How writer-director Aya Ogawa brings video game technology to the theatre
At first glance, theatre and video games appear to represent polar opposite forms of entertainment. One is an irreproducible live event shared by many; the other a simulation of an experience directed entirely by its participants.
Aya Ogawa's new play sets out not only to demonstrate the overlaps between stagecraft and gaming technology, but also to combine them in innovative ways. In a Play Company production now at Walkerspace, Ludic Proxy infuses video games into three temporally distinct acts. The first looks back at Pripyat, Ukraine during the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster; the second unfolds in present-day Fukushima in the wake of the 2011 earthquake; and the third imagines a post-apocalyptic future.
"I'm not necessarily a technology person," says Ogawa. "Most of the time I feel very anxious about technology in the theatre because I tend to make projectors explode." The writer-director was nonetheless intrigued by a video game her husband played a few years ago called Uncharted, "one of those Indiana Jones types -- swashbuckling, fighting evil Nazis, lots of explosions and guns and monsters." At one point in this hyper-violent game, she remembers, there was a Himalayan village where the player could just wander, chatting with local farmers or idly playing soccer. Ogawa, who at the time was developing a play with Adhikaar, a Nepalese community organization in Queens, was struck by how specifically the game's designers had rendered the village. "I was like, 'Why is this very peaceful scene in the middle of this violent game? What if this were actually based on a real place? What if one of the Nepalese women recognized this village as their home?'"
A friend pointed her to another game set in Pripyat, a kind of post-nuclear zombie thriller with a similar attention to geographic detail. Then the Fukushima earthquake and subsequent nuclear radiation scare occurred, and Ogawa found herself following news reports with fevered obsession. In terms of playwriting, she says, "everything started to fall into place."
Although initially drawn to the outrage of public tragedies being turned into consumable entertainment –"How long before a game about Fukushima?" she wonders – Ogawa shifted her focus away from a superficial criticism of the gaming industry and toward the idea that today's high-tech entertainment is a means of coping with "real fears we have about living in this modern world."
Those fears are apparent in all three stories. In act one, a woman who lived in Pripyat until the Chernobyl disaster delves into the trauma of her past. She is startlingly faced with a virtual facsimile of her abandoned childhood home when her teenaged nephew begins to play a shooter game in the highly specific post-nuclear wreckage. Ogawa's actors maneuver tiny cameras through a miniature replica of the woman's house, projecting the live feed onto the theatre's walls in a convincing likeness of a video game. "The decision to go super low-tech and use medical cameras inside of the model of the apartment felt like absolutely the right direction to go," she says.
Since act two is set in the present, it necessitated a different aspect of gaming. As Ogawa points out, "the present is the only moment we actually have the ability to take action." The audience therefore decides which path the characters take by holding up numbered signs, choosing from a list of options projected on the walls.
The choose-your-own adventure format took on multiple iterations as Ogawa developed the idea, first trying the zombie genre and forcing audiences to decide between such horrors as whether to kill a zombified baby. "We had a couple workshop presentations with it and audiences were pissed," she remembers. "They didn't trust me anymore as a storyteller."
After transitioning to a more realistic story between two sisters, Ogawa experimented with how the audience votes. "Placing that in the round has really interesting implications," she says, as everyone holding up signs can see each other's choices. In the lobby after each show, a diagram maps out which path of options they and past audiences have voted on. (When asked toward the end of the scene whether one character should abandon her sister and save herself, 100 percent of audiences thus far have opted for her to stay.)
As for act three, Ogawa struggled with how to represent a futuristic dystopia onstage. "I was really worried about the third act because the sci-fi genre is so present. It was impossible to talk about without talking about movies." Rather than try to imitate blockbusters with a small theatre budget, she chose to use surgical gloves lighting up at the fingertips and minimalist white costumes to suggest a high-tech culture. "If they want to see Minority Report, they can go see Minority Report," she adds.
The final act's gaming technology takes on a more ethereal quality to reflect how we think about the distant future. "The only way we can engage with the future is through hopes and dreams," Ogawa says. "So a jarring dream logic infuses the third act, culminating with a dream sequence that takes the audience into a collapse of time and story." As all three narratives intertwine, she explains, the audience catches a glimpse of "what it means to be living now, and what we might imagine for the future." Watching this fusion of story and media, we also catch a fascinating glimpse of the possibilities of high-tech theatre itself.
Top photo: Ayesha Jordan and Christopher Henry in a scene from Ludic Proxy. Photo by Carol Rosegg.