Costume designer Tracy Ward thought she had seen the last of working on zombie costumes after her career veered away from working on B-grade horror movies in California.
"That's sort of a right of passage," said Ward, now a lecturer at the University of Kentucky and manager of the costume shop in the UK drama department. "When I applied here and the first play was Zombie Town, I thought, will I ever get away from zombies?"
It's a question the residents of Harwood, Texas, ask for most of Zombie Town: a documentary play, which will be presented through Oct. 13 at UK's Guignol Theatre.
The play by San Francisco author Tim Bauer is a multi-pronged satire of zombie stories, small towns and documentary plays. But these days, the marquee word of the title is zombie, which is all the rage, what with the runaway success of AMC's TV series The Walking Dead and other zombie stories.
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"A couple weeks ago, we went to Scarefest to promote the show," UK theater department chair Nancy Jones says of the annual horror and paranormal convention at Lexington Center. "And I thought our students would stand out because they were dressed up as zombies."
That's when Jones discovered that her theater's show was in the thick of a pop culture trend. So maybe they didn't stand out as much as they hoped. But they also have a title that might draw a larger student crowd than, say, Our Town.
Of course, if you are going to present zombies to college students in 2013, you have to do more than just slap on some bloody makeup and distressed clothes. You have to get it right, however you define that.
A prominent question these days is, are you going to have fast zombies or slow zombies?
That question went to fight choreographer Andrew Ray, who acknowledges that there is a disparity in how zombies are portrayed on film, from so slow as to not appear threatening in 1978's original Dawn of the Dead to lightning-fast in the 2004 remake.
"I like fast zombies, because that's a lot more scary," Ray says. "I would tell the actors' speeds on a scale from original Dawn of the Dead to the remake, and they seemed to get it."
In designing the play's zombies, costume directors Ward and Nelson Fields said they wanted to play with horror movie conventions, creating characters such as the prom king and queen zombies, the little girl, the Civil War soldier and even a senior citizen zombie who attacks with her walker.
"It's a fun script, so we wanted to have fun with it," Ward says.
Part of the fun for the theater artists is its satire of documentary plays, a popular form in the past decade or so. A writer or company would go to a community, interview residents, observe the place and create a play taken directly from those words and observations. Probably the best-known example of this sort of play is The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre project.
That play, about the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, is coincidentally being presented Thursday through Saturday by Bluegrass Community and Technical College Theatre at Actors Guild of Lexington.
They certainly believe in the importance of theater and its ability to comment on and illuminate culture, but the Zombie Town directors also enjoy the sendup of artists who sometimes take themselves too seriously.
"They act like, 'My play is going to change the world,' and it's like, 'No, it's a play,'" Ray says. "There is this funny part of it where they feel like their play is going to bring healing to the victims of the zombie apocalypse."
Bauer's script itself does not call for a lot of zombies onstage, but Henderson says he wanted to have them, and not just so audiences wouldn't feel ripped off in coming to a zombie play with no zombies.
"I wanted them," Henderson says, with a huge laugh. "That's what's fun about it: seeing the zombies."
IF YOU GO
'Zombie Town: a documentary play'
What: UK Theatre's production of Tim Bauer's satirical play.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3-5, 10-12; and 2 p.m. Oct. 13
Where: Guignol Theatre, UK Fine Arts Building, Rose St. at Patterson Dr.
Tickets: $15 general public, $10 students. Available at Singletary Center ticket office, (859) 257-4929 or Singletarycenter.com.