When I wrote about using roleplaying games as the basis for character and plot development back in June, I never imagined I would see the basic concept manifest so quickly.
Apparently ideas like this occur and are developed somewhat in parallel because for the last two weekends, the theater department here at Mercer University has been using the basic framework of Dungeons and Dragons to create a heroic saga with the participation of audience members.
Martin Noyes of Savannah College of Art and Design had experimented with the idea on a smaller scale in the classroom, but this was the first time he employed the concept as a full production that unfolded across seven nights.
The experience was very intriguing to me because it both required creating a sophisticated framework of rules and allowing the performers (and audience) a lot of freedom to introduce unpredictable elements into the performance.
The technicians supporting the performance had to be prepared to create the appropriate ambience on the fly. In many cases, they had to be just as inventive and resourceful as the actors. It was quite telling that Noyes would often be surprised that they found an appropriate image to project or sound effect to use as part of the action. He wasn’t completely aware of what they had available in their repertoire.
In addition, there was a musician on violin accompanying the performance creating a soundscape on the fly as well.
The performance, called Vengeance and Veritas, was presented in a blackbox space. The set looked something like this:
As you might imagine, flexibility and imagination were employed more frequently than realistic set pieces.
The cast consisted of four main characters, plus four others that took on various roles and helped with some of the mechanics of the performance. Noyes acted as the game master and portrayed many of the allies and antagonists, providing direction or challenges to the main characters. Audience members were pulled up to be ancillary characters and with a few whispered notes from Noyes, were called upon to make decisions to either thwart or assist the central characters in their goals.
By the finale, there were about 12 audience members up on stage alongside the actors either manipulating the rudimentary puppets of one of two dragons or depicting female warrior-monks.
If that wasn’t enough uncertainty added to the proceedings, the 20 sided dice so iconic to Dungeons and Dragons were used to determine the outcomes of many decisions. Oversized dice were distributed throughout the audience. When called upon, they threw the dice into the performing area. Often multiple dice were thrown simultaneously forcing Noyes to indicate which die would rule as it skittered across the floor.
There was a lot I loved about the design of this production.
First, I loved that it developed into something larger than expected. Noyes apparently didn’t think things would develop as far as they did, forcing him to create more narrative guidelines between performance nights. In the heat of the action, he would often forget where on stage he put his notebook down, providing an amusing delay while he retrieved it to consult his notes.
The actors were free to make decisions about their involvement within the confines of the narrative. Noyes had a couple of out of character exclamations of “oh shit” when the actor portraying a vampire turned up deciding to be the hero, thwarting the plans of the villainous character Noyes was portraying.
At the same time the nigh unkillable vampire kept becoming a liability to his allies as the dice roll incited his bloodlust to attack wounded allies.
There were also times where well-reasoned character development and choices by the actor was allowed to trump the dice roll.
While a performance built within the framework of a game like Dungeons and Dragons does require you to have some degree of insider knowledge, unlike many arts experiences, the audience was often more knowledgeable than the creators. Noyes had to admonish the audience to silence as it became clear the actor portraying the vampire was about to make a decision that would benefit a regular person but is deadly to vampires.
This particular approach to creating dramatic narrative answers many of the objections people make about performing arts – it is never the same performance each night, the outcome is unpredictable, the audience is actively engaged and doesn’t have to be cajoled into participating.
Another great thing was that the episodic nature of the performance induced people to return to see the show again. (Anyone who performed got a little gift at the end of the night too) Where they may not have participated on the first night, a lot of people were ready to jump up and take part on subsequent nights.
Because the cast didn’t know how the performance would unfold every night, no one knew when the show would end each night either. Noyes had to judge a good cliffhanger point to stop at.
One conversation we had (my staff provides the ticketing for the performance) is that if this type of show is ever done again, we need to offer special multiple performance pricing to make it easier for people to attend as many nights as they like.
The process also provides artists and technicians with the opportunity to explore new approaches to story creation; become nimble and resourceful in executing complex tasks on the fly and evaluate what does and doesn’t work. There may be a number of practices in common with comedy improv performances, but there are a lot more moving parts involved.
Because of the performance environment, the unintentional pauses, rough edges and problems in the shows I attended only served to provide a greater sense of intimacy and connection for the audience. (How often do you see a director exclaim his pleasure when something is unfolding well or preface a performance by telling an audience how his ultimate goal is to destroy a good portion of what he labored so hard to create?)
In a different physical spaces, the expectations might be for a more polished product. In that case, the performers might have to run through a scenario a couple times before an audience encounters it—but still introduce a mechanism of unpredictability to keep things feeling exciting and fresh.
Since I didn’t expect to see roleplay driven storytelling manifest so quickly and in such a way, I am obviously excited to see what else might emerge.
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