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DUNGEONMASTER: It's Your World, Play It Part One
Roleplaying with a twist
By ABBIE BERNSTEIN
March 05, 2002
The cast from DUNGEONMASTER takes a second bow
It's probably safe to say that there are few if any other stage experiences or fantasy roleplaying games anywhere exactly like Bruce A. Young's brainchild DUNGEONMASTER, currently playing or rather, being played Sundays at 5:30 PM at Magicopolis Theatre in Santa Monica. DUNGEONMASTER brings together professional actors and audience members in a partially-scripted, largely-improvised onstage adventure that combines elements of (among other things) epic yarn, Story Theatre and Monty Python and, of course, a really wild Dungeons & Dragons session.
© 2002 Abbie Bernstein
Young writes and directs a new script, guiding his cast of 12 regulars in a loose rehearsal that teaches them how to be whatever is required trolls, halflings, wolves, djinn, wereboars and the like. Come showtime, six volunteers from the audience, who have filled out cards beforehand describing their game characters, are brought onto the stage and sent on a quest (with one of the regular cast serving as a guide) through the magical land of Atoll. The questers are allowed to cast rhyming spells (along the lines of, "Like a birdie in the sky/All my party now can fly!") and provided with costumes and large (albeit foam rubber) weapons, the better to combat the monsters (played by the regulars) and challenge strangers they meet along the way. This is no free ride the onstage guide isn't there to necessarily save the day. Not everybody makes it fatalities are common and in some games, everybody dies before the adventure reaches its conclusion. Young laughingly recalls a recent edition in which all of the guest players died in the first scene, as no one thought to use a spell to quell a flood of hot oil.
From left to right: Kristen Intress, Jay Jacobson, and regular player-characters Mike and Eliot in DUNGEONMASTER
© 2002 Abbie Bernstein
DUNGEONMASTER was born over 20 years ago in Chicago at the Organic Theatre Company, which was headed up by Stuart Gordon (later of RE-ANIMATOR fame). Young, now known as an actor for his work in films like JURASSIC PARK III and BASIC INSTINCT and TV series including THE SENTINEL and HIGHLANDER, was a member of the Organic troupe when he first began developing the concept. "We were doing a play called E.R. at the time," he recalls. "I was a very avid roleplaying fan, and I was always trying to get [fellow Organic Co. actors] to come and play the game. And the few people in the company that I actually did convince to play, they always said, 'Oh, wouldn't this be fun to do it live?' And I'd think, 'Yeah, it would be fun, but how would you do it?' That was the germ that started all this how would you do this live and still keep the same feel of improvisation? Because that's the fun thing about sitting around the table the Dungeonmaster says something, [the players] say something and it just goes back and forth. Nothing is really set. Most of the live-action roleplaying that I see, it's basically walking around in character and there's very little improvisation or actual scenes being played. It didn't have the same theatrical feel that I liked about the game. So I started brainstorming and doing some tests on how to best pull this off. The first incarnation of this was all actors. I would write a scenario where there was only one actor who was the adventurer walking through, and everybody else were the people trying to stop him."
hadn't reckoned with how seriously his actors/players would take their characters. "That didn't work," he laughs, "because the actors were very competitive, so the show never went anywhere. They wanted to stop the guy. They had no intention of letting him carry out the story all they wanted to do was say, 'I'm smarter than you, so I'm not going to let you figure out this adventure.' We tried that for a couple of weeks and it just wasn't getting anywhere, because [there were] huge fights over, 'That spell worked!' 'No, it didn't!' 'It did, too!' 'Okay, this isn't working, this'll be boring for the audience a bunch of actors bickering onstage.'"
DUNGEONMASTER cast member Elizabeth DeWet
© 2002 Abbie Bernstein
Like magic, a solution occurred to Young. "At that point," he explains, "I had the idea, 'Okay, let's take people from the audience. That way, [the actors are] all on the same side, and we're playing with [the audience], we're letting them walk through the adventure.' That's the one that jelled, because that allowed all the actors to improvise with each other and make all the scenes they could be funny, they could be whatever, and the audience members then provided the comic relief for the show, because they were basically fish out of water. [Most of the audience players] had never been up on stage before, so it was constantly giving them riddles, giving them things to figure out, watching them succeed or fail against whatever tricks or traps we'd put out for them. And that proved to be a workable formula and enjoyable to not only be in, but to watch as well."
edition ran 1982-1986. One early cast member who both went on to bigger things and appears in the Los Angeles edition whenever possible is Young's fellow DUNGEONMASTER executive producer Billy Campbell (star of THE ROCKETEER and ONCE AND AGAIN). "He started out as an audience member [in Chicago]," Young relates with a laugh. "He came for a year before I got tired of him messing up my show. He'd always come up with some wild scheme or riff that would just throw the show on its head, because he would be so funny. I just said, 'Look, why don't you just be in the show? We could use all this.' That was his first professional [acting] job." In L.A., Young says, "Because of his schedule with ONCE AND AGAIN, he's in it when he can be. Most times it's tough, because they usually work him late by Friday."
"Dungeonmaster" Bruce Young introduces the show and explains the rules of the game/play
© 2002 Abbie Bernstein
Other famous faces who sometimes turn up to play are Tim (VOYAGER) Russ and Clancy Brown, both thanked in the program. "[Russ] is my ringer," Young explains. I say, 'Are you doing anything this week? Come in and do a scene.' [He doesn't] come to rehearsals. Tim is a troubadour - he sings and plays the guitar - so, 'You come in, just walk on stage whenever you can.' So that's how that works. Clancy doesn't want to be [a cast member], he likes to play. So when he comes, he wants to be an audience member, because he wants to screw up the show," Young laughs.
Check back soon for part two of our DUNGEONMASTER profile.
DUNGEONMASTER, Magicopolis Theatre, 1418 4th St., Santa Monica, CA
Sundays, 5:30 PM