Role-playing games and theater seem so closely aligned that it’s surprising more companies haven’t fully embraced gamer culture as part of their aesthetic. (If you can believe that pirates somehow miraculously appear in the nick of time to save Marina’s life in Shakespeare’s Pericles, you can pretty much believe any of the narrative twists in LARPs.) And in pragmatic terms, there’s also a helluva big potential audience in gaming fans for theater companies eager to reach new patrons.
But it’s still relatively rare for the world of online games to appear onstage beyond surface tropes and broad-brush stereotypes about nerd culture. An exception is Madhuri Shekar’s 2014 play In Love and Warcraft, which blended the story of an undergraduate “gamer girl” and her complicated feelings about relationships with World of Warcraft. Shekar’s play received several productions around the country, including one with Chicago’s Halcyon Theatre in 2015.
Some theaters are also increasingly borrowing structural elements from LARPs via immersive choose-your-own-adventure stagings. The UK company Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, their site-specific ambulatory take on Macbeth that has been in NYC for years, where patrons wander as they will through a series of rooms evoking the “Scottish play,” comes to mind. But those productions don’t lean fully into games culture. Patrons are voyeurs who can walk around where they choose, rather than active participants in the narrative.
But for the past several years, Otherworld Theatre has been successfully creating stronger connections between games and theater.
Appropriately, the idea for Otherworld came to artistic director Tiffany Keane Schaefer while she was waiting in line for the midnight release of the video game Skyrim. Schaefer, who was studying directing at Columbia College Chicago at the time, notes that “there were a lot of discussions [in class] about ‘how do we engage young people in theater? Theater is dying, you know.’” Looking around the line, Schaefer says she decided “these are my people and I wanted to have the theater where people are standing in line at midnight, talking about the narrative that they are going to explore.”
Since its founding in June of 2012 as a theater devoted to science fiction and fantasy, Otherworld’s productions have included adaptations of classic sci-fi stories, such as Ray Bradbury’s stage version of his novel Fahrenheit 451 and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars (adapted by Schaefer and Nick Izzo), to original fantasy tales such as Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Winter Wolf, the company’s version of a holiday show. But they’ve also infused much of their work with an open appreciation for what bringing in the world of gaming can do onstage.
Last year, they unveiled Super Richard World III, the inaugural production of their in-house Stupid Shakespeare Company. That show, created by director Joshua Messick and Katie Ruppert, smashed together Richard III with Nintendo characters; Duke Luigi played the scheming pretender set against Mario and Princess Peach. Reader critic KT Hawbaker described it as “a fucking hoot.” In addition to scripted productions, Otherworld also has offered the weekly Improvised Dungeons & Dragons. (Stupid Shakespeare and Ruppert also created PickleRickickles, a mash-up of Pericles and Rick and Morty.)
Like every other theater in the world, Otherworld’s live shows are now on hiatus during the pandemic. But they decided to do more than just put archival material up on their website (though you can see recorded versions of Super Richard World III and other shows online—some free, some available for a small fee through Patreon). They’ve decided to take advantage of the shutdown to go even further into the world of online games.
In late April, the company unveiled VALHA11A, their first all-digital virtual LARP through its in-house game production company, Moonrise LARP Games. Moonrise has produced in-person LARP events over the years, such as Dark Labyrinth, which draws on gothic horror, and Albion: School of Sorcery, which, as the title implies, uses the world of magic as its backdrop.
VALHA11A completed its initial arc on May 27 but will be returning for another installment later in the summer. “You sign up and you are playing up to five episodes for your character,” explains Schaefer. The premise for the game is that players are “Vikens,” or members of an ancient race known for their interstellar navigational skills, and they must complete the journey known as the “Grand Rite.” Players choose a ship at the beginning of the game, which, notes Schaefer, “kind of dictates what kind of experience you will have,” though players can also, via Zoom breakout rooms, travel to different realms. Actors from the Otherworld ensemble play the captains, AI computers, and fellow crew members. It’s not necessary for a player to have been part of the first arc, or “saga,” as Schaefer calls it, to do the second. Otherworld charges players $35 per episode, or $150 for the entire campaign; the first saga played every Wednesday at 7 PM for three hours.
Otherworld has done their own immersive ambulatory productions in the past, such as 2015’s Gone Dark, Stuart Bousel’s story of vampire hunters staged at Epworth United Methodist Church. And their non-digital LARPs with Moonrise have involved “taking over grand estates and people are staying there for three days and they are LARPing for three days,” says Schaefer.
The challenge with VALHA11A, she notes, was, “How do you translate that online where everything is so cold? At least right now, humans are not used to connecting through a screen. Humans are not used to looking at a lens. We had to retrain our actors a little bit as NPCs [non-player characters].” She adds, “Some of the challenge with being online is that there is a delay, and as actors in a live performance, you’re always trying to fill space with content, with drama, with light changes, what have you. In a digital sense when you don’t get those social cues, or body language cues, you have to wait seven seconds for the other person to respond to whatever it is you have just done. It feels very alien to communicate in such a way. Our first episode, it was a little rushed, and we got the feedback from our audience about ‘we need time to process the information.’”
Still, Schaefer sees the new online LARP creations as not just a way to fill time before Otherworld can reopen their venue, but as part of the company’s larger mission of being a “bridge” between game fans and theater lovers. “It’s really the nerds who pushed through for us. We are such a niche company. We’re excited to join this community of gamers and nerds alike in creating a community and a home for them. This fan base is just so dedicated to helping science fiction and fantasy stories come together that it’s really been them, even now in this pandemic of COVID, that have come through for us and supported the art that we’re doing online now. So . . . hashtag blessed.” v