In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
The Last Defender has been making waves around Chicago for its unusual take on live theater. Part narrative live-action, part elaborate escape room, this House Theatre show puts its audience in orange jumpsuits and sends them to back in time to 1983, a year when the Cold War came close to ending in all-out nuclear warfare. Instead of watching the story take place on stage, the audience of 16 works together in the Last Defenders’ underground bunker to stop a nuclear warhead from going off in 90 minutes. Challenging and terrifically fun, The Last Defender uses the Cold War not just to let its audience play with 8-bit arcade games and ’80s aesthetics, but also to get them considering—and playing out through the live-action conceit—similar themes that dominate today’s culture, from gun violence to cooperative problem-solving. The A.V. Club sat down with the show’s writer and director, Nathan Allen, to talk about the inspiration for The Last Defender, the Cold War-era fear that inspires the show, and how many teams manage to stop the nuke from going off.
The A.V. Club: Starting from the beginning, how did you conceptualize all of this?
Nathan Allen: We’ve always played games in the company—that’s not unique in theater. Theater ensembles play theater games together. It’s a form of team-building and sort of listening to where you are as a group and what you’re working on and what you might need that day. Playing games is a good way to be like, “We need energy!” or “We need to listen, so let’s play a game that has listening” or something. It’s also a thing that you do to get to know new people and new artists. So a game has always been a common part of our process.
And I had long been interested in and frustrated by immersive theatrical experiences, which are seeming to become more and more popular. It’s not so common in the performing arts as an experiment, so that’s why I think those things are interesting to me. And there are several in Chicago who used to do them. Mary Zimmerman famously did Eleven Rooms Of Proust. The audience is on an immersive journey where they walk into a space and they experience something live that way.
But I’ve never been satisfied that there’s a story there, and I’ve always been frustrated—I don’t know how to carry myself through this experience to get the most out of it. But I knew there was something there and I wanted to fix it. Then I met Peter Sagal—he’s on our board—from Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!. And he’s a good friend and an honest-to-God game-show host, so we’ve always talked about games with him, too. He introduced us to the guys from Cards Against Humanity, Max Temkin—game designers. And Cards is a great game, it’s fun. But the other stuff they do is really interesting, and it shares this social point, as I was talking about with games in the theater: Getting around a table and having some shared, imaginative experience, often narrative, that makes them yell or cheer or cry or get angry at each other or be surprised, to express emotion at each other. Aristotle calls that “catharsis.”
So at the House, we’ve been trying to do a similar thing of getting lots of people into a space where they can see each other. We do that by inviting them to stories that are masked with this popular mythology, like sci-fi or fantasy or superheroes—something that sounds cool and accessible to a lot of different people—and then try to get those people to laugh and cry at all the same stuff. That’s the service of theater as an ancient ritual service. That’s the key. It’s community building. So Max and I started talking about the overlap in our artistic interests, and through him, I had access to game designers and people that could help me solve this frustration that I had. Because the House is a very inclusive place. We get a pretty diverse audience, and we do pull off design that is often described as immersive—the actors and the audience are all sharing space.
So the stars just kind of aligned to—“Let’s just try something. Let’s make a game, let’s try and attack this problem of player as protagonist.” Not as a game designer—which I’m not—but as a theater artist. And try and tell a story where you don’t really have control, try and help the audience and carry them through an experience, but in a way in which they have free will—that’s a pretty loaded term in game design. But where they have agency, and where they feel like it’s up to them. And there are moments of that in Last Defender for sure, but there’s a lot of scaffolding. If I could figure out how to design this experience of players or audience members coming in, and the invitations are clear enough, they’ll make discoveries and ultimately share information in certain ways, that’s all designed into the game. You hear people say the same things at the same times—the same time signature, even—and that’s all been designed. Like this person’s got to get from this area in the room, to this area in the room, and this person is that code name, or whatever you want. These 16 people have a path. And there’s lots of agency within that.
Generally, the way that information is shared in the plot is designed to make the player to feel like a protagonist, to feel like the story is happening to them. We’re trying to avoid detective work, where you’re uncovering someone else’s story. That’s pretty common in point-and-click investigations and things like that. It was really important to me that the story be happening to the players, that it’s not about trying to figure out what happened to somebody else, but trying to deal with what is happening to you. And to give that game a three-act structure where there’s a thesis stated, then there’s an act two counterpoint stated, and then there’s an act three chaos to climax that should culminate in this experiment with confronting a decision that has real moral consequence in the narrative.
That was the early goal: Can we get a group of people to a puzzle room, or what some people might recognize as an escape room—though I don’t think this is quite an escape room—and scaffold their experience so they’re ready to confront together a moral question, a puzzle that might not have an absolute right or wrong answer? So then it was important to go, “Well, it has to be fun.” But what might that moral puzzle be?
AVC: Do you think players reach a catharsis in this?
NA: Oh, constantly. We define catharsis as the expression of emotion. Aristotle defined it as the “purgation of pity and fear.” That’s really academic. It took me years to untangle, like, “What does that mean?!”
It’s why the symbol of drama is the laughing and crying masks. Drama is often associated with tragedy and comedy, but also, the event of laughing and crying in front of other people is uniquely human in community building, especially in crisis. Theater is the original social media, right? It’s ancient. It’s a space for us to laugh and cry together. Also yelling, there’s tons of that [during Last Defender]. People are running.
It’s really pleasurable as a playwright to watch a play that is successful with an audience and they’re laughing if we’re trying to make them laugh, and they’re moved, and they gasp. People stand up and scream and run, and I’m like, “That’s what I wanted them to do. I’m trying to get them to stand up and yell something and run over there.” So to watch them do it every time is just wild. There’s a real release that happens and I think it’s that catharsis, that relief that is actually team-building. That’s what’s fun about escape rooms, because it’s a great team-building exercise, but the reason isn’t because you’re practicing problem-solving—it’s because you’re laughing and crying and yelling, and it’s the physical effort being together that’s unifying.
AVC: I always cringe when I hear corporate types talk about doing “team-building exercises.” But you’re right in this sense—Last Defender would be really great to do with my coworkers, but just because it’d be a fun thing.
NA: We get people from all over the place. A lot of times, groups are buying it out to do with groups of friends, which I think is a great way to experience it, with people you know. But often it’s groups of four, and then it’s four groups of four, and those people don’t all know each other.
It doesn’t happen all the time, but that crowd is all-ages and from different neighborhoods, and they’re hanging out together afterward and high-fiving and hugging each other over what happened and whether they made it or not. But I think the experience in it is complete no matter which of the three endings you reach. So we have the tools, we have the talent. Max introduced me to Sandy [Weisz], who is the puzzle designer, and we started looking at what we could do.
It actually started as a conversation about gun violence, as something I wanted to work on and something I wanted to think about, especially as a Chicagoan. And the discourse around gun violence includes this aspect of “So long as everyone is armed, everyone is safe.” “An armed society is a polite society.” You hear all of these ideas that the problem with gun violence is the good guys aren’t armed, and there’s some really confusing data about whether or not that’s true, and it can never be proved until it’s actually finished, so it can be an especially dangerous thing. Also, even if it did work, that’s not the world I want to live in.
So no one is going to come to a play about gun violence, right? [Laughs.] The House has been this 15-year effort now to mythologize our moment and invite people into a more primal than political discourse about something. So gun violence is mutually assured destruction. The doctrine that got us through the Cold War is the same, and I think there are obvious flaws in mutually assured destruction going on in the world right now, whether it’s proliferation or something else.
People who’re much smarter than me about those topics can help make the connection between those two things, but going to the Cold War gave us a way to talk about that fundamental philosophy being broken somehow. The vestiges of that are the first words you read in the elevator: “The Defenders: We have a problem with ballistics.” And there’s a rack of guns in the storage room where people come out of the game and ask, “What are those guns for?” And I think that’s a great question—they don’t do anything. [Laughs.] But they’re there and they lend a great sense of paranoia of like, “Oh, are we going to have to do something?” or, “I don’t want to do anything.”
And sometimes people take [the guns] out of the case, and they’re very sci-fi looking things—they don’t look real by any means—and they run around with them for a while. That becomes a part of the subconscious experience of playing a game. But really what I think happens is, we have to confront the idea that “might makes right” and that there’s any way with weapons of mass destruction, specifically, to prevent them by using them or by will. That’s the Cold War angle for you, anyway. It’s an attack on mutually assured destruction.
AVC: Paranoia is such an important concept to the Cold War, and during the show I felt it too—it seemed to go beyond trying to disarm the nuke, to this heightened state of adrenaline-fueled paranoia. I’m running around, and everyone else is running around, and I have no idea what they’re doing or if we’re supposed to be doing something together.
NA: Yeah! When the first city explodes, everybody in the room goes, “What?!” [Laughs.] “No! Oh my God!”
Last week we were all up here during a show and heard gunshots. [We] went outside and, in the triangle [a patch of grass in the middle of the busy intersection outside the House Theatre] last week, someone was shot at the bus stop—someone walked up behind him and shot him three times in the head. It was rush hour. It was like 6:45 or something like that. The triangle was full. It was insane. And it made people late to play the game because the triangle was so busy, and they came to play the game, and the conversation after that was like the clearest one we had of people having that feeling of, “It could be anywhere. What should I do? Should I get a gun, do I need a gun?” And I think that answer has to be “no.”
I don’t want to turn your piece into my political agenda, either, because that all has to be iceberg.
AVC: By iceberg, you mean subconscious?
NA: Yeah. It has to be below the surface, and it’s there for people that get it, and I think people also enjoy the game without getting it. But I think it’s useful for practicing those feelings—that’s what theater is for—and it might influence, in a lifetime in the participation of the arts… I feel I’m on the right side.
AVC: So the connection of gun violence to the Cold War was through the idea of mutually assured destruction?
NA: Well, the Cold War came about as a function of the philosophical core of the project. The idea—the question at the heart of it—was, “What is that? How does it work? How can I create an experience that helps people think about that or feel about that?” Which is more important, I think—so Cold War and arcade games and that sense of analog was how it really was. There was also this incredible Cold War story where Russia had a system in place and it was a “dead hand.” Which essentially means there’s a process in place where even if you have what’s known as a “decapitating strike”—where missiles land and destroy the government and basically kill the nation—the dead hand ensures there will be retribution.
In Russia, they actually had this in place. Essentially, if the computer detected a launch, you’d have two minutes, and then it would automatically fire missiles into the air that had radio transmitters that would go into the stratosphere to all of the Russian silos with codes to launch. It was an automated response. And if it detected a launch, it’s on. It’s going. If those missiles come to blow us up, we’re going to get our missiles out to hit.
That’s called a dead hand, and they have this in place and detected it in 1983, which is vaguely the date in The Last Defender. This Soviet missile commander, Stanislav Petrov, was in charge of the machine. His crew of Soviets in the bunker were asking what to do, and it was to run test, check all the data, and you have literally a handful of minutes to make this decision. The Kremlin is calling and asking, “Is it real? Is it real?” and there was nothing in the computer system to say it was. There was nothing prevalent to keep it it all from happening, which is the experience in The Last Defender, right?
So this one person was in charge of “Are we go?” and he said, “No, it’s a mistake.” He had no evidence to think it was a mistake. Of course, he was right, and the U.S. didn’t launch at Russia; it was a mistake in the computer. In interviews, Petrov said, “They wouldn’t do that. They know we exist. I can’t believe they would do that.” So he single-handedly, with like two minutes to spare, called off nuclear war. And then there’s like 13 “broken arrows” in America—broken arrows are the name you give to a nuclear missile that is missing or off course or fucking up somehow—but these instances are happening, and that one is just really specific.
AVC: Part of what makes this experience different from an escape room is that you’re trying to undo something that’s already set in motion. It makes it much more intense. The mistakes you make have consequences.
NA: And hopefully it sets up this moral puzzle where you all have to decide together. You have to make a decision of, “Are we going to commit to the world destroying or are we just going to lose our home and lose Chicago?” And no matter where you are in your process of “Is it really happening or isn’t it?” that decision happens to every team. Some don’t care. [Laughs.] But groups will have individuals with really sensitive issues that they need to talk out and there’s just no time. And the best ending of all is when teams are so close to disarming and they have one more second and say, “We can do it, we can do it, we can do it.” They’re down to the last few seconds and they miss instead of self-destructing, and mutually assured destruction takes place.
AVC: My group had figured out what we had to do to save the world and just didn’t have enough time.
NA: And that’s on you, right? That’s your own hubris thinking you can save it but actually lose it.
AVC: How many people actually win and stop mutually assured destruction?
NA: Generally 20 percent get to nuclear peace, which means we’re all still pointing nukes at each other. [Laughs.] Twenty percent get to nuclear war, which sounds like what you got, and 60 percent end up taking the costly compromise.
AVC: The ’80s aesthetic is really pleasing, with that retro arcade vibe, and that aesthetic seems to be resurging anyway. Like you were saying earlier, Last Defender taps into the desire to be hands-on and have analog experiences and physically move things around, rather than on screens.
NA: And meeting space with other people; it requires you to bump into people and collaborate and communicate in a social way that is fundamentally different. This is my secret hope for the House, my company, people who always felt like this kind of work is important as the rest of the world becomes more connected to the digital and not in the sharing space with the people.
AVC: Right, would that be as cool for people in 1983 as it is for us right now? I don’t know. I think it’d be a very different experience.
NA: I think it probably wouldn’t be as rare. Not that escape rooms were all over the place, but that sort of experience, it was like Dungeons And Dragons. That’s what I grew up on, and our games were a little different.
But The Last Defender itself has to be beautiful, which I think it is. It has to be immersive and engaging and exciting, and it all looks like candy because I’m a spoonful-of-sugar kind of guy.
AVC: There’s obviously so much work that went into the show, with the storytelling and design and puzzles. Can you talk a bit about how all the pieces came together?
NA: Chris Burnham is a company member of the House, and we were roommates coming up in Chicago. He drew Batman Incorporated with Grant Morrison. He invented Bat-Cow. Anyway, he and I are buddies, and along with all the other artists in the House, we influenced each other throughout our 20s coming up. He lives in L.A. now, and we can’t afford him anymore in our not-for-profit world, so I have to bait him with really crazy ideas and say, “Hey dude, want to do this?” Essentially, what his participation looks like is some rough sketches and pointing at research he’d often look at to generate his own works—so he provides some bed of basic conversation about what would be interesting as an alternate 1980s sort of thing.
But it’s such a visual experience, and we’re such a design-heavy company. Especially when we’re asking the audience to actually be in it, it all has to work, and it all has to be complete. Burnham gets all the credit as an art director, but a lot of it comes down to Lee Keenan, who is the lighting director who actually did the final designs for all that. And Ben Wilhelm, who did all the software and coding that gets you through the terminals of act one.
How the design and direction went was, I wanted people to have a red curtain. We don’t have one in our space, but as an idea. The moment the curtain goes up and we say “once upon a time” together, we’re all in the theater together and going along with this thing. I’m going to believe and suspend my disbelief and participate. And at that moment as you’re putting on that orange jumpsuit, it’s like, “We’re all going to look like idiots together and jump in together.”
AVC: It’s difficult to explain what Last Defender is. It’s sort of an escape room, but much more of a narrative and an immersive experience.
NA: I’ve had a lot of people that I’d consider game designers or tastemakers in that world say, “Oh, it’s different than an escape room.” There’s a sense of narrative there that is more akin to an alternate reality game that uses really professional stagecraft and immersive design.
AVC: It’s definitely unlike anything else that I’ve experienced.
NA: That’s part of what we’re excited about. There’s the clock pressure, which is in an escape room, but I think there’s a real narrative pressure. When a city blows up, that does something to you! And that’s just imagining it. That’s you playing! You made that up and put that on pressure on yourself designing it and making it up for you to have that experience. And it all feels safe and fun.