Quality Character Development And World Building Is Not A Game (Actually, It Is)

If you are a person of a certain age, you may find that the love of Dungeons and Dragons you secretly harbored as a youth is finally gaining some respectability thanks to shows like Stranger Things and common interests with video gaming, anime/manga, cosplay, comic books, etc which has insured its presence at conventions across the nation.

Even if you aren’t particularly enamored of the game, as people interested in artistic and creative expressions, you might do well to pay attention to the storytelling elements of games like Dungeons and Dragons and think about how you might tap into this practice as a method of creating new work.

To be clear. I am not necessarily talking about creating new work based on fantasy settings. I am just thinking about the fact that there are a lot of people out there engaged in the process of world building and exploring what makes for an interesting story and character traits/backstory.

Right now there is an explosion of groups creating 3-4 hour videos of their gaming sessions on a weekly basis.

While I haven’t had an opportunity to evaluate them all, for me the current gold standard is Critical Role which features “a group of nerdy-ass voice actors playing Dungeons and Dragons.” What I appreciate about them is the amount of effort they put into the game. They follow the rule about showing and not telling in the process of fleshing out their character.  There is still a lot of out of character, off color commentary, but they definitely have invested themselves in their roles and upped the stakes for themselves in terms of embodying flawed rather than clearly heroic entities since they moved into a new campaign in January.

Another long lived, though intermittent group is Acquisitions, Inc which started podcasting games a decade ago. They have a “spin off” group called The C Team that videocasts session on a more regular basis.

Wizard of the Coast which owns the Dungeons and Dragons property has really been supporting this trend  with their own groups like Dice, Camera, Action. In the last month, they drew attention to other groups like UK based High Rollers; all female gaming group, Girls, Guts, Glory, and new Chicago based group Rivals of Waterdeep.

Wizards is making a pretty clear attempt to show that everyone can enjoy participating in creating stories and building worlds regardless of race, gender or geography. In the process of checking out those participating in a recent roll out event at the start of June, I discovered some members of a relatively noteworthy group who podcast their adventures lives within 20 miles of me.

It has all got me thinking about different opportunities. These might consist of checking out local groups and inviting them to present one of their gaming sessions publicly in one of our spaces.  Or as I suggested earlier, consider if there some project we could collaborate on which tapped into the world building and storytelling process.  The result could be anything from a dramatization of a local story to periodic pop up of multi-media experiences projected on the side of buildings and other structures to public art installations.

I really see this as a tool/process to involve people in a project who might not normally feel they had the capacity or permission to create and contribute.

Culture Is There For Those Hostile To It, Too

Just came across Oskar Eustis’ TED Talk, “Why Theatre Is Essential To Democracy.” He talks about the how so much of the work Joe Papp did with the Public Theater was about expanding access and telling important stories that were being muted.

Eustis goes on to talk about how he has been trying to extend that mission as the current director of the Public Theater, taking shows out to the five boroughs of NYC and to NJ rather than expecting people to come to them in Manhattan.

I wrote a little about this when I covered Eustis’ keynote at the 2016 Arts Midwest conference where I wrote,

He also mentioned despite doing so many free productions in Central Park, they discovered only their prison program and the shows they trucked out to the five boroughs of NYC were the only programs that were serving a mix of people that reflected the demographics of NYC.

In his TED Talk, Eustis mentions how the curtain call statement by the cast of Hamilton  to then Vice President-elect Pence had spurred calls for boycotts of the show.

I looked at that boycott and I said, we’re getting something wrong here. All of these people who have signed this boycott petition, they were never going to see “Hamilton” anyway. It was never going to come to a city near them. If it could come, they couldn’t afford a ticket, and if they could afford a ticket, they didn’t have the connections to get that ticket.

They weren’t boycotting us; we had boycotted them. And if you look at the red and blue electoral map of the United States, and if I were to tell you, “Oh, the blue is what designates all of the major nonprofit cultural institutions,” I’d be telling you the truth. You’d believe me. We in the culture have done exactly what the economy, what the educational system, what technology has done, which is turn our back on a large part of the country.

With this in mind, he says next Fall the Public Theater is going to take Lynn Nottage’s play, Sweat, on tour to rural counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin:

Sweat is based on interviews Nottage conducted during visits to Reading, PA where she also helped create the multi-media, site specific production of This Is Reading that I have written about before.  (Be sure to read Margy Waller’s account of the production which I link to in both articles.)

Eustis describes Sweat as,

…about the deindustrialization of Pennsylvania: what happened when steel left, the rage that was unleashed, the tensions that were unleashed, the racism that was unleashed by the loss of jobs.

Eustis give us a lot to think about when it comes to bridging the gap between the ideals expressed in mission statements and grant proposals and translating them into action.  He could have easily concluded boycott efforts wouldn’t hurt Hamilton ticket sales one whit, ignored the disapproval and continued on. Instead, he concluded there was an unmet need and a problem that needed to be addressed and started to put a production together to respond to them.

The approach isn’t going to be one of, “we are Broadway and we are here to illuminate your poor benighted souls,”

We’re partnering with community organizations there to try and make sure not only that we reach the people that we’re trying to reach, but that we find ways to listen to them back and say, “The culture is here for you, too.”

Cross Cultural Appreciation Is A Start

Pacific Standard recently pointed to a study conducted in Portugal that indicated some positive outcomes using the music and culture of immigrant groups to help reduce prejudicial attitudes.

It reports schoolchildren around age 11 who learned about the music and culture of a faraway land expressed warmer feelings toward immigrants from that country than those who did not. What’s more, those positive emotions were still evident three months after this exposure to the foreign culture.

“Music can inspire people to travel to other emotional worlds,” writes a research team led by psychologist Felix Neto of the University of Porto. Their work suggests songs can serve as an emotional bridge between cultures, revealing feelings that are common to both.

Their study, published in the journal Psychology of Music, featured 229 Portuguese sixth graders, all living in greater Lisbon. Two-thirds came from blue-collar families.

The students in the experimental group participated in twenty 90 minute sessions across six months. At the end of that period, their prejudices were reduced compared to the control group and that attitude persisted when the experiment group was surveyed three months later.

Learning of this study lead me to recall something mentioned in a keynote address delivered by Jamie Bennett where he cited an anthropologist working with drumming circles at the Field Museum

As I wrote in that post,

He goes on to say that this was based on observations of immigrants and first generation Americans living in Chicago who participated in drumming circles. As each performed drumming particular to their own cultural background, the group bonded. Bennett says this observation is important because it potentially illustrates that arts and culture is a pathway for integrating society that doesn’t involve assimilation–“I don’t have to become more like you to become more closely bonded.”

Thinking about both of these situations started me wondering if this effect is underappreciated and ineffectively employed to constructive ends. While I am obviously against positioning music and other cultural expressions as prescriptions to cure racism, the impact of cross-cultural exposure is well recognized.

Of course, what has been somewhat controversial in the U.S., at least, is that this impact has often manifested as borrowing/”discovery”/appropriation by people outside of the cultural group who go on to popularize it. Or people have borrowed the appealing elements of cultural expression while avoiding the daily challenges faced by members of the source culture.

The challenge therefore is 1) Opening people to experiencing expressions of cultures that are not their own. 2) Ensuring that the peoples of other cultures are able to retain ownership and identification with their expressions as people come to appreciate it.

Even after that, there is still much work that needs to be done. A reduction in prejudicial attitudes doesn’t equal the elimination of prejudice. A person is more than just the external expressions of their culture. There can be a gap to bridge between appreciating someone for their skillful exhibition of their culture and appreciating them as a whole person.

Classical Music As A Prescription To Cure Social Ills…And To Sell Perscriptions

A couple weeks back there was a piece by Theodore Gioia in the Los Angeles Review of Books that started out talking about the history of weaponizing classical music.  You may be familiar with this practice where classical music is loudly played in public places like train stations, shopping malls, parking lots, street corners, etc with the goal of chasing away undesirable elements like teenagers and the homeless.

If ever there was a practice that reinforced the idea that classical music is for people other that yourself, it is people pointing it at you in the hopes you will go away.

As I read on, I realized that Gioia was tackling a frequent theme of my blog posts – placing value on the utility of art rather than valuing art for its own sake. After noting the use of classic music as a social disinfectant, he goes on to note how often classical music is separated from the context of an entire work and used to sell things.

Uproot “O Fortuna” from a Latin cantata, so it can be grafted onto a Domino’s Super Bowl spot. These transplants produce jarring mashups that trigger another insidious side effect: by always quoting works out of the context the public forgets that they have a context. The spectator forgets that “O Fortuna” could be glorious in its original context because it’s absurd hyping Domino’s Pizza.


A prime example of classical music’s conflicted position in our capitalist culture is Bach’s Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. Dubbed the “Things Just Got Classy Song” by one columnist, the two-minute composition has been deployed for an astounding array of causes. IMDB lists 73 credits, with a résumé featuring primetime mainstays Smallville and ER, ad campaigns for Healthy Choice frozen broccoli and Pedigree dog food, and big-screen flicks ranging from Elysium and The Hangover Part II to a brief cameo in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.


Where does this leave the prelude — and, by extension, classical music? From awakening Megasharks to selling Cadillacs, Bach’s Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1 has been drafted to support many causes. But one cause it seldom supports is itself. After being pressed into the service of so many outside agendas — advertising, film, and police work — the prelude loses its identity as an independent work of art, demanding to be taken on its own terms. It is difficult for the prelude to provide any modern audience with a genuinely “pure” listening experience.

There are no easy solutions to the quandaries this raises.  Gioia doesn’t make any suggestions for a path forward and I don’t really have any ideas myself.

You want people to be exposed to art so it becomes familiar. However, if you start dictating which modes of expression are appropriate and which are not, you end up placing it on the pedestal that reinforces its elite status.

People often cite the use of classical music in Bugs Bunny cartoons like “What’s Opera, Doc” and “Rabbit of Seville” as constructive ways in which the general public was exposed to the music. I am sure there were enough people who were opposed to the concept that the cartoons would have never been had it been left to them.

Any suggestion of not presenting a piece out of the context of the whole can be a non-starter when you factor length of many compositions vs. the public’s attention span.

Of course, there are plenty of organizations who transmit art for its own sake through diverse modes of expression and media. But that brings in the long debated issue of relevance and effectively forging connections with the community.

The only admittedly vague route I can see toward appreciation of art in its own context is connecting with the instinct to want to know more. Since people have had so much exposure to some works via overt and background placement, people might not be driven by a new, novel encounter to seek more information.

For those that are curious enough to do research, a campaign to have ad agencies or advertisers credit the original composition online might help a little.

For example, the ad below uses “O Fortuna” to sell beer and there are credits for all the personnel who helped create the ad included in the YouTube notes. No mention that they were spoofing Carl Orff though.

Apparently the Carlton Draught has a tradition of using classical music in their ads. This one does credit “Nessun Dorma” as the source of their parody.

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