One crisp spring evening, the Wasteland Theater Company to rehearse Romeo gathered and Juliet. Jonathan “Bram” Thomas was playing Romeo. A self-confessed Shakespeare geek, he’d graduated with a BA in theatre, and this wasn’t his first time playing one half of the star-crossed lovers. But it was the first time a mutant scorpion the size of a Jeep had rampaged on to his stage.
Panicking, the show’s crew rained bullets down on its blackened shell, but not before Juliet fell to its sting. A poison death, certainly – just not one the Bard ever dreamed of writing.
“It’s just one of those things,” Bram shrugs, with the breezy nonchalance of an actor who is now used to these kinds of hiccups. You come to expect them when you’re performing inside a video game.
The Wasteland Theater Company is not your average band of thespians. Dotted all across the world, they meet behind their keyboards to perform inside fallout 76, a video game set in a post-nuclear apocalyptic America. The Fallout series is one of gaming’s most popular, famous for encouraging players to role-play survivors within the oddly beautiful ruins of alternate-history Earth. As you explore the crumbling husks of towns hollowed out by an atomic bomb, tumbleweed scuffs scorched sand, rusted signs advertising Nuka-Cola creak in the breeze, and you’re constantly on the lookout for irradiated things that want to maul you.
Fallout 76 is an online open world; players travel wherever they wish and can bump into real-life strangers. With “area chat” enabled they can even talk to each other through microphones, calling out to a passer-by on the dusty road. This opens up endless opportunities for user-generated serendipity, and the Wasteland Theater Company is one such experience: a delightfully unexpected thing for players to stumble upon in the devastation.
“Imagine a wandering theater troupe in the 17th century going from town to town doing little performances,” says the company’s director, Northern_Harvest, who goes by his gamertag or just ‘North’, and works in communications in real life. “It’s not a new idea; we’re just doing it within the brand new medium of a video game.”
The company was formed almost by chance, when North befriended a group of players in the wasteland. As they adventured together, they noticed that the Fallout games are peppered with references to Shakespeare’s works. A yellowing sign in a school corridor advertises auditions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Characters cry “once more into the breach, dear friends!” before venturing from the safety of home. In one quest, you meet a survivor who tries to turn super mutants away from their path of violence by bombarding them with Shakespearean recitations.
“The Fallout universe lends itself really well to Shakespeare. It’s very desolate, very grotesque, very tragic, really,” says North. In this world, Shakespeare existed before the bombs fell, so it seemed logical that North and his friends could role-play a company keeping culture alive in the ruins of civilization – like the troupe of actors in Emily St John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic dystopia, Station Eleven.
It takes months to pull a show together. First, North picks the play and adapts it. Hundreds of pages of script are shared with the crew, so set design and rehearsals can commence. “It’s just like a real theater company, where you start with an idea and a few folks sitting together and figuring out what our season is going to look like,” he says.
Between shows, actors scour Fallout’s wasteland for costume parts. “We have this crafting table where you can build your gear,” says North. “So during rehearsals you’ll often hear off-stage the ‘Kaching! Kaching! Kaching!’ of a hammer as an actor quickly hashes together the piece of clothing they forgot that day.” And having learned from the scorpion incident, North now hires guards to protect the production. “I tell the cast, ‘please don’t whip out your mini-guns on stage. We’ve got security on-site to take care of it.’” Occasionally, someone threatens to blow the stage up with a rocket launcher mid-performance, but most times, they end up watching half of Midsummer instead. (Think about what that means for the play’s Mechanicals subplot: the audience settled in front of a computer screen, watching the cast being players, playing players, playing players, in a play.)
There are no ticketed seats, and the company makes no money. The majority of audiences stumble across the performances accidentally in the wasteland, and sit to watch the show for free – or tune in on Twitch, where the company broadcasts every performance live. Characters stride across stages that are cantilevered together from in-game objects. Lighting cues provide atmosphere. Soliloquies are passionately delivered. “Before the show, you’re nervous,” says North. “You get the jitters just like you would in real theatre. The emotions are very real, which makes the whole thing very real.”
In 2022 Fallout 76 claimed to have over 13.5 million players, some of whom North believes “may never have seen a Shakespeare play. Ninety-nine per cent of those who find us sit down and quietly watch the show … It’s really quite moving, performing for people who might not go to the theater in their own communities or haven’t thought about Shakespeare since high school. We are tickled silly knowing that we are potentially reaching new, untapped audiences and (re)introducing Shakespeare to so many. I hope Shakespeare academics who study comparative drama will take note of our use of this new medium to reach new audiences. I know some high-school English teachers have used us as an example for their students of how Shakespeare can be, and should be, performed in new spaces.”
North is emphatic that his company’s plays are never meant to replace the magic of real-world productions. Instead, they’re what Bram terms “a gateway drug” to stage storytelling; a player might seek out a play at The Globe or support their local theater after enjoying Macbeth in the wasteland. Their video game performances could be a way to drive support towards a creative industry that’s been decimated by a pandemic and now a cost of living crisis.
“What we’re doing is really new, and expands the potential of using video games as digital performance spaces … It reminds us that Shakespeare constantly finds new places to be performed and loved. There are Shakespeare troupes that help folks in the criminal justice system explore the arts, Shakespeare audio podcasts, and we’re here bringing Shakespeare into the huge world of gaming.”
North says he has found the whole experience of putting on these life-changing shows. He now spends almost every night in Fallout, and is working on the troupe’s next play – this time a performance of Alice in Wonderland. “There’s always the annual article asking ‘do video games make people more violent?’” he says. “I think we’re a perfect example of how video games inspire creativity, and celebrate theater and culture and the arts. I hope that other gamers out there know that there’s so much potential for you to be able to express what you’re passionate about in video games.”