“Other World” seems like the perfect temporary escape from reality. Running at Delaware Theatre Company from Feb. 23-March 20, this new, original musical directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt follows Shri (Jamen Nanthakumar) and Lorraine (Bonnie Milligan) as they are abruptly pulled into a video game world and have a limited amount of time to find their way out. Gamers will appreciate this visually stunning, Massive Multiplayer Online-inspired (MMO) show with choreography by Karla Puno Garcia, but Other World promises to wend its way into all hearts, gamer or not.
Book writer Hunter Bell, music and lyric writer Jeff Bowen, and star Nanthakumar sat down with PGN to discuss the show’s themes, the queerness of the gaming world, the inspiration behind the show’s setting and more.
Tell me about “Other World”:
Hunter Bell: The backdrop is gaming, but I think the heart of our show is about family. Biological family, chosen family, connection, loss, why we create and why we play. It’s an original musical, it’s not based on any movie, book, other IP (intellectual property), comic, or existing video game. We’re really excited and proud of that, too.
What’s it like doing an original musical, as opposed to an adaptation or revival?
Jamen Nanthakumar: It’s definitely very exciting. You get to see so many unique changes put in every day that really tailors it to the people who are doing it. You’re not bound by any source material, so the sky’s the limit with what you can do with that. It’s been exciting to see how things have changed from even three days ago to today, and still ongoing.
How does the show speak to LGBTQ communities?
Nanthakumar: As an actor who is gay and playing a gay role, lots of times with these marginalized identities, when they’re written about in theater, it is about that identity. I think what’s interesting about this show is that all these marginalized identities exist, but it’s not a story about that. That kind of lets my more honest truth, my queerness, show up a bit more because I’m not representing the entire community, I’m representing my experience.
Jeff Bowen: Hunter and I had an experience before creating a show that had gay characters in it, but it was not the crux of the story. I felt like we ended up getting more of a universal — people seeing themselves in a different kind of way. They got to see their hobbies and interests and personalities, as opposed to things that are specifically labeled to them being gay. The character Shri is a gaming nerd who spends a lot of time at home and is quirky and odd, so it’s more important to identify with the introversion and that identity than it is necessarily anything related to him being [gay].”
Bell: There’s something about taking excitement and pride of evolution of standing on the shoulders of queer writers, Terrence McNally I think about, and book writers. Now, how cool it is to be able to tell stories where it is a part of them and no one’s struggling with it. It’s the celebration of that identity but it’s the celebration of all aspects of their lives. It’s not diminished, it’s not the focus, but it’s the totality of the person. As queer folks we want to be seen in the world and exist in the earth world, we want to exist in the gaming world.
I do think it comes through in that DNA too, especially when you talk about chosen family and how a lot of time queer folks make their own families. That’s true certainly in the show of gamers kind of finding other guild members. And certainly how gaming intersects with ‘gaymer;’ I think there’s a big intersection in that community of how the show meets the queer community, not just in the storytelling, but there are a lot of awesome queer gamers out there making really cool stuff and always pushing to the forefront of creativity and design.
I’m slowly but surely learning that there is a whole community of queer gamers. What kinds of video games inspired you for the show?
Bowen: For the creation of it, we looked mostly at MMO role-playing games (RPGs), sort of global communities where people are role playing things like World of Warcraft. A lot of it was inspired by a video game called City of Heroes, which was with a company called Paragon Studies in the early-mid 2000s.
The idea of a place where people around the planet are playing characters, they create avatars, they go on missions together, they don’t necessarily need to be connected visually. Most MMOs are sort of optional, so if you want to be with your gaming group, if you’re like, ‘hey we’re all going to be on Zoom, we’ll do it together,’ you can do that. But you can also just communicate via the chat window that’s built into the gaming system. Allowing a window into the preferences different gamers have as to whether or not they want to be seen, or they can just be heard, they can do audio like for [the game] Discord or something where you’re just doing the audio chat. That gave us that platform that was wide-reaching in the ways people communicate and connect while gaming.
Nanthakumar: Since 9th grade I’ve thought about how the quote-unquote World of Warcraft musical would be and how that would be presented. I think that this is the way that it should be done, where you get to see the connections of the players. I always pictured it as in-game, but I actually think that it’s super cool to have it from the players’ point of view. There’s so many different cool little easter eggs and nuggets for the gamers to pick up on and have fun with, but it is also much more than that because it brings in that human element and it’s not just about the game. Non-gamers too will walk away with something very special as well, even if they might not get what ‘control your pets’ means.
When I was a kid, I played lots of Mario Kart and occasionally Zelda, sort of the older games. I’m not really ensconced in the video game world right now, but I can appreciate it.
Bell: We worked hard to honor folks that love this world and are passionate about it and respect it. It’s a really cool, creative community of folks, but also we want to write a show that welcomes folks and invites them in to maybe understand why people are passionate about gaming. Hopefully we’ve done that successfully. Your entrée into the show might be Shri, the hardcore gamer, or maybe Lorraine, the other co-protagonist who is a non-gamer. Once you’re in that world hopefully you just fall in love with the characters and the story, and away you go and you take the ride.
Nanthakumar: And it looks so cool!
You’re working with designers who worked on Avatar and some other big-name productions, right?
Bell: It’s a fictional video game, so the IP doesn’t exist. We had to start somewhere – what does that look like? What is one of the most incredible world builders in the world and incredible design teams – they conceptualize and build the worlds. Myself, Jeff Bowen and our other co-writer Ann McNamee, we can write words and lyrics and music, and we can ideate, but we needed a partner to take that, interpret it into images. Maybe someday it will actually be a game, that would be awesome. It’s been really exciting working with them.
I hope the community takes pride and comes out for a big, beautiful, fabulous, queer, gaming musical. We say our show’s about connection and how you find connection. That’s the last piece of the puzzle, connection with audiences in the community.
Nanthakumar: Your heart will definitely grow 10 times bigger before you leave the show.
For tickets, visit: https://www.delawaretheatre.org/.