Video games that help refresh a theater audience's or donor's experience

Eliza Bent, American Theatre magazine, February 2013 issue

Theatre and video games may not seem like natural bedfellows, but the best video games tell a story, and theatre tends to do the same. Here are two examples of games working from a charitable perspective and in service of the theatrical art form.

  • Gaming Means Giving. Chicago's Vertical Incorporated, a strategic marketing and visual communication group, decided to make annual contributions to arts and education organizations. "After a few years we decided to further call attention to the organizations we give to by making an online game," says president Mike Keating. Go Go Santa was born in 2007. Vertical donates a lump sum to five organizations, and players of Go Go Santa "donate" the points they win to an organization of their choosing among the five. If a particular organization drums up enough of its constituency to play and donate points, a larger percentage of Vertical's donation goes to that group. Typically, a new edition of Go Go Santa gets released [each] December. "Last year we had around 400 players, but this year we have 4,000 players on iPads alone," Keating enthuses. "We may generate 8,000 to 12,000 users by Jan. 1," he estimated. [P]art of why Go Go Santa has worked for Vertical is that it aligns with the company's arts-and-education mission. Moreover, a number of staff at Vertical serve on boards of the various organizations. The game's success is evidence that a for-profit company with a passionate staff can raise awareness for not-for-profits -- and turn a technical challenge into a holiday miracle.
  • Whetting Appetites Cyber-Style. In 2008, members of the Black Women's Playwright Group (BWPG) gathered at a national conference to discuss digital media. Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, attended and he, along with a number of other theatre leaders who develop new plays, decided to partner with BWPG in the Cyber Narrative Project [which] launched in February 2012. Five playwrights were selected to be part of the guinea-pig round. "I remember sitting in on those initial meetings and coming up with a list of writers whose work would lend itself to a cyber narrative. Kristoffer Diaz loves video games," recalls Miriam Weisfeld, Woolly's director of artistic development. And Woolly and Dallas Theater Center had signed on to produce Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Powerbomb!, inspired by Chad Deity, was developed by students at Carnegie Mellon with input from Diaz. Players who beat the online boxing game in advance of the show were entitled to discounted tickets, and those who beat it during intermission (computers were set up in Woolly's lobby) were eligible for flex passes. Weisfeld estimates a total of 800-1,000 people played Powerbomb! during the Woolly iteration of the game, and she believes that number might have been higher had the team been able to implement a mobile platform. "What I loved most about this project," says Karen Evans, president and founder of BWPG, "was how everyone got to do what they do well. The computer tech kids wrote great video game software, Woolly Mammoth got to produce an excellent show, Kris wrote wonderful video content, and BWPG kept the balls in the air and meshed it all together."

"Video Games Live!" introduces classical music to younger generation

Kathy L. Greenberg, Tampa Bay [Florida] Tribune, 1/31/13

Genre fusion is like a B12 shot for the entertainment industry. Music, in particular, benefits creatively and financially from the unlikeliest combinations. This is especially so when one generation has ignored another's brand of sound or amusement. For example, who would ever think that video games and classical music could or would cross paths? Just ask Tommy Tallarico. He'll set you straight. In 2002, the veteran gaming industry musician and icon innovated a way to sync video game music with a full symphony and choir. "Video Games Live!" [combines] all the power and emotion of an orchestra with the excitement of a rock concert. Symphonies around the globe have taken a chance on Tallarico's invention, surprising themselves and their audiences with the effective fusion. "It's tough to convince orchestras to do this. We play all over the world, and it's still a tough sell. Symphony people sometimes shy away from pop culture and don't consider it on the same level as Beethoven and Mozart," said Tallarico. Today's video game music is not like yesterday's Pac-Man and Pong, where mindless beeps and burps helped give the '80s a bad rap. Those sounds have since evolved into complete compositions grounded in classics ranging from Beethoven to Billy Joel. "I wanted to prove to the world how culturally significant video games are," said Tallarico. "I wanted to usher in a younger generation to come out and appreciate the symphony. When I designed the show, I didn't do it for just hard-core gamers. I designed it for everyone. You don't have to know anything about gaming to come and be blown away."


Commentary: 5 video games that would make fantastic ballets

Jef Rouner, Houston Press [Texas], 1/7/13

[My] wife is a ballet fan and has been trying to interest me in attending for years. My opinion on the matter is that if I want to see superhuman feats of grace and agility, I'll turn on Lucha Libre [wrestling] on Telemundo, but she tells me that that isn't the same thing. Mentioning this to my brother over the holidays, he mused that perhaps the Dragon Quest ballet would tour the States, and I perked right up. Dragon Quest [is] a damn sight deeper than The Nutcracker, and the Star Dancers Ballet in Japan apparently thought so, too, because they performed the thing like clockwork every year from 1995 to 2002. Even better, they released a DVD of the performance and a helpful YouTube user uploaded the whole thing in 12 parts for you to peruse for free. It's honestly quite epic, and really brings the story of Erdrick and his descendants to life that challenges the game itself. As games get closer and closer to being considered art, it made me wonder what other titles would make good ballets.

  • The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time [is] a game of impressive length, [but] the best thing about Ocarina is that your interactions with other characters are usually on a simple enough level that doing so through dance is actually just as effective as any of the dialogue. There's even an interpretative dance already in the game, although it's more horrifying than anything. Since we already have a full symphony of the game themes now, making this a ballet seems like a no-brainer.
  • Catherine is kind of a mixture of a Japanese dating simulator with Silent Hill. It follows a man torn between two women, Katherine and Catherine. His internal struggle is represented by nightmares involving falling block puzzles culminating in boss battles with monsters. Performances could use a screen to project the text messages that are so important to the game, and the nightmare levels are more or less representational anyway so they make perfect dance settings.
  • Journey is already almost a ballet in and of itself. The game is little more than a solitary figures traversing a desert, a ruined city, and a frozen mountain. There's no real story, and interaction with other players in the game can only be non-competitive. The point is to walk you through an incredible series of puzzles and action in order to symbolize Joseph Campbell's monomyth of a hero's journey. The whole thing is told wordlessly, and the nature of the protagonist ensures that the main character can be played by either a male or female. This is especially helpful as finding good female leads in games is still a problem. Of all the possible source materials for a game ballet, Journey is easily the most perfect.
  • Speaking of female protagonists, the best one to take true front and center in a ballet would be Faith Connors [in] Mirror's Edge. The world Connors inhabits is a totalitarian dystopia full of fast-paced chases and an oppressive, all-watching government. She and other runners are employed to hand-deliver messages to avoid the constant surveillance, but she is quickly drawn into a dance of assassination and betrayal. It's a gripping story that can easily be told through movement as well as with dialogue.
  • The world needs more frightening ballets. Stuff like the ending of Rite of Spring where people dance themselves to death. To that end, I request a rebirth of Phantasmagoria. Originally released during the interactive movie game boom of the '90s, Phantasmagoria remains one of the scariest games of all time. It follows a horror novelist who retreats to an old house to write, only to be attacked by a black magician who previously used the house as a base. Dreamlike scenes of the magician murdering his wives, scenes of sexual assault and torture, and a battle against a demon make for some perfect creepy inspirations to set to dance.
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