Wii Tennis. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. Alien Monster Bowling League. Let’s Tap. You know them as games for Nintendo’s Wii console, but they’re also the inspiration for some of New York City’s most talented playwrights.
This week, Ars Nova, a collaborative not-for-profit off-Broadway theater company, opened The Wii Plays, a night of original short plays inspired by Wii titles. Note the “inspired by,” as that’s significant -- these aren’t adaptations of your favorite Wii titles, although at least one play does feature actors dressed up as Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario.
Instead, the Ars writers -- a diverse team of talent that cycles yearly -- used game titles, and sometimes themes, as a jumping-off point. This isn’t their first foray into using pop culture and technology to inspire: last year it ran a series inspired by Craigslist’s “Missed Connections,” and previously was sparked by Wikipedia entries and even iTunes.
“We found [that the] idea of technology was really connecting to the pop culture,” Ars Nova’s artistic director, Jason Eagan, told me. “[It] made it not just another night of short plays.”
When the concept of The Wii Plays came around between the group for consideration, it was “a resounding ‘yes’” from everyone involved.
“I think the videogame world has so much creativity and there’s so much for a writer that they felt very open to stretch their creativity,” Eagan explains.
It’s interesting to hear how each of the writers handled the material: some went for a more literal approach, and others came to the challenge with more broad strokes. “Wii Tennis,” for example, finds two ex-lovers in a chance meeting at a coffee shop. Old wounds open and tempers flare, and things take a decidedly dramatic turn when they rip off their clothes to reveal tennis attire, each of them brandishing a Wii Tennis racket peripheral. As they quarrel, sounds ripped from Wii Sports’ tennis provide the soundtrack, and the footage of the game itself is used as the backdrop.
Another, based on Sega’s Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games, actually finds two actors literally playing as the titular icons. It seems Sonic isn’t doing so well in the Winter Games, getting beaten by Nintendo’s plumber. Ever the good guy, Mario attempts to raise Sonic’s spirits by trying to persuade him to team up and become his bobsled partner.
“There’s not an Ars Nova kind of writer,” Eagan tells me, “but actually we’re celebrating their differences and writers and their approach, and I think that comes through a lot in this.”
Add in a fully accessible bar, playable Wii game kiosks for the audience to enjoy before the plays start, and a live band (the Brooklyn-based indie group Super Mirage), and it sounds like a hell of a celebration indeed.
With videogames colliding with this more traditional art form, you may be interested in knowing where Eagan sits on the “videogames as art” debate. He admits with a nervous chuckle that he’s “not well-versed in the argument,” but praises their design and advancing technology.
“I think it would be ridiculous to ignore it as an art form, seeing how it has the impact that it does, especially [on] younger generations, who I think are so influenced and inspired by that world,” he says, “so it feels a little naive to ignore it as an art form.”
If you’re in the NYC area, check out how some artists were inspired by videogames with Ars Nova and The Wii Plays. With help from the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s one of Ars’ longest running shows, from February 1 through February 12. More info can be found on Ars Nova’s official website.
[Header image - Pictured: Zack Shaffer and Robbie Sublett; Photo by: Carol Rosegg]