Thoughts about things I've done and news about what I'm going to do.

What my thoughts look like after editing/second-guessing.

An irregularly updated blog (mostly) about theatre.

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    [Oh, you thought I would write one D&D-related blog post and leave it at that? Oh no…]

     

    Beyond the fact I think D&D counts as theatre (and amazing theatre at that), I’ve noticed more and more when playing the different ways in which I think it can make people better at making theatre - the good habits and skills that it encourages to make people better performers, collaborators, editors, and creators in general. So here’s a rundown of why I think, if you make theatre, you should give D&D a go:

     

    Killing babies and letting go

     

    When playing D&D, you regularly think of things you’d like to try and do - things that would be cool, or funny, or hopefully emotionally cathartic. (For instance: stealing an unconscious character’s flying shoes so you can pour boiling oil over your enemies from a height and deal out some medieval-style justice. Some of my characters get a bit brutal.) However, as much as you might get focused on that idea, it’s not guaranteed you’ll get to even try it - the character might wake before you can steal the shoes, the shoes might not fit you, they may not work on you for some reason. You soon adjust to the fact that ideas have to be cast aside almost as soon as they’re thought up, and being okay with letting things go and not clinging to them is a very good thing to learn.

     

    Putting the character first

     

    Why some ideas have to be abandoned is almost as important as getting used to doing so. D&D trains you to put the character first - maybe you’ve thought of a hilarious comeback to someone’s comment, but your character doesn’t have that sense of humour. A D&D game is only as strong as its characters, since the story is generated out of characters’ choices and the group’s dynamics. You’re forced to be as honest as possible about what the character would do - it’s not about you showing off some skill or talent (as can sometimes happen in performances), it’s about what’s truthful to the character. You might want to keep a magic talisman so you can keep casting cool spells in the game, but if the character is in a situation where they’re compelled to break it: it’s got to be broken.

     

    Sharing the space

     

    D&D is about collaboratively telling a story - typically with friends, and the aim is everyone having a good time. It’s not just about one person having a good time. You have to genuinely tell the story with and alongside everyone else, allow space for other people’s ideas and build upon them. You have to be alert to others - if you don’t then the story suffers, as does everyone’s enjoyment of the game. I can think of few other activities that train you to be so aware of how much people are engaging with what’s going on, and the position you’re taking in amongst it all. Part of this is also making sure you’re not trying to control what’s happening, that you’re allowing space for surprises and new things to happen as well - not stifling creativity by dictating everything. Another part of it is trusting those you’re telling the story with.

     

    Everyone an artist

     

    D&D literature is written how I wish theatre literature was. It perfectly fits into the ‘everyone an artist, everyone a scientist’ model of thinking. It’s untimidating, clear, friendly, and written in plain English, taking something that’s a highly creative, sometimes mathematically-minded endeavour, and gives straightforward advice and aids. It constantly emphasises the importance of using and focusing on what entertains and interests you. Despite DMing being a mix of writing, performing, directing and showrunning, the handbooks for D&D make it seem accessible and easy. The attitude is one of: you’re totally able to do this, you simply haven’t done it yet. And if we were able to talk about theatre in this way more, I think that would be a brilliant thing.

     

    Playing the moment, not the end

     

    One of my favourite theatre quotes is from a very old review about an actress playing Joan of Arc, who ‘came on half-burnt’. in other words, from her first entrance, she was playing the ending. It’s one of the things that frustrates me most in performances, where an actors’ knowledge of what’s coming up influences what the character does (however consciously or subconsciously this might happen). D&D takes away that foreknowledge - you’re forced to play precisely what’s happening in the moment. The flamboyance and confidence with which a character might produce an array of glowing stones and balletically spiral them down an underground cavern isn’t tempered or diminished by any awareness that doing exactly this is going to draw hordes of giant spiders to the group - because it was impossible to pre-empt. With random dice rolls dictating so much of what happens, any potential safety net - anything players might do to try and control events, any chance of predicting what’ll come up - disappears. 

     

    Empathy to the extreme

     

    It might sound like an obvious point to make, that D&D is one big exercise in flexing your empathy muscles (something useful for all manner of theatremakers), but it regularly pushes you into scenarios that are far beyond anything you might normally imagine. Someone whose life has been dedicated to helping others and avoiding violence is kidnapped and taken to an underground world inhabited by a ruthless, cruel, sadistic society; someone else is held by another person for the first time in their thirty-three-year-long life. D&D constantly pushes your empathy to strange and unusual places, which is what elevates it beyond other roleplaying or performance contexts.

     

    -

     

    Ultimately, Dungeons & Dragons - with its mixture of improv, dice-dictated randomness, character-led storytelling and collaboration (bolstered by its straightforward, welcoming and supportive guides) makes you better at telling stories - whether you’re an actor, director, writer or something else entirely. What I think is at the core of the many good things about D&D is how playing it encourages you not to think about yourself, your wants, desires or focus in the storytelling process - but instead about the character, and about the other players. When something only exists in a collective imagination in the way that D&D does, you have no other option than to be outward-looking.

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    Early last year, I was curious about Dungeons & Dragons. It’s not taken long for it to get under my skin, and taken me from causal fan, to regular viewer of podcasts and livestreams, to player, to Dungeon Master, to co-producer of a show consisting 250 hour-long tabletop roleplaying game inspired by it. That show, Adventurers Wanted, is listed in the ‘theatre’ section of the Edinburgh Fringe programme, which might raise a few eyebrows and questions. However, my experience of D&D absolutely justifies treating the game as theatre - and amazing theatre at that. Here’s why:

     

    • Come for the story, stay for the characters

     

    I do personally adore epic narratives. I’ve played in games where characters have died battling gods only to be resurrected in mechanical bodies; where entire planes of existence have collapsed in on themselves; where someone breaking a cursed item has resulted in them transforming into a giant and raining down meteors. And all of these have been described with such vividness by the Dungeon Masters at the time that it’s been effortless to imagine it all. 

     

    Yet - whilst the outlandish, exhilarating, bizarre and brilliant storylines that only D&D’s fantasy world can offer are what first caught my eye - it’s the characters and their relationships that keep me coming back. As players get better at roleplaying their distinctive characters, and the relationships between characters become deeper and more defined. People’s backstories are gradually exposed, their complexity revealed, moments of contact between characters catch you unawares, or rifts between them become unexpectedly complicated. It’s always struck me how other entertainment media will often sell a project on the basis of compelling characters - but how often have you seen a theatre marketing campaign focus on that over narrative, spectacle, themes or the team involved?

     

    • Making whatever you can imagine with whatever you can find

     

    Remember the character I mentioned that died battling gods and was then resurrected in a mechanical body? Well, that happens to be a character I play - and, ever since her resurrection, whenever I speak ‘as’ that character whilst playing a game, I speak into a mug to alter my voice (yeah, like how some people do Bane). It was an easy option that I knew would always be to hand during a game. I play it sincerely, and everyone playing in that game with me treats it sincerely, and it’s a clear and vivid trigger that helps us imagine the seven-foot-tall ‘robot’ I’m essentially pretending to be. 

     

    This isn’t the only example of a resourceful attitude to props or costume when the game calls for it. When a player in one of the the games I’m in picks anything up, throws, flips and catches it, everyone around the table knows that his character’s just showing off with a sword. Blanket throws wrapped around people have become blood-soaked altar coverings that allow characters to impersonate evils gods. My soft spot for medieval theatre practice is nicely indulged by D&D.

     

    • No one person knows what will happen, because everyone tells the story together

     

    Yes, dice rolls and their inherent randomness are a big mechanic of D&D, and you could say that they alone make for the utterly unpredictable and regularly surprising events that pepper the stories told in D&D games. But there’s another and more brilliant reason for this: whilst the Dungeon Master might write the game, creating a world for a story to happen in (often worlds of stunning detail and depth), they have to respond to what the players do.

     

    To me, D&D consists of friends gathering in each others’ houses, telling each other stories and making each other laugh. Everything about D&D is social - you can’t play it on your own, and everyone has to work together in some way to bring it to life. Because of the flexibility of the game, different players end up bringing different things to the story and the game can play up to what individuals offer. Everyone makes the story together and everyone’s contribution to it (provided they at least follow the rules!) is valid; everyone gets a say in the story that’s told. 

     

    • Everything that happens is exactly what’s necessary to tell the story

     

    D&D games can be so much more than people simply sat around a table, rolling dice and describing what imagined characters do. The moment that maps and minis can’t quite capture exactly how a group of characters have fallen over the lip of a volcano and are holding onto each other to survive, an alternative has to be found (in this case, three of us lying on the floor, grabbing onto each other until our characters get out of it somehow). When ‘I try to convince this enemy to become our ally’ doesn’t really capture enough detail, players can give the most astonishing improvised speeches that leave everyone present stunned. Yet, at times, all that you need is a certain look - a raised eyebrow, a feigned smile, a hint of hesitation - from across the table, to know what’s happening with one character in a story.

     

    People instinctively act out what feels right to act out, creating a mix of described, imagined and performed action that feels entirely natural, giving everyone enough to understand and engage with what’s happening but making sure everyone’s imagination gets a workout. If theatre’s a collective act of suspending disbelief, I can’t think of a better example than this. 

     

    • Chasing what feels good

     

    And do you know what’s the best thing about Dungeons & Dragons? Every time I’ve played it, everyone present has known that what they’re doing could be seen as silly, childish, nerdy, something that grown adults aren’t really meant to do. But we don’t give a damn and throw ourselves into it regardless, because it’s genuinely a joyful way to spend time with friends, and results in stories that are exhilarating to tell and to be told. And it would be amazing if more theatre felt like that.


    If this sounds like your kind of theatre, click here for tickets to see Adventurers Wanted and click here for tickets to play in the game itself!

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    This is not a blog post about The Print Room’s production of In The Depths of Dead Love. It’s a blog post about a specific argument that I’ve seen/heard countless times in discussions about integrated/diverse casting (that I have only ever heard used in defence of non-diverse productions, or in opposition to casting quotas or more generally the arguments of those advocating for diversity) that needs to be dropped. 

     

    I am genuinely sick of the notion that we should just ‘cast the best actor for a role’. Let me explain why. 

     

    I understand what this argument is meant to encapsulate: merit has no ethnicity. Merit has no sexuality. Merit has no gender. Merit is blind to whether someone is from a minority or underrepresented group or not. It makes perfect sense to cast on merit alone (and surely give audience members a better experience in the process, getting to watch the best performances possible) - who on earth would oppose a meritocracy?

     

    It’s not a meritocratic stance. It’s bias masquerading as meritocracy.

     

    [I’m likely to get a little ex-analytical/linguistic-philosophy-student during the following. Apologies.]

     

    Let’s break the notion of ‘casting the best actor for a role’ down. Either ‘best’ means simply ‘most skilled’ (a fuzzy notion at best, but for the sake of argument we’ll pretend it’s quantifiable - you can at least tell the different between very good acting and very poor acting) or it means ‘most suited to the role’, which at least contains some echoes of the meritocracy angle, since the actor has to be capable of fulfilling the demands that the role makes on them. 

     

    So, ‘best’ as ‘most skilled’: you’ll never see *all actors in existence* for a role. So, by necessity, directors* are limited to casting the ‘most skilled actor seen in audition’. This is where the argument I’ve previously heard against the notion of ‘casting the best actor for a role’ comes in: the audition process itself can be hugely biased. How diverse was the group seen for a role or production? What efforts were made to make sure it was clear to actors and agents that submissions from a wide range of performers were sought? (I’ve spoken to actors in the past who now take a lack of ethnicity listed on a casting breakdown to mean ‘white’. Immediately after hearing this, I added a sentence to the top of all my casting callouts specifying that a lack of given ethnicity/gender/disability/etc meant everyone was welcome to apply for audition, and noticed an impact instantly.) What - if any - steps were taken to genuinely find a diverse group of actors, from which the ‘best’ could be identified? Because if steps were not taken, and if those auditioned are already an imbalanced or entirely homogenous group - then the idea that the system being used is a meritocratic one falls apart. 

     

    [There’s also the fact that actors improve with practice - new roles, new challenges, working with new people, all informs and develops an actor’s craft. There is more depth to this angle of argument, as I’ve heard from others who I believe can articulate it better than myself. Plus, I want to make a different, additional, argument…]

     

    So, best as ‘most suited to the role’: ‘the role’ is not a fixed, unchangable, objective thing. It’s a combination of information given in the script, and what a director does with that script. (Yes, there are performances other than scripted ones, sake of ease…) A script may offer details about a character’s gender, age, ethnicity - but, of course, just because a character has a trait or identity does not mean the actor playing that character must have it in order to be ‘most suited’ to the role. Cases where unavoidable restrictions on performers who are allowed to play a given role are, to my mind, rare (I’m thinking the Becketts and the Harwoods).

     

    Benedict Andrews’ Stella Dubois is not the same role as Sean Holmes’ or Ellen McDougall’s or Sarah Frankcom’s or…Those Stellas all occupy different theatrical worlds, different performance styles, different contexts. If you took one of those actresses and transplanted her and her performance into another production of Streetcar then it would suddenly feel out of place, inappropriate, misjudged, entirely possibly miscast. 

     

    This might only seem applicable to a certain type of production - something stylised, director-led, a production where a director’s determined to ‘put their mark’ on it. However you choose to describe it. But deciding to stage Streetcar’s card games *as card games*, rather than, say, the aggressive consumption of watermelons, is no less a choice. It is still a choice that a director has made about the kind of production, the style of performance, the exact theatrical world for this play - all of which affect any given ‘role’ in the play, as they have to cohere with those elements. Choosing to cast Stella in one way is no less a choice than choosing to cast her in any other way.

     

    So, ‘best suited to the role’, becomes ‘best suited to the role in this production’. The actor who best fulfils the production’s requirements in terms of matching/reflecting its artistic aims, the skill required to tackle the individual part, and the director’s creative ideals. For a cast devoid of diversity to all individually be the ‘best actors for the roles’, it’s necessary that the director has decided that such a cast best serves what they want to say, what they want to achieve with the production, and what kind of experience they want to give audiences. I doubt whether a director who cares about this industry, who cares about fair and equal representation of a population, who cares about questioning their assumptions, who cares about challenging bias, would make that decision. 

     

    So: if ‘we should just cast the best actors for the role’ is used as a retort to those who criticise productions for a lack of diversity, what it implies is a cast with minimal/zero diversity is the best to fulfil all aims of said production, aims which are intrinsically tied to an artistic vision, an artistic vision which must consequently be accepting of a lack of diversity.

     

    The above doesn’t mean I’m opposed to every single production with a cast devoid of diversity, before clever counter-examples are offered (hell, the most recent thing I staged myself was a one-on-one piece that I performed, making the entire cast white, middle-class, cisgender, etc) - every argument that’s ever made has to be tempered by some sound judgement on individual cases. Also, I don’t believe or think that any of what I’ve said above means a lowering of standards regarding the quality of performances/skilfulness of actors. There is no dearth of incredible talent out there, possessed by a diverse group of people - it simply needs to be recognised (where the arguments re auditions come back in).

     

    ‘Casting the best actors for the role’ is used to try and claim meritocracy. All it does is hide assumptions about what kind of theatre truly is best.

     

    -

     

    *At times in this post, for the sake of brevity, I’ll say ‘directors’ where it could equally be ‘casting director’ or some other member of the creative/production team making the decision. Also, you know, I’m a director, so this is the angle I come at things from.

     

    **Some might say a director need only be concerned with the story a play tells, rather than the story a production tells - a) I disagree and b) one of the reasons I disagree is because I don’t think the two are separable.

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    I’m currently looking for experienced Dungeon Masters for a Dungeons & Dragons to collaborate with on bringing a month-long game to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next year.* I’m an avid D&D fan who started playing earlier this year; somehow, such a brilliant example of epic storytelling, improvisation and imagination hasn’t really featured at the world’s largest arts festival before, and next year I want to change that.
     
    It’s a big project. There are some certainties: those involved will be paid NMW for their work (factoring some time in for necessary prep too) as well as cover for travel and accommodation. I’ll also be doing everything possible to make the game accessible to as wide a range of players and audience members as possible, from a wheelchair-accessible venue, to BSL-signed sessions, to dice rolls called by Siri for visually impaired players - anything that’s needed. I want anyone to be able to feel like they could come and play or watch.
     
    Some details are still to be decided, because it only makes sense to work these out with the DMs involved, but the current general plan is: 10 hours of playing each day for 25 days, which is a *lot* of hours and so will likely involve two or three DMs on rotation (but there are different ways in which this could work) and a possible mix of regular and guest players, as I want to open out the opportunity to play as much as possible.
     
    For years I’ve gone to the Edinburgh Fringe as a punter. I now want to take something as my own experience of D&D is gathering with friends to tell stories, make each other laugh, and get lost in other worlds and personas; I’d love the chance to take over a space in Edinburgh where, for the entirety of the month, that’s what people are invited to do. 
     
    In a nutshell, I’m looking for DMs who:
    • Are available throughout August 2017
    • Are comfortable and confident playing public games, with players who may not know each other, and may have different experience levels
    • Are open to collaborating with other DMs on a campaign
    • And are, of course, excited by this idea
    If you’re interested in being involved or have any questions about the above, then email me at info@chloemashiter.co.uk and I’ll get back to you as quickly as I can.

    *A little further down the line, I will also be looking for people to be involved in a non-DM capacity, for any non-DMs who happen to be reading this.
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'I would love to go out with you. As you know, I've been inexplicably attracted to you for some time.'

Audience response, as part of my installation Faithful