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.

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Macbeth is a Middle-Aged White Guy

Marissa Skudlarek is not afraid to say “Macbeth” as many times as she’s worried she might have to see it.

“Do we really need another Macbeth right now?” Jason Zinoman wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times. “A new revival, this one starring Ethan Hawke, opened on Nov. 21, four months after the previous Broadway production, starring Alan Cumming, closed. If you fail to see Mr. Hawke reveal what life, which as we know is full of sound and fury, signifies, not to worry: Kenneth Branagh will fill you in next spring, when he brings his production of Macbeth to New York.”

And that’s not counting Patrick Stewart’s Broadway Macbeth from 2008, or Kelsey Grammer’s from 2000, or the Macbeth film that’s currently in production starring Michael Fassbender. Or the ultra-hip, Macbeth-riffing theater piece Sleep No More. Closer to home, there were two Macbeth productions in the Presidio in September of this year (SF Shakespeare Festival and We Players). While actual statistics are hard to come by, it wouldn’t surprise me if Macbeth were Shakespeare’s most frequently-produced tragedy in the 21st century. And I’m pretty sure that it’s the Shakespeare play I’ve seen most frequently (even though it’s not actually one of my favorites).

So what accounts for the play’s massive popularity? Some people will point out that it’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and therefore suited to a short-attention-span modern audience. Others will argue that any play that features witches, apparitions, madness, and a big swordfight in the last scene is bound to be popular. (But Hamlet has all of those things except witches, and it isn’t produced nearly so often.) Others will propose that Macbeth’s “timeless themes” – ambition, corruption, guilt – explain its continued renown. But are its themes really more timeless, more worth hearing, than those of Shakespeare’s other great plays?

Instead, I want to propose a clean, practical explanation. Zinoman writes that “simple old-fashioned star power” lies behind many recent Shakespeare revivals: “The great Shakespeare roles still have the most cultural cachet for actors, who get taken more seriously and, in many cases, are energized by performing the parts they read or tackled in school.”

And what are the “great Shakespeare roles”? Conventional wisdom has it that Shakespeare’s tragedies are “greater” than his comedies and that, of his dozen or so tragedies, four stand out above the rest: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. So let’s examine the heroes of those four tragedies, and what characteristics an actor must have to portray them.

Hamlet’s age is a matter of some debate, but he’s clearly a young man, a student at the University of Wittenberg. He must appear young enough, untried enough, for it not to seem weird that the Danes have allowed Claudius to take the throne, rather than crowning Hamlet. People often talk about the difficulty of finding the right actor for the role: by the time you have the technique to tackle such a massive part, you look too old to do it. While it is rare for a man who’s literally college-aged to play Hamlet these days, it’s still a young man’s game. My sense is that once you get to be about 35, you’re too old to play Hamlet.

Meanwhile, King Lear is an old man: a white-haired king, giving up his throne and going senile. The text specifies that Lear is over eighty (“four score and upward”) but again, it can be difficult to imagine a real eighty-year-old with the stamina to tackle this massive role, not to mention the strength to carry Cordelia’s corpse onstage in the last scene. A too-youthful Lear, though, is equally ridiculous. Let’s say that, generally speaking, the role should be played by a man who’s at least 65.

Then we come to Othello. He’s middle-aged: a powerful general who has seen much adventure and is considerably older than his young bride Desdemona, but is still in the vigorous prime of life. And – oh, yeah – he’s black. Thankfully, our theater no longer finds it acceptable for actors of other races to put on blackface to play Othello; but what this means is that only a subset of actors can put this role on their wish list.

So what do you do if you want to play a great Shakespearean tragic hero, but you’re not old, not young, and not black? You play Macbeth. And who has the most power in the Anglo-American theater? What stars tend to be the biggest box-office draws? Middle-aged white men.

Michael Fassbender is 36; Ethan Hawke is 43; Alan Cumming is 48; Kenneth Branagh is 53. Of the four “great” Shakespearean heroes, Macbeth is the only one they can play, the only one that’s open to them at this stage in their lives. The window for playing Hamlet or Lear is narrow; Macbeth could be any age from 35 to 65. Certainly, there are other excellent Shakespearean roles for men in this age range – Richard III, say, or Brutus – but those plays don’t quite have the cultural cachet, or box-office appeal, of the Hamlet-Lear-Othello-Macbeth quartet.

And why are those considered Shakespeare’s four greatest plays, anyway? Why do we privilege tragedy over comedy? Could it be (at least in part) because tragedy is a more “masculine” genre, but Shakespeare’s greatest comedies tend to be female-dominated? Rosalind and Beatrice and Viola are amazing roles – yet we somehow consider it a far more daunting, courageous task for a young actor to play Hamlet than for a young actress to play Rosalind. People ooh and aah over Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Olivia in the all-male Twelfth Night that’s currently on Broadway; people never gush about female Olivias in the same way.

Our theater continues to privilege middle-aged white men over women and minorities; tragedy over comedy; Shakespeare over all other dramatists; familiarity over risk. That is the reason that Macbeth continues to haunt our stages. That is the play’s real curse.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s still a little irritated that she didn’t get cast as Witch #2 in her high-school production of Macbeth. For more about Marissa, check out marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.