How Video Game Theatre Sparks New Life into the Classics

 (Screen grab of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by EK Theater. Digital puppeteers sit in front of the screen, performing the story. )

The classics may seem like an endangered species in K-12 curriculums as they become increasingly incompatible with a wired generation accustomed to novelty, online interaction and instant gratification. Teens who now spend up to nine hours a day consuming digital media prize all things “epic,” except an epic itself.

Who has time for Homer and Virgil’s dusty old words when the siren song of notifications beckon? A modern tragedy? Drama teacher and theater director Eddie Kim proves that it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Kim and his students at the Pierrepont School in Connecticut marry the classical past and the digital now with mesmerizing performances that combine traditional literature, experimental theater and video games. Welcome to the world of Grand Theft Ovid.

Kim knew he was onto something when a noisy and restless high school audience was reduced to rapt silence by his company’s performance of the myth of Niobe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The tragic tale of a mother whose children are murdered by vengeful gods is certainly Netflix-worthy material, but what really struck a chord with the students was that it was staged on Halo: Reach, part of the blockbuster sci-fi video game franchise.

Students narrate dialogue from classic works to scenes of video games as avatars move through the action. The director decides which game scene will project on the main screen.

Although the action takes place on a large screen, the flesh and blood performers and technical crew are also part of the show. Digital puppeteers, voice actors and technicians sit below the screen in a highly visible row of glowing computer terminals and game consoles, speaking lines, moving characters and managing the sounds and transitions. Kim’s decision to keep the performers and their computers exposed to the audience is a deliberate nod to traditional Japanese Bunraku puppetry and the writings of Bertolt Brecht.

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Experiencing a classical myth expressed as a video game resonated with the youthful audience, underscoring the value of articulating the past in a relevant and contemporary format, according to Kim. “[Students] did not seem interested in us, in what we were doing, or in Ovid," he said. As the story unfolded, the audience became more interested. "The mood changed dramatically.”

Kim and his students formed the EK Theater company, whose tagline compactly sums their vision: retelling classical stories through video games. Although based out of a school, EK Theater operates like a professional company. Kim and his students build the productions from the ground up, tour and perform in venues like the Brick Theater in Brooklyn and Harvard’s American Repertory Theater (ART). The company’s eclectic repertoire includes Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, an ancient Arabic fairytale and stories from Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, which depicts the mythical founding of Rome. Middle and high school students in the company must meet the technical, artistic and logistical demands of a seasoned theater crowd. “My experiences taught me that you actually can take an idea, make it real and see people respond to it, ” said Connor Sedlacek, an alumnus of Kim’s troupe and the Pierrepont School, who now studies Classics at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Studies and produces his own video game theater productions. He said the production helps underscore the importance of including hands-on, experiential learning opportunities in schools.

The shows are praised for their fidelity to the classical source texts, which is in part a credit to the students who translated many of the works from the original Latin. “For Grand Theft Ovid 2, some Pierrepont students and I worked as a committee to produce our own Latin-to-English translation of the relevant parts of The Metamorphoses,” remembers Sedlacek. “Translating by committee is actually a very effective method, but things did get very heated about certain word-choices. Making a translation intended for an audience is very different from making one for your Latin class: you become a lot more invested in your choices, because you really want it to interest people.”

“Where adults might see our work as being innovative and technical, kids see it quite differently,” Kim said. “They see it as being an accessible art form. They have their own stories to tell, and they can see themselves doing what we do.”

Part theater, part machinima, part puppet show, Kim first conceived the hybrid art form in 2007 for The Tiny Theater Festival, where participants were restricted to perform 10-minute segments in 6-foot cubes. “It was while trying to figure out how I could present a piece in such a small space that the idea of using video games first occurred to me,” says Kim. “By projecting the MMORPG [massive multiplayer online role-playing game], World of Warcraft, to a screen mounted at the back of the cube, I could present an entire world for the audience.” He enlisted two students to help him and successfully produced W.B. Yeats’ Cathleen ni Houlihan on the ultra-popular online game. And in that 6-foot cube, a new art form was born.

Harvard University comparative literature professor David Damrosch believes that new media, like video games, are the “new material conditions” by which stories are being told, and warrant the same degree of serious critical consideration as their print-based predecessors. “The study of classic literary texts is [not] fated to whither away,” writes Damrosch in Geopoetics: World Literature and the Global Mediascape. “Literary studies can thrive in the newly expansive media environment, bringing new audiences to our favorite authors.” Rather than resist or compete with new media, Kim’s approach reconciles past and present. It’s worth remembering that many of the stories from antiquity were originally transmitted orally, and were only later committed to the new technology of writing. Similarly, these enduring narratives can now be communicated through video games, a central (perhaps the central) source of storytelling in contemporary culture.

Despite his devotion to the classics, Sedlacek emphasizes the importance in letting them find new forms. “I don’t think it helps to act as if the classics occupy a sacred space isolated from the rest of culture. It’s better to allow these texts to be played with, to put them into conversation with the other media that make up our world.” He describes video game puppetry as a “postmodern mashup of old and new, high and low. Video games lend flair and fun, the stories lend wisdom and gravity. Together, they give the audience a chance to appreciate both for the unique feelings and thoughts they can evoke in us.”

But what is lost? Is acting by means of an avatar really acting? Does a repurposed video game lend the same gravity as a traditional stage performance? Sedlacek sees it as a series of trade-offs. “When we do theater in the game, we are acting in the same way that flesh-and-blood thespians do. We gesture, we pause dramatically, we try to elicit a response using our digital bodies. Each game offers its own possibilities for representation, possibilities that are very different from that which reality offers us.”

In the epilogue of his bestselling The Game Believes in You, USA Today reporter Greg Toppo also attests to the power of this type of hybrid performance. He praises The Surface: The World Above, a Mozart inspired opera produced entirely on Minecraft, the popular world building video game. Toppo was moved by the piece and described this fusion of high art and video games as “the most promising application of games and learning that I’ve seen.”

Kim’s work is a model of how educators can creatively blend the traditional and progressive, past and future, digital and analog to produce a meaningful and persistent learning experience. Most importantly, this type of synthesis empowers students to articulate their condition by leveraging their passions and interests. As Toppo notes, it is critical for teachers to understand the real world their students live in, and bring that world to the classroom. “This is cutting-edge technology applied to something totally new and strange and beautiful,” writes Toppo. “It offers kids a chance to create something no one has ever seen, something keyed to their passions but with an eye towards broadening them. They start with one foot in a familiar world and end up somewhere new and different.”

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