I first encountered the work of Eddie Kim and his EK Theater — comprised of students from the Pierrepont School in Westport, CT — over half a decade ago at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Until then I’d never heard of, much less conceptualized, what Kim has christened Machinima Theater (or “video game puppetry,” as he now prefers to call it). The director-gamer’s innovative idea places classic texts within a live video game setting in an effort to actively engage with today’s audiences, both young and old. I recently spoke with Kim about the effect of gaming technology on traditional theater, his upcoming summer camp workshop “Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Retold in Video Games” at The Brick (open to middle school students possessing laptops and Minecraft accounts), and how he consistently mashes up the seemingly unmixable (yes, even “Grand Theft Ovid” was a critical hit).
Lauren Wissot: You’re both a director and a gamer, so I’m wondering how this concept of “Machinima Theater” came about and how it has since evolved. I believe the idea started with a theater project, right?
Eddie Kim: In 2007 I was invited by The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to participate in their Tiny Theater Festival. For the festival I had to come up with a 10-minute piece that could take place in a six-foot cube made out of PVC. I first came up with Machinima Theater, or video game puppetry, as I have been calling it in recent years, in order to get around the limited playing area required by the festival. By using characters in “World of Warcraft” and projecting the game onto a screen that hung from the back of the cube, I was able to present an entire world in a restricted space.
My company EK Theater is made up of my students from the Pierrepont School in Westport, CT. There have been only small changes over the years. It was with 2010’s “Grand Theft Ovid” that I decided to focus our work on classics. We also now speak our lines live into mics during our performances, something that we did not do in our first productions.
LW: This year you’re presenting “Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Retold in Video Games” in Brooklyn as part of The Brick Theater’s summer camp. How do you choose which classical stories to tell, though? Are some texts better suited than others to the video game format? And how do you choose which game formats to use?
EK: I tend to select the stories that I am currently interested in. Before choosing stories from the Brothers Grimm for the camp I had the students in my video game puppetry class break into smaller teams to test several of them to see how feasible they would be to perform in video games. Some texts definitely work better than others, and I think that there is much potential in Grimm’s stories.
My students are the ones who choose the games. Their choices often reflect the need to switch between platforms from scene to scene, because of the time required for games to load and to cue scenes.
LW: I actually reviewed “Thank You, But Our Princess is in Another Castle” back when it played The Brick in 2009. I called it a “60s happening for the digital age,” and noted that the teenage participants’ laptops and Xbox 360s would have been drums and guitars in an earlier era. Are your Pierrepont School classes a sort of 21st century Rock School for gamers? What’s a typical day with your students like?
EK: I wish I could tell you that my classes are like a 21st century Rock School for gamers! Though my video game puppetry students might be asked to figure out how to run an offline LAN server for “Minecraft” as a homework assignment — something that we had to do for a recent performance – the class is structured in the same way as more traditional theater classes. All of my students work with scripts, create theatrical moments, and rehearse for performances. I firmly believe that the performer’s main objective is to convey the story to the audience, so I constantly have my students refer back to the text when making choices.
LW: With the VR — and OR — revolution currently changing the worlds of filmmaking and journalism, it only makes sense that our notions of theater would be upended by digital innovation as well. How do you see gaming technology advancing what’s possible in the live performance space?
EK: I got a chance to try Google Cardboard and OR after presenting a piece at the Games in Education Conference in Albany this summer. The immersive tech was very cool and appealed to me as a gamer, but it is not something that I see us using soon. VR seems to be a solo experience, but theater is something that wonderfully requires performers and an audience.
In terms of game tech, I’m personally a big fan of the PS4, and we currently are updating some of the pieces in our repertoire to use both the PS4 and Xbox One.
That being said, we still are big fans of using older, iconic video games such as “Shadow of the Colossus.” Just as a rod puppet is designed with a limited number of movements, I like the challenge of seeing what emotions we can convey using the limited actions programmed into older games.
LW: EK Theater seems to have gotten rave reviews for its productions across the board, yet I can imagine works like “Grand Theft Ovid” might have its doubters. Have you ever gotten any negative response from folks who perhaps feel that video games cannot possibly capture the nuance and importance of, say, Shakespeare and Yeats? (Honestly, Machinima Theater seems like it might be a tough sell in the traditional realm of education.)
EK: For the most part audiences have been impressed by our combination of classical texts, live actors, and video games. Audience members often find themselves connecting to stories in ways they had not expected.
We have had some criticism for our use of violent games such as “Halo: Reach” and “GTA5.” For us games are just tools we use to tell different stories. In our “Niobe,” for example, the violence is an integral part of Ovid’s story, so we are just telling it in the best way that we can.
Educators are beginning to recognize our value in the classroom. We had our first performance at a public school in 2012. We have performed for hundreds of students and teachers at schools and conferences since then. This year we have seven school visits in multiple states scheduled, and we are excited about our partnership with The Brick Theater for “Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Retold in Video Games” — a summer camp where we will guide Brooklyn middle school students in the creation of their own pieces of video game puppetry.