One Hun Dread

This is my 100th post, which means I'm averaging about 20 per month, which would probably make Odin's Aviary the most successful journal I've ever kept ever, even if I stopped right now, never to write another word here again.

But I won't.

Special thanks, too, to my fellow nerds of Camp Nerdly for their interest in my first Nerdly post (see


), for they did--in one day--double my readership. That's right! I had almost


new readers that day! What what!

almost 'asploded!

Owing to this momentous occasion, it seems fitting either to:

  • Look back on the Aviary's droppings from the past, a la Three's Company's annual episode comprised entirely of weakly incorporated clips from previous seasons;


Accordingly, I shall do neither. Instead, I shall write a bit more on this concept of The Third Life(patent pending). (Thanks to Jason Morningstar for unintentionally motivating me to revisit this theme. I owe you the user manual to The Turtle Amulet.) When I began this 'blog, way back in the halcyon days of my youth--December 2006--I began it without purpose, and my first entry simply declaimed that fact in an effort to change it. Shortly thereafter, I found a subject both general enough and compelling enough to make daily writings addressing it a realistic possibility. Not satisfied with having purpose, however, I felt compelled to give it a name that I culled from myriad personal cultural references, thereby assuring that no one would have any concept of just what in the hell I was referring to when I used said name. I dubbed this subject The Third Life.

The Third Life refers to the examined life, the one intentional, with something significant in addition to working and family/friends. I tend to see the third option as something artistic in spirit, but that is a personal bias and anything can be done artfully, so I would modify that condition to exclude only "hobbies." If it's a "hobby," it ain't your "Third." Conversely, simply aiming to make something creative in nature into one's career does not qualify. Take my goal of becoming full-time in my professional acting, for example. If I achieve this aim, it does not necessarily mean that I am living The Third Life. It's not about material success. It's more about working in the spirit of truth.

Kinda dippy sounding, I know. Nevertheless, I mean it. In acting it can be pretty easy to accidentally fly through a show on automatic pilot, or act for audience response more than the truth of the moment on stage, and I see this in life as well. Have you ever felt like you were suddenly woken from a kind of zombie-like routine you were barely aware of? Have you ever driven yourself (and those patiently tolerating you) crazy with trying to please everyone, or in other cases only yourself? These are things I feel happen to me when I slip in life, when I wander off this incredibly difficult path I've chosen for myself. Some people do just fine living a "normal" life artfully, or not worrying the art to living. Me, I need to have a pursuit, an exploration, akin to religion. Not that I'm looking for answers, necessarily. Maybe meaning. Maybe something else entirely that will surprise me.

There may come a day when I stop acting. Well, maybe not "stop acting." I don't think I could ever do that completely at this point; it will live through whatever I do from here on out. But there could come a day when I cease the struggle to be an actor in the no-holds-barred sense of the role. Indeed, in the progress of building this here weblog I have more than once wondered, "Have I started this thing only to have it record the cessation of the career I began it to support?" (Yes, I use this kind of vocabulary and syntax when I'm thinking to myself. That should clear a lot up for you vis-a-vis my writing style and considerable pauses in conversation.) I frequently try to imagine myself as a teacher, or even a writer (a career that vies for that esteemed category of "Most Impossible to Make a Living At"), and fantasize that life would be so much simpler down those paths. I don't know if that's necessarily true, but at times it's hard to imagine anything being more difficult than what I'm doing now.

Inevitably, I stop for a moment in these thoughts, and look around me, and realize that there's nothing I'd rather be doing. Teaching might offer me more security in life. Writing may encourage an all-around more peaceful existence. Being a paralegal . . . well, that would still just all-around suck. The point is, I am still doing what makes me happy, no matter how miserable it may sometimes be. Maybe someday what makes me happy will change. If it does, I hope I'm up to the challenge of recognizing that.

A couple of nights ago I had dinner with a friend, a fellow actor who had just returned from a week-long gig out of town that involved some friends and a teacher he hadn't worked with in a long time. He came back energized to take his craft by the bootstraps and heave it back onto its feet, and it was inspiring. I thought about how some of the best people I have ever known, people who just impress the hell out of me in one way or another, lead these kinds of "unconventional" lives. They pursue family (blood or otherwise), career . . . and something else. However I can find it, that's the life for me.

And now I've got sea shanties stuck in my head.

Let the Games Begin

So I'm still thinking muchly about

Camp Nerdly

and with what I came away from it. The connections between it and some of my other work--in a theatrical milieu--are striking. Here are some of my thoughts on this . . .

As Far As We Know

: A show developed through the combination of elements from

actual events

and improvisational explorations of the ramifications of those events on the people involved. I was reminded of this show whilst playing

Dogs in the Vineyard

, what with the cultural fact/fiction overlap and the issues of faith and violence that are predominant to that particular game. I played a character taken from Mormon history, who believed in blood-letting being good for the purification of the soul. (This is based in biblical quotation, believe it or not. Mormons do not believe this now.) It was hard to find a way to play this character with sincerity, since his beliefs were so different from my own, and I feel very strongly about issues such as missionary work, the concept of sin and the pursuit of violent means for a peaceful end. Playing a soldier in

As Far As We Know

has helped me explore some of these issues, and so playing

Dogs in the Vineyard

was made more difficult for me given my inability to disassociate from the implications of its story. This difficulty made for a good game, because it's a game that thrives on conflict, internal and external. Rather like theatre.

In Bocca al Lupo

: This isn't a show, but an entire program involving traveling to Italy, taking Italian classes and teaching commedia dell'arte to American students, all of it culminating in a show in that style performed in Italian, for Italians. The Camp Nerdly experience was reminiscent of last year's first contact with Italy, in that at first I felt incapable of contributing anything due to the language barrier, but eventually I learned to express myself to good effect. Moreover, I had two experiences directly relevant to the work I do in

In Bocca al Lupo

: I was constantly trying to pick up the rules as I went along, and I got to participate in an improvisation class as a student (whereas lately I have invariably been the teacher). There is much to apply from these experiences to my teaching. (Is there no word, in any language, to encapsulate the phenomenon between student and teacher in which both are constantly learning from one another?) Mistakes can be learned from in terms of improving one's craft, but still others can serve to simply blow the doors off conventional wisdom, and thereby make new rules. Game-playing generates desire in addition to goals, which in turn can fuel a performance. And what of the element of chance? We in theatre talk a good game when we spout off about audience interaction and ad lib dialogue, but most of our efforts at creating theatre are concerned with removing elements of chance. How many of us would be willing to trust a plot change to a chaotic mechanic element?

Zuppa del Giorno

: This is the connection that felt most fruitful for me. In fact, it may merit an entire entry of its own some time this month, but for now a few observations. For our first show as

Zuppa del Giorno

(the mad-cap contemporary commedia dell'arte troupe) each actor was asked to build four characters from scratch, based on an appetite or desire and with certain details fleshed in. These characters were applied to a scenario we had already begun to conceive of, and there was a back-and-forth between the two as we tried to work out the entire show. It was a rather painstaking process, particularly because we were doing it for the first time, but eventually we developed a show called

Noble Aspirations

. Playing


with Clinton R. Nixon while at Camp Nerdly, I and my fellow journeypersons created an entire world in under two hours, and somehow without once screaming at somebody for holding up the process. Now, that hardly compares--in terms of priorities--to the work of


. We have many additional pressures upon us, not the least of which is to create something accessible to a wide community of audience members. Yet there was something in the


system that was highly effective, and which must be applicable. Our


shows are almost always created from very specific given circumstances (see the development sites for

Operation Opera

and the burgeoning

Prohibitive Standards

), just as the


system works. Even putting


aside for a moment, most role-playing games have something interesting to add to the method of creating a character, either from scratch or from the given circumstances of a script.

One interesting thing to note when comparing role-playing with theatre is a term used in the former's circles: conflict resolution mechanism. This term refers to the dice rolls, or the card draws, or what-have-you device used in determining things otherwise undetermined, such as whether or not you can succeed in leaping from a moving car and survive. In theatre,


generally speaking, there is no conflict resolution per se, apart perhaps from the comedies that supposedly end happily when everyone gets married off. Conflicts can transform, but the moment they become resolved is the end of the show, because the audience came to see a fight. "The show must go on" is not simply an axiom expressing an actor's work ethic, but the spirit of theatre in general. Is it any wonder that so much of our entertainment (including role-playing games) is motivated by battle or violence? It's a tireless metaphor for individual struggle.

If a "conflict resolution mechanism" existed in real life, we'd have nothing to tell stories about.

Stranger in a Strange Land

After work on Thursday last I hopped on ye olde Chinatowne bus and eventually found myself back in my homeland of Northern Virginia, or NoVa. Friend Younce picked me up from the heart of DC's Chinatown (something like a four-block area, but I was smack dab in the middle of it [forget it, Jeff; it's Chinatown]) and drove me unexpectedly to an IHoP in the center of . . . well . . . Centreville. There, much to my pleasant surprise, waited friends Davey and Mark. I had not expected to have time to see them, given the weekend's unusual activity. We ate pancakes, and were generally rowdy. They threw us out, in fact. Not for the rowdiness, so much as because we failed to realize that their "Open 24 Hours" sign referred only to Fridays and Saturdays, and at midnight we showed no signs of slowing down. What can I say? That's how we roll. We bid le IHoP and Davey and Mark adieu, and Younce and I went to rest up for our adventure.

I mean adventure rather literally in this context.

So Friday morning we were up-and-at-'em, headed directly to the Costco to purchase absurd amounts of meat and dairy products. This took some time, and we ended up visiting a great many grocery stores, for we were working from a very specific list. Then it was down to Prince William Forest for to begin said adventure . . .

Camp Nerdly(TM).

Yes: Camp Nerdly. The brainchild of Friend Younce and several other role-playing enthusiasts, Camp Nerdly is exactly what it sounds like. For a whole weekend, some nigh-on-seventy nerds, geeks, dorks, dweebs and INSERT DEGRADING-CUM-CHIC TERM HEREs gathered in the woods and did what they do best. No; no, neither awkward conversation nor mind-bending computer programming. Something else. To wit: role playing. In a vasty variety of forms, excluding (as far as my experience goes, at any rate) only the sexual variety. (In part to supplant this unfortunate connotation, many geeks refer to it as "gaming" instead.) I was there. I participated with enthusiasm. Hi. My name is Jeff Wills, and I am a nerd. Now, how in the hell did I get here?

Let me give you a little background. I was, for some time, one of those kids that wasn't good at sports, didn't wear cool clothes and couldn't really parlay my wit into regular entertainment for my peers. I like to think I was a dork. Some may have viewed me as a nerd (much more of a lost cause), others as a geek (I seemed, but never was, really that smart, though), but I stick with dork. The glasses pushed me toward nerdlydom, but I also had this compulsion to jump around and perform that didn't quite fit with that image. So: dork. So were my friends (Yes you were! Don't lie! You know it!) and around age eleven or so, the games began.

We started with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game (very big at the time), and rapidly gave it up for Rifts. When I got into high school my social circle shifted and widened, and it became overnight sessions of Dungeons & Dragons and a game simply titled Vampire. Toward the second half of high school, I started attending these sessions less and less. My time was getting taken up more and more with after-school and weekend theatrical adventures, and by the end of my sixteenth year I was being exposed to (and enjoying the exposure of) girls, which can of course wipe just about any slate clean. There were a couple more-notable gaming adventures thereafter, but college was the final nail in the role-playing coffin. I would turn all my energy to training to be, and eventually being, a professional actor. For about a decade, that would receive almost all of my creative energy. R.I.P., Rifts. Dust to dust, Dungeons & Dragons.

Turns out role-playing games are immortal.

Either that, or I only slew my appetite for them with a boffer weapon.

You have to appreciate that, at Camp Nerdly, the nerds are hardcore. Hardcore! I'm not kidding. I spent a good deal of the first twenty-four hours intimidated as hell, and I will own up to it. It would be easy to claim that I was surrounded by weirdos that I had nothing in common with, to chalk my awkwardness up to their unfamiliar eccentricities, but such a claim would ultimately be a ruse, and not the clever variety. No, I was intimidated by them: by their insider knowledge and their sheer mental acuity and flexibility. One of the first "games" I witnessed actually arose out of conversation between two of the Camp's organizers, Dave Younce and Jason Morningstar. Before anyone uninitiated had arrived (aside from yours truly, that is) Younce invited Jason to tell the story of how he had slain the devil to earn his last name ("Lucifer" translating roughly into "the morning star"--I knew that much . . . from comics . . .). Off they went into a conversation worthy of long-form improvisation you might catch at Second City or Upright Citizen's Brigade, tying together ideas as though they had known the connections all along, and roping in passers-by to reinforce the tale. They didn't get to finish it, owing to Nerdly duties, but it was my first hint of how different this experience was going to be from any I had before.

When I last gamed, it was a pretty simple formula. One guy (or girl [yes-so there were girls!]) would sort of narrate a story that could change to a greater or lesser degree by the actions of characters, each of which was dictated by a player. Normally the objective was to win glory or overcome adversity for this character you were playing, which is in keeping with most teenager's power fantasies. The element of chance (Sure you use your vorpal sword, but does it actually injure the dragon?) was brought into play by attributing numbers to a set of skills the character possessed, and rolling dice to gauge whether or not those skills succeed in a given scenario. (You need to roll a fifteen to twenty to lob off a wing, roll a one. Um. You pretty much just jacked yourself in the jaw.) Lots of control there for the one leading the game. If he (or she) don't say it, it don't happen.

The games I played last weekend, however, were completely unlike that. In fact, only one game I played had an established story going in. Almost every story began and ended with the players. Dice almost never came up as decision-making tools, and rather than goals of glory or redemption, they were of a good yarn. To sum it all up, I spent a weekend hiking, chopping wood and sitting down with accomplished storytellers creating really engaging, collaborative fiction. In brief, here's what I fell into:
  • Ganakagok - Man, did I luck out starting with this. It's a game set in an ancient Eskimo world, and we played it outside as the weather chilled and the sky darkened. Great stuff. Each person played a single, self-generated character, the game master gave us some elements to start off with and the rest was dictated by our choices and the drawing of cards specific to the game, each of which had an Eskimo word and various associations for it printed on it. We took turns telling our character's parts of the story, but each character could contribute within the system to another's tale. Blew my mind.
  • City of Brass - A more sort of established card game, this was set in the first French explorations of Africa, which sounds heavy, but included challenges to overcome such as "Cobras!" So it was wacky fun, too. Each player had a stock role to play ("Explorer," "Doctor," "Naturalist") and we played them to the hilt. Lots of fun, betrayal, and flesh-eating bacterium.
  • Inuma - Possibly my favorite, the first half of this game was a very effective system of building a world, or reality, starting with cultural standards (Alice in Wonderland, Professional Wrestling) and winnowing down to specifics. We ended up with a world that was an alternate dimension to our own, mostly water, with a sort of civil war between an oppressed, shape-shifting crow race and humans. AWESOME. We played in it after we built it, and I have rarely felt such a satisfying meld of understanding and discovery in improvisation.
  • Improvisation Workshop - Yes! Jason Morningstar and Friend Remi have had improvisational theatre training (which explains much of their skillz) and they ran workshops in it. It was great to experience this from the student side again after instructing all the Zuppa del Giorno workshops. I went in imagining I could relax into something I finally knew. I came out appreciating just how challenging the essentials of my chosen craft are.
  • Dogs in the Vineyard - This game is the one that had the most pre-planning, yet it still had a flavor of verisimilitude that some naturalistic theatre doesn't have. The world is a sort of fantastical/historical account of early Mormonism, in which the players play enforcers of the faith, or folks who root out evil in their midst. What's fascinating about it in the conflict system, which rewards one score-wise both for clever uses of character traits and for the experience gained from failure. Friend Younce ran this one, and his personal knowledge of Mormon history made it especially choice.
  • Zombies! (UniStat) - My last game of the run, this one was a very relaxed sort of system wrapped around a very fun concept. The world was a dystopian society inured in zombies, and the remaining humans have become super-powered free-runners, or traceurs, to adapt. Lots of action and dark humor to this one, as though punctuating my experiences with a reminder that it's all in the name of fun.
You may wonder what I take from all this as an artist, or someone professing to value The Third Life(r). I mean, the people who typically play role-playing games are comfortable enough to afford the free time and invest money in supplies. Can they be the teachers of artists? I argue yes, and for two reasons. The first is that gamers are participants in The Third Life, moreso for their apparent and supposed "disconnect" from reality. They build worlds, and live in them, and it doesn't get much more Third than that. The second is that this fun, this "escapism," is intense work that takes as much talent as skill. And good gamers make it look easy. They're storytellers in the best sense, not only believing in their tales, but living through them. You're in their world every time you pick up a book or watch a movie or simply daydream. At my best, I'm one of them. And after this weekend, I'm really, really proud of that.

I'm a gamer. And I roll 20s, bitches.