Live theater and video games: When done well, both have the power to magically transport participants into another realm. For its next major project, Dragon Productions Theatre Company is combining these two media in "Party at the End of the World." Its creators call it an "immersive online experience," and the first chapter in what they hope is a bigger theatrical universe titled "All We Have to Fear."
The initial idea for a video game/theater hybrid came to Co-Artistic Director Bora "Max" Koknar back in May, when it became apparent that live theater would not be returning to "normal" for quite some time. The Dragon team quickly adapted, utilizing technology to offer content to patrons and opportunities to artists from a distance. But Koknar had something even more ambitious in mind.
His goal, he said, was to address "our emotional reactions to things as a society that we often seem to pass off as logic." He imagined "creating something mythical and comic book-like — which I believe is the mythology of our generation — to help us make sense of what’s going on," he said in a recent interview, alongside co-creators Jacob Vorperian, Kimberly Ridgeway and Shelli Frew.
"This was the mission: How can we use fiction and a fictional experience to spark people wanting to commit acts of compassion in the real world?" he said. "Stories have power to motivate us and inspire us."
What evolved from those initial thoughts is a true ensemble-driven piece, involving numerous writers, performers and technical wizards. Vorperian serves as all three.
As Dragon's associate director and director of technology, "I'm responsible for all the bugs that will be plaguing you," he said with a laugh. "I'm also performing … and I guess I'm on the writing team too."
Vorperian, who studied computer science in addition to having experience in immersive theater (in which some of the traditional boundaries between stage and audience are removed), has had an intense job, lending both his technical expertise and his creative eye to develop the "All We Have to Fear" universe.
"It's been a monthslong research problem," he said, of writing custom software, hosting the website, developing inventory lists and more. The game, he said, consists of "very person- and actor-driven quests. It's less about how to find a thing, more about a personal interaction with someone."
Ticket holders (ideally with the Chrome browser, a webcam and a microphone) will be able to become townspeople in a fictional, keyboard-controlled 2-D world, where their avatars can meet and influence main characters (portrayed by live actors), go on "side quests" and down "rabbit holes," communicate and collaborate with each other and generally explore during the show. (Those who are less inclined to directly participate can also opt to simply watch and hear the action unfold.)
Co-writer Frew, like Vorperian, has worked with Koknar on other immersive projects in the past, and was attracted to the project partially because of how it's "pretty in the moment, the way that we’ve worked in what’s going on in the real world right now," she said.
Ridgeway, a playwright and actor, comes from a more straight/traditional theater background. She brings what she called the "layman's perspective" to the innovative format, not having much experience in the gamer world.
"I'm not a video-game person outside of Candy Crush. Once I got on the platform, that’s when it became a little more magical for me. It wasn’t easy to picture what we were doing until we were able to explore the space," she said. "There are areas in which anyone who is going to be on the platform can come together and explore and go on this journey together. I think that’s the most fascinating thing for me. You don’t have to be an expert to completely be immersive in this situation."
So what exactly is the situation? In the interview, the team was understandably reticent to offer much in the way of spoilers. What we do know: The storyline involves a creation myth, a pantheon of gods representing anthropomorphized emotions, humans as pawns in the global politics of immortals, and the titular party at which everyone's gathered.
"Some of the characters you meet are just partygoers trying to survive the pandemic and feel something, and others have a little more going on," Koknar said.
Immersive theater in general is challenging, both creatively and logistically. Writers, actors and directors have to allow for enough flexibility to handle whatever curveballs audience interaction may throw, while maintaining the discipline to keep the storyline running smoothly. The experience, Ridgeway said, offers her a chance to stretch her skills.
"As a writer, I think it's easier to adapt than as an actor, because I’m so used to having a script. There's a level of improv to it," she said.
"You can write all the scenarios you think are going to happen and then someone will do something out of left field," Frew acknowledged, "Audience members will always throw a wrench in there." Surrounding actors new to immersive theater with those accustomed to it can help. Sound and lighting cues, similar to those used in magic and circus shows, can help subliminally cue the audience — or directly cue performers — on what to do next.
The around-75-minute show is "set to a clock, and that’s how we are able to manage multiple things happening at the same time. In addition to the script, the improv and the audience, we have a floor show," Koknar said. "Actors have their scenes timed to that chronometer so we can make sure the thing that is supposed to happen doesn’t happen in the wrong order."
With the physical Dragon Theatre space in downtown Redwood City still closed, the team is spread out. Vorperian works off a server in San Anselmo, while Koknar has converted an in-law unit in the backyard of his East Palo Alto home into a socially distant livestreaming station used by stage manager Rachel Nin. The actors and writers contribute from their respective headquarters around the Bay Area.
They're all hoping "Party At the End of the World" is a prototype; the first piece of the ongoing "All We Have to Fear" puzzle.
"An episodic immersive piece has been my white whale for years now," Vorperian said. "The reason we want to do that is the same reason why TV characters seem to be so much more richly developed than movie characters. You get to spend so much more time with them."
It's also part of the Dragon's ongoing reckoning with how theater can and should evolve.
"What can theater look like for the future? We need experiences that connect us; there’s no reason not to try it now," Koknar said.
"All We Have to Fear: Party At the End of the World" runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., Oct. 17-Nov. 21 (no show Oct. 24). Tickets are $15-$30. More information is available at Dragon Productions Theatre Company.