There are two major misconceptions about Dungeon Master, which runs at the Write Act Repertory ever other Sunday on a seasonal basis. The first is that it's a fetish event. It's not. The second, that Dungeon Master is a LARP gathering, is a little more understandable given the show's roots in fantasy role playing games. But, again, it's not accurate.
"When you have a LARP, you have one or two storytellers who are there to officiate, sort of like refs, otherwise, it's up to the people who show up to create whatever story happens," says Michael T. Coleman, who writes, directs and acts in the performances. "There's no story, no scripting, no rehearsing."
With Dungeon Master, on the other hand, you have actors, many of whom aren't gamers, working with scripted stories in a theater. But, this isn't a traditional play either. The scripts constantly change and much of the experience is in the hands of the audience.
Loosely based on Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeon Master combines rehearsed theater, improv and audience participation. Conceived by actor Bruce A. Young, it launched in Chicago in 1983 and opened in Los Angeles in 2001. After Young left to pursue other projects, Coleman, who began as an audience player, and the rest of the cast and crew continued the show. In addition to its regular engagements, Dungeon Master is occasionally performed at various gaming, sci-fi and fantasy conventions.
Before the event begins, audience members have the option to submit a character. If their character is selected, they will join the party and embark on that evening's adventure through the world of Atoll. Members of the party are given challenges that, if fulfilled, will provide them with items like weapons or amulets. There are general rules for participants, such as spells must be cast in rhyming couplets and battle scenes must be performed in slow motion. While audience players can choose their responses, there are gods who can dictate what happens next. At the end of the night, the audience votes on the favorite player. The winner will then battle other winners later in the season for the title "Guardian of the Flame." It's the sort of theater experience designed to bring in regulars.
After the show, we met Tawnya Christine Smith, who has been attending Dungeon Master for two years. Sunday night's performance was her fourth time as an audience player. For this event, she created Betty, a secretary that she described as being similar to an "anime sidekick" who ends up being a much better fighter than people might assume. While her participation this evening was spur-of-the-moment, Smith, who is also interested in Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy films, occasionally creates costumes for her proposed characters.
"When I've created my costumes, usually that's a Dungeons & Dragons genre character," she explains. "I'll do a traditional magic user or I've done a fighter or paladin in metal armor before."
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For regulars like Smith, Dungeon Master isn't just a night at the theater, it's where they can satisfy their own creativity.
"It's a place to play again, have some fun with my friends."
The next Dungeon Master is November 1 at Write Act Repertory in Hollywood.