GETTING TO KNOW A SERIAL KILLER
by John Topping
published April 26, 2009
An interview with Bill Connington, the writer and
performer of Zombie
now playing Off Broadway at the Studio on Theater
currently extended to May 16
In Zombie, based on a novella by Joyce Carol
Oates, Bill Connington portrays a serial killer trying to find a victim – or as the character, Quentin, likes to call it, a zombie – to abduct
and keep as a sex slave.
Cinema: What’s the genesis of this
Bill Connington: A couple of years ago I did a one-man show, and I really liked working in that form. I wanted to do another one, and I wanted it to be adapted from a great living author. And somehow I settled on Joyce [Carol Oates]. I had read some
of her work, but not extensively. There was something about her voice that resonated with
me. It reminded me somewhat of Edgar Allen Poe, who had been a favorite author of mine when I was
a kid. It’s very dark and she’s just not afraid to go there. She’s a very, very bold author.
So you’re saying that you wanted to choose something by Joyce Carol Oates specifically before you settled on Zombie?
BC: That’s right. I didn’t know about Zombie. I was thinking of short stories that could be turned
into monologues. I think she has about 400 of them.
So I wrote her, snail mail, at Princeton, and she emailed me right back. She said, “Fine, no
problem. Just tell me which short story and when you’re going to do it, and I’ll try to come if I
can.” And then she mentioned, “Oh, by the way, there’s this thing called Zombie. It’s a novella.”
Did you read all 400 of her short stories?
BC: I chose the ones that were written in the male voice. Most of
them are in the female voice. And then at the very end, I thought, well, she mentioned Zombie, so I’d better read it. And I did. And I got really scared. I don’t recall ever getting scared
reading anything since childhood.
Do you remember what scared you as a child?
BC: Poe. So because I got frightened, I thought, well, I’d better
do it. She was thrilled when I chose Zombie. I was actually so frightened by it that I didn’t finish
reading it. But of course, when she said I could do it, I thought, “I’d better finish
So there was no contract with her? She just said write it and put it up and that was
BC: It’s highly unusual. I thought she was remarkably casual about
it. Her agent did draw up an agreement. I think a
lot of authors would have wanted to see the script first, to make sure that I had fulfilled what she was trying to say with the
novella. But she did not ask me that.
That’s very generous of her.
BC: She’s been very generous and very supportive all along. She’s
very pleased that it got extended, people are coming, people are responding to it.
She originally wrote this as a play?
BC: She called it a theatrical monologue. But it became too long,
so she visualized it as a man on an empty stage with bright lights talking. And then it got too
long and it became a short story in The New Yorker, and then she still wasn’t finished with it, and it became a novella. So this is kind of returning it to its original form.
S&C: Has she come to see
BC: She came to the opening at the Fringe Festival, where we first did this. At the Fringe, there’s no dress rehearsal. We had about an hour
to do a tech rehearsal, and then you just open cold. And there’s 25 critics there and
Joyce. So of course, I was most concerned about Joyce and her liking it. Which she did. It was funny, because afterwards she came up
very shyly and said, “I’m afraid to shake your hand.”
And then she said, “You changed my
ending.” Which was a little intimidating. The
book has no conventional beginning or end. It’s just killing, killing, killing, killing,
killing. For the play, I think it needed a firm beginning and a firm end.
So she was trying to suss me out, and we talked about
maybe going out to have a drink. She finally said, “I
don’t understand. You seem like a nice guy, but just a few minutes ago you were a
monster.” I said, “Oh, I was just pretending.”
And then she came again to opening night of this
production on Theater Row, and she actually did a talk back with me.
At the performance I attended, about 10 minutes into the play, a party of three got up and left.
Does that happen often?
BC: When we started at the Fringe, I was convinced that it was going to happen at every
performance. As it turned out, it didn’t happen there at all, but that’s a very particular
kind of downtown, adventurous audience. Since we’ve moved up here to Theater Row, sometimes
people do leave. And I’m not offended. I
understand. For some, the material is just too much, especially when I get to the part about
the ice pick, because he’s very graphic. Sometimes people leave for a few minutes and then
they come back. They need to kind of gather themselves. And we’ve had three people vomit.
BC: Yeah. Once it was during a talk back. And once it was a lady, she just bolted out and then she vomited on the stairs. And then the other night, somebody vomited during the performance.
Wow. Was that a distraction?
BC: I think it was for the audience, because it was loud. And
people were trying to help him. And he stumbled down the steps from the seats. So I think it was a distraction for the audience.
What about for you?
BC: It’s just part of the conditions of doing the piece. Some
people have suggested that maybe it’s some strange kind of compliment. I don’t
It is, I guess. Just not the kind of compliment we usually seek. Now this is a true story, right?
BC: No, he’s fictional, although I suspect that it’s a composite of
various serial killers. Some critics feel that it’s specifically Jeffrey Dahmer. I think it’s a fictionalization inspired by true facts. Joyce
lived in Detroit in the 60s when there was a serial killer called The Babysitter that was terrorizing the neighborhood, abducting children,
raping and killing them. So I’m sure that influenced her.
S&C: But this
character is sort of an accidental serial killer. His intention isn’t to kill them, it’s to
BC: Not everybody has picked up on that. He’s not going out to
kill people. He’s trying to perform an amateur lobotomy.
And if he had his druthers, it would have only been one person.
BC: Right. But it doesn’t really work out that way. You may know from the website [www.zombietheplay.com] that we’ve had a series of forensic psychiatrists in the post-performance talk
backs. They feel that the way it was written – the way Joyce wrote it – is extremely
realistic. Usually, on television and in the movies, serial killers are compelling characters,
but they’re not very realistic. Like Dexter or The Silence of the
What kind of preparation did you do for this before you started performing it? How did you
develop the character, particularly the cadence of Quentin’s speech.
BC: I had to learn the Detroit accent, which I didn’t know. For
me, the certain cadence of speech was almost childlike, in addition to the accent. I did do some
non-fiction reading on serial killers, and you can go on YouTube and see some of these people.
You can see Dahmer and [Ted] Bundy and people like that, and it’s pretty jaw-dropping. There’s an
interview that Dahmer did right after he was put in prison, conducted by Stone Philips. The thing
I always remember is that he’s completely flat. He shows no emotion whatsoever. It all fed into my understanding of, if you just get into his head, then nobody else matters, there’s no
compassion, there’s no empathy, there’s no nothing. And he feels that he’s been so wronged that
he should get whatever he wants with no consequences. That’s how a narcissist thinks, and that’s
what he is. One of the psychiatrists at the talk backs put it very succinctly: “My orgasm is more important than your life.”
S&C: There’s a lot of
strong language in Zombie.
BC: You know, I was brought up in a very strict Roman Catholic household. I was 16 before I could say “damn” out loud. So it’s not how I
normally talk. In my own life, I’m very slow to anger, so that was also different playing this
But what about audience reactions? Have there been people who’ve said, “Well, it was interesting,
but I just didn’t care for the language.”
BC: There are definitely times when I walk close to the front row that people physically recoil. But no one has said that they thought the language was disgusting or that they really disagreed with
it. It may be in deference to Joyce. I think that
people, certainly older people who are familiar with her, are aware of her intellectual standing.
I don’t think Joyce is using any of those words lightly. She’s showing you very graphically what
he’s thinking. That is what’s more shocking to me:
not the language, but the thought process. It’s actually the total 100% lack of empathy and
compassion that’s most shocking to me.
There were actually a couple of things that Quentin says that I thought were funny.
BC: Oh, yeah. Joyce definitely has black humor. Younger audiences are much more comfortable in laughing at the irony of horrible situations.
In my audience, there was not one single laugh. And there was one thing that Quentin says that I
thought was funny.
BC: Do you remember what it was?
It may have been about the grandmother, when he says, “I thought about killing her, but she gave me the money, so I
BC: Oh, yes, yes. That almost always gets a laugh. Or what the production assistant calls a snorted half laugh.
It’s an intake of air and a half laugh at the same time.
S&C: I was ready to
laugh, but then …
BC: You felt like you couldn’t. There was one performance about
two weeks ago. It was a very young audience, and they thought it was a rollicking
comedy. Until about halfway, when we got to the ice pick. Then there were fewer and fewer laughs. It was actually kind of
great, I thought.
To see them being transformed in the process?
BC: Yeah. They stopped. There was even one lady in the first week – this was something – she said, “I felt bad for
Quentin. He really wanted a zombie. I wish that I
could give him one.” I guess there’s a whole range of reactions.
Congratulations on the success of the show, and the extension.
BC: Thank you. It’s very heartening to me – I like all kinds of
theater, but sometimes it seems that drama gets a short shrift. One of the reasons I chose
somebody like Joyce is because I do think it’s important to explore tough topics that are hard to look at. She takes you inside of his head, shows you what he’s thinking and feeling, and that’s educational and
frightening. Yes, he is a monster and he is this horrible thing, but he’s also a human being, and
these are all human impulses. We all have whatever impulses that, thank God, most of us control
most of the time. It’s a huge negative example of what can happen when things go really, really
wrong. And there’s also something about her work that takes you to the darkest, most primal
place. I think it’s worth going there occasionally.
Zombie is performed Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.
and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.
with frequent post-performance talk
at the Studio on Theater Row
through May 16
for more information, visit www.zombietheplay.com
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com
all photos are by Dixie Sheridan
except last photo of Bill as a normal person is by
read Andrew Turner's review of