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From the top

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | MAY 08, 2014 5:00 AM

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Video games and sex. That is what Ryan Oliveira knows. And — as proverbial wisdom dictates — write what you know, so the graduate playwright did just that.

“[Swordplay] was sparked by a professor [Dare Clubb] who told me to write about what I was interested in — which was apparently video games and sex,” Oliveira said.

Swordplay will take the stage at 5:30 and 9 p.m. today in the Theater Building’s Theater B of the as part of the Iowa New Play Festival.

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The Daily Iowan spent several weeks documenting the work of the major players who contributed their time and talents to putting Swordplay on the stage and discovered that the road to get there is longer than some may think.

As they say in show business, “From the top.”

THE SCRIPT — RYAN OLIVEIRA

A self-described “loner kid,” Oliveira said he often had to find ways to entertain himself. Paper cutouts and dominoes typically did the trick.

Using the cutouts as sets and props, dominoes as avatars, and the occasional stuffed animal as a character, Oliveira began his playwriting career at a young age.

The experience has now come full circle to Swordplay, his first full-length, fully produced play. He finds it quite fitting that the show is about video games, his childhood passion.

But it’s also about something much deeper, more grown-up.

“The show is really about connection — interpersonal connection as well as our connection between video games and the real world,” he said.

This was territory not unfamiliar to Oliveira, who wrote the first draft of the script in only a week after he broke up with his boyfriend, a gamer, over “issues of contended infidelity.” The quick work was his way of getting out everything he needed to say.

In one of many twists on his story,  though, Oliveira created a female protagonist, a very deliberate decision on his part. “Serah” is an art major working on her thesis about the history of video games and art.

“Women don’t necessarily get represented A, in theater and B, in gaming,” he said. “Because it’s that down and out like, ‘You’re a girl, you can’t play. You need to be coddled.’ And then she’s the one who ends up beating the game. I mean, that’s huge. It’s a testament to the fact that women can do stuff just as well as men. And it’s important that we acknowledge that fact.”

After his break-up, Oliveira asked himself what came next. He started to find his answer in Swordplay and kept finding it through 18 drafts.

Oliveira said numerous drafts is standard operating procedure for him.

“I tend to write my scripts really fast — really fast and furiously,” he said. “I have a huge thing about clarity issues; my mind flies a lot faster than my fingers do, and it leads to issues.”

A “social playwright,” Oliveira said he prefers to edit after working on a script with actors and directors. Throughout the process, the essential story of Swordplay remained unchanged — “woman breaks up with guy, finds herself, realizes her connection to this new friend that she found online is a lot stronger and potentially holds more for the future.”

Finally presenting this work brings with it a great deal of anxiety:

“It’s nerve-racking,” Oliveira said. “I keep looking at the stage because it’s like I can’t believe it; there are actors, and there’s a director, and there are people who believe in this play, and it could really happen. It’s really powerful and I’m terrified … But I know if all goes well, it legitimizes something for me — that this is OK. That I’m not such a crazy playwright after all … and there is a point to what I’m doing.”

Enter Marina Johnson.

DIRECTING — MARINA JOHNSON

First-year graduate director Marina Johnson said she did not consider herself a gamer.

Swordplay may have changed that.

After hearing a reading of the script, she said she was interested in directing the show but wasn’t sure she was up to the challenge. In the end, that hesitation is what made up her mind.

“I think you should always work on projects that excite you and energize you but also that make you nervous,” she said. “If you can do something easily in two minutes, why do it?”

Being a “newb” actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Johnson.

“I was able to give an insight, because [Oliveira] is very deeply immersed in this world,” she said. “So I was able to look at it from the audience’s perspective, which is the director’s job. It was helpful to clarify those things for the non-gamers in the audience.”

Meeting with Oliveira once or twice a week, they discussed the script as he continued to edit. After each round of changes, Oliveira brought the new draft to Johnson, who read it and came back with questions or comments.

In working the changes with the actors, Johnson ensured Oliveira’s story was told as intended. She wanted to be positive the actors understood the script down to the very last word.

Frequently, Johnson asked the actors, “What do you want from the other character? How are you going to get it?” These are fairly common questions for actors, but Johnson believes, pivotal.

“If we couldn’t answer those questions, we knew there might be a text problem,” she said. “The nice thing is that we have the playwright nearby so we can say, ‘What was your intention?’ So he’s not making choices for them, but he can tell them what worked there for him when he was writing it.”
 
[Scene: A rehearsal room, gray padded floors, gray walls, bright red double-doors. Oliveira and Johnson sit at a white table on one edge, waiting.]

FORMING A GUILD — CASTING

As pairs of actors were given sections of the script to prepare, they slipped away, hoping to get the most out of their precious few minutes of preparation. Moving into dark corners of the Theater Building and utilizing small spaces away from everyone else, actors studied, tested, and worked. Inside the audition room, some actors had a very different experience.

Thirteen actors battled it out for just two ensemble parts. Literally battled it out.

Initially, each actor chose a name and a power, following Johnson’s example of RinaGeorgia and RyGuy for herself and Oliveira — then acted out their new identities onstage. Some actors mimed swinging swords or Darth-Vader-like choking of partners, some leapt through the air or brought out their finest dance moves.

Their next task — pair up and form a creature. Climbing on top of each other, becoming very up-close and personal, the actors contorted their bodies to form other-wordly creatures that could belong to a video game. They then had to move this creature across the room in front of Johnson and Oliveira, like pageant contestants presenting to the judges, but much more terrifying.

Oliveira and Johnson tried to take in every detail to find the minute differences that would separate those cast from those who would sit in the audience.

But what were they looking to find?

“That nuance, those unique choices are great,” Oliveira said. “It’s like buying different vacuum cleaners; they all suck up dirt, but which one do you really want? There’s a really, really talented group of people here, and we’re splitting hairs at this point.”

After the hairs were split and the rubble from the battle cleared, Oliveira and Johnson emerged with a cast.
 
Serah: Caitlin Dorsett
Robert: Adam Phillips
Cage: Christopher Matheson
Draco: Jacob Hicks
Ensemble: Taylor Stuart and Rubina Vidal
 
And the cast was needy.

They needed costumes to visually transform them into their characters, sound to create the world of the game, light to set the mood, and a set upon which it could all happen.
 
Enter the designers.
 
Costume Designer: Angie Esposito
Sound Designer: Rob Bergenstock
Scenic Designer: Kevin Dudley
Lighting Designer: Lucas Ingram
 
[Scene: A brightly lit building lobby, red carpet, wooden-topped tables, grey chairs. Seven people sit huddled around two tables pushed together.]

DESIGN MEETINGS

Fingers resting on her keyboard, Rachel Winfield waits — an unusual task for her.

As a stage manager, she is used to keeping a tight schedule, planning meticulously down to the minute. After all, she is in charge of making sure Swordplay goes up in time.

At design meetings though, she’s a note-taker, keeping track of any questions asked by members of the design team.

Questions such as, “How do we make a giant tree-like monster? Should we use puppets, shadow illusions, or body contortions?” and “Should I use flashing multicolored lights or solid pure white light?”

There were endless questions and endless possibilities but limited time and funds, so these designers had to work fast.

Their first step: understanding the play and the message trying to be conveyed.

Though Oliveira may be the one with all the words, the task of articulating what, exactly, the goal of the play was fell to Johnson.

“Throughout the play, we see Serah questioning her role as a healer, as an artist, and as a girlfriend, until finally she breaks free of the things that have been holding her back and realizes that her true connections are with the friend who supports her and with herself,” Johnson said. “In this realization, she finds empowerment and a connection to reality and her true self that she has been missing.

“I want the audience to walk away from the play feeling empowered. In this empowerment is hope for the future and a stronger sense of self.”

Keeping that in mind, the designers all scurried to their respective areas to come up with preliminary designs.

Then came more meetings Sketches and notes in hand this time, the group members had to see how all their work fit together.

How would Ingram’s lighting choice affect Dudley’s set? Could Esposito fit huge, monstrous costumes on the set without catastrophe? Would Ingram’s lighting wash out her costumes or compliment them? If Dudley used dark blues and blacks on the set, when should the lights contrast that and when should they match?

With their ideas confirmed, the designers moved on to altering their concepts and making them a reality.
 
[Scene: A costume shop; huge tables, swatches of fabric scattered about, dozens of costumes lining the walls. Esposito twists thick silver wire around a mannequin’s head until it resembles a wolf’s jaw.]

COSTUMES  —ANGIE ESPOSITO

An Elven Sorceress, an Elven Healer, a Wolverine Barbarian, and a Ghostly Samurai.

The descriptions certainly spark a mental image. Or at least they did for Esposito.

For instance, one of Swordplay’s main characters — Cage — creates an Elven Sorceress avatar during the play. Esposito couldn’t quite make the costume she wanted — at least not without spending her entire budget of $200. So she went to Plan B.

“I like to see what I have first,” she said. “I go through stock and I really go through stock, with a fine-tooth comb. Sometimes, I find these gems, sometimes it doesn’t work.”

For the Elven Sorceress, she begins by altering a sari pulled from another show, which she called the perfect fabric: glittery gold and lavender interlaced with shiny splashes of pinks, greens, and blues. Soon it was no longer a sari but a full, swingy floor-length skirt swirling up to a sash over one shoulder, paired with a shirt of deep blue sparkles.

“I pride myself on taking things and manipulating them and turning them into something else,” Esposito said. “I like to take found objects and turn them into sculptures or wearable sculptures.”
 
[Scene: A silent black booth overlooking the stage. Rob Bergenstock sits with his hand poised above a sound board.]

SOUND  — ROB BERGENSTOCK

When Bergenstock agreed to design the sound for Swordplay, he knew it would be a welcome challenge, but it grew past what even he expected.

“There are, so far, over 160 called sound cues. That is probably over five times the average show,” he said. “We’ve been [using] sound since the first week of rehearsals, and that’s unheard of in any play.” 

The challenge was for Bergenstock to create the video game without overshadowing the actual play or drowning out the actors.

“[The design team] had to remind ourselves that we are not putting on a video game, we are putting on a play about a video game,” Bergenstock said. 

The sound, Bergenstock believes, will help the audience distinguish between the game and real-life, allowing them to step right into Swordplay.

As a video game is designed to pull a player into the world of the game, the theater is designed to pull audiences into the world of the play, Bergenstock said.

But he had to make sure they understood they were not entering Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda. Oliveira created the game Swords and Stones when he created the play — they are both original ideas not meant to merely reflect the work of others.

That meant Bergenstock could not simply pull soundtracks from games, play them over the speakers and call it a day.

Original compositions by everyday people, never used before in a video game, were selected to fit the mood of the moment and fill the world.

“We always wanted the soundscape — the music and the effects — to be so much more full of life and so present in the gaming world and noticeably absent in reality,” Bergenstock said. “The goal was: reality is boring and the video game world is full of life.”

[Scene: A workshop; sawdust flying up sporadically, the buzzing of saws piercing the air. Kevin Dudley methodically marks measurements on a scrap of wood before approaching a table saw.]

SET DESIGN — KEVIN DUDLEY

Dudley had one major challenge in separating the game from reality: Once the set was on stage, it wasn’t going anywhere.

Besides being limited by mobility, Dudley also had to consider the restricted size of Theater B. At only 32-by-16 feet, Dudley said the space gets eaten up quickly. Valuable space — there are battles to be fought on this stage, after all.

“As a designer, I have to ask what is absolutely essential to tell the story, because you can add too much to a story or you can strip too much away,” he said. “In finding that balance, you start to look for the elements that are absolutely essential.”

Separating the realities, it turns out, was essential to Dudley. By dividing the stage through painting techniques, he created a pixelated center section of the stage and two additional spaces.

Installing every piece — the platforms, the icons, the benches, and props — had to be done in only four hours, two days before the show performed. Luckily, that planning was not a new process for Dudley.

“I come from an environment where I used to build my own designs, so I’m very aware of what I’m drawing and how long it’s going to take to build it and what resources it’s going to take to generate,” he said.

Further, with a total budget of only $150, Dudley had to buy $100 of paint and an easel. The rest had to be put toward creating the gaming icons.

That means everything else — four benches, the platforms, and all the props, including three paintings — were recycled. Every piece Dudley needed was pulled from previous sets or scraps left behind by other designers.

The bare nature of these designs, providing the backdrop of the story without spelling everything out for the audience, ultimately fit very well with Dudley’s goal and his interpretation of theatre.

“[The set] reflects some of the gaming elements and some of the real-world elements and does it in ways that still allows the audience to fill in the rest of it with their imagination,” Dudley said. “That’s what makes theater kind of a unique art. We leave a lot of things untold, unsaid and the audience is able to fill that in, so they’re participating in the event along with us.”

[Scene: A catwalk, 20 feet above the stage. Lucas Ingram balances precariously on a pipe railing, positioning a light with precision.]

LIGHTS  —  LUCAS INGRAM

After everything else — the set, the sound, and the costumes — had been implemented, only then did Ingram take to the stage.  With performances today, Ingram was only able to get into the theater to hang and focus his lights Tuesday.

“In lighting, you’re that element that overlays over the top of everything and turns everything into the final product,” he said. “You get to see what all of your other designers have done, see their work, and you’re the element that ties all of it together.”

Ingram set about lighting the game as sharp, vibrant, and clear.

“The real world is this sort of washed-out, boring thing,” he said. “The game is bright and colorful and sometimes more like reality than reality. It’s very definite, whereas the real world is kind of wishy-washy.”

The lights helped accomplish Johnson’s directorial vision, Ingram said, by illustrating the change that Serah undergoes.

“At the beginning, the real world and the game world are these two disjunct ideas — the murkiness versus the cleanness,” he said. “Toward the end of the game, it muddles together as she’s struggling with those two worlds until, finally, it breaks apart, and the real world becomes the more interesting, invigorating, fulfilling experience, which is showing Serah’s empowerment.”

The spells Serah casts while in Swords and Stones are also a large component of her power.

Collaborating with costume designer Esposito, Ingram provided small LED lights to be sewn into Serah’s gloves, glowing with pure white light as she twisted her fingers and flicked her wrists, working her magic.

Ingram also worked closely with Esposito to create the game’s infinity creatures, glowing neon monsters that offer games a more challenging kill and a greater reward. Using a rainbow strobe effect thrown all around the stage, Ingram was able to make the blindingly yellow monsters appear to glimmer. 

PERFORMANCE

The only step left — seeing if all this work had taken the image out of Oliveira’s head, the words off his computer screen, and put it all up on stage.

[Scene: Theater B, Oliveira sits among the murmuring audience, surrounded by Johnson, Esposito, Bergenstock, Ingram, and Dudley. The lights fade and silence falls. Showtime.]


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