08 May 2007

Let the Games Begin

So I'm still thinking muchly about Camp Nerdly and with what I came away from it. The connections between it and some of my other work--in a theatrical milieu--are striking. Here are some of my thoughts on this . . .

As Far As We Know: A show developed through the combination of elements from actual events and improvisational explorations of the ramifications of those events on the people involved. I was reminded of this show whilst playing Dogs in the Vineyard, what with the cultural fact/fiction overlap and the issues of faith and violence that are predominant to that particular game. I played a character taken from Mormon history, who believed in blood-letting being good for the purification of the soul. (This is based in biblical quotation, believe it or not. Mormons do not believe this now.) It was hard to find a way to play this character with sincerity, since his beliefs were so different from my own, and I feel very strongly about issues such as missionary work, the concept of sin and the pursuit of violent means for a peaceful end. Playing a soldier in As Far As We Know has helped me explore some of these issues, and so playing Dogs in the Vineyard was made more difficult for me given my inability to disassociate from the implications of its story. This difficulty made for a good game, because it's a game that thrives on conflict, internal and external. Rather like theatre.

In Bocca al Lupo: This isn't a show, but an entire program involving traveling to Italy, taking Italian classes and teaching commedia dell'arte to American students, all of it culminating in a show in that style performed in Italian, for Italians. The Camp Nerdly experience was reminiscent of last year's first contact with Italy, in that at first I felt incapable of contributing anything due to the language barrier, but eventually I learned to express myself to good effect. Moreover, I had two experiences directly relevant to the work I do in In Bocca al Lupo: I was constantly trying to pick up the rules as I went along, and I got to participate in an improvisation class as a student (whereas lately I have invariably been the teacher). There is much to apply from these experiences to my teaching. (Is there no word, in any language, to encapsulate the phenomenon between student and teacher in which both are constantly learning from one another?) Mistakes can be learned from in terms of improving one's craft, but still others can serve to simply blow the doors off conventional wisdom, and thereby make new rules. Game-playing generates desire in addition to goals, which in turn can fuel a performance. And what of the element of chance? We in theatre talk a good game when we spout off about audience interaction and ad lib dialogue, but most of our efforts at creating theatre are concerned with removing elements of chance. How many of us would be willing to trust a plot change to a chaotic mechanic element?

Zuppa del Giorno: This is the connection that felt most fruitful for me. In fact, it may merit an entire entry of its own some time this month, but for now a few observations. For our first show as Zuppa del Giorno (the mad-cap contemporary commedia dell'arte troupe) each actor was asked to build four characters from scratch, based on an appetite or desire and with certain details fleshed in. These characters were applied to a scenario we had already begun to conceive of, and there was a back-and-forth between the two as we tried to work out the entire show. It was a rather painstaking process, particularly because we were doing it for the first time, but eventually we developed a show called Noble Aspirations. Playing Inuma with Clinton R. Nixon while at Camp Nerdly, I and my fellow journeypersons created an entire world in under two hours, and somehow without once screaming at somebody for holding up the process. Now, that hardly compares--in terms of priorities--to the work of Zuppa. We have many additional pressures upon us, not the least of which is to create something accessible to a wide community of audience members. Yet there was something in the Inuma system that was highly effective, and which must be applicable. Our Zuppa shows are almost always created from very specific given circumstances (see the development sites for Operation Opera and the burgeoning Prohibitive Standards), just as the Inuma system works. Even putting Inuma aside for a moment, most role-playing games have something interesting to add to the method of creating a character, either from scratch or from the given circumstances of a script.

One interesting thing to note when comparing role-playing with theatre is a term used in the former's circles: conflict resolution mechanism. This term refers to the dice rolls, or the card draws, or what-have-you device used in determining things otherwise undetermined, such as whether or not you can succeed in leaping from a moving car and survive. In theatre, very generally speaking, there is no conflict resolution per se, apart perhaps from the comedies that supposedly end happily when everyone gets married off. Conflicts can transform, but the moment they become resolved is the end of the show, because the audience came to see a fight. "The show must go on" is not simply an axiom expressing an actor's work ethic, but the spirit of theatre in general. Is it any wonder that so much of our entertainment (including role-playing games) is motivated by battle or violence? It's a tireless metaphor for individual struggle.

If a "conflict resolution mechanism" existed in real life, we'd have nothing to tell stories about.

No comments: