When improv asks, 'Can we get a suggestion for something you'd slay a dragon with?'
Bryan Roberts, sketch and improv comedian, plays a lot of video games. Would he say that he plays a fuckton of video games?
"I would say that," he agrees amiably. "I play a fuckton of video games."
Roberts is in his mid-20s but looks like a high school junior; he's got an unruly mop of hazelnut hair and a voice like some snarky toon from Adult Swim, a wisecracking manner like Philip Marlowe as written by John Kricfalusi. Roberts is the creator of Guilds of Steel. Guilds of Steel is a video game come to life, improv-style, Friday and Saturday nights at Salvage Vanguard Theater.
"It's based on a play I wrote back in '04," he says, "which took place in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Shannon McCormick was asking for ideas for Gnap! shows, and I threw out a few that were based on plays. A lot of them were very ridiculous ideas. But he went with this one."
"At first I was confused by the concept," says McCormick, bald impresario of the improv powerhouse Gnap! Theater Projects. "I was like: 'What? It's a video game?' But I sat down and had coffee with Bryan, and he explained it to me in greater detail. And he sold me on it."
Guilds of Steel is a fully improvised show in which a guild of characters interacts onstage as if it's in a virtual world online, and the guild that the audience follows the adventures of here is called the Legendary Legends. The Legends go on quests for magical objects, fight dragons and monsters, engage in acts either violent or amorous or both, and generally live the whole swords-and-sorcery lifestyle. The show is, most obviously, a knockoff of the popular MMORPG called World of Warcraft. Which Roberts is, of course, into big-time. Right?
"Well," he says, "only slightly."
He shrugs. "I was more into this game in college called Black Widow, where all the avatars were female. But it was basically the same concept – except it was a little less graphically awesome."
But Guilds of Steel is about more than just the game-world exploits of the Legendary Legends. "Our characters have to deal with things in the game, and they have to deal with things outside of the game," says Roberts. "Like, my character has a mana addiction in the game, but he also has a boss outside the game that he's constantly at odds with."
"That's what's really different from a regular improv show," says Guilds of Steel's co-director Michael Joplin, longtime member of improv supergroup Available Cupholders. "You're playing a character, an avatar, but you're also playing the real-life world of the character. So your character could freak out and think that he's really a paladin or something like that ... but, at the same time, he's also just some guy who works at Dell or whatever, tormenting his wife and kids."
"It's been great playing both parts of my character," says Roberts. "You can get totally into it after a while, after a few shows, just like online. Because it's like, you're the same person each time, but the character is also different from you." He flashes a half-smile. "That's why they call it role-playing."
"The costumes are different, too," says Joplin. "We have some really sweet props – real swords and shit like that, from the players who are into that whole world of, like, Ren faires and LARP [live-action role-playing] and so on. But I play a character named Wolfhead – a level six human paladin – and I got my entire costume from Goodwill's women's section." And it seems very natural on Joplin, too – because he's so into World of Warcraft, right? He devotes hours and hours each week to it, relentlessly leveling up his avatar?
He shrugs. "I'm not a big gamer," he says. "I downloaded the free 10-day trial back when that was going on, but I think I was playing it incorrectly. I was just trying to fight people. I guess I'm more into the shoot-'em-up games."
"Another thing that's different about Guilds of Steel," says McCormick, "is that it's a serial. For a long time I'd wanted to do a show that had a serial component to it, that rewarded an audience who comes back to see familiar characters. And when Bryan explained Guilds of Steel, I thought, 'This is perfect.' So we made it happen."
"Bryan has been cataloging all the stuff that's been happening, so people can kinda do callbacks to previous shows," says Joplin. "We don't make it too ridiculous like that, because we know not everyone's seen every single show, but there's definitely a little history for each of the characters."
"It's a serial, and it uses both major schools of improv," says Roberts. "There's one school of improv, the Johnstone style, that really pushes the narrative. And the Chicago style pushes relationships. And we can do both here, because we have such a big cast, and we divide it evenly. There's the role-playing characters who are in the guild, who work out their relationships and their personal problems, and there's the support people, the nonplayer characters who push the narrative and have the guild go on a quest, kind of set things up for them and make them resolve it by the end."
And who are these people that McCormick, Roberts, and Joplin have judged worthy of treading Salvage Vanguard Theater's boards in the name of geeky entertainment? You might recognize some of the names from other improv shows in this town: Audrey Sansom, Marc Majcher, Jason Vines, Topping Haggerty, Sarah Tufts, Leah Moss, Zach Palmer, Mike Kinald, Jon Clinkenbeard, and Ace Manning. Various combinations of these players return each week, furthering the impromptu narratives of Guilds of Steel, wielding their wits and sense of wonder no less boldly than the weapons and potions their characters carry. And these guys, why, when they're not onstage, they're all about World of Warcraft. Yes?
Audrey Sansom: "No, actually."
Ace Manning: "No, not at all."
Mike Kinald: "No, I'm an old-school D&D guy."
Jon Clinkenbeard: "Not so much."
Sarah Tufts: "No, but a lot of my best friends play it."
And the irony of this threatens to become absurd, until we get to Jason Vines, who plays a level 18 demon thief for Guilds of Steel. "I had to quit World of Warcraft cold turkey right before I started improv," admits Vines, shaking his head. "At the height of my addiction, I was playing for 18 to 20 hour stretches per day on the weekends. So, yes, I was waaaaaay into WOW, but now I can't go near it lest I be sucked into a black hole of grinding out levels and leather farming."
And is there a similar pull to Guilds of Steel? Does Vines feel himself getting drawn deeper into the narrative after three weeks of performances?
"I've only played my character, Wildevine, once at this point," he says, "so I haven't gotten to know him that well – but I plan to remedy that in the upcoming shows."
The half-orc hunter NickFitz – OK, actually Marc Majcher – walks over, raising his sword in greeting. "I absolutely feel myself more pulled into the story of this show," he says. "I've done plenty of improv where the story still sticks to my ribs afterwards, but as a performer in a serial format like this, I find myself really looking forward to seeing what happens next with our characters – and finding out what happened to the other characters in the shows that I wasn't in."
"What I like most about Guilds of Steel is the nonplayer character work," says Vines, "because I love being able to play all of the monsters, craftsmen, game admins, rival guild members, et cetera. When you're playing a guild member, you have to remain the same character for the entire show, but when you're NPC, there are no limits to what you can play. That's a lot of fun for me."
Seems like a lot of fun for audiences, too, judging by the amount of laughter generated during a show. But are these hardcore gamers or a more general public that's doing the hooting and hollering? And how, really, could one tell for sure? Have gamers attended in costume, dressed as their onscreen avatars?
"We haven't had that yet," says Roberts, patting at his false beard, "but that would be sweet. I was thinking about giving them some kind of discount, actually, but we never settled on that." He looks around the theatre, at the other players checking their props or applying make-up before the house opens. "I think, if someone shows up in a costume and makes a big enough fuss, I might be able to ..." – his voice shifts to a whisper – "help them out."
Spoken like a true, mana-addicted mage.
Guilds of Steel runs through June 27, Friday-Saturday, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, visit www.gnaptheater.org.