When Pokémon Go became splashed across the screens of America and eager video game players of all ages roamed the streets rather than took to the couch, it caused quite a stir. While that’s died down a fair bit, others have interpreted the combination of reality and video games differently.
In The Dudleys! A Family Game, a new play with music from Loading Dock Theater and Leegrid Stevens, real live actors are immersed in the world of an 8-bit video game. With the aid of five projectors displaying vibrant pixellated animation and an entirely original chiptune score composed on old devices like the Commodore 64 and Atari, video game nostalgia becomes thrillingly life-size.
The darkly comedic plot of The Dudleys!, which opens tomorrow night at Tribeca’s HERE Arts Center, revolves around a family, as many shows do. As the brothers of the family play old video games from their childhood, memories start to surface and mingle with the video game world until the two have fully mixed. For example, in one scene the family visits a cancer clinic due to their father’s illness and the patients around them start to turn into zombies that desire hugs and attention instead of brains, evolving into a chase scene complete with IRL side-scrolling animation. “Metaphorically, it’s the brothers not being able to confront death, and death within the family,” Stevens explains. “It’s finding those kind of parallels within the games.”
One of these parallels is the sly equation of a Mormon “mission” to spread the good word with the “mission” component of a game. Stevens grew up in a Mormon family, and this is fairly present in the show’s story.
“I really like the dichotomy of the mentality you have with those games—where you know what the objective is, you know you can win, you know where you’re supposed to go—with what’s happening in your life at the time, which is not always the case.” As a reflection of this uncertainty, the games in The Dudleys often glitch or malfunction, used in the play as a signifier for “psychological pressures.”
Though he did grow up playing 8-bit games, Stevens was inspired to combine these nostalgic games with his plays when he attended an event where he heard music created on manipulated Game Boys and saw a game of Mario altered to display an existential crisis narrative. “It really got me excited about taking some of the objects of entertainment when I was a kid and turning them into objects of expression now,” he said. “They’re tools, you can make them say what you want.”
The background to this grand visual display is Stevens’s authentic chiptune score. Impressively, his only background in composition was some “dabbling,” but from the small portion I heard, you wouldn’t be able to tell. His purchase of a Commodore was his first commitment to going out and buying an instrument to create on. Since composing for The Dudleys, he has begun working on other plays that feature “much more in-depth music,” as these devices do have their limitations musically. “But it was the Game Boy that really got me into it,” he said. “Seeing guys use those old Game Boys, it was incredible how much sound you got out of it.”
Limitations or not, chiptune music itself is undeniably specific, and an integral part of the world of the play. There are several moments in the show where song or dance appear, but rather than falling into predictable “musical theater” tropes, the tone of the music allows for a refreshing sound that won’t be off-putting to those who feel a “musical” show may not be their cup of tea.
Many people will have a reaction to the score rooted in familiarity and nostalgia. Actor Erin Treadway, who is married to Stevens and performs in nearly all of his plays including this one, did not grow up playing video games but still notes a deep response. “I’ve listened to a lot of it, there’s just something sad about it,” she tells me. “No matter what it is, no matter what how cheery the tune is, there’s some sort of melancholy thing those sounds can’t get away from.”
“It feels like best efforts,” adds Stevens. “It’s not like THX sound quality, it’s like somebody tryin’ hard and [being] cheery about it.”
Plays that Stevens, Treadway, and Titus have produced with Loading Dock have ranged from a sound-heavy show about a trip to Mars to an intimate adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie performed in Stevens and Treadway’s loft apartment in downtown Brooklyn, where they also rehearse their plays. The full title of the latter is Ms. Julie, Asian Equities, a nod to both Stevens and Treadway’s day job in finance, of all places, indicative of how difficult it can be to make decent money doing specifically live theater.
This is the most media-heavy show Loading Dock has done, featuring five projectors mapped onto the back wall, scenic objects, and moving panels carried by actors. For comparison, their previous showing of The Dudleys had only four hours of tech rehearsal and one projector. Reid Farrington designed the video, who has created media for the Wooster Group and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and John Erickson acts as video programmer, dubbed “a genius” by Stevens and Treadway for his skill with projection mapping software Isadora.
To properly rehearse the show, they ensured that as much of the video and sound was built in advance as possible, so when they began rehearsing in the theater the actors were accustomed to the heavily virtual environment. “The thing we’re trying to do, and we would love to be able to go further if we’re able to secure more money, is to find ways to meld video with reality,” said Stevens. “One of the things we do is we have this [real] table, and we project plates and cups on it but we have real silverware and pepper shakers. We’re trying to meld reality with 8-bit.”
Loading Dock Theater’s The Dudleys! A Family Game, written by Leegrid Stevens and directed by Stevens and Jacob Titus, runs October 8 through 29 at HERE Arts Center. Tickets are $18.