By MARK BLANKENSHIP
When Gyda Arber thinks about video games, she thinks about the theatre. “They’re full of theatrical elements,” she says. “There are plots there if you delve into them. There’s conflict and characters and quests, and there are princesses to be saved.”
From now until July 25, she’ll prove her point by serving as executive producer of the Brick Theater’s second annual Game Play Festival. Dubbed a “celebration of video game performance art,” the festival features a remarkably diverse selection of shows and events, suggesting that “video game theatre” is a vital new genre.
On one hand, there’s a traditional play like Theater of the Arcade, directed by Arber and written by Jeff Lewonczyk, which reimagines classic games like Duck Hunt and Donkey Kong as serious dramas.
On the other, there’s Kinifeandfork’s The Wrench. An experimental adaptation of Primo Levi’s The Monkey’s Wrench, it tells a story entirely through text messages. The “audience” doesn’t gather to see “a show:” They just turn on their phones wherever they happen to be and receive messages from a “character.”
Between these extremes, playwright and designer Eddie Kim is presenting Grand Theft Ovid, which uses real-time, multiplayer video games to enact Ovid’s mythological stories.
For an audience, this means gathering at the Brick to watch a digital puppet show. Kim and a group of performers/gamers sit in front of a large screen, and they actually play games like World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto 4, which let gamers inhabit vast online worlds in real time. Once they’re in the digital world, performers use their characters (also called “avatars”) to enact the tales of Daedalus, Icarus, Niobe, and more.
That’s unusual enough, but then there’s this wrinkle: Since the performers are playing real-time games, they could get interrupted by other users who just happen to be logged on. Outsiders could force themselves into the story, try to interact with gamers’ avatars, or stand around watching the show. “It has happened in the past,” says Kim. “We’ve found that audiences enjoy it, but for us, it’s also kind of scary because we are trying to tell a story.”
By creating this kind of suspense, the technology in Grand Theft Ovid becomes crucial to the visceral experience of the show. “Multimedia theatre has always been interesting to me, but I think a lot of the time you see technology where the purpose is to alienate people,” says Kim. “I’m interested to know if these images and screens and sounds can actually bring people closer to characters and to stories.”
Ultimately, the entire Game Play Festival wants the technological to feel personal. “The technology [in the shows we’ve chosen] feels really organic,” Arber says. “If you took the technology away, there wouldn’t be a show, which is really satisfying. It becomes a tool for the art you’re making and not a distraction or something that’s just tacked on.”
Of course, this festival isn’t only about technology’s impact on the theatre. If hardcore gamers attend the festival, then they might leave with a new understanding of how the theatre affects our perception of technology. They might see the quest narrative in Donkey Kong, or they might discover the dramatic potential of a text message. That could make theatre, and not gadgetry, seem radical.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor