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DUNGEONMASTER: It's Your World, Play It Part Two

D & D meets community theater to form a new type of roleplaying game

By ABBIE BERNSTEIN     March 10, 2002

"Dungeonmaster" Bruce Young introduces the show and explains the rules of the game/play
© 2002 Abbie Bernstein
Bruce A. Young's brainchild DUNGEONMASTER, currently playing Sundays at 5:30 PM at Magicopolis Theatre in Santa Monica, 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. Today we continue our look at this unique roleplaying experience.

Some of Young's cast members were familiar with gaming before joining the show. Actor/writer/swordmaster Robert Chapin, who has invented a mythology of his own for his vampires-with-swords Internet series THE HUNTED, joined the DUNGEONMASTER L.A. company after participating as an audience member. "There was no way I couldn't do the show," Chapin explains. "It was so close [to Chapin's home], and I wanted to do some theatre and I wanted to do some improv, and it just seemed like so much fun."

Other actors

Dan Lemieux (left) with player-character Mike from DUNGEONMASTER

simply responded to casting ads that were, in some cases, for other shows. "It was an ad in Backstage West for the magic show that happens here," Frankie Ray recalls of his tryout with friend and DUNGEONMASTER colleague Buddy Daniels Friedman. "We came in and they said, 'Oh, there's another audition for a little show in the theatre around the corner.' I just walked in and Bruce said, 'Okay, pretend you're a gargoyle.' He just starts throwing out these things, so push came to shove, and I had to let my hair down and be weird."

Young, Chapin and fellow cast members Scott Harrison and Dan Lemieux all have prowess with bladed weapons, which has lately allowed more swordwork in the show. "It has been a curtain-raiser and a curtain-ender," Young notes. "When people are onstage, we just move them off to the side, so there's no reason it can't be in the middle of the show, as long as we have the audience wranglers to keep them out of the way."

Ray enjoys working with the audience members: "What I think is particularly nice about [DUNGEONMASTER] is you see a movie or a production, and you go, 'I could've done that,' and not many people really get a chance to get onstage and be an actor, but it really allows the general public to get up on stage and be an actor and live through that fantasy role. It really amazes me the kind of people that will get up there they just become a whole different person."

"You have no idea what these party members will want to do," Friedman agrees. "And sometimes we don't know what we're going to do. This is totally different than any other play in L.A. It's an interactive play. We're developing a crowd, we're developing a cult, and I just hope it gets stronger and stronger. Because it is quite fun when we're rolling before you know it, it's over."

Daniels is speaking semi-literally due to its dependence on the actions of the participants, an evening can end abruptly and unexpectedly. "We do have players where we get permission to kill that person to get them off the stage," Friedman explains.

Ray recalls

Cast member Robert Chapin's "Jimmy Buffet" homage takes on the form of a used boat salesman in DUNGEONMASTER

one incredibly violent party: "They killed [every character] that came on the stage. A little baby bear they'd kill it. And they got ready to do Blink [a continuing character], and Bruce said, 'Frankie, just kill 'em all, they're killin' everything end of show!' The Minotaur came out and it was over. At any time during the show, you can be standing [backstage] and the ending music starts. And it's over, and it's, 'Somebody messed up out there.' I'm getting ready for my last scene and it's, 'End of show.' I'm like, 'What happened?' I couldn't see. And then I realize Buddy killed 'em."

Even less drastic onstage events can produce surprises. "Sometimes a scene will be going," Ray notes, "and they'll throw a spell [that alters the scene]. And you're expecting [the scene] to go this long, so you're back there putting on makeup [for the next character]. For instance, on our press opening, I played a character called Blink, who is a genie in a bottle."

"The Bugs Bunny genie," Young elaborates. "Every time he comes out, he's either in a bathrobe or eating dinner. Then he gets more and more pissed every time he shows up."

Ray was onstage as a statue when the Blink character was summoned. "You don't know when they're going to 'blink' you," he observes. "So I had to go offstage as a statue, and strip down to nothing, and pour some water over my head, and I'm almost naked. But I think it went extremely well." Ray, who works primarily in film, welcomes the unpredictability. "You don't get much spontaneity in a film, because everything is so planned. This is my first improv situation, so for me, it's a great exercise in always being open to all possibilities as an actor."

The actors are called upon to serve as technical staff as well as performing during each show everybody gets a color-coded chart for each "episode," indicating what they're supposed to be doing during each scene. "We are the light people," Young explains, "we're the sound people, we're the stage managers, we're the props people, we do everything. So if you're not backstage, you're up there." He indicates the lighting/sound station at the top of the steeply-raked seating area. "And then when your scene comes up, somebody else comes up there. Everybody always rotates, everybody's always moving. So no one's up there [at the light/sound console] for the whole show. Because usually three or four people will rotate through, depending on the length of the show."

Young sometimes

"Dungeonmaster" Bruce Young introduces the show and explains the rules of the game/play

but not always serves as the head of the questing party. "I've let two other people lead so far," he says, "and I'm going to try to rotate everybody through, so they get the full effect of what it's like to be [the always-onstage leader] and not know what's going on backstage. Once they start doing the show, they have no idea what's coming next, 'cause it's a surprise. I mean, it's sort of like walking through the adventure. 'Where are we now? Ah! We're here!'"

A visitor to rehearsal gets a taste of what kinds of creatures may spring out at visitors. Eight cast members are onstage, four crouched down like beasts of burden, while four other performers practice springing onto their backs, to create the illusion of halflings riding wolves. Young encourages the actors playing halflings to work on their characters' attitudes as well as their movements: "You're gruff little creatures. You sort of have a Napoleon complex. Everybody considers halflings weak and helpless. You're the rebellious ones you've tamed wolves, for heaven's sake. You consider yourselves warriors."

Performances are similarly wild. A battle at sea sees two "boats" consisting of costumed actors and audience players moving in lock-step with one another, holding up shields with one hand while bashing one another with foam weapons as an offstage performer/stagehand simulates a storm by squirting them all with a supersoaker.

Young says he has no trouble coming up with a new adventure every week: "It all takes place in this mythical world of Atoll, basically two big islands, and it's like any good fantasy adventure there's an evil sorcerer who is trying to take over the whole world. Good vs. evil. This is my [imagination's] default setting I constantly look at everything, 'Oh, that'll make a good adventure, that'll make a good scene,' and then just putting it together. I take from movies, I take from books if I see a good movie, believe me, it's gonna be an episode the next week," he laughs. "I'll find a way to turn that plot into a dungeon [adventure]. The tough part is writing out the politics behind the scene it's easy to come up with ideas for what to do."

As in its Chicago days, the Los Angeles production of DUNGEONMASTER has acquired a devoted following of attendees who return repeatedly. Young is happy to return to the project as well: "In these last 15 years, since the last time I did it, it has never been far from my mind. It continues to be one of the most enjoyable things I've done in theatre, in film, in anything. Because it's so wide open, it's so free and it's so much fun. The more people in the house, obviously, the more excitement it generates, and some of my fondest memories are of episodes of this show, adventures that people went on, little kids, the look in their eyes when they saw the dragon come out on stage. It was real for them. And yet they slayed it. And since doing this show, I've had audience members come back that saw the show in Chicago and now they're 25, 26 years old. 'I remember this from when I was a kid I remember everything. You don't know what this meant to me.' That's so cool!"

DUNGEONMASTER, Magicopolis Theatre, 1418 4th St., Santa Monica, CA
Sundays, 5:30 PM
Info: 818-709-6657


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