Aya Ogawa Discusses “Ludic Proxy,” the Latest From the Play Co.

Video still of the Pripyat model from "Ludic Proxy"

Video still of the Pripyat model from “Ludic Proxy”

At heart, Ludic Proxy, the new play written and directed by Aya Ogawa for the Play Company (at the Walker Space through May 2, tickets $35/$15) is an exercise in the implications of active choice—the consequences of our decisions and their impact of how we live. So it was fitting that, when asked to explain the genesis of the interactive, multilayered play, Ogawa elected to leave the story in the hands of her interviewer.

“There are several starting points,” she offered, laughing. “Maybe you can choose the one you find most compelling.”

Indeed, the piece that grew to become Ludic Proxy emerged from a critical mass of near simultaneous provocations. Back in the spring of 2011, Ogawa was working on a project initiated by the Foundry Theatre called “NYC…Just As I Pictured It,” in which five theater companies were each paired with a social justice organization in New York City to produce a play. Ogawa wrote and directed a piece called Journey to the Ocean with Adhikaar, an organization supporting the city’s Nepalese community, mainly based in Queens. It was around this time she received the commission from the Play Company for what became Ludic Proxy.

“I was working with about a dozen Nepalese women,” Ogawa recalled recently, “most of whom were domestic workers who had been trafficked here illegally. They had these incredible stories about being here and being unable to return home because of their circumstances.”

“Coincidentally at the same time I was working on this play, my husband was playing this video game at home called Uncharted,” she continued. “It was kind of an Indiana Jones type game where you’re playing an adventurer and artifact collector where you’re fighting evil Nazis and there are lots of explosions and stuff. But in the middle of the this very violent game, there was this one scene that took place in what I thought looked like a Nepalese village in the Himalayas. And in this scene there was no goal—you could send as much time in it as you wanted, you can go talk to villagers, you can go pet a yak, you can talk with kids.”

In short, “It was so specific that I sort of wondered whether this maybe wasn’t a real village they modeled it after. And that if one of the Nepalese women I was working with, who yearned so much to go home saw this game and recognized that village in the game, and they could experience their home through this technology.”

At the same time she was being provoked by the notion of a virtual reality engagement with a real place, Ogawa—who was born in Tokyo—watched with horror from afar as Japan was convulsed in nuclear terror followed the devastating March 11, 2011 earthquake, which critically damaged the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, an event she described as a “psychically and psychologically traumatic” for her and most other Japanese.

Fearful of what the future held in the wake of the disaster, Ogawa—like many—looked to the past: specifically, Chernobyl, the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine, which provided a glimpse of what the aftermath of a nuclear disaster looked like three decades on. And again, video games popped up.

“On Facebook a friend of mine, I don’t even know how it came up, he’s like, there’s actually a video game that’s set in Pripyat”—the town built to house the Chernobyl workers back in 1970, a modern ghost town in the uninhabitable fall-out zone—“that’s designed very geographically accurate.”

It was this combination, the Nepalese idyll in Uncharted and the violent nightmare in Call of Duty 4—that came together as the inspiration of Ludic Proxy. When I characterized the play as triptych exploring past, present, and future, set in Chernobyl, Fukushima, and online, Ogawa laughed and gave me a “sort of” response. In fact, the three-act play is set mostly in the present. The first act takes place in contemporary Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where Ukrainian immigrants grapple with the discrepancies between their memories of Pripyat and the violent but hauntingly familiar video game representation. The second act is set in present day Fukushima, but instead of using a virtual reality to interrogate memory, the scene itself is structured as a video game operated by the audience’s collective decision-making. The third act is set in an imagined, post-apocalyptic future, where the terrors explored in the first two acts have made the earth’s surface uninhabitable, forcing people to live underground, their only experience of the “real world” via the aegis of virtual reality imaginings.

If all that sounds tricky to pull-off—and, given the poor poor history of theater dealing with “video game” style realities, likely hokey in execution—fear not: Ogawa was acutely aware of just how hard it would be to execute these shifts between the “real” and the “virtual.”

In the first scene, for instance, when she was writing the play, Ogawa told me she “just assumed whatever space was defined as the apartment onstage would be constant throughout, and that the shift” between the rose-tinted memory world and the virtual video-game reconstruction of the post-disaster contemporary “would be through lighting—like this is the rosey one, this is the dilapidated one.”

It was a practical decision since there was no way they could match a game like Call of Duty’s sophisticated virtual reality engine through, say, video. But when they started working on the production, Ogawa quickly realized it was problematic (or at least underwhelming) to try to capture these perceptional shifts through mere lighting. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, Ogawa’s long-time lighting and video designer, proposed they find a dramatically different solution, which ultimately led scenic desiger Jian Jung, unsurprisingly an excellent model builder, to reconstruct the apartment set as a model which was filmed using extremely small-scale medical cameras, creating a distinctive and rich aesthetic alternative to trying (and failing) to mimic video games.

Indeed, over the course of the play’s development, Ogawa admits her intentions and responses to her inspiring material evolved.

“I was horrified by the way we take these real life tragedies and turn them into these consumable entertainments,” Ogawa told me of her initial response to video games like Call of Duty. “So I was like, ‘Well let me go really far in this direction. I’ll make this game scene in Fukushima and at the end of this, you know what? Zombie apocalypse.’ Because that’s what happens in a video game.”

That was draft one of the script, which she acknowledges “really horrified people, and rightly so.”

But if that was the end point, she realized, “It stops right there—I’m just making a commentary on video games and how disturbing they are. What I realized was there so much more opportunity in the idea of game play. It allows the audience to get invested in the story in a way that’s so intimate.”

So the blunt social commentary was let go and a more nuanced and, Ogawa hopes, sophisticated and provocative exploration of what can emerge from these interactive virtual realities emerged.

Chock it up to artistic pretension or perhaps just society having reached peak-zombie, but I, at least, was relieved to finally have someone characterize defaulting to a zombie apocalypse as “missing an opportunity.”

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