Theater Around The Bay: Cowan Palace Goes Portal

Ashley may be 3000 miles away but it’s like she’s right next to you, singing in your ear about her interview with Kirk Shimano and Sang Kim, who prepare to rock San Francisco Theater Pub with Portal: The Musical!

Hello there, my San Francisco friends! Wow, what a few weeks it’s been, huh? Lots going on all over the world but I have to say getting the chance to interview writer Kirk Shimano and director Sang Kim was a real treat. This dynamic duo is currently working on San Francisco Theater Pub’s latest show, Portal: The Musical.

The cast features Alan Coyne, Jamie Lee Currier, Dan Kurtz, Courtney Merrell, and Karen Offereins with musical direction by Liz Baker, voice direction and production design by Renee LeVesque, and Paul Anderson and Spencer Bainbridge rounding out this rockin’ team as the band. The show is set to the music of Jonathan Coulton and this theatrical piece is sure to be unlike any other production you’ve seen this millennium.

Kirk Laughing!

AC: So firstly, what are audiences in store for when they sit down for Portal: The Musical?

KS: I think the experience will be pretty different based on what the audience member is bringing in. Fans of the video game are going to get to see the story they love brought to life in a totally different way. Jonathan Coulton fans will get to hear their favorite songs for the first time again when they’re sung by our characters. And people who don’t know anything about either are going to discover a whole new world that they never knew they were missing.

SK: A lot more feeling and earnestness than you’d expect for a video game based on dimensional rifts and psychotic artificial intelligence. Also – this show passed the Bechdel Test with extra credit! Good Job sticker for us!

AC: So, how did this project come to be?

KS: I played through the original Portal in one sitting and it’s been a favorite ever since. And when I found out the guy who wrote “Still Alive” had a whole repertoire of other work, I got my hands on all the Jonathan Coulton music I could find. But this all really gelled for me when I heard the song “Code Monkey” on the Best. Concert. Ever. album. As soon as I heard that, I immediately knew there was a character behind this song and wanted to bring it to life in a full musical.

SK: Kirk emailed me back in June 2013 after he punched out a first draft during his stay-cation. I replied back and said yes to working on this. I wish it was more dramatic and suspenseful, but there it is. How about we just pretend Kirk threw the script into a Thunderdome death pit and I emerged the victor and claimed the musical as my prize.

Sang Directing!

AC: What’s been the biggest surprise you’ve experienced while rehearsing a musical about a video game?

KS: I’d say it’s just seeing all the passion that people have for this source material. There’s always a great level of support among other members of the theater community, but it’s been wonderful to also see friends who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves “theater people” get really excited about this project because of their connection to the source material.

SK: Agree with Kirk. It’s gotten to the point where rehearsals are going long because there’s too many ideas and too much fun being had. And, oh Lord, the spontaneous singing. Always with the spontaneous singing. People singing and making up lyrics and breaking into song. It’s like witnessing a karaoke playlist for ADHD show choir students on meth.

AC: What’s been your favorite moment so far while working on the show?

KS: I’d have to say it’s those moments in rehearsal where we’ve had everyone sing along together. Our cast and creative team has been wonderful to work with in general, but that’s the moment when I just feel we’re all the most connected.

SK: Yes. This.

I played viola in the orchestra so the power of group singing has never made an impact on me until this show. I finally understand why the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day.

AC: What drink do you think would pair best with the production?

KS: Maybe one of those novelty drinks that comes in a beaker and has some dry ice to make fog spill out over the sides? Because something that is fun and a little creepy with a chance of killing you is basically the character of GLaDOS.

SK: Anything garnished with olives – just one olive so your drink is looking back at you which reminds me of all our little robot friends from the game.

The Creative Portal  Team

AC: What’s been the hardest challenge you and the cast/crew have faced while bringing this story to life (and song!)?

KS: I feel very fortunate in that Sang has been taking on the HUGE task of all the scheduling and coordination of bringing together all of the talent need to bring this together, and I just get to watch. But one challenge that comes to mind was having to cut a couple songs from the script that I really like but that weren’t serving the story (sorry “I Crush Everything”).

SK: Kirk is gracious but having this specific group of talent has been worth all the wrangling. The hardest thing is to pull the show back for a staged musical setting at Theater Pub. I think a lot of past contributors have excelled in presenting fantastic shows in such an unconventional setting. But the scope and creativity of Kirk’s musical, the Portal universe, Coulton’s songs,along with the talent involved have actually been an embarrassment of riches. Having limited time and resources means picking and discarding your darlings.

AC: Tell us more about what you’re up to after this show! Any fun new projects on deck?

KS: Next up for me will be the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which I’m happy to be returning to for the sixth year in a row. I’m looking forward to sharing a night with three other playwrights (Barbara Jwanouskos, Julianne Jigour, and Alan Coyne) as we present three very stylistically different approaches to the gods of sleep and dreams.

SK: After some rest, I’ll be helping co-write Thunderbird Theatre’s next original play. It’ll be a creative collaboration with The Mess sketch comedy, which also has a show up this November.

AC: What Bay Area show (other than this) are you most excited to see this summer?

KS: I’m a big fan of musicals in general, so I can’t wait to see City of Angels at the San Francisco Playhouse and Chess at the Custom Made Theatre Company. I’ve been a big fan of the cast albums of both and neither is a show that you see performed all the time.

SK: I was glad to see The Rules and the Loud and Unladylike Festival, but they both closed this past weekend. After that, probably my usual summer and fall diet of Pint Sized Plays and the Olympians Festival before I hibernate for the winter.

AC: Using only emoticons, how would you describe Portal?

KIRK: — 0 0– >

SANG: 🍰🤔

AC: If your directing/writing style was a song, what would it be?

SK: For this show? “Bizarre Love Triangle.” You’ll see.

KS: Want to be: “Everything is AWESOME!!!” But, actually: “Still Alive.”

See Portal: The Musical only at PIANOFIGHT (144 Taylor Street):, July 18, 19, 25, and 26 @ 8 PM.

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Theater Around The Bay: Video Games and Theater: Separated at Birth

Guest blogger Kirk Shimano explores the connection between video games and theater from all sides of the equation. 

For the last year, I’ve been telling anyone I meet “We’re going to be adapting the video game Portal into a musical!” This led to some delightful conversations about one of my favorite games of all time, as well as some wonderful tangential discussions about the music of Jonathan Coulton (which figures prominently into our show), but I can’t help think that all of these conversations shared the same subtext:

“Making a video game into a musical? That’s weird.”

In all fairness, the track record for video game adaptations isn’t that great.

The thing is, long before promoting our upcoming musical (PROTIP: July 18 – 26. Don’t miss it!), I’d been a huge proponent of musicals in general. It’s been my impression that a lot of people view the musical as a rather limited genre – boy meets girl, couple single sappy love song, potentially while dressed like a cat / opera phantom / lion king – and I think that’s why the combination of video game and musical strikes so many as being so unusual. It’s like, what’s next, video games interpreted as baked goods?

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That was a really bad example for me to pick, because there are literally thousands of photos like this on Pinterest.

This all got me thinking, though. Is it really all that unusual to adapt a video game into a musical?

Adaptation is in the DNA of the Broadway musical. Out of the 71 Tony Award winners for best musical, 58 were adapted from existing source material (give or take a couple, depending on your definition of adaptation). Musicals have looked to non-musical plays, narrative films, documentaries, biographies, novels, graphic novels, newspaper columns, magazine features, TV shows, and other musicals for their inspiration.

The cynical way of looking at this is that musicals are expensive, and before a producer is willing to write a check for an orchestra and a full set of wigs, it helps if there’s some existing momentum behind a property to help build interest.

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By the way, did I mention that our Portal: The Musical is based on the extremely popular video game Portal? Okay, just checking.

One could also observe that taking on the task of creating a musical is basically introducing a whole new dimension in which things can go wrong, so it’s helpful to have the safety net of a story that has already proven itself in another medium.

But I think there’s a brighter, more aspirational reason why so many musicals are adaptations. I love musicals because they are a singular art form in which story, music, dance, and all of the other theatrical arts combine to form more than their already formidable parts. It has the power to create singular, indelible moments. And because the musical form provides such unique insight, I believe it has the power to take an already beloved property and transform it into something new, giving us that rare chance to discover something we love all over again.

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This seems like an appropriate time for me to watch “Ring of Keys” for the sixty-fourth time and sob quietly for a bit.

But, with all this being said, there still isn’t a flood of video game-to-musical adaptations. So is Portal: The Musical an odd duck? I think the answer here is to focus less on the source medium and more on what the source brings to the table. And for that, I think back to my very first time playing Portal.

For those unfamiliar with Portal, it’s a puzzle-oriented video game where the player takes the role of Chell, a mute protagonist endowed with the ability to create space-bending portals. Her adversary in this is a sentient AI named GLaDOS, who begins as a neutral instruction voice and gradually grows into something much more hilariously demented.

I was a huge fan of the way the game encouraged you to bend the rules as much as possible. The puzzles and the story felt fluid and organic. The game clocks in at a streamlined eight hours or so, and while I enjoyed the game’s final confrontation I didn’t feel quite ready to put down the controller yet.

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And that’s when GLaDOS sings the game’s theme song, “Still Alive.”

If you’d like to hear “Still Alive” sung live in its entirety, I know a great place where you can hear it the nights of July 18, 19, 25, and 26. Just sayin’.

Here was a song that perfectly encapsulated the spirit of a character and the tone of an entire piece. The experience just would not have been complete without it, and it’s what cemented Portal on my list of all time favorite games.

When I think about that, Portal doesn’t seem like an odd choice for a musical at all. Hopefully you’ll be able to join us and see if you feel the same.

On September 10, 2015, Shigeru Miyamoto settled a mystery that was 27 years in the making. Miyamoto is the driving force behind some of the most influential video games of all time, Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda among them. But last September he took to Twitter to answer questions about his most famous creation.

“Was Super Mario Bros. 3 all just a performance?” the video interviewer asks?

And Shigeru Miyamoto nods his head: yes.

The evidence for this theory of Mario is explained better in this image than I ever could:

Unfortunately, I was unable to determine the original creator of this image, but thank you Internet sleuth, whoever you are

Unfortunately, I was unable to determine the original creator of this image, but thank you Internet sleuth, whoever you are

So what does this mean? One of the most successful entries in one of the most successful franchises of all time is actually a link between video games and theater – and it’s not alone. Our upcoming production of Portal: The Musical has got me thinking about these connections, and the more you look for them, the more you’ll find.

A personal favorite memory of mine comes from 1994, at the height of the 16-bit Super Nintendo era. Simply put, Final Fantasy VI is your classic swords and sorcery meets steam powered robot adventure, where a band of unlikely allies are tasked with saving the world from destruction. But it’s not all meteors and mechas – halfway through the game, Celes Chere, battle-hardened, genetically-enhanced, disgraced general of the Empire is called upon to perform in an opera.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those that have never seen this image before, and those that have watched all of the orchestral renditions of “The Opera of Maria & Draco” on YouTube

There are two kinds of people in this world: those that have never seen this image before, and those that have watched all of the orchestral renditions of “The Opera of Maria & Draco” on YouTube

Admittedly, the interaction here was fairly primitive – the player chooses a few lines of dialogue and then walks across the stage. But damned if my teenage budding theater-loving self didn’t milk those few steps across the stage for every second they were worth.

The phenomenon of plays within games isn’t something that’s gone away, either. The recently released expansion to The Witcher 3 features a main quest entitled “The Play’s The Thing” where the player is tasked with staging a successful show.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. Video games are based on a foundation of keeping the player engaged with the action of the story; theater provides a similar immediate engagement between performer and audience. If the characters in a video game stopped to make a movie they’d be distancing themselves from the audience they’re interacting with, and it’s no surprise there are few video game novelists who aren’t named Alan Wake.

Even so, it’s hard to argue with the tension of an incredibly dramatically lit typewriter.

Even so, it’s hard to argue with the tension of an incredibly dramatically lit typewriter.

As video games push further into the realms of Virtual Reality, it seems likely that we’ll be seeing even more of these bonds with theater. One of the challenges of VR is designing a space that can be viewed from all angles, where the player’s attention is subtly directed towards a certain point of action without the benefit of a movie camera’s hard edits, and who knows that better than a director who has staged a play in the round?

Other video game endeavors hope to deliver a nonlinear narrative experience where players are able to discover a story at their own pace. Theater has already been dabbling in this area with experiences like Sleep No More.

So what effect does this impending synergy have on our forthcoming Portal: The Musical? I, for one, would love to strap on a VR headset and see a virtual GLaDOS sing and dance her way through our script. But until that’s possible, come check out our show on July 18, 19, 25 and 26 to see the type of intimate performance that will be coming to your video games in the future.