Clare Blackwood and Ryan Hughes created one of the most charming and sneakily emotional plays of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival. As an odd couple pair of survivors during the zombie apocalypse, they welcomed the audience to safety and conducted a “Welcome to the Bunker” (also the name of the play) seminar that detailed the conditions and procedures for our new lives in the TPM Backspace shelter. Nominated for Outstanding New Work, we brought the team in to talk about creating the show and what makes their partnership work.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
Ryan Hughes: Yes, I can. I was in junior high, in Goose Bay, Labrador. My dad was in the military, so we were living on the base up there. One of our English teachers was in the local amateur players, the Mokami Players, and they did a production of Run for Your Wife, which is an old English farce set during the Cold War. There’s a Russian spy. I think that was the very first bit of live theatre I’d ever seen. And I was like, “This is cool, I wanna do this.” It started from there.
Clare Blackwood: I’m much less specific. My early life is kind of a mishmash of various theatrical things, but I don’t really remember the first one. I remember growing up watching my dad act in plays and musicals at our hometown theatre. And I remember when I was a baby, they used my voice in one of the stage plays. I’m officially the youngest person to ever appear onstage at the theatre, because I was like a couple of months old. So my voice was used.
I’m pretty sure I played a couple of roles in my friends’ church plays. My parents weren’t religious, but she was my best friend, and so I got to play Mary Magdalene. And one of the three wise men, or something like that. So I played a lot of religious things in various religious plays, despite not being religious at all.
My school would take us to Stratford occasionally to see plays. I remember when I think I was in Grade 4, we went to a pre-show talkback for kids. We went to see The Tempest, and they asked for a couple of volunteers to come onstage and re-enact the boat crash scene from The Tempest. I got chosen to go down, so I’ve officially acted on Stratford when I was in Grade 4. It’s my claim to fame.
How did you guys meet and start working together?
RH: That was some audition workshop, wasn’t it?
CB: It was an audition workshop about seven years ago.
RH: Must have been.
CB: We just kept in touch over the years, in the way that you keep in touch with people that you don’t know very well. We’re just kind of like, “Hey, bud, how’s it going? We should go for a drink!” and then for the next two years, our lives are too busy.
RH: Yeah, we’d get a beer every year and a half.
RH: Then this spring, I got a Facebook message from Clare out of nowhere. She was going to be doing a Fringe show, but the person she was sort of writing with dropped out, so she needed another writing partner.
CB: I had thought of a show. I was desperately sitting in a coffee shop losing my mind, because I had two months to create a new Fringe show. And I thought about this idea that I had had about two years before about two people living in a zombie bunker. I thought it was too silly, at the time. I was like, “I can’t do that, it’s too ridiculous.” I mean, it’s Fringe. I should have known better. [laughs] But whenever I thought about it, the only person I could envision playing the foil – the counterpart to my character – was Ryan. So I messaged him completely out of the blue and was just like, “Hey Ryan, how’s it going? What are you doing for Fringe?”
RH: “Wanna write a show in a month, and rehearse it in another one?” And I said, “yeah, that sounds cool. Let’s do it.”
What is it about the partnership that works?
RH: I think we have similar senses of humour.
CB: Yup. And different strengths, I think. I’ve been finding that a lot of the ways that we write together have a formula where I’ll barf something out onto the page, and then I’ll be like, “Ryan, help me make this funnier!” And he’ll come over and punch it up with me. We definitely have very similar senses of humour and things that we find funny, and comedic styles that we find funny. And we’re different enough on stage that I think that we worked really well off each other.
RH: I think we have that kind of dynamic that we had in the shows. It’s weird because it’s not really the dynamic that we have as real people. But every time we perform together, that’s the dynamic.
CB: He’s the grumpy man, and I’m the overly enthusiastic puppy dog.
That doesn’t reflect real life?
RH: Not really, no.
CB: No, we’re both pretty chill.
RH: I can be super grumpy, for sure. But in our interactions with each other, it doesn’t really work out like that. We’re usually in pretty similar moods when we’re working together, but any time we perform – we’ve done some improv together and stuff like that – that always tends to be the dynamic of it.
Clare, you mentioned that you came up with the idea of doing two people in a zombie bunker. How much did you have already worked out before you went into the writing process with Ryan?
CB: Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
RH: Just that idea.
CB: It just started from scratch. I was like, “It’d be fun to do an immersive play about two people living in a zombie bunker.” Period. That’s all I had. [laughs]
So where do you go from there?
RH: I remember our initial conversation about it. Because what I like to do is [ask] – okay, well, you have this idea, and you still need to fill it with stuff. So what interests you about it, and why do you want to do something like that?
CB: Why zombies?
RH: Yeah. What in your life does that touch on? What in the real world does that affect? Because I’m about ten years older than Clare, we started to talk about that generational difference of millennial versus Gen X, and how that’s playing out in real life, and how could we turn this into some weird comedy thing.
CB: We kind of went, “What are the potential themes that we wanna incorporate in the script?” Then we just asked questions like, “Why are they there? How did they get there? What’s their relationship to each other?” Once we determined that and determined why they were both there, why all of a sudden there is a bunker of people in this space with us – we kind of just started from point one. We didn’t have an ending when we started writing. We were like, “What’s a bunch of funny shit that we can put in? Well, we can make bunker banks! We can make a little orientation session! We can do this, this, this. Great.” We got halfway through the script, and we’re like, “So where the hell is this going?”
RH: One of the good things about having a real tight deadline like that is that initially, we are just sort of like, “We just need to come up with a bunch of stuff.” But what makes us laugh, what’s a dumb idea, what would be fun to do on stage? Then once you’ve got a few that you really wanna hang onto, you go, “How do we string these together?”
CB: It really was [like that] at the end. We just had a whole bunch of pieces, and we just went, “Okay, what’s the through line that we can string all these absurd ideas together with?” That was Linda, pretty much.
RH: Then at a certain point you have to go, like, “All right. These are the funny characters. So now what are their things in their life that are sort of sad, or desperate?”
CB: Make them human.
RH: Yeah, that will let the audience put up with Todd being such a jerk, and Katie being such a bubbly… bubble.
Did you go down the rabbit hole of researching real preppers?
RH: A little bit.
CB: I got followed by multiple survivalists / preppers / zombie doomsday kind of things on Instagram. A lot of them were like really right-wing conservatives, and I was like, “This makes me uncomfortable. But it’s research!”
RH: Probably because the language we were using in our marketing was all very survivalist, so I think people’s search alerts were going off because we were talking about things that were of interest to them.
CB: We’d researched what kind of bunkers there were, and stuff like that, and then we threw in dumb shit like chemical toilets, that I don’t think actually exist. But we thought it was hilarious. I’ve said this before, but basically, the entire play was us sitting in my living room. And if we laughed at something and were like “That’s so dumb,” then it went in the script.
RH: Pretty much, yeah. The research was minimal. But if we ever hit a thing where it was like, “Is that real? I don’t know. I feel like we should maybe look that up,” then we would.
Something you definitely got to make up was the zombie mythology, or what was happening outside of the bunker. What were some of the pop culture influences in terms of the zombie lord that you drew on?
CB: I am the zombie nerd.
RH: Clare’s our zombie expert.
CB: [laughs] To be perfectly honest, we really didn’t focus on the outside world whatsoever. The actual zombies were actually more of a catalyst for the stuff that went on in the bunker itself. So we never really sat down and went, “Okay, what’s happening outside? How many people are dead?” That didn’t matter, because it was outside. But I’ve seen pretty much every zombie movie ever made. I’ve played all the zombie video games. I don’t know what it is about zombies that I find so interesting, except that they’re fun to headshot [10.18?] in video games. I just love the genre. It’s like a culmination of all my favourite things. Gore, and action, and adventure. And if done right, satire and comedy. [Zombies have] been used forever to make links between our societies, and what’s going on in society today, and what’s going on with the zombies, and are we all zombies at heart? That kind of stuff. I think they’re a useful tool, narratively. But mostly we just used it as a ploy to get a bunch of people in the bunker with us.
RH: Yeah. The way the outside world came into it was often just these throwaway jokes.
CB: There was one line we specifically put in a line: “We could go on and on about how this happened, and how did it happen? But we’re not going to do that. Moving on!” That was very specifically put there because we didn’t want to go into all of that.
RH: We didn’t want to become half an hour of explaining how zombies work.
You referred earlier to writing a play in a month, and then rehearsing it in another month. Was the play or the text pretty much locked in when you went into the rehearsal room, or was it still changing?
RH: Probably like 75, 80%.
CB: I’d say a bit more than that.
RH: A bit more.
CB: I think we went into rehearsals with a full, completed script. And then from there, our wonderful director would be like, “How about you change this line to this?” or “Mix these around,” or add in a couple of lines.
RH: Sometimes my improv bug would get the better of me, and we’d be in the middle of rehearsal, and I would just add a line, just to see what would happen.
CB: Some of the funniest stuff in the show came from that.
Did you do that in actual performances?
RH: No, we tried to lock it down by then. Clare has a bit of a laughing problem.
CB: I have an absolute, large laughing problem. I never did it in the show, but it took me up until dress rehearsal to get through some of the segments because he makes me laugh so hard.
RH: I would definitely try to make her laugh in rehearsal, but we definitely wanted it not to be a problem by the time people were paying for it.
Speaking of Alison Louder, tell us a little bit about what she brought to the process as your director, and some of the challenges of having your actors and your writers be the same people. Did you find that you were stuck in ideas that you already had?
CB: The way that I would describe Alison as a director is relentlessly positive, which was so great because we were under such a tight deadline. I’m the stressor of the group, absolutely. [Ryan] was the one to be like, “It’s fine, it’s fine,” so many times. Where I’m like, “No, we don’t have time to do this, oh my God!”
Alison was just like, “It’s all good. We’re going to get this done.” She fought us when she thought she needed to fight us on lines and blocking. I think I in particular went in with being like “this is how I wrote this to be blocked,” and she was like, “We can’t do that.” But she is incredibly smart. Everything that she ended up saying would happen, happened.
RH: It was good. She’s an actor as well. She’s actually performing in Antigone in Montreal right now, as Antigone. She’s a great actor, and she brings a lot of that to that. She’s got a good understanding of performance, and it was really easy to trust her. If she said “Try it like this, you might get more of an emotional connection if you think of it like this,” after a while, it was just a lot easier to trust her, because it was like, “Oh, yeah, you’re right. You know what you’re talking about.”
CB: She discovered new depths to the characters that we wrote, which is amazing.
RH: Yeah, that was good. And she’s great. I think she’d have to probably particularly talk to any troubles she had with directing the people who wrote it.
CB: That’s true.
RH: It’s always a little weird, I’m sure.
CB: If she had problems, we never found out about it.
RH: She’s a bit of a force of nature, though.
CB: She is.
RH: Things tend to go her way.
Clare, you spend the pre-show talking to the audience with a little survey. What were some of the most interesting interactions that you had?
CB: Oh, goodness. I remember one of the questions that I had was, “Have you had any contact with any other survivors?” Mostly, people were like, “I saw some people around the corner. I know these people are alive”. I remember my brother showing up. I love him so much, but he has a funny sense of humour, and I was like “Have you had any contact with any other survivors?” He’s like, “Nope. Everyone’s dead.”
RH: Your brother’s an improv champion.
CB: A couple of times, I think my favourite question was asking people about their opinions and their rights for the undead. There was definitely a generational divide, I found, in that question, because anybody thirties and below was like, “Yeah, I think maybe we should consider this. Maybe we should talk about this.” And everyone else was like, “Absolutely not. They’re zombies. I don’t understand what the problem is. Just kill them.” I liked hearing people’s justifications as to whether we should fight for the rights of zombies or not. I’ve always loved pre-show audience interaction. I’ve gotten to do it in a couple of Fringe shows now, and I just think it’s so much fun.
Did you guys have a favourite moment in the production?
CB: Oh, goodness.
RH: You don’t know this until you have an audience, but what I always like when I’m doing a comedy is finding things that you think are hilarious, like “Oh, this is gonna kill!” Then you get in front of an audience and you might get a little chuckle, or they don’t even see it as a joke, or whatever. And then there are things that you don’t even think of, as just like, “Oh, this is just a line to get us to this place,” or whatever, and that’s where they will fall over themselves laughing. All of a sudden you go, “Oh, that is a joke!” I can’t think of any specific ones, but this show in particular, I was very, very surprised by what things I didn’t even think about that people found funny. And also the things that I’m like, “This is gonna kill!” and it never did.
CB: Yup. I have a couple. Every time that Todd would click onto this slide- “get lit”, and he’d put the flamethrower and that sunk in. [At] every show there would be like a two-second pause, and then people would lose their minds. And I loved singing the song at the end.
RH: Yeah, that was fun.
CB: It was so much fun. That was the hardest for me not to laugh at. Then there was the moment on opening, because we’d written a long-running joke about bunker bags. I’d thought it would be really fun to give everyone bunker bags, not realizing how much work that was gonna be. But we put dog tags in some of the bunker bags, and originally the plan was to put them in every single bag. And then we realized very close to opening, when I was making them, that they were too expensive. And so I had to put them in maybe four bags. So I’m like “Oh, shoot. We need a justification for why there are only some.” Long story short, I made a point of loudly announcing that if you had one in your bags, it made you the leader of your squad. It never happened. But his character was like, “Oh, it was her collection. It was the only thing.”
RH: He has a little breakdown when he’s remembering his girlfriend, who left him.
CB: She left behind her dog tags.
RH: All of her dog tags. It was this big, sentimental thing for him. It’s like the one moment in the show where you see him be emotional.
CB: Then I had to basically ask the audience for their dog tags back. It was one of those things we were writing where we were like, “I don’t honestly know if this is going to get a laugh. If it doesn’t, I’m going to be very sad.” And then everybody lost their shit.
RH: It never failed.
CB: Inwardly, I was jumping up and down.
RH: It was fun, because it was one of those big chances. You’re like, “This will probably kill.”
CB: “But it might not.”
RH: If it doesn’t, you’re like, “Maybe we should just cut that whole thing.” But we never had to worry about that, because that was a nice one that actually worked. They happen sometimes.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
CB: Honestly, I just wanted to give people a fun time. My favourite shows at Fringe have always been the irreverent, fun shows that don’t take themselves too seriously. I go in, I have a great time for an hour, I laugh a lot, and then I leave.
RH: When you’re making something, I don’t think that you can help this, but you make the kind of show that you want to see. This was very much the kind of Fringe show I really liked. The same kind of idea where it’s ridiculous. It’s got some weird Fringe-y look to it. It’s pretty silly. But there’s enough meat there. There’s enough heart-warming emotion tied to it that it doesn’t completely not matter.
CB: Another thing that I was really happy that we were able to experiment with – and if we hadn’t had the extreme Fringe time constraints, I would have liked to experiment some more with- I wanted to give people a taste of a different style of audience immersion and interaction and that kind of stuff, because that to me is one of the kinds of things that I love working with the most as an actor. The best pieces of theatre that I’ve ever been to, and the pieces of theatre that have changed my life are pieces of theatre that take you out of your comfort zone, and take you out of your comfort zone, take you out of your seat, have you walking around and interacting. And I love that stuff so much. We couldn’t do a lot of it, because we were so on the dot for time. But we got a little bit of it in. The responses were both terror and [off my look] Kelly! [laughs] We’re speaking to somebody who hates audience participation.
You came straight for me, too. “Leave me alone, leave me alone!”
CB: But I wanted to give people a little bit of a taste of that while they still got to sit in their seats, and I think we did that, so that makes me happy. Because it’s something I place a lot of importance in my work.
Did you get a chance to see any of the other Fringe shows, and did you have any favourites?
RH: Oh, man. This is months later, so I have to do a little bit of memory digging. I think my favourite thing that I saw at Fringe was – and there were some things I missed or just didn’t get to, because they were selling out. My favourite feelings one was probably Caitlin & Eric Are Broken Up. Eric Miinch and Caitlin Robson did a beautiful show. Basically just scenes from a breakup. That was lovely. But my favourite just weird Fringe thing was probably Murder in the Cottonwoods, Colin Sharp’s “David Lynch meets Kids in the Hall” thing that he did, which was great.
CB: I saw a few shows during Fringe. I was kind of dead all Fringe. I was so busy that I think I saw four shows, but I normally see about 25. I would have to say I really enjoyed Bendy Sign Tavern. I mean, Sex T-Rex are consistently my favourite part of Fringe. Always, always, always. It was such a treat to be able to be in their opening night show as their special guest.
RH: That was fun.
CB: I’ve told them all of this. They’re probably sick of hearing it, but it was like a life goal for me. On one night, I got to be in a Sex T-Rex show and open a Fringe show, and I was like, “I don’t know which one I’m more excited for, but I’m doing them both at the same time!” It was amazing. So that was delightful, and it was something very different, and again, it was an immersive kind of thing that they played with, so that was fun.
What are you doing now? What’s your next project?
RH: Actually, this upcoming weekend, we’re shooting a short video that we wrote.
CB: Our first short film.
RH: Like a sketch. Short film / comedy sketch. It kind of sits in between there somewhere. Just a little two-hander mashup of genres. A mashup of the cop show genre, and –
CB: Game of Thrones. We’ve been writing sketch comedy together, and we’ve done some improv together. I’m actually doing the Second City conservatory right now, and Ryan was the one who pushed me to apply for it, because I’m going, “I don’t have enough experience. I don’t know if I’m good enough!” And he’s like, “You need to do this. Here’s the link. Fucking do it.” So I owe this man a lot. I’m in the conservatory because of his prompting. We’re working on some stuff. We’ve got a lot of stuff going on.
RH: Some sort of sketch stuff. It’s been interesting doing this short film. I don’t have a lot of producing experience in filmland. A decent amount of acting experience, but it’s definitely a very interesting and chaotic sort of process.
Do you have any idea of where you’re planning on putting that out, or any way we’ll be able to see it?
RH: Not at the moment. I think that right now, it was literally just one of those things like, “Let’s do this just to do it, and not saddle ourselves with having defined a thing to do it for. Let’s just do it, and then we’ll find a thing.”
CB: Yeah. And obviously, we’ll post it on social media. It’ll be on Facebook.
RH: It’ll be, yeah, it’ll be online somewhere.
CB: It was more like, we just needed stuff for our demo reels. We’re like, “Let’s write something that showcases what we’re good at for our demo reels.” And we just came up with this premise. But yeah, we definitely will be putting it out there, because I think it’s going to be really fun.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
RH: I want to get a plug for our short in there, but we already did that.
CB: If I can talk about this dude for a second, considering we’re interviewing together – it’s been so great. I’ve been looking for a long time to find somebody with whom I work with really, really well, and gel with really well. We have different strengths in terms of how we work, and it’s been really nice to just know that I have somebody who has skills that I don’t, and has skills that can make my skills better, and so it’s been such a pleasure working with you.
RH: Yeah, you too. I feel the same way.