“Poor Players”: The Most Entertaining Way to Do the Least Entertaining Part of Theater
“I’ve been trying to play games with my nieces over Zoom,” Untitled Theater Company #61’s artistic director Edward Einhorn was telling me over a recent (yes, Zoom) interview. “Over the summer, while they were off from school. Both to entertain them but also to connect with them without being physically in their presence. I was figuring out what games worked over Zoom and what didn’t, and I found these obscure little roleplaying games that were just PDFs and all dice-based, and I was like, ‘I could adapt that game!’ It felt like a really good thing to do during COVID.”
By “that game,” Einhorn is referring to Poor Players, a Zoom-based roleplaying game that he’s been hosting every other weekend for a modest ticket cost of $5 (the last currently scheduled event is this Sunday, March 7, at 5 pm). I took part in one at the insistence of my partner a few weeks ago, and not without a great deal of trepidation. Like many people, I expect, I’ve found the entire concept of Zoom theater somehow both stressful and not entirely satisfying, and a performance that’s basically roleplaying as an independent theater company staging a Shakespeare play was, to my mind, two more reasons not to take part. But by the end of the session, I found myself more than pleasantly surprised: As well as being entertaining, I felt like I had just experienced a great exercise in understanding the challenges facing independent artists as they struggle to make work. Anyone remotely interested in supporting artists making art I would heartily invite to join in: Not because it will teach anyone who’s had to self-produce much, but because you’ll easily leave it with a list of people (funders, presenters, anyone who’s taking part in APAP) you think could benefit from a round of the game themselves.
The origins of Poor Players are actually quite a bit older than our current pandemic-enforced virtual-theater moment. “I was into roleplaying games,” Einhorn told me, “and a friend told me people were making Shakespearean roleplaying games, and I thought that would be interesting to do from the perspective of someone actually in theater rather than somebody envisioning a Shakespeare play.”
Conceived as a one-off event (“I probably spent more time than I should have for one night,” Einhorn recalled, laughing), Poor Players originally appeared around a decade ago, as part of the Brick’s Game Play Festival, in which artists created performances based on or around games—videogames, board games, etc. Inspired by his experiences with his nieces in summer 2020, Einhorn returned to the original concept, added some tweaks to the rules, and re-envisioned Poor Players as a virtual, rather than in-person, roleplaying game event.
The concept is fairly simple: The participants either individually or as a team play the role of an independent theater maker who’s decided to stage a Shakespeare play. While it envisions each player as an artist, really, the game is limited to the vicissitudes of self-producing the show: Can you fund what you choose to do, and, in the end, do you come out in the black or in the red?
Each player comes up with a company name and mission statement, and then, using the simple PDF guide, decides on which play to perform in order to encounter their first real challenges.
“It’s a short-hand,” Einhorn explained of the choice to base the game around Shakespeare. Strictly speaking, you don’t really have to know anything about the play you choose to produce (we went for Titus Andronicus, the plot of which I barely recall except for the writing-in-blood and, I think, eating children?). But as a baseline, it works well for gameplay: The plays are relatively well-known, and therefore it’s somewhat obvious how the numeric values attached to each of them are developed.
“It was really just looking at them and making some arbitrary decisions,” Einhorn told me. “Most of them I know pretty well, and at this point I’ve seen multiple productions of even the obscure plays. I mean, nobody should have to see multiple productions of Henry VIII…”
Whichever play you choose establishes the variables the rest of the gameplay depends on. The relative reputation of the play (e.g., Hamlet receives a different ranking from Timon of Athens) becomes a variable in how likely audiences are to see it; a conservative choice of a well-known and liked play may make it easier to get people in, but the rewards are lower, whereas a riskier choice of a less well-known play (there’s even the option of staging a “lost” Shakespeare play) will be harder to pull-off, but offers potentially higher rewards. Similarly, the choice of which play to produce defines the number of actors required to do the play, which, in turn, affects the cost, because most of the game play is about making sure you have money to fund what you’ve chosen to do. After choosing the play, you also decide what sort of production you want to put on: Is it a rental (high upfront costs but you get all the box office), a co-production (lower cost but less box office revenue), or a free performance in the part (no cost, but you’ve decided to forego any box office revenue whatsoever).
And then it’s off, all down to the dice. (Dice are all that’s required to join into gameplay, and even if you don’t have a physical pair, there are plenty of websites that offer dice-based random number generators that work just as well). Each round of play is a single week in the production timeline; the choices you make throughout establish different variables which become multipliers based on a roll of the dice. How much do you spend on casting? How much do you spend on rehearsal space? Invest a lot in a set, which gives you reputation points that can help as a multiplier at the box office, or save money early on by using chairs and actors’ street clothes? Additionally, there are chance-based challenges based on dice rolls: An actor can become sick, leaving you with additional options and costs to play out to replace them.
The whole time, you’re also balancing the books. Each choice you make will present a cost either immediately or in the future. Even as you produce the show, you’re fundraising: Soliciting donations, applying for grants, and, ultimately, collecting your portion of box-office. Each week, you close the books as part of each round; you have some wiggle room to slip into the red, but overdraft your bank account too much and the next week your production is delayed until you can make up the difference, which can cost you success points from active rehearsals, and so on and on and on.
Anyone who’s ever self-produced gets these challenges; what makes Poor Players so effective, I think, is that by and large they feel real and accurate.
“I realized that even people in indie theater didn’t really understand the economics of indie theater unless they had been a producer,” said Einhorn of his experiences playing the game. “At some point I joked to someone that I don’t want to cast anyone unless they’ve had to try to produce their own show, because they have no idea what’s going on!”
“I don’t really believe that,” he said, adding: “But I think it’s interesting to people in theater. Even this time through, people were like, ‘I never considered what this economics were until I went through this.’”
Poor Players isn’t so much a game about winning or losing, and the final metric by which the participants can be compared is how the books look when the show closes. Did you break even, make a little profit? Or do you have crushing credit card bills now to cover your losses?
“I’m finding that it’s close to fifty-fifty, a little under, depending on what they prioritize,” Einhorn said of the likelihood a player comes out in the black. “And that is way too optimistic.”
As entertaining as I did find playing the game, what struck me as we went through was its potential as a pedagogical tool. Einhorn sees interest in it for students. “When you’re in school, you have no idea what making theater is,” he noted drily, “and the cold, hard realization that that was the nicest theater you’ll be working in for a long, long time really hits people.”
But with that said, the practical aspects of the gameplay do an excellent job of revealing the trade-offs and challenges any independent art maker faces producing their work. While developing a staging of an existing play isn’t entirely the same as a devising process, let alone creating a dance or movement piece, I felt like enough of what makes up the meat of gameplay is recognizable in those contexts that the potential value of something like Poor Players is widespread. While the fact that the success or failure of a grant application is determined by dice roll is probably fitting if you’ve ever been an applicant, the value I saw in the game was how well it put these variables in relation to one another as part of the production process. I legitimately think that various arts stakeholders, from grant giving organizations to presenters, probably haven’t really faced these challenges in real life (or at least, not recently) and that Poor Players is an excellent opportunity for them to become (re-)acquainted with the practical economic challenges of actually creating art. And the fact that Poor Players almost entirely dispenses with the specifics of what you’re making to focus on what you need to get it done makes it an excellent exercise in helping people focus on those challenges. I legitimately believe most attendees to APAP next year would benefit from an hour of playing this game.
“That’s the thing,” Einhorn told me. “Anything, when you gamify it, can become about money because it’s about numbers.”