Interview: Thomas Beckett (Company of Warriors)

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Thomas Beckett is the writer, director and producer of numerous theatre productions performed by the students of Cleveland High School in Portland, Oregon. They are currently running a Kickstarter for “Night of Ashes,” a theatrical prequel to Hell’s Rebels, the current Pathfinder Adventure Path from Paizo Publishing.

1. How did you first get into theatre and how long have you been doing it?

I’ve been a gamer longer than an actor. About thirty five years ago one of my gaming mates coerced me into joining him at an audition. I love gaming, but in theater you can take it one step further. Exploring ancient stories, wielding live steel, surrounding yourself with the trappings of three thousand years of human history, that was the life for me.

2. When you first began, where did your inspiration for theatre come from? Where does it come from now?

All things are possible in this world, it is merely for an opportune time for the clouds to part, the words to be spoken and for men and women to will the possible into existence. When I was in fifth grade in Anchorage, Alaska, my best friend Matt MacGuire brought me over to watch a group of twenty somethings playing an innovative strategy game called Chainmail. I must admit I was a bit bored of the game, so instead I picked up a copy of a book called Men and Magic. It made a quite an impression. I spent the rest of that Summer and into the next year joining games and killing giants.

Seven years ago I had a crazy idea. I was teaching at an Arts Focus middle school and had a incredibly supportive environment for the creation of original works. We were producing student-composed rock operas, community based original plays and student written one acts. I had already produced a couple of my own plays with the students. At the same time, my own gaming group was in the final chapter of the Rise of the Runelords, a masterful campaign created by the good people of Paizo Publishing. That’s when the clouds parted.

If travelling through the realms of fantasy had been so transformative to the lads at the table, what could it do for the students I was teaching? Paizo had produced a perfect beginning adventure to launch their Pathfinder Role-Playing system: “Burnt Offerings.” That adventure was filled with goblins and teenage angst. How could I, as a theater writer and director, resist the siren call of a live-swords-and-sorcery performance for kids the same age as me when I began gaming?

These days, I don’t believe the multiverse of the gaming community should be limited to the gaming table. Nor should we imprison our bodies and imaginations waiting for Hollywood to produce the next CGI masterpiece, not when our imaginations and our own bodies can be used to bring these rich hero journeys to life in the theatre.

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3. How did Company of Warriors first come about?

The Company of Warriors derives its name from the mascot of the school where I teach, Cleveland High School in Portland, OR. It is a student-centered theater company that produces the kind of theater the student community wants to see. We started two years ago with a two-gallons-of-blood-per-show version of MacBeth, set in a “Fallout 3” subway station, and have continued with student directed and produced shows that defy expectations. We try our best to produce shows that are fearless, exciting and relevant to the audiences.

4. What is Night of Ashes all about and in what way does Night of Ashes bring something new to the world of theatre?

Night of Ashes concerns a group of young people thrown together under the worst of circumstances. It is a story of sacrifice and becoming part of something beyond yourself. The city of Kintargo has been brought under the thumb of the Grand Inquisitor, an ambitious man hellbent on subduing the freethinking rebels within its walls. The audience follows the trials of Maralictor Flaminia Sabinus as she struggles to protect a young Baron from falling into the clutches of the sadistic Inquisitor and his minions.

Most theater companies are limited in their ability to bring swords and sorcery to life upon the stage and even fewer are interested in struggles of young men and women to find their place in the canon of adventure tales. Our company desires to breath three dimensional, pulsing life into a genre usually kept at a distance.

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5. What sort of person is going to love this show?

The show wraps itself around the audience and explodes on stage. Some people might see this as a Dungeons and Dragons show and think that the show has nothing to offer them, but they would be wrong. If you are a lover of action, enjoy a thrill, desire high drama under extreme circumstances or have a secret infatuation for deviltry, then Night of Ashes is for you.

6. What’s challenging about bringing this script to life?

The script presents many exciting challenges. We have half a dozen fights to choreograph, spells that need to come to life, an operatic aria to write, and a Basilisk and a Barbazu Devil to create. The other incredibly exciting aspect of this show lies in the nature of the venue where we are performing: the Winningstad Theater. The space has three audience tiers for the performers to travel through, and is a rich red that sucks a viewer straight into the world of Cheliax, Land of Devils. The greatest fun will be keeping the audience inside the adventure.

7. Why did you want to be involved in this production?

There is nothing I would love more than to be of service to the gaming community and the amazing creative staff at Paizo Publishing. These men and women work so intensely to give us all many, many hours of enjoyment. The show will be a success if all those gamers in the house are smiling, and a few new young women and men decide to pick up a d20.

8. What should the audience be thinking about as they drive home after this show?

Two things: what further adventures are in store for Maralictor Flaminia Sabinus and her companions, and where can I pick up a copy of Hells Rebels and start gaming?

9. What’s going to surprise people about Night of Ashes?

I hope they walk away surprised that there isn’t a live Pathfinder play every weekend. I think they will be surprised by how, with a sprinkle of imagination, their fantasies can spring to life just a few feet from their noses. I also hope they are astonished that such work comes from people they know. Perhaps a few clouds will part for them and they will see broader possibilities in their own lives.

10. When did you first perform?

In second grade I played a skunk in the back row of the chorus during a school produciton of Paddington Bear. This jerk Danny Norum stole the part of Paddington from me because he was four inches taller and ate more twinkies than I did. That bruising experience kept from my calling until my sophomore year of high school. (add in winky face)

11. Besides this one, what’s your favorite stage show?

I’m a big fan of the old stories. I recently saw a production of “Tristan and Isolde” by Kneehigh Productions from the UK which ripped my heart out. Also, when a talented theatrical troupe breaths new life into Shakespeare’s works or reimagines an ancient story, that is worth the ticket. I’m also a big fan of Tanztheatre and modern clowning, where movement and simplicity tug at our imaginations

12. If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?

I’ve been trying to find a way of transforming The Who’s “Quadrophenia” onto the stage. Unfortunately, I don’t have the clout or the kind of money that it would take to convince Pete Townshend of the brilliant potential of his work on the high school stage, but hope springs eternal. Another great production that is coming to Broadway this year is Anaïs Mitchell’s “Hadestown, a Folk Opera.” It’s a brilliant musical telling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.

13. What’s something you hope the audience will learn from this production?

Gaming is about community, imagination and the innate human desire to sacrifice for each other. My hope for the audience is that they will carry that tribal spirit home to their own families and make their neighborhoods and workspaces a better place to live. Mostly, I hope they have an evening of great entertainment.

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