If you’ve never attended Dorks in Dungeons LIVE! Onstage, you might want to get to your first Portsmouth showing, if not early, then right on time. At the start of every show, Game Master Brian Kelly gives the audience a brief explanation.
More like a statement of assurance.
He asks, “Do you know what a giant is? Do you know what a dragon is?” If the audience members nod their heads, then he consoles them, “You’ll be all right.”
The regular cast and crew call Dorks in Dungeons a fantasy improv comedy show based on Dungeons & Dragons, a role-playing dice game in which players create imaginary characters in a fantasy world and set off on quests. However, in order to appease a wider audience, they’ve cut down on the confusing/boring elements of the game to create a system of improvisation that’s slowly garnered a slew of attention and almost cult following in Portsmouth.
The group has performed as the headliner at the Hal-Con in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the second-largest fantasy/sci-fi convention in Canada, and they’ll be guests of honor at PortConMaine come June. The cast and crew also join Seven Stages Shakespeare Company as the Rude Mechanicals in the ShakesBEERience production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in May. Their next regular performance is April 13 at the Seacoast Rep.
“We have a lot of audience members who’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons. They don’t know what it’s all about, yet they’re regulars,” Kelly said in a phone interview. As game master, he’s sort of like Drew Carey on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, except in their version, the actors only ever play one game.
While it’s true you don’t need to be a gamer to get it, there are a few other things you should know beforehand. The heroes of the show — Cullen DeLangie as The Great Mimoso, Teddi Kenick-Bailey as Loxi, Brian Paul as Yorgen Hamfiston and Molly Dowd Sullivan as Phyona Darkblack — are members of a fantasy postal service, based on general characters within the Dungeons & Dragons rulebook. The improvisors — Kevin Baringer, Mike Ficara, Robin Fowler, Jessica Miller and Glenn Provost — fill in as other characters that need to be played.
Theirs is an ongoing story, but not so ongoing that you can’t stop in at any point. Kelly has a very basic outline of what’s going to happen throughout every performance (about three sentences, to be exact), and the improvisors fill in those blanks.
But there’s a catch: Every time a hero wants to do something — swing a sword, start a fight, bribe the guard — he has to roll a 20-sided die. That score, one being very poor, 20 very good, will determine how well that character performs the task.
The show, which began in July 2012, has evolved quite a bit since first production.
“It was definitely a strange evolution,” Kelly said. “One of our producers and co-creators, Kathleen Calvaro, was given two weekends to fill a theater. The catch was that she couldn’t put on any plays. She filled it with stand-up comedy, alternative acts, and the times that weren’t filled, Sam Bennett and I decided to play Dungeons & Dragons live with funny people. Instead of just having one game master play all the characters, we had some actors come onstage.”
That first show wasn’t exactly a show-stopper.
“It was very much like how you’d watch a chess tournament,” Kelly said. “Overhead, there was a camera on the game table. … The game is really fun to play with your friends, but not super fun to watch.”
But people liked it, and so co-producers — who now include Cavalaro, Kelly and Brian Paul — decided to keep at it.
“Two weekends in, we pitched it to the Players’ Ring in Portsmouth. … They gave us a slot every month for the whole theater season, which meant about 10 shows. Every month, we kind of started fine-tuning it,” Kelly said. “It really became a thing all in its own. We even wrote a book about it.”
The audience response took them by surprise.
“We had no idea if anyone would care,” Paul said. “It started just as a crazy idea to fill time up onstage. What surprised me was the hard-core audience, that ‘cult following,’ was not necessarily the gamers, the people who would know our source material. We started getting people watching who were more theater buffs, people who I’d think were too highbrow for what we were doing.”
The production every month is the result of a lot of luck and hard work, Kelly said, but he thinks people come back because it’s something different. They’re not the first to perform fantasy improv, but they’re the first to do it quite like this, and the first to do so on the Seacoast.
Another reason could be that audiences get kind of a say in what happens; those guests who order tickets in advance get an action point, i.e., a poker chip with stickers on it. If said audience member doesn’t like a particular roll an actor makes, he can toss the chip onstage — hopefully without hitting anybody — and demand a re-roll.
Nostalgia could be part of it, too.
“I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school. So did a lot of our cast. Some still play,” Kelly said. “It’s a social activity. … I’m generalizing here, but if you were playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school, you probably weren’t invited to a lot of parties. It was a good way to meet and hang out with like-minded people. I think a lot of people have really fond memories of the game, and our appeal is that nostalgia.”
As seen in the April 10, 2014 issue of the Hippo.