Fringe hit to open in Patchogue
Another show will open at Think BIG! Theater Arts this weekend, but if you’re wondering which puppets will come alive in their black box this time, the answer is zilch. “It’s the first piece designed for adults as a main-stage production,” explained co-founder Shawn Thorgersen. The English teacher always knew that he wanted to spend his summer off embracing the spirit of fringe theater, producing rarely-seen shows and emphasizing local playwrights.
The first of those playwrights is Larry Brenner, a Holbrook native, whose “Saving Throw Versus Love” was one of 400 plays featured in the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival and one of 20 to go on for an encore that fall.
It came as a pleasant surprise to Brenner, who thought that the niche subject matter of the show might only attract an audience of gamers. “The audience that went was not necessarily comprised of gamers, and they were laughing their butts off,” Thorgerson said, recalling the evening he saw the show in Manhattan.
If the title has you scratching your head, a ‘saving throw’ is a roll of dice used to determine whether magic, poison or other attacks are effective against characters in role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. The plot centers around the game — under the pseudonym Caverns & Creatures — and the main character Sam, who hides his secret obsession with the game from his fiancée, Carol. Ahead of their matrimony, Carol joins Sam and his buddies for a game night and is thrust into the fantasy world created.
But this is not solely a show about gaming — Brenner swears that even if you’ve never played D&D, you won’t feel left out. The show is about relationships and how we choose to spend our time. “Role-playing games require imagination,” Brenner, a gamer, explained. “So it requires the imagination of the audience, too. Suddenly, they’re in the fantasy world, too.”
The cast even embraced method acting in preparation, since actress Katie Ferretti, who plays Carol, had never played the game before. So the cast used one rehearsal to run a session and introduce her to the game. “Every self-conscious move that her character has in the play she actually experienced at the table,” Thorgersen said. “But you can’t be wrong if you’re improvising. We told her to merge her actor with her gamer, which is so true to the show. So ‘Saving Throw’ is a blast of a show, but also helps people to understand how creative you can be with these types of games.”
Games like Dungeons & Dragons are immensely popular but were long considered to be uncool and the epitome of geek culture. The tables have turned: nerdy is in. “It’s considered less nerdy now,” Brenner explained, grinning. Celebrities like Stephen Colbert and Dwayne Johnson have also come out of the proverbial ‘closet’ as gamers. And last summer, Netflix’s supernatural original, “Stranger Things,” opened with a game of Dungeons & Dragons, all of which have helped pull it into the mainstream, Brenner said.
“It’s really just a group of people getting together to share a story,” he said, adding that the game is really just an acting improvisation exercise. It’s a belief he’s so passionate about that Brenner is working on a doctoral thesis on role-playing games as a form of education theater, a.k.a. what Think BIG is all about. “It helps you develop your imagination, articulate characters and come up with plots,” he said. “It’s more open than a videogame, where there are preprogrammed routes you have to take.”
Brenner drew some inspiration from his own D&D experience, but his wife joins in on the role-playing game, too. “It’s something we have in common,” he said. But Thorgersen’s wife, Think BIG! co-founder Heather Van Velsor Thorgersen, said she’s not a gamer. “I love this show because I can relate to it,” she said. “I remember the familiar connection that I felt with Carol as she tries to be a good sport and navigate and understand this D&D world that means so much to her fiancé,” she said, recalling the first time she saw the show in 2010. “It is a nerd-mantic comedy for gamers and those who love gamers, and I fell in love with my husband all over again through this show.”
Though she isn’t an avid gamer, Van Velsor has a soft spot for tabletop games. “Games bring people together — friends, families and even strangers. But at the end of the game, they most definitely are not a stranger anymore.”
Today, much of the discussion about female gamers focuses on the hostility experienced in the gaming community. Brenner says that wasn’t on his radar when he wrote the play over seven years ago. “The play isn’t about [Carol] being an outsider because she’s a woman,” Thorgersen explained. “It’s less about her sex and more about the fact that she doesn’t play the game.”
“It’s like she’s a muggle,” Brenner said, alluding to Harry Potter. “Carol comes in not knowing how to play and she takes control,” he added, carefully avoiding any spoilers. “And that’s fun to watch.”
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