UC Santa Cruz’s new Department of Performance, Play & Design redefines the art of storytelling for the modern era

The 2018 production of Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw by Professor Marianne Weems’ The Builders Association.
Photo: James Gibbs

One year ago, a seemingly unlikely merger took place within UC Santa Cruz’s Division of the Arts, one that fused together the Department of Theater Arts and the Art & Design: Games + Playable Media Program (AGPM). Renamed the Department of Performance, Play & Design (PPD), it is the only university department in the world to break the traditional silos of theater, dance, and games. 

To its faculty and students, the fit seems natural. “A lot of the questions that performance scholars and artists ask are the very same that games scholars and artists ask,” says Michael Chemers, Chair of PPD and Professor of Theater Arts. “Specifically, how do you tell stories through the unfolding of action? How do you do this in a way that causes your audience to identify with your characters or to engage with the action occurring on either a stage or a screen? These art forms are all about dramatic storytelling, and as a result there are certain, very similar questions you are trained to ask when you are an artist in these areas.”

PPD Associate Chair and Associate Professor of AGPM and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies micha cárdenas concurs. “Game design is a profound, ancient way of telling stories by designing their rules. A game is a series of instructions that creates a series of emotions. In playable media, a lot of that emotional response is generated by voice, motion, and face actors, scene design, lighting, narrative. The skills people learn in creating a play or dance are incredibly important to game design.”

Chemers notes that many faculty were already collaborating across disciplines before the merger as interest in multimedia and multiplatform performance, interactive installation, and interactive narrative design has increasingly blurred traditional categorization. Emblematic of this trend is Professor Marianne Weems, Artistic Director and Founder of the award-winning performance and media ensemble The Builders Association. Weems came to UCSC in 2017 to establish Future Stages, a pioneering two-year MFA research group in Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) that delves into tools and techniques for exploring how crossmedia practice can expand on basic theatrical relationships in new and culturally relevant ways. “She is the progenitor of the whole genre of incorporating digital tech into live performance and, in many respects, is leading the way for us,” says Chemers. 

Expanding these sorts of opportunities for students to work at the intersection of the disciplines is a top priority for PPD faculty and staff. Current plans include the development of a Maker Lab and Virtual Reality (VR) Studio where students can collaborate on new areas of research and artistic inquiry. “The possibilities are endless,” says cárdenas. “Especially during the pandemic, we saw an explosion of interesting ideas. Even the Royal Shakespeare Company staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream in VR – virtual actors, virtual sets, magical effects. One of Oculus’ biggest VR games, ‘The Under Presents,’ is essentially a live performance in VR. Our students are going to have so many collaborative opportunities to tell stories together that haven’t been told.”

cárdenas stresses this last point. The new department is boldly committed to practices, research, and teaching that speak to the current moment, disrupting oppressive narratives of race and gender, and re-centering historically marginalized communities. “Changing culture is an essential part of how we all survive,” she says. “Our approach is to look at our work as both art and activism.” 

“We are helping to shape the performance makers of the future,” says Arts Division Dean Celine Parreñas Shimizu. “Through our commitment to experimentation and diversity, equity, and inclusion, we support our PPD students in bringing activism, artistry, and agency to their work on campus, online, and beyond. Moreover, PPD connects with industry—both independent dance and theater companies in the Bay Area and gaming companies in Silicon Valley. Such local, regional, and global collaborations are emblematic of PPD and a hallmark of UCSC."

Listen to Chair Michael Chemers discuss the genesis and vision for PPD on a recent episode of the Art Division’s Art of Change video podcast. 

And catch his latest project, “The Show Where They Talk About Monsters,” a podcast produced by UC Santa Cruz Online Education that features Chemers and co-host Mike Halekakis in a lively and hilarious discussion about the things that scare us the most. Chemers’ work on monsters includes The Monster in Theatre History: This Thing of Darkness (London, UK: Routledge 2018). He is the Founding Director of The Center for Monster Studies at UCSC. Halekakis, an entrepreneur, business owner, internet marketer, software engineer, writer, musician, and podcaster, is the co-founder of What We Learned, a company that specializes in compassionate training courses on complex adult subjects.

Professor cárdenas’ artwork is currently being exhibited in Toronto at Tangled Arts + Disability, which offers virtual gallery tours, and will be opening in New York City in the exhibition Fluid Matters, Grounded Bodies: Decolonizing Ecological Encounters on July 22, 2022.

Recent projects of note by PPD faculty include Professor Marianne Weems’ recent production, I Agree to the Terms, and Associate Professor A.M. Darke’s Open Source Afro Hair Library.