The world premiere of Other World at Delaware Theatre Company unites award-winning global talents
Delaware Theatre Company is unveiling something extraordinary this month, and as an international effort brought forth by some of the top names in theater, music, choreography and film, it will be arriving in a very big way.
Starting February 23, the world premiere of the musical Other World explores both the virtual and emotional connections of online gaming, while chronicling the adventures of friends Sri and Lorraine, who are mysteriously uploaded into the land of Sri’s favorite game.
The creators of Other World say the theme is a first for the world of theater.
“I hadn’t seen a cool musical about gaming,” says Hunter Bell, one of the show’s founding creators. “I hadn’t seen that world. And I was like, ‘Why is online gaming a billion-dollar industry? And why has that not permeated into the theatrical world?’”
Bell, a Tony-nominated playwright, points out that live theater has reimagined other elements of pop-culture — movies, television, comic books — but Other World is the first musical to interpret online gaming. To bring the high-tech production to stage, showrunners employed top artists from around the planet.
“In creating a world, you really want to be collaborating with people who are experts in visual storytelling and oral storytelling,” says Other World director Adrienne Campbell-Holt. “And the team of designers on this show is really top-notch.”
Campbell-Holt isn’t exaggerating when she speaks of the puppeteers from NYC’s AchesonWalsh Studios, the same minds who impressively brought four-legged friends to life in the Tony Award-winning play Warhorse; or when she talks about New Zealand’s Weta Workshop, the Oscar Award-winning art directors who help bring stunning visuals to blockbuster films like Avatar and The Lord of the Rings.
“I feel very lucky to be a part of this show,” says Campbell-Holt, herself a recipient of the Lucille Lortel Visionary Director Award. “I’m just so excited that in terms of design and storytelling, this is innovative in every way.”
Regarding her initial discovery that she would be working with Weta Workshop, Campbell-Holt adds, “Oh, [I was] so excited… this is, I believe, their first foray into live theater.”
Another acclaimed contributor that the Other World team can boast is multi-talented choreographer Karla Puno Garcia, who performed for four years in the Broadway blockbuster Hamilton: An American Musical, then worked again with that show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, as a choreographer on last year’s critically acclaimed Netflix hit, Tick, Tick… Boom!
For Puno Garcia, one of the appealing aspects of this production is the freedom given to each of the creators in terms of helping shape the overall story.
“We’re all creating this world together,” Puno Garcia says. “I think that movement can beautifully tell this story and bring these characters to life. So, I’m really grateful to be a part of this team that allows me to do that.
“The team has embraced movement, and how we can really use [movement] as a strong vehicle for showing these characters in their different lights and their different perspectives.”
Something Old, Something New
Campbell-Holt uses the term “primitive future” to describe the essence of Other World. Some of the artists have interpreted this juxtaposition as an open window from which they can pull elements from the past — even their personal heritage or experiences — and reinterpret them in the more futuristic setting of the online-gaming landscape of Other World.
In choreographing the gaming fight sequences, Puno Garcia explored specific elements of her Filipino ancestry. Although not a fight choreographer, she was excited to have a chance to do that for the musical’s online-game action pieces. So, during the pandemic, she learned martial arts.
“My parents are Filipino, and my dad would talk about Filipino martial arts a lot,” Puno Garcia says. “And it just clicked: This is an opportunity for me to bring what resonates with me, what comes naturally, and what I’m what I’m interested in — because it’s innately in me.
“I’m not putting a stamp that says [these characters are] Filipino martial artists. But my dance vocabulary in some of the fight scenes is colored with the training that I had over the past year in Filipino martial arts.
“Filipino martial arts are very prevalent in a lot of films. You can see [that style] and be like, ‘Oh, I recognize that.’”
For Puno Garcia, the experience was gratifying because, based on her experiences, not every theater production allows as much creative freedom and input as Other World has.
“It’s another reflection of the team and how welcoming they are to bringing yourself to the work,” the choreographer says.
Musician Ann McNamee feels similarly about the amount of freedom and artistic support: “[Everyone at] Delaware Theatre Company, they’ve just given us all the latitude in a wonderful way,” she says.
McNamee drew from her Polish roots when developing certain parts of the score to Other World. In early conversation revolving around the idea of “primitive future,” she recalled a “primitive and ancient Polish folk mode” she learned about years ago when studying for her PhD at Yale.
“The Polish scale is called the Podhalean mode, from the foothills of the Tatras in the south of Poland, where half my family came from.” McNamee says. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, 20 years ago, I worked on the scale that was sharp four and flat seven. We should incorporate this unusual primitive scale.’
“Never dreamt in a million years something so obscure would make it into a musical theatre piece!”
In developing the music for the show, McNamee worked closely with co-composer and co-lyricist Jeff Bowen, who shared his appreciation for the productions “open source” approach to development.
“There has been this sort of constant sense of ‘Let’s try it, let’s go for it, let’s give it a shot,’ which is not [typical],” Bowen says. “Usually, you’re much more confined when you’re creating commercial art. But we’ve had the encouragement from all of the departments to just go for it.”
When asked to describe the show in one word, Bowen chooses the word “boundless.”
“I’m speaking as a creator,” Bowen explains, “and I don’t know if that’s what the audience will interpret: a sense of adventure that seems infinite in scope.”
Genesis of the World
Although Bowen doesn’t mention drawing from his family’s ancestry when exploring the concept of “primitive future,” he did dig deeply into his own history for the production.
At the center of Other World is the story of how Sri and Lorraine try to save the world of a MMO [massive multi-player online-game] from being shut down by its corporate overlords. The plots mirrors Bowen’s personal experiences playing a popular online game called City of Heroes, developed by Cryptic Studios in 2004 then unceremoniously shut down by the game’s publisher NCSoft in 2012.
“I had invested all this time and met this great community online,” Bowen admits. “And I didn’t know these people face-to-face. I’d never been with them. I played this hero called Arctic Prince — who was basically a superhero who had weather powers — and flew around on adventures with these people from all over the planet who I was gaming with.
“Then, out of nowhere, the company that managed the site said, ‘We’re shutting the game down.’ And I went through a whole myriad of new feelings. I was so confused and angry.
“I realized I had spent so much time investing in the creation of this character and meeting people via this avatar that I was playing online. And it seemed incomprehensible that that could all just go away.”
Bell gained second-hand experience of online gaming from Bowen, his longtime friend. This experience eventually sowed the seeds for Other World, he admits.
“I had watched Jeff play games, and I would sit kind of in the backseat while he was driving the game,” Bell says. “And I was like, ‘This is fascinating.’
“Connecting with people online… it’s much more in the zeitgeist now, of course, because of the pandemic — how we connect virtually. But this was pre-pandemic, [and Jeff was] connecting with gamers — folks he did not know. I was fascinated by people making connections, creating identities, and having a life experience online through an avatar creation, to say nothing to the connection of the chosen family.”
Campbell-Holt believes these aspects of connection and chosen family are what power the soul of Other World. The two themes were evident even behind the scenes when the creative team first adapted to the pandemic back in 2020.
“Hunter said on the first day of rehearsal, ‘It feels sort of appropriate that we’re meeting virtually for our first rehearsal,’” the director says. “This is a show about virtual connection. And obviously, we’ve all gotten much more fluent in connecting virtually over Zoom and the like during the pandemic.
“The stories that that [Other World] brings together, it’s the intersection of so many different perspectives, because the gaming community is so diverse. Our show really aims to put an incredible variety of those characters on stage.”
— The world premiere of Other World runs from February 23 to March 30 at Delaware Theatre Company. For tickets and more information visit DelawareTheatre.org