Junella Gabriel used to watch her brothers play a video game about zombies when she was younger. She never played the game with them, but she took what she learned from her observations and incorporated it into a play she is currently directing.
As some of the 16-member cast rehearsed scenes for “In the Dead of Summer,” at George Mason University, Saturday, Nov. 4, Gabriel took her directing role and ran with it. She wrote a short story and adapted it into a play over the course of about seven months, she said. Now the GMU religious studies-major is making her directorial debut.
“She’s very excited,” said Sara Simanski, office manager at GMU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Gabriel, who grew up in Chantilly, said her biggest challenge is separating herself from the play, since she also wrote it. The majority of the student-directors at GMU direct plays that have been written, and often already performed, by others.
“I have a personal connection to it,” said Gabriel. “If there’s something in there that doesn’t work [from a director’s standpoint], then it’s hard for me to let go of it as the writer.”
Her play is part of the GMU theater program lineup this season, which consists of seven plays. “In the Dead of Summer” is one of four plays in the “Studio Series.” The three remaining plays each season are part of the “Mainstage Series.” The difference is that students direct and produce the studio plays, while faculty members produce the main stage plays.
“It’s very rare for a student to write their own play,” said Josh Barton, an actor in Gabriel’s play and an English major at GMU.
STUDENTS ARE the performers and stage crews for both series. Barton said the studio shows are usually more fun, but being in main stage plays has its benefits too.
“In the main stage shows, we get a lot of guidance from the faculty members,” said Christy Denny, a theater major at GMU and an actor in Gabriel’s play. “Then we can incorporate that back into the studio shows.”
Gabriel conducts rehearsals for about five hours each day. The entire cast is not required to be at every rehearsal since the scenes being rehearsed alternate, but nevertheless, the schedule can be grueling, said Caitlin Logan, the assistant stage manager for the play and a theatre major at GMU.
The process began in October. Gabriel conducted auditions for 16 parts, open to the entire school. To get a play selected as one of the studio shows, the GMU Players have to vote for it at the end of the previous season. The theater department faculty oversees the GMU Players, a student organization and the producing unit of the university’s theater department. Students become eligible to vote once they have worked on at least two plays, in any capacity, said Gabriel.
“I’m really lucky because the guy who was originally picked [ahead of me] couldn’t get the rights to the shows he picked,” she said. “That’s another benefit to writing your own shows: you don’t have to worry about stuff like that.”
Gabriel and some of her cast members are enjoying the challenge of performing “In the Dead of Summer.” The play is more about the relationship of the two main characters than it is about zombies, said Gabriel.
“Two really good friends meddle with some supernatural forces they shouldn’t have, and it changes their lives forever,” said Gabriel.
AND IT WOULDN'T be a true zombie play unless some killing was involved. The killing scenes are what one actor said are some of the more difficult performances. When zombies kill each other, it has to be as believable as possible, said Jesse Nepivoda, who plays the character Billy, a lead role in the play. It’s all so ridiculous, he said, so acting out the scenes becomes difficult.
“The challenge is to make it all realistic and attach it to a real emotion,” said Nepivoda, a junior at GMU who has acted in about 10 plays at the university. “It’s such an absurd situation.”
What makes it hard for Gabriel is that there aren’t specific guidelines to follow for how zombies look and act. Every movie or book she has seen plays on a variation of the so-called traditional zombie. The plus side to that, she said, is that it leaves a lot up to the imagination.
“That’s what makes it hard, that there is such a gray area,” said Gabriel. “But it makes it fun.”
The laughing phases have passed, and the actors and Gabriel are rehearsing with a straight face now. At first, Logan said everyone was laughing because it’s a funny play. The humor came through in Gabriel’s writing because of her other inspiration: the loss of loved ones she experienced before she wrote the story. Writing the play and keeping it light was the best way to deal with her personal grief, she said.
“It’s not just a bunch of cheap laughs at zombies,” said Gabriel. “They’re very real characters. In order to overcome some tension, those laughs are needed.”