Tag Archives: Theater

Immersion

Reading the Wikipedia summary of a book or tv show is not the same as reading or watching it. A movie’s script is an inherently unfinished product until it is produced and brought to its fullest form. It makes a certain amount of sense; you want the full experience of Ulysses? Read the book itself, not the CliffNotes. Inception is a trip, but it’s a trip that works best when you’re watching it in full. The reasoning behind this seems quite obvious: for something written, there’s a particularity given to the prose that the writer uses to evoke whatever it is they’re going for; visual media like television and film use the camera to draw the viewer’s attention to certain places, with every aspect of the story tailored to the audience’s experience.

Things get weird when media gets more interactive.

In a book, things are written to be read a certain way, and unless you’re reading it, uh, backwards, you’re experiencing it the way it was extended. Sitting in a theater, you’re watching a movie as it’s meant to be, from start to finish, no distractions, and with the audio and the visuals just right.

But what about when you’re watching a play? Sure, you’re supposed to be watching the stage, but where on the stage? If it’s in the round you’re seeing a completely different point of view as someone on the other side! And what if they decide to interact with the audience? Furthermore, there are elements of stagecraft that draw the audience in, things that are designed to be seen, and experienced, in person. There’s no way a description of the furniture disappearing into the stage in Fun Home can compare to watching it happen in front of you. It’s arguable that the audience’s own ability to view the stage through their own eyes (and not that of the director’s camera or writer’s prose) is part of the narrative work of a stage performance. The liminal space occupied by the actors and the audience becomes a magic circle during the performance.

Being there, having to turn your head to follow the action, is a part of watching a play that a recording doesn’t quite capture, filtered as it is through a camera crew. It’s a small thing, but not having to physically turn your head to see what’s going on removes a small part of the interaction that’s part of the medium.

Kinda like not playing a video game.

In the same way that a well-made play uses that stage to its fullest, so too does a video game. Video games with a focus on narrative tell stories not just through non-interactive cutscenes, but by making players actually play the story. The effect of this, when well executed, isn’t found in other media. The Last of Us and BioShock both take place in the aftermath of cataclysmic disasters, and you, the player explore the spaces left behind. There you’ll find notes and audio recordings that slowly paint a narrative of the people who lived in the place you’re exploring, leaving you to piece together a story about what happened. It’s completely optional, you don’t have to pick up any of the notes and can quite easily go through the whole game without collecting any if you choose. But by interacting with you’re given some background that sits in the back of your mind.

Then, of course, there is making you play through the story. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has you building a team of mercenaries and staffing them at your base. You might not remember them all by name, but you, the player, recruit them all and put them where they go. They’re your staff. When a late plot development has a number of your soldiers turn against you, you, the player, must kill them before they can do more damage. It is an… unpleasant experience. Not all of them are hostile, many of them are accepting, and you are tasked with shooting them in cold blood. The player is not allowed a passive position in the development, they have to take part in the carnage. The guilt that weighs on Venom Snake weighs too on the player. Sure, you can watch a play-through of the game, or even read a rundown on the plot, but not actively taking part in the action removes a level of immersion intended by the designers. Like watching a play on screen, passively watching a video game doesn’t confer the experience in full.

At the end of the day, something that’s created to exist in a specific medium ought to be experienced in that medium. But in doing so, it does become something else, doesn’t it (compare a stage production to a movie adaptation)? Different stories work different ways, but to experience them at all is a joy.

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Theater On A Screen

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to see Hamilton back in 2015 when it first made the move to Broadway. This was well before the soundtrack was released, but after its run at the Public. I was a TA for a summer film program and part of the thing was for the students to go see shows. They needed volunteers and, as someone trained since childhood to never turn down an opportunity to get some culture, I volunteered to go see this history musical called Hamilton (a friend of mine was also very insistent on me volunteering when he’d heard which play it was).

The play was dope. Yes, it plays fast and loose with history and, yes, glosses over historical issues of racism and slavery (like basically every other recounting of the founding of the US), but, arguably, that’s not the point. The genius of Hamilton is how it reinterprets a very familiar story: rather than the tried-and-true story of white dudes in fancy outfits, we’ve a cast almost entirely consisting of people-of-color telling the story with songs that borrow more from hip-hop and rap than Sondheim. The result is a story that feels incredibly fresh and fun, while also making a biography of Alexander Hamilton accessible and, somehow, badass. In addition, it’s an ode to the idea of America, more so than the actuality, an idealism that there was room for in 2015.

Naturally, I wanted to watch it again, and wanted to be able to watch it with some friends so I could talk to them about it and dig into it, but Hamilton tickets cost money and need to be purchased well in advanced, stuff that, as a college student, wasn’t really on the table. It’s frustrating, because Hamilton, a musical about being young, scrappy, and hungry, is effectively out of reach for the young, scrappy, and hungry. Even now, it’s hard for me to set aside $100 for an event months away.

So of course I’m super excited that the recording of Hamilton from 2016 is finally available to watch online. It means I can finally recommend it to people without the financial subtext. It means my parents and friends all over can watch it and we can all talk about it and get into it. Finally.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that the majority of plays and musical is out of reach unless you’re moneyed and living in New York. Most all of the theatre I’ve been to has been through rushing for discount tickets or having a friend with connections. Fun Home is a terrific show, but one I was only able to see because a friend won the ticket lottery and gave me his spot. The only reason I saw Vietgone is because they offered discount tickets for those under thirty. Both of these shows are fantastic and ones I wish I could share with friends the same way I do a good book or movie. Sure, I have the script for Vietgone, but letting a friend read it isn’t quite the same as getting to watch it.

I will admit that some is lost in the transfer from stage to screen; much of what makes theater work is the shared liminal space that contributes to the effect of the story (my experience watching Fun Home wouldn’t quite work on screen), in the same way that a video play-through of a video game lacks the experiential quality a good game has.

There’s a larger point to be made about the experiential nature of stories (once again, theater and video games are, oddly, very alike in this), but that’s for another day. At the moment, though, a little piece of pop-culture just got a whole lot more accessible. And that’s a good thing.

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Stuff From 2016 I Wanna Talk About

Every year I do a thing on this blog where I list my top nine movies. Thing is, movies aren’t the only things that come out in a year. So here’s a list of a bunch of stuff in a bunch of different mediums that came out last year that I really liked that I wanna talk about. They may not be the best thing to come out of the year, but it’s stuff I want to talk about.

Book: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I talked about this book when I first finished it, and I’d like to bring it up again to talk about how magnificent it is. It’s a concept album made book, where each chapter/short story stands wholly alone, yet is enriched and inseparable from what comes before it. Plus, it’s a novel about the African Diaspora which, really, isn’t a thing that gets explored nearly enough in fiction, especially at this scale and yet so intimately.

Album: Colors Run, by House of Heroes

…while on the topic of concept albums, I’ve gotta mention House of Heroes’ Colors Run. I haven’t listened to it enough yet, I don’t think, but it’s an interesting album that crafts its narrative through implication. It mayn’t be my favorite album this year (Run River North’s Drinking From A Salt Pond and Barcelona’s Basic Man are two strong contenders there), but it’s one that’s really been sticking with me.

Video Game: One Night Stand, by Kinmoku

I’m a sucker for a video game that goes somewhere most games don’t. One Night Stand has you waking up in a stranger’s bed and piecing together how you got there. It’s essentially a point-and-click by way of a choose-your-own-adventure game, but it’s set apart by how warmly and sweetly it handles its subject matter. Plus, the rotoscoped graphics make the game feel like a sketchbook come to life.

Comic: Mockingbird, by Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, et al.

I mean, duh. But so we’re clear: wonderfully funny comic with a savage feminist streak that has a lot of fun in a comic book world. It’s too seldom we get to see women as fully-fleshed out characters in comics, and Bobbi Morse is so winning its hard not to love it. Also, major props for being one of the first Marvel comics with an all-women creative team. Man, I really wish this comic was still going.

Television Show: Stranger Things, by the Duffer Brothers

I’m a sucker for 80s movies. I’m also a sucker for movies like Easy A and Super 8 that have their own takes on the aesthetics of those movies. Super 8 marches brazenly into that field with a dose of horror. So yes, there’s D&D and 80s movies references galore, but what really makes Stranger Things better than being just an ersatz Spielberg film is its characters. Be it the boys and the new friend Eleven, Hopper and Joyce, or Nancy and Jonathan; the show is filled with those quiet relationship moments that made 80s films so wonderful. That it tells a delightful science fiction story in the process is just the icing on the cake.

Play: Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen

Look, theatre’s really white. Sure, you’ve got Hamilton flipping things around, but, that’s the exception that proves the rule. So along comes Vietgone, which features a mostly-Asian cast that tells a love story set against refugees immigrating to the US after the Vietnam War. Besides its fantastic use of language to invert the typical understanding of the other, it tells a damn sweet story in its own right – that features people who don’t look like your usual romantic leads from a unique background. It’s plain wonderful, and also the only play I’ve paid to see more than once.

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Language and Story

Language is weird. Conveying language is even harder. How do you make a story where the main characters are all speaking a different language, but gear it to an English-speaking audience? Do you give them vague accents or pull a Sean Connery and let Russian-in-English sound suspiciously like a Scottish brogue? Then what if the they interact with English speakers?  How do you flip that sense of the other, where the person speaking the language you understand isn’t understood by the characters you’re following?

The play Vietgone, a story about Vietnamese immigrants to the US after the Fall of Saigon, merrily blazes its own path. In a delightfully post-modern fashion, Vietnamese is rendered in contemporary English. Main characters Quang and Tong interject ‘dude’ while speaking regular, American English — despite it supposed to be in Vietnamese. Because of this, we, as an audience, are firmly with them. We speak the same language, we understand them, we identify. There’s nothing stilted about it, it’s just people talking like people talk.

See, there’s this stereotype about Asians in and around the US is that they (we?) are so completely foreign, so other, that assimilation into normalcy isn’t really a thing — that the adjective in front of the noun is the more important word. It’s something that’s colored by the media in many ways, from Full Metal Jacket’s refrain of “me love you long time” to a certain recent piece by a major news show involving some idiot in Chinatown. When Vietgone positions its protagonists as speaking normal English, it empowers them to get to be normal. Quang and Tong aren’t presented as being other or foreign, instead they’re portrayed as normal as they would be had this story been about a bunch of white people moving somewhere else.

As for the Americans? Vietgone, a comedy, renders English as a series of loud, disparate, American-y words, yielding ‘sentences’ along the lines of “Cheeseburger shotgun Nixon!” It’s legitimately hilarious, but it underscores how confused and away Quang and Tong are. They don’t understand the people around them — and neither do we. As for the American who does try to learn Vietnamese and speaks it poorly, he is depicted speaking a horribly mangled version of English, flipping the funny foreigner trope well on its head. By building a language barrier that puts the audience on the in with the non-English speaking cast, Vietgone creates a space where the white Americans are seen as the other, not the immigrant Vietnamese.

So? What’s the big deal about this?

Diversity matters.

I will yammer on and on and on about this, to the point where I think 2016 is Essays, Not Rants! Year of Diversity (2015 was the Year of Feminism), and that’s because it’s important. Vietgone tells a familiar story (two people fall in love!) with a familiar backdrop (the aftermath of the Vietnam War!) but from a completely different perspective (did you know about the refugees from Vietnam in the aftermath?). Not only does it work as the story of immigrants and refugees, but, by positioning these people as the main characters the play allows them to tell their stories. This is the aftermath of the Vietnam War as told by those who saw their country and homes fall. It’s a different story, but not one that feels the need to dwell overlong on how different and special it is. It’s, like all good stories, a story about people first. One where they get to tell it and we get to listen in.

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Expository Conflict

Othello really hits the ground running. The first time we see the titular character in Shakespeare’s play he’s on trial in a war room. Now, it’s important to note that this is his introduction, this is when we learn who he is.

The easiest way to clue the audience in would be to just give us an infodump. Have people go “This is Othello, the Moor, who’s a general, and married to Desdemona, a senator’s daughter” in some fashion. No, it’s certainly not the most elegant way to disperse information, but, well, it works.

Thing is, exposition is boring. Really boring. No one wants a huge lecture in their story, especially if it comes right at the top. Which presents a unique problem for Shakespeare in Othello, how can he bring the audience up to speed on an unusual situation without boring the audience five minutes into his play? Simple: He turns exposition into conflict.

Conflict occurs when there’s disagreement. They can argue, they can fight, they can spend all day undermining each other. Conflict is also usually quite interesting. Two people going “as you know, such-and-such is whatever” is boring; an argument over whether such-and-such is whatever, however, keeps the audience interested. Now there’s tension over the exposition: Is it true? Who’s right? What’s gonna happen when one of ‘em is proven wrong?

And that’s what the first act of Othello is. He’s put on an informal trial and forced to prove he is who he is. We don’t hear the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him just out of the blue, rather their story is the explanation and evidence for his elopement. It doesn’t feel forced or out of place, and it’s interesting. Othello’s reputation is on the line and we want to see what happens next.

Exposition has to be interesting. Having it happen in conflict raises the tension and makes us pay attention. Compare two characters getting to know each other over coffee versus an interrogation. This is something that Lost does very well. Not only are all the characters strangers (and thus all serve as audience surrogates as they learn things about each other), but the mystery island setting has everyone tense and suspicious of one another. Secret agendas, angles, and hidden pasts make getting to know the characters exciting by itself.

It’s helped along in earlier season by flashbacks which further flesh out the characters. Once again, these flashbacks, which are basically just exposition, are made interesting through conflict. Charlie’s Dad doesn’t tell him he’s irresponsible, we see Charlie being irresponsible and butting heads against people close to him which in turn affects how we see him in the present. There’s also an arc to the flashbacks which helps invest us in the proceedings.

This is, of course, something that Fantastic Four did fantastically wrong. So much of the movie felt like pure exposition with no conflict to push things along. Reed meets a pre-evil Doom and the two simply, well, coexist. There’s no clash of worldview or rivalry of genius, they’re just there. I’m not asking for a Shakespearean trial; a competition for Sue’s affections would be insulting, but at the very least would be more interesting that what was essentially a series of “I’m smart,” “So am I,” “Cool, let’s science,” “Yes, let’s science.”

Stories have to introduce their audience to a new world. Could be a world inhabited by friends who work at a brewery or where a Moor in an interracial marriage is on a Venetian war council; could also be a world where a kid is able to create an inter-dimensional teleporter. No matter what there’s gonna be something the audience doesn’t know and will have to learn (seriously, if you’re doing an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood you’re still gonna have to tell us why she’s going to her grandmother’s). Exposition happens. It always happens. The trick is to make it work, and not bore us with it. So let’s keep Othello on trial.

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