Striking Sparks

What happens when strangers team up to create a play and a video game in 10 weeks

Sarah Saltwick, Alyssa Borg, and Johanna Herre as the three Sleets in <i>Sublimation</i>
Sarah Saltwick, Alyssa Borg, and Johanna Herre as the three Sleets in Sublimation

To the average person, "hybrid" refers to a vehicle that runs on gas and electricity. To an ArtSpark participant, "hybrid" means double down.

Team Chimera is one of seven teams competing in HBMG Foundation's ArtSpark Festival this year and only the second hybrid team in the competition's four-year history. Whereas most teams are responsible for creating either a theatre piece or a video game, Team Chimera's "hybrid" status means its members are responsible for creating both. Why did this group of artists decide to take the most ambitious route? HBMG Foundation founder Manuel Zarate may be partly to blame, er, thank. Most people apply to ArtSpark as part of a fully formed theatre or video-game team; however, individual artists who want to participate but do not have a team can apply to the Talent Pool. When Zarate addressed this year's participants, he "talked for a while about the festival and, in particular, about some of the interesting things that had come out of having a hybrid team in the past," says Walter Badgett, the video-game project leader for Team Chimera. "We liked what we heard and took the plunge." Chimera's playwright, Sarah Saltwick, says: "The foundation was very excited about the possibility of having a hybrid team. I was a little nervous. It seemed hard enough to create theatre with strangers. But on the other hand, why not try something new and truly challenging?"

Chimera and its fellow competitors – four theatre teams and two video-game teams – were set up in an office complex in North Austin, each team with its own office, computer, software, copier/printer, and budget for creating a new theatre piece or video game (or both) from scratch in 10 weeks. "It's a festival for crazy people," says Bethany Perkins, Team Chimera's theatre director. "I've never seen anyone throw strangers into a room together and then give them money."

Ah, but there's a method to ArtSpark's madness. Zarate believes that artists must learn to make a profit with their endeavors to lead a more sustainable creative life. The festival is a means of "empowering creative thinkers to understand business concepts." Those are the words of Aaron Sanders, a participant in the first ArtSpark Festival in 2005 and currently the marketing director for HBMG Foundation. He explains that each team must develop not only a creative work but also a strategy for marketing it. ArtSpark assists the teams by holding workshops on topics like intellectual-property rights, royalty agreements, fundraising, and marketing. At the end of the festival, HBMG Foundation distributes $15,000 in prize money to the teams that have demonstrated the strongest creative and marketing work. "The biggest message we want to convey is that artists are entrepreneurs," says Sanders, "and with the right knowledge, they can continue to pursue their passion and make a profit at the same time."

Meanwhile, back in Team Chimera headquarters, sparks begin to fly – as in the "sparks" of artwork and music that will serve as a catalyst for the team's creative process. Each team is paired with a musician and a visual artist who provide an original piece from which the team draws ideas for its new theatre and/or video-game work. In Team Chimera's case, the visual artist is Keith Ellis, a professor of graphic design who traveled all the way from Michigan to take part in the festival, and the musician is Lauren Morris, a Celtic and world-music artist who has recently relocated to Austin from California. The artwork they provided for Chimera "had a very mystical quality," says Perkins. "We all instantly thought of relics, ancient civilizations, and things lost at the bottom of the ocean." These "sparks" inspired the birth of Sleet, the main character for Team Chimera's project, Sublimation.

Sleet is a creature made of water, and her underwater world is dying. The show's tagline reads, "Sublimation explores the choices we make and how those choices make us." Choice is central to the story of Sleet, and it is also central to the effect theatre and video-gaming have had on one another in Team Chimera's process. Perkins says: "The structure of the play is heavily influenced by video-game structure. There are three women playing Sleet, and each time they get to a fork in the road, we see them make a choice, and their stories split from there." Aaron Eastburn, a programmer/designer for the team, said, "After numerous discussions, we decided to go with a game that would act as a prequel to the play and support it in that manner."

Video games and theatre are not commonly paired together. When asked how ArtSpark came to be a platform for such disparate disciplines, Sanders explains: "The hope was to create an environment where a traditional art form could be influenced by technology and vice versa. Theatre can influence the plotlines and presentation of video games, and video games can help move theatre into the future." As the two forms come from different financial and technological ends of the artistic spectrum, one might well wonder what the video-game world and the theatre world think of each other. For the video-game side, Badgett says: "I enjoy the stories and characters in theatre or any media involving storytelling. I also like the feedback and audience rapport that is generated from a live performance." Eastburn adds, "Theatre has pretty much set the standard for our media for so long that the chance to work with it and get a better understanding is a big draw." On the theatre side, playwright Saltwick is curious: "The level of detail and invention intrigues and impresses me." Meanwhile, theatre director Perkins is more fascinated with the gamers than the games. "My boyfriend can spend an entire day playing NHL 07 on his PlayStation. Video-game players are a total mystery to me."

As the five different disciplines collide in Team Chimera, one thing becomes clear: Everyone enjoys this level of demand and collaboration. "Overwhelming," "crazy," and "scary" are words used to describe the process. But artists thrive under pressure, as team visual artist Ellis explains, "It is noteworthy that the process between all the mediums is very different, and most of the challenge has been working with people who work in a different mindset than you." Musician Morris is exhilarated: "This feels like one of those times in my life I'll never forget. The creativity of the people around me is tremendous. We are all burning it at both ends." In describing her favorite thing about working with HBMG Foundation and ArtSpark, Saltwick says: "The forced creativity. The confidence. It's one thing to say you're a writer. It's another thing to walk into a room with a group of really talented people who expect you to create a script. In a week or so. And then do it." That said, she sees her fellow team members as having had a profound impact on her contributions. "The video gamers on this project are so creative. Our early conversations on gameplay, interactivity, and choice deeply impacted my writing. There is no way I would have arrived at this script without their collaboration. And instead of that collaboration somehow diluting my own voice, it has only enriched it." (Due to time constraints and casting troubles, Saltwick has taken on the additional challenge of acting in Sublimation.)

Team Chimera's time for creating its hybrid wonder is coming to an end. On Saturday, Aug. 2, at 2pm, it will present its first showcase of Sublimation. (Note: Team Chimera encourages audience members to bring their laptops to the show.) Aaron Eastburn hopes to "receive the criticism of the audience with as much openness and as little pride as possible." Two weeks later will be the team's second showcase. Perkins says the time between showcases will be filled with "a good deal of team meetings and brainstorming on how to take this hybrid to the next level."

Inspire. Collaborate. Create. Sell. These are the unique demands of the ArtSpark Festival, and the artists are rising to meet the challenge.

The ArtSpark Festival theatre showcases can be seen July 31-Aug. 3 & Aug. 14-17 at the Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo. For more information, visit

Theatre Showcase

All performances at the Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo.

After Life's Loose Lips

Thursday, July 31 & Aug. 14, 8pm

Ophelia, Beatrice, and Juliet – three practitioners of the "oldest profession" – make it as best as they can until one day, everything changes.

Poison Apple Initiative's Ugly Ways: Leaving the Narrow

Friday, Aug. 1 & 15, 8pm

With Jimmy's help, Lauren's becoming more like her mother than she expected. Kendra doesn't know what she's coming to, and Dorian doesn't know where to go.

<i>Hermetic</i>, the spark by artist Keith Ellis
Hermetic, the "spark" by artist Keith Ellis

Chimera's Sublimation

Saturday, Aug. 2 & 16, 2pm

As her underwater world slowly dies of a terrible and mysterious illness, the water-creature Sleet must will herself into human form and break the surface into our strange dry world.

Stamp Lab's Hush

Saturday, Aug. 2 & 16, 8pm

Influenced by the silences of urban spaces, Hush explores ways in which matriarchal lineage survives in the face of isolation, distortion, and confinement.

Élan Productions' di[verge]

Sunday, Aug. 3 & 17, 2pm

A play with music that looks at crossroads and asks if we ever really accept our present or just continue to dream about our past and what might have been.

Music Showcase

Friday, Aug. 8, at Scoot Inn, 1308 E. Fourth. Doors open at 6pm.

Featuring musical performances by Daniel Chapman & Adam Kreft, John P. Funk, Lauren Morris, Jonathan Myers, Single Frame, and Ashleigh Stone.

Visual Arts Showcase

Sunday, Aug. 10, reception at 6pm, presentations at 7pm, at Pump Project Art Complex, 702 Shady. Exhibit continues through Sunday, Aug. 17.

Featuring artwork by David de Lara, Senalka McDonald, John P. Funk, Keith Ellis, Veronica Vasquez, David Ohlerking, and Patrick McDaniel.

Video Game Showcase

Monday, Aug. 11, reception at 6pm, presentations at 7pm, at ACC Highland Business Center, 5930 Middle Fiskville.

Alchemic Studio's Eyrus

To get home – if you still want to – you must first find your way out of Eyrus, the city of the Sun, where a broken recording plays a public service announcement commanding residents are to leave the city immediately.

Chimera's Sublimation

Help Sleet, a creature made of water, find her way out of the Underwater and into the world of man, where she must find the cure to the ailment that is claiming her people. Take the forms and bodies of those you encounter to overcome obstacles that your original form can't.

Team 1 Up's Bone Apart

Become a zombie and venture through a world where you are chased by beer-toting rednecks, crazed homeless people, and zombie drones and must battle Dracula's minions and deranged townsfolk to save the person you fear the most, your wife!

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ArtSpark Festival, HBMG Foundation, Manuel Zarate, Aaron Sanders, Sarah Saltwick, Bethany Perkins, Walter Badgett

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