An original play, The Memory Card, merges video games with live theater at Goodluck Macbeth Theatre
I struggle to remember passwords I use every day, and I often have the experience of walking into a room and forgetting why I’m there. But I could tell you what I wore the day I got my braces off at age 16. And the starting music for the Pac-Man video game? Stuck like glue in my head.
It’s this trick of memory, particularly concerning video games, that prompted Kevin Fredericks and Clark Harrell of the Reno Video Game Symphony to develop an original piece of theater last spring. Almost a year later, their idea has become The Memory Card, an original play currently in production by Reno’s Goodluck Macbeth Theatre Company.Making memories
“Video games are at this really nice time now,” says Fredericks, who heads up the Reno Video Game Symphony, an orchestra comprised of musicians from around Northern Nevada who play interpretations of video game music (and who have, on occasion, composed music for games). “They're a pretty new art form compared to other art forms. If you ask people about video games, they'll say that they've been leaving impressions on people at some of the most crucial times in their lives. My earliest memories of games are from the early '80s, and that's really important for my identity, and for lots of people's identities. They have their whole sense of self and their experiences wrapped up in video games.”
Questions about these early memories come up frequently in the RVG Symphony podcast that Fredericks hosts. During one interview, RVGS musician Rika Eveland provided the seed for what would become The Memory Card.
“She shared that for one game that she had loved as a kid, she saved each stage of the game, particular points in the story, that she never erased, because she never wanted to lose that point in the game,” says Fredericks. “It’s like a decade-old memory card that she has now.”
That tie between video games and memory provided the hook that captured the attention of Goodluck Macbeth’s producing artistic director, Chad Sweet.
“Two things really sold me on it,” Sweet recalls. “First was the passion, the sheer joy with which he expressed the idea, and second, the knowledge of this whole community, gamers, that I’m not a part of, who could certainly be served by some other mode of expression and become audience members.”
And this idea of memory wrapped up in video games struck a chord with him.
“It was an interesting concept because theater is storytelling, a way to pass down memories and communicate trans-generationally,” Sweet says. “Now it’s not so much an oral expression of memory and storytelling, but we have cartridges and chips passing on these experiences. And now my children could play the exact same video games I played at their age.”Save the day
With only this broad theme and buy-in from a theater company, there still remained the most difficult task: writing a story and bringing it to life. Fredericks and another RVGS member, Clark Harrell, developed an outline, presented it to Sweet, and from there—with Sweet's feedback and theatrical insights—the writing and rewriting took place over several months.
“One thing I never heard Chad say was, ’That’s impossible,’” Fredericks says. “So we kept producing content just to see what we could do, working from infinite boundaries and then narrowing in.”
With aspects that Fredericks says are “somewhere between science and fantasy,” The Memory Card is the story of 12-year-old Seraphine (played by Paige Nelson), who is dealing with the onset of epilepsy and her increasing estrangement from family and friends. Using the handle “Fireball,” she retreats into video games, which give her a sense of control and empowerment she can have nowhere else. In many ways similar to literary icons Dorothy Gale or Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Fireball is pulled into another world, Paramesia, from which all video games originate.
Paramesia is governed by three councilors: Baal 2 (Logan Strand), the imaginer whose realm is the future and who conceives games; Chubulu (Emilie Mardock), who governs the past, taking our experiences from playing games and storing them; and Faxanadu (Derek Miller), who represents the present and is the conduit through which Paramesia can collect memories from our world. But as Fireball arrives, she learns that Paramesia’s Omega, where it stores memories, has exploded. She’s convinced that her purpose is to discover why and fix it.
An additional layer of complexity is that, in Paramesia, time is not linear.
“The setting is meant to wrap around the idea of time, and how everyone’s sense of time is relevant to their own experience,” says Fredericks. “That’s an important component. Giving each character a world where their personal timelines are isolated from others’ is like people’s experience playing video games. You can save who you were and where you were at each stage.”
Certainly, multimedia elements were essential. Video projection plays a crucial role—one character is entirely video-based—as does lighting, which was designed by cast member Derek Miller and local lighting specialist Kent Vizina. Add to that an original score written by Harrell and played, interestingly enough, through a Super Nintendo chip for the authentic video game sound so dear to Fredericks’ and Harrell’s hearts. Music, they felt, played a key role, almost as if it were a character.
“It was fun finding the moments in the show that demand music because in games that’s more than half the experience,” says Fredericks, explaining that there’s a natural tension that always exists between the music and what’s actually happening in the game. “Games challenge you, so they frustrate you naturally … But they’re severely split because the music is always happy, even while you’re totally frustrated and bad things are happening. So we needed to find emotionally painful moments in the play that show that dichotomy.”
Costumes, Sweet says, are a cross between traditional, ancient garb (loin cloths, flowing robes) and a Tron-like vibe, thanks to designs by nationally renowned cosplay costumer Melissa Hoppe.
Fredericks and Sweet predict the show will see a few iterations before they consider it finished. They expect the audience response will help them see it through new eyes and tweak as needed.
“As a producer, I feel like the only failure I can have here is if it doesn’t get produced again,” says Sweet.