was Bucketworks, there was ZombieConX, there was Moct, there was Contamination in St Louis, there was that time with Soulstice at the Marian Center Auditorium (may it rest in peaces), then The Oriental and even once at the UW-Fond du Lac theatre stage. If I HAD to pick...I think the time with Soulstice at the Marian Center would be near the top if not THE top of my list. Mostly because we paired our gory zombie puppet show with Soulstice's kid's theatre program STArS (Soulstice Theatre Arts Students) program. Act 1 was the STArS class performing the skits and songs they had learned that year along with some of the adult teachers. That show is where Joon, our person-in-a-monster-suit-puppet, was born! Then, after the cuteness of Act 1, we unleashed our zany puppet horror on the crowd of mostly parents and aunts/uncles and grandparents of the STArs students. They had no idea what to expect. It had to of been one of the most un-prepared audiences we ever performed for. I can't thank Char, the founder and Artistic Director at the time of Soulstice, for going along with that crazy idea.
How has the show evolved over the course of the decade that you’ve been staging it?
Rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding. That first year was pretty raw; there were no set pieces, many of the props were painted foam core, even the majority of the zombies were paper mache. We've since built successive generations of character and zombie puppets. We've rebuilt props, and re-rebuilt them when they wear out. With each zombie comes an opportunity for a new "gag"; Will it be a limb that gets torn off, or a wound that spurts blood?
We've also added jokes, and streamlined jokes every year during the rehearsal process. We'll update a reference if we feel it's needed, or find a new take on an old gag. This production is pretty organic, it's meant to evolve. It doesn't hurt that we have over a dozen very creative & very weird people focused on it at any particular time.
Josh Perkins: Like a zombie that's been soaking at the bottom of a well for ten years, we pride ourselves in our ability to mold our show into the times and space in which we are performing. Each year when October approaches we have all basically taken at least a few months off from thinking about the details of the script so it's like approaching a good friend with new stories to tell, new laughs to share, even new losses to mourn.
As Bill said, when we first did this...Except for one puppeteer holding a card board door, we had no set.
Even over my somewhat limited involvement, the show has evolved quite a bit. Jokes and quips worked into the show have been updated to be more timely references (a conservative talk radio host talking about Benghazi a few years ago was relevant and funny, now it's more of a sad what might have been sense of ennui, given our current political climate). The first year I was involved was also when they integrated video and animation for the first time. It's pretty amazing seeing the audience react to that when they often don't know what to expect at all.
One thing that changes every year as well are the other acts on the bill. Sometimes it's other musicians or performers, or it can be sketches and songs by the puppets themselves. I actually spent much of yesterday in the studio recording a new song for this years show. Billy Ray and Josh asked me to write an ear worm... and that stupid thing won't get out of my head, so I feel I owe the audience an apology in advance.
Performing a play allows one an interesting relationship with the play that one simply cannot get from the seats. I would imagine that years and years of performing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD must give you an interesting relationship with Romero’s original film. What’s it like for you to sit down and watch a film that you know so well?
It's still an incredibly powerful film. The claustrophobia and conflict still resonate today. Although George Romero is primarily thought of as "The Zombie Guy", the message of his "Dead" films is that the most dangerous monsters are each other. If the people in that farmhouse could have worked together (and if Tommy was able to pump gas), most of them might have lived.
Alternately, since I made a point to use as much of the original dialogue as possible when writing our version, watching the movie can be an exercise in "Set-up, but no Punch Line." I wind up giggling through most of the thing.
Josh Perkins: I like to think of all Romero's Dead series to be our Old Testament. It's the canon that we share, the history on whose shoulders we stand. I also consider watching zombie movies in general to be a part of the research that goes into being a Zombiteer. There are a LOT of zombie movies out there. Many of them are horrible movies and NOT in a funny way. Then there are the gems, the ones that surprise you in that it's a Good Movie that also has zombies in it! That's what I aspire for our show, that it's a Good Show that happens to have zombie puppets in it!
I love it even more. It reminds me time and again what made it such a classic. Sure there are some things that don't work great (that fake hand... my God is that bad) but even things that might not have been ideal add to charm of it. The sheriff's terrible acting and his assertion that they are "all messed up" makes me howl with laughter. What's even more wonderful, is there are parts I still find genuinely frightening. I am a coward, so that's not always hard to do, but Romero did great work.
Puppets...even kinda nondescript ones designed to be in the background of a show...gain their own personalities over time. The zombies themselves aren’t really supposed to have individual personalities, but I would imagine individual ones have started to show some kind of individual identity. How is your relationship with the puppets themselves?
All of the Zombie Puppets have names. Some were created to evoke specific zombie characters ("Krishna" and "Burny" are from Dawn of the Dead, "Big Daddy" from Land of the Dead), others were developed for specific gags ("Eyeball", "Clownie", and "Mailman"), and others just wound up getting named based on looks. ("Car Crash", "Grannie", "Mullet", "Bloody Thatcher") Different Zombiteers have different puppets they prefer to perform with.
We've used our human characters as bit players in other skits and videos. They generally are cast close to their characters from the movie. For instance, the Harry Cooper puppet gets cast as a conservative blowhard and The Brink Hunt puppet is cast as an anchorperson in other news spoofs.
Once we started developing the puppets we've been using for Full Frontal Puppetry, we've really been able to develop those personalities. It's been a real adventure creating characters "out of whole cloth", as it were.
Fun Fact: We've tried to make our zombie puppets out of softer fleece than the human puppets. It makes them more cuddly than the people. I'm not sure that there's a message there, or if just how things worked out.
Josh Perkins: Murray Gauntman was the first puppet that Angry Young Men LTD ever built, our first Zombie Puppet that was the first zombie seen in the show. He didn't gain a personality until we were asked to be a part of ZombieconX. In addition to doing our show during the convention they gave us a booth so we could tell people about our show and AYM ltd in general. We don't remember who came up with the idea but we soon settled on NEEDING to have a Zombie Kissing Booth as a part of our booth. The first day Bill and I were driving to the convention I was tired and hungry and a bit scared, I had no idea what I was going to do! As an actor I'm most comfortable when I'm PREPARED so I was freaking out a bit inside in not having a plan. We got to the space, I sat down, Bill wandered off to schmooze with all the horror movie folks he was geeking out about, and I put on the Gauntman. And just started talking, through the puppet, to anyone that happened to walk by. I had no plan, no idea where I was going to go, but our beloved Murray Gauntman, The Director Puppet, was born that day. I was able to interact with people, through Murray, in a way my shy self could NEVER do. His entire goal was to get people to kiss him (for a buck!)...and somehow it worked. I found his voice, his abrasive personality, his love of bad jokes.
My relationship to the puppets is very different than most of the troupe. I was a later addition, and never built any of the puppets and don't have any that are specifically mine, so that can add some distance. However, I got to know them when I brought Angry Young Men on to record a TV show for Milwaukee PBS a few years back. They had enough fun to bring me on and make me part of this crazy and delightful time. The puppets I am most excited to see integrated into this years show are the three ghost children from Coraline. Josh custom built them for that show, but they will be part of some of the other sketches this year (including one I contributed). I can't wait to see what everyone else came up with and what new surprises await. We start rehearsal tomorrow, and even have brought back some former performers plus have at least one brand new performer. The show is a living creature at this point, and I can't wait to see what it has become for this year.
I seem to remember a rumor that author Harlan Ellison really loved a staging of the show that you’d done at a convention somewhere. Did you ever get any kind of a reaction George Romero himself?
Actually, Unca Harlan never saw us perform. We did get to meet him at Madcon in 2010 (Which, in retrospect, was kind of a Banner Year for Angry Young Men). I had managed to get us a couple free passes in return for showing puppet videos (Zombie and otherwise) for the folks who weren't able to get a ticket for that evening's banquet, and interacting with the crowd. However, I was able to shake his hand and thank him for all the swell stories. He even soul-kissed Murray Gauntman, our Director Puppet. (The only other celebrity that ever did that was adult Film Legend Seka, but that's another story...)
He later called us "Enormously engaging and witty".
We sadly never were able to perform for George Romero. However, John Russo, who co-wrote the original movie gave us his own blessing to keep doing what we're doing. That's pretty much the reaction as a whole from the original cast of Romero's "Dead Trilogy"; like we're doing the Lord's Own Work.
Josh Perkins: Harlan Ellison is pretty famous for his temper. Bill and I were at our little booth outside the hall where Harlan was giving his keynote address. Afterword he went to his booth where everyone lined up to get his autograph or buy his new book or just talk. At one point someone did something to make him mad, I think it was by bringing a bunch of old books that they didn't buy at that convention and asking him to sign them all. Something like that. It Set Him Off. He went on an ANGRY tirade about pretty much everything he didn't like at the time, he was stomping up and down the hallway through and past all the people that were waiting in line to meet him. This went on for at least 5 minutes but it felt like an eternity. Murray Gauntman was watching him calmly the entire time (even though MY insides were hoping beyond hope that he wouldn't direct his tirade at me). His vitriol finally seemed to end with one last snarky bit of wit and he turned to stomp back to his booth. He stomped right past our little table when, completely unplanned on my part, Murray loudly exclaimed "I Think I'm In Love!" Harlan turned directly to Murray and cried out "You're damn right you are!", put his arms around Murray's head and kissed him deeply. Every bit of all the thick layers of tension in that hallway transmogrified INSTANTLY in uproarious laughter. Harlan smiled and went back to his booth with a bit of a bounce in his step and was quite nice to the rest of the people in his line. Puppets can do things that humans cannot.
...We did the show at the one and only Milwaukee horror festival, Zombie Con X. (I say one and only because they only did it the one year.)...one of their celebrity guests was Joe Pilato, the famed Captain Rhodes from Day of the Dead. Somewhere on the internet, there is a video of Mr Pilato saying very nice things about our show, which he did see...The thing I recall about Mr Pilato speaking during our talk-back was that we had, "Captured the essence of the fable", in his words. High praise indeed.
This 10th anniversary of the show has found its way to the Next Act Theatre space...probably one of the best studio theatre spaces for performers. Have you and the puppets had a chance to work in the space yet?
I was able to perform there a few years back with Lumpy the Golem Boy as part of the "Blue Hawaii Spectacular". It's a great space, and we're going to have a lot of fun utilizing every part of it. This is a great opportunity to really amp EVERYTHING up a notch.
Oh crap, we're doing WHAT? AH! Time to get to work!
I’m looking forward to the show. I hope to be able to make it myself this time around. I’m considering the idea of bringing my oldest daughter this time around.
We've gotten into the habit of calling the show "PG-13". For Puppet Gore, and an adolescent sense of humor. We're Kid-Friendly, if not necessarily Kid-Safe. We've had children as young as 4 watch the show with no reported nightmares. Then there's adults who have trouble handling the gore and dark themes. As a parent, you know what your child can-or-can't handle. Look forward to seeing you there.
Angry Young Men’s The Night of the Living Dead Puppet Show runs Oct. 26 - 28 at the next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act Online. For a look at the puppets, visit AYM on YouTube.
Those interested in helping fund the show can look into donating to the project via its Indiegogo campaign.