Two years ago, when Jenny Kokai was asked by Plan-B Theater Company artistic director Jerry Rapier to create a play for a statewide elementary school tour, her mind began to race.
“Jerry said it would be great if it were written for fourth- to sixth-graders,” Kokai recalls. “And at the time I had a fourth-grader myself. So I thought I could either try to write the play alone, or ask this ‘informer’ what kids his age are interested in.”
Kokai, who is an associate professor of theater at Weber State University, chose Option B, collaborating with her then-9-year-old son, Oliver Kokai-Means, to create an original play that just began a 50-school tour of the state as part of the theater company’s Sixth Annual Free Elementary School Tour.
“I’d never co-written a play with a 9-year-old,” Kokai admits. “And he’d never written a play at all.”
But together, the mother and son created “Zombie Thoughts.”
The two-woman play, directed by Cheryl Cluff and starring Clearfield resident and WSU theater graduate Katie Jones Nall and Good Company Theatre co-founder Alicia Washington, will be presented at elementary schools around Utah throughout October and November. Four of those performances will be at schools in Weber County.
And because many of those involved with the production have ties to Weber State, a special public performance has been scheduled there next week. “Zombie Thoughts” will be presented at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 8, in the Browning Center’s Garrison Choral Room on campus, 3848 Harrison Blvd. Tickets are $5.
Although aimed at entertaining elementary school children, “Zombie Thoughts” also has a serious educational component.
“It’s about Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which my son lives with,” Kokai said.
It was Oliver who suggested using a video game structure for the play. Kokai admits she wouldn’t have thought of that.
“He’s excited about it being a video game — that’s something he cares about and thought other kids would relate to,” she said. “It’s a very different structure for a play. I like writing things that are experimental, but the video game idea is a whole new thing.”
The 35-minute play is about a video game called “Zombie Thoughts.” It’s a quest video game like “Zelda,” according to Rapier.
In it, the audience meets the two game avatars, “Sam” and “Pig,” and gets to choose which actress plays which.
“The kids get to decide everything — even down to the characters — so we don’t know who we’re playing in any given performance,” Nall said.
“Both actors have to know both parts,” Kokai adds.
Throughout the play, the audience gets to offer input on the choices that are made, which affects the plot. Rapier said audiences need to land on “the most empathetic choice to move the characters forward.”
In “Zombie Thoughts,” Sam is 9 years old. He’s very smart and loves books, but has a lot of anxiety. Pig, on the other hand, is quite confident, and makes lots of bad puns and silly jokes. Sam and Pig have to try to defeat the evil machine, which creates things that Sam is afraid of.
Nall said she identifies best with the role of Sam, and hopes audiences choose that character for her each time.
“I identify with Sam because I, myself, have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,” she said.
Nall said “Zombie Thoughts” refers to those thoughts that can enter an anxious person’s head — thoughts that clearly aren’t true.
“There are things to be scared about in life that can happen, like death,” she said. “But there there are other fears that can’t happen, like being afraid of zombies. Those are zombie thoughts.”
Kokai said Oliver’s Generalized Anxiety Disorder has made school very difficult for her son.
“He gets overwhelmed in new situations, and get irritable and combative — and people don’t understand that’s his body’s way of dealing with stress.”
In the play, Sam and Pig don’t understand how to deal with Sam’s anxiety, either.
“Through the play, they both come to understand what anxiety is, and that it’s not a trait they can change but they can learn to deal with it better,” Kokai said.
She hopes young students will learn anxiety coping skills from the play, as well as empathy toward others.
In addition to traveling to Utah schools, “Zombie Thoughts” is also touring the Annapolis-Washington, D.C., area, along with a performance in Hawaii and a reading in Chicago.
Kokai says her son is excited about their show opening, but he’s also grown a bit weary of it.
“I also think he’s, like — this has been a huge part of his life from age 9 to 11, and I think he’s ready to move on to a new project,” she said.
Oliver is currently in rehearsals for a part in “Caroline, or Change” at Good Company Theatre in Ogden. Kokai said her son has struggled to find a school environment where he feels at home, but the theater has been a comforting place for him.
“He loves making art with other people,” she said. “The theater is a place where he feels he can succeed, where he’s struggled in other areas.”
As educational as Kokai hopes “Zombie Thoughts” is, she also said children love the ability to make choices in how a play proceeds. Indeed, the daughter of the play’s costume designer had seen William Shakespeare’s “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” but preferred the ability to choose the direction of the plot in “Zombie Thoughts.”
“She said, ‘It’s way better than Shakespeare,’” Kokai says with a laugh. “We’ll take that review.”