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Suzan Kurry remembers her reaction when Justin Schober, the writer and host of the locally produced web series “Film Reels” asked her if she’d be interested in directing Mercury Players Theatre’s upcoming production of 'Of Dice and Men.' “I believe I said something like, ‘You know I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, right?’”
There are probably situations in which such an admission might be disqualifying, but this isn’t one of them. As Kurry found out after reading playwright Cameron McNary’s witty script.
“D&D is a lot like theater,” explains Kurry. “I didn’t feel I didn’t get it. It’s just the lingo.”
Besides, “Of Dice and Men” isn’t strictly about geektacular things like demigorgons, neutral-good elves and 20-sided dice. It’s actually about a close group of 30-somethings—none of whom are stereotypical basement-dwelling, role-playing game geeks, by the way. They deal with regular-people concerns, like burgeoning romance and the news that one of their number has unexpectedly enlisted in the Marine Reserves. The play is just backdropped by some serious dungeon-crawling sessions.
But while Kurry didn’t feel a lack of this particular type of role-playing experience put her at a disadvantage, her cast was an entirely different matter. They needed gaming chops.
“If I had cast a bunch of people who didn’t have any idea about the culture, it would have been a much more difficult project,” she says. “Having actors familiar with the subject matter has been a big plus.”
One of the biggest challenges Kurry’s faced is how to make a naturally static situation—a group of actors roleplaying around a table—dynamic enough to hold an audience’s attention.
“How do you balance the authenticity with the theatricality?” she asks.
A three-quarter thrust staging with the audience on three sides is one part of the answer.
The other? A snack table.
Having the characters get up to score chips and beer gives Kurry the opportunity to liven up the banter and monologues.
“We’re not just staring at the backs of heads,” she notes.
The play’s already getting strong interest from the local gaming community, in no small part because of a talkback lineup that includes “Dork Tower” cartoonist John Kovalic (May 26) and games-book author Matt Forbeck and the playwright himself (May 27). It also doesn’t hurt for gamers to see one of their favorite pastimes featured in yet another artistic arena—as if “Stranger Things” weren’t enough.
“It’s an ongoing conundrum for those of us in the theater world,” says Kurry. “How do we get people to come see stuff? This is an interesting way to look at it. This is an audience that bridges the demographic.”
“Of Dice and Men” runs May 19-June 3 in the Bartell Theater. For tickets, click here.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning theater coverage for madisonmagazine.com.