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Video Games are Art

An unfortunately common tendency among humankind is to assume that something new is inherently bad. People say that smartphones are turning people into idiots by allowing someone to look something up literally anywhere they are rather than having to remember something. When paper made its way to the Mediterranean around a thousand years ago, people said the same thing. “We can’t write things down! No one will be able to remember anything anymore!” In short, new technology is not problematic, it’s people being afraid that the world continues to change.

All that being said, one of the more interesting changes in the world of art is the rise of video games as a legitimate art form. Many people unfortunately do not respect the form in this way yet, but as the angry British game critic Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw says, and I paraphrase, “at some point everyone over the age of fifty will die. Perhaps then video games will finally be respected as art.” People see the colors and controllers and settings of cities in the sky and space and assume that it’s for children and people who live in their parents’ basement. Many still imagine that games like Pong and Duke Nukem are the pinnacle of video games. Because what art form could possibly advance in over twenty years? Well, fortunately for the world, video games don’t solely revolve around the world of misogynist space marines killing Nazi-zombies on planet Garblax. Those games certainly exist, but then again so do movies like “Die Hard” and “Pacific Rim.” There’s certainly a place for them, but to compare big budget high-graphics no story games to “Casablanca” is like comparing “Predator” to “Heart of Darkness” or “The Stranger.”

Video games have evolved at a breakneck pace over the past three decades. We’ve gone from “Pong” to recent hallmarks of storytelling, “Bastion,” “Bioshock: Infinite,” and “Far Cry 3.” Video games now address the same themes of humanity that all art forms address. Just because someone is holding a controller doesn’t mean they’re impervious to a well told story. One of the aforementioned games, “Far Cry 3” is one of the best games I’ve played in the past ten years. And I’m a nerd, I’ve played a lot of video games. It’s one of the games that the story has stuck with me even though I completed the game over a year ago. It’s about a group of rich white recent college grads from LA taking an adventure in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands and they run afoul of a slavery ring on a remote island. One character joins with a group of local freedom fighters and starts to destroy his humanity to save his friends. It’s like if “Alice in Wonderland” had a baby with “Heart of Darkness.” What the game does wonderfully is that it blends the story and the gameplay brilliantly. The character goes from barely knowing which end of the gun makes the loud noise and you should point that end toward the thing you want to stop moving, to moving silently through the underbrush picking off trained killers one by one like it was a game of tag.

Now one of the things that makes this interesting in the larger world of art is that when any art form grows, it starts to cross over into the other worlds of art for inspiration and resources. The face of “Far Cry 3” is one of the major antagonists of the game, Vaas. His entire character came from an actor named Michael Mando. His face, voice, and they used motion capture of the actor to get the movement for the character in the game. Hearing Michael Mando talk about the character, he talks about everything we talk about as theatre artists, finding layers in the character, bringing truth to the story, and serving the story. It also helps that he makes the character absolutely terrifying. His presence in the game instantly creates stakes and tension during the parts when the player is directly confronting him.

The art form offers different capabilities than anything else. There is partly an easier suspension of disbelief, perhaps partly because of the lack of respect from much of the artistic community, but also because the lineage of video games has always been a place for space marines and time travel and fantasy worlds. The primary difference is that it makes the player an active part of the story. The audience and the protagonist in a video game are one in the same. No other form offers that.

The reason this really excites me is because collaboration with other already respected artists helps build legitimacy. It’s possible for artists from all different disciplines and backgrounds to collaborate on a piece of art. Actors, musicians, visual artists, anyone can be a part of a video game if that’s what the story calls for. My personal belief is that at the heart of any artistry should be storytelling. Since video games are storytelling, why wouldn’t we offer our services as theatre-makers to offer our expertise in how we tell stories? It’s happening now. And it excites the hell out of me.

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Stage Combat

This past semester, I TA-ed an Unarmed Stage Combat class. It was one of the more revealing things for me as a Stage Combat person. The most important aspect of stage combat is the story. That was the difficult thing to teach to the students. The point of a fight in a story is that that part of the story can’t be told any other way. It’s similar to how in a musical the reason the songs exist is because the story can’t be told any other way at that point. A bad fight is one that doesn’t continue the story.

The most annoying thing I can see in a fight is when it just looks cool. Ideally, yeah, fights should look cool, but the more important aspect is to make sure it continues the story. The fight is a scene without lines. The fight should tell the story the same way a dance would tell the story. It’s moving the body through space, affecting other bodies, to continue on the story of the play. I’ve seen fights that looked really cool, but did absolutely nothing for the story and they felt like a distraction. No one should waste the audience’s time with a fight that’s just for shits and giggles.

One of my favorite things about TA-ing the class was seeing this realization dawn in eyes of the students. Watching them come to the understanding that you can tell the story completely of who these characters are and why they’re doing what they’re doing simply through the movement, with no lines, was inspiring to see. I remember I told one pair that their final project looked good, but I had no idea who the characters were to each other. They looked like they had an epiphany and when they did their final later in the week, they were the best in the class because they focused so much on the story and their fight was great. The entire class made great strides and figured out how the fight is an extension of their art, not something worth a few laughs that they do in addition to their art.

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The Flick Response

The most significant thing I noticed about The Flick was that I believed in the characters. They reminded me of people I know back home. I often find that when I watch plays, I simply can’t relate to the characters very much because they may seem real or truthful to me, but I don’t know them. I knew these characters that were onstage for The Flick. It was a multi-faceted play that had well rounded characters that didn’t seem like a piece of symbolism or some literary device, they seemed like layered individuals with flaws and idiosyncrasies. You know, like people. I liked that there were different colored people onstage and different economic backgrounds onstage, but that’s not what the play was about. It’s not like those things were ignored in the play, in fact they became pertinent at certain times in the play, but the play was not a “race play” or a “class play”. It was about people who live together for a part of their lives in this movie theater. It’s about the guts and glory and idiosyncrasies that arise when you spend your time around people.

It was pretty Chekhovian. People in this place without things really changing, but the world continues to change with them unable to really have an effect on it. Yeah, all that, but still the characters were way more interesting to me than my friends saying, “Well, I’m going to go reread all of Chekhov now.” I was thinking about my buddy Paul who is a 6’5” black dude who loves pokemon and can name any Japanese videogame made in the last twenty years.

Never did I think, “okay these people are just a bunch of contrived tools the playwright is using to make a point about something.” Annie Baker found truth by creating characters that are truthful. Because I know all of those people onstage, I know the truth that she is conveying. This is a play I would bring my friends who are never going to leave the city they were born in to. They would understand and relate to every character in different ways. I loved the play because it let me see my friends back home.

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Contract Negotiations

As graduation grows nearer each of my classes is wrapping up for the semester. My Theatre Management class just had its final class and it ended with mock negotiation where the Designers union were meeting to discuss their agreement with the League of Resident Theatres. I was lucky enough to be a designer in the room (simply because I wasn’t the one moving in and out of the room) and I must say that I couldn’t stand it. This meeting encapsulated everything I despised about business confrontations (and as a generally nonconfrontational person in general) – high tensions, negativity, lust for power, everyone believing they’re right, selfishness, and it was all veiled under formal, legally appropriate language. I wanted to speak plainly to my “employers” sitting across the table, but unfortunately there was very little confrontation. Each answer had to be carefully discussed and calculated, and it was all about how strategy of bargaining could give us the greatest deal. I haven’t heard too much else about unions in my education here. My curiosity lead me to searching for recent news and found that there was a dispute in England (http://www.thestage.co.uk/2014/04/mu-claims-nt-flagrant-breach-contract-war-horse-dispute/) earlier this month about the National Theatre notified their musicians for War Horse would be fired, and the Musicians Union decided that was a breach of contract. They believed “their contracts cannot be terminated until the closure of the production of War Horse, due to a collective bargaining agreement between the Society of London Theatre and the MU. A judge’s decision (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-04-15/-war-horse-musicians-don-t-get-jobs-back-despite-strong-case.html) on April 15 ruled in the favor of the National Theatre and they would not have to rehire the musicians. It came down to a matter of two things: employers in England are simply not forced to hire people they do not want and the previously negotiated contract didn’t cover the elimination of the orchestra. What concerns me most hearing about cases like these is that at the end of the day, no matter how heated it gets in these meeting rooms, we all have to work as one to create something for the world. What does it mean for the relationship of artist and employer? One must show confidence and stand up for your own benefits in the room, but also not become an unattractive employee candidate (which after today I imagine would be difficult). It’s strange to me that an art form that prides itself as one that relies on the love and generosity of people to function suffers the same disputes and arguments as any other business. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were worse for artists those seeking benefits for on of the most unforgiving career paths one can choose. The more people have to lose, the more desperate situations become. But being in that room affirmed my belief that despite contentions, all of it is well worth the protections artists are provided. If possible, though, I would rather just not be in that room.

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Stage Blood: VIolence on Stage in Titus Andronicus

I recently came a cross an article describing how during a recent production of TItus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in England, a number of people in the audience fainted because the depiction of violence was so realistic and visceral. A few friends shared the article with comments of, “This is so cool!”, “I could never imagine this happening on American stages”, and “This is how theatre should be done.” Apparently, the fainting is particularly a problem with those seated in Standing Room Only during the summer months, which is absolutely logical, but makes me question the motives of a show that is so prone to medical emergency. A spokeswoman for the Globe said, “Fainting isn’t exactly uncommon amongst Globe groundlings [those with £5 standing tickets] so our front-of-house staff are very well trained.”. It was sort of reminiscent of how during Charlie Chaplin’s iconic clock tower scene in Safety Last, many in the audience fainted out of worry for Chaplin because that type of special effect had never been used in the movies before. 

I had a few concerns about such a visceral use of blood and gore on stage, but overall, I did think it was cool that the Globe was putting in so much energy into making this scene “pop” that it had this reaction. I was a bit worried for people who might have PTSD and others who have experienced trauma, because this could be a major trigger. My bigger concern, however, was the use of so much violence and blood involved in a rape scene, which feels like an exploitation of the real sexual violence that is a reality for so many people, which could be another huge trigger for some people. 

I thought that the use of so much gore on stage was a call back to Mark Ravenhill (whose Over There I recently responded to) and Sarah Kane, and it makes sense that this would happen on a British stage. That being said, I think Ravenhill and Kane had a much more clear directionality to the use of violence in their play, and I hope that Titus Andronicus staged the violent scene with the same care and sensitivity to the issues it responds to in the play. 

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The Container: A Critical Response

            The Container was an incredibly moving and powerful piece of theatre. I was, quite literally, in a shipping container with refugees from different war-torn parts of the world. It was also interesting how effective it was simply watching it on a computer screen; the cinematography was done so we actually felt like we were sitting inside a shipping container crossing international borders as refugees. During the curtain call, we see that this was how they planned the seating, even more claustrophobically than I had realized. This immersive, in your face theatre forces you to confront the issues that a piece was dealing with and actually become a part of the narrative. The immediacy of the seating makes us become a refugee ourselves. What also added to how realistic the play felt was how although there was structure, many elements were unexpected and jarring. When the Afghani woman was taken away, I was shocked, but that would’ve been more truthful to an experience of being a refugee than if her story line fit some sort of neat dramatic structure.

            I thought this play was also extremely relevant as we as a theatre community continue to discuss issues of diversity in casting. As we have explored in class before, simple color-blind casting can only go so far, and we run into issues of privilege if we try to assume that a normative experience is reflective of everybody. This play is a poster child for the idea that we can summon the universal through being incredibly specific. The play is a model for developing theatre that uses the many different lived experiences of the collaborators involved to weave together a piece that reflects an increasingly multicultural world. Diversity in The Container was not forced or tokenizing because it was integral to the plot, and I had no issues empathizing with any character or relating to the struggles. So The Container is also a call to rethink the way in which we look at inclusiveness in theatre. 

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The Shipment: A Critical Response

            The Shipment was a play that I had been waiting to see since freshman year when Ilana mentioned it was playing at the ICA and I missed it. The premise was fascinating: a Korean-American playwright with the task of creating a black identity-politics devised theatre piece. The play deals with many of the images and tropes that are associated with black entertainment (specifically comedy and movies), and then subverts them (with a sitcom of white people, played by African-Americans). I viewed the play on ontheboards.tv. 

            My first reaction to the play was that it was a one trick pony. I had my laugh at the end, when it was revealed that the characters in the sitcom were actually white, and noted that it commented on how ridiculous it was that the media only portrays certain “black experiences” like the young-kid-from-the-projects-who-wants-to-become-a-rapper-but-gets-caught-up-in-drugs-and-violence. However, one aspect of the sitcom scene stayed with me: the fact that everyone at this lovely little get together ignores the fact that one of the characters admits to contemplating suicide. The stakes of the sitcom were stretched farther than anything I have ever seen on TV, and yet all of his friends play it off as if it was a joke and continue on to play their game. Again, my first reaction to the play was that the entire sitcom section was just a set-up for the last line (about “everyone being white”), but I began to realize that by making the characters white, the experience of a black person who is living with depression is invalidated. Most depictions of suicide in the news and entertainment media are of white people, and just as we are about to see on stage the experience of an African-American living with depression, his experience is invalidated first by the other party-goers, and then by the anagnorisis at the last line.

            What further drives home this point is how then the only “black” narratives that are given wide viewership are ones like the movie that are delivered in dead-pan before we see the sitcom. When we consume only that one facet of entertainment, we rob the full range of emotion and experience that we all are capable of. 

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