Elissa Miller

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Elissa Miller is the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Niner Times. She is a junior at UNC Charlotte studying Communications and Political Science. When she isn't reviewing theater for Niner Times, she is working on bringing sex education to campus through Sex Week UNC Charlotte or forcing her friends to binge watch television with her. In the future, she would like to be an investigative journalist, a lawyer, or the second female President of the United States (because if there isn't one before the time she gets there, that's just sad).

Making an Impact

Elissa Miller

If I’ve spoken to you in the past two years, there is a 99% chance I have mentioned the television show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” to you. It tells the story of Rebecca Bunch, an unfulfilled attorney in New York City who happens to run into her first boyfriend on the street. She subsequently quits her job and moves to the suburban mecca of West Covina, CA in an attempt to win his heart. However, that doesn’t even begin to grasp the emotional depth and skill behind this masterpiece of television. I’ve completely fallen in love with it and was nervous to see how it would pull off its fourth — and final — season this year. Operating at such a high level and finding a satisfying conclusion can be hard.

Image courtesy of The CW

However, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” completely nailed it. Its final season was just as funny, heartfelt, musically-gifted and special as before. Its final two episodes left me utterly speechless. Over the course of four seasons, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” tackled a number of story-lines and themes, from coming out to abortion to mental illness to women’s sexuality. All were treated with incredible empathy and respect. I’ve never seen a show that featured a character coming out as bisexual in the form of a massive song and dance number. I’ve never seen a show that focused, essentially, on the main character’s journey to loving herself and overcoming mental illness (especially one that told her “Anti-Depressants Are So Not a Big Deal”). I’ve never seen a show that was so obviously created by (and understanding of) women. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” also truly nailed the concept of character growth. The show built a city and a cast that I completely cared about; it gave even the smallest of characters a personality and a story-line (and often, a song as well).

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” was a unique, special and innovative show. I feel lucky to have even been able to witness it. I’ll miss you, Rebecca Bunch. I hope you’re thriving out there.

Image courtesy of Nintendo

Noah Howell

Since its full reveal at E3 in 2018, “Super Smash Bros Ultimate” was at the forefront of my hype up until its release in December. Despite releasing at the halfway mark of the school year, much of my first semester was spent speculating over who would be added as newcomers which made me keep up with the Nintendo Directs that showed off all the new stuff coming. “Smash” is a culmination of some of gaming’s biggest and longest running franchises, and not just Nintendo’s either. The game is great both as a party game with friends and as a title to be competitive in. Through my classes in computer science and at some of the school’s tournaments and meet-ups, I have met a lot of cool people through “Smash” as well. Even as I dove deep into the competitive scene at UNC Charlotte with some intense singles tournaments, I am continually reminded each time I’m hanging out with friends that “Smash” is at its best when simply played as a group.

Image courtesy of BANDAI NAMCO

Aaron Febre

As a long time fan of the “Tales of” series, I was looking forward to buying this new remaster of “Tales of Vesperia.” I finally got around to buying it during Spring Break and I was glad I played it this semester. Playing this game was a reminder of an amazing time period of JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) in the 2000s. This was the same era of games such as “Tales of the Abyss,” “Kingdom Hearts II,” and “Persona 4.” Yuri Lowell is one of the best protagonists in the series. His snide yet caring personality was relatable that complemented an amazing cast. Combined with a solid story, a great combat system and the iconic art style from Kōsuke Fujishima‎, “Tales of Vesperia” has quickly become one of my favorite video games of all time.

Image courtesy of Heist or Hit Records

Tyler Trudeau

While I could’ve just as easily put something like “Avengers: Endgame” as one of the most impactful things I witnessed this semester (as it surely was), the first thing that came to mind was the band “Her’s”. With the Liverpool-based pop duo of Stephen Fitzpatrick and Audun Laading first piquing my interest last year when I stumbled upon their vibrant 2016 singles, “Marcel” and “What Once Was,” I was introduced to yet another phenomenally dreamy pop group to follow along. It was in March of this year unfortunately that the duo’s musical talents were cut short, as both Fitzpatrick and Laading, as well as tour manager, Trevor Engelbrektson, were killed in a head-on traffic collision in Arizona. With their sudden deaths, I was encouraged to turn my ear to their music again. As their 2018 sophomore album “Invitation to Her’s” perfectly encapsulated the duo’s love for peculiar, sardonic lyricism and off-kilter craftsmanship, Her’s represents yet another budding talent taken from this world much too soon. Some of my favorite tracks include “Harvey,” “Breathing Easy” and “Speed Racer.”

Arik Miguel

Image courtesy of Warp Records

Every once in a while, some piece of media will come along that stops me in my tracks and forces me to reassess my understanding of music or cinema. Yves Tumor’s 2018 release, “Safe in the Hands of Love,” is a series of experimental songs that are fluid but at the same time incredibly abrasive. These songs are tied together by elegantly crafted threads, but at the same time, these songs are often decorated with ugliness. The first time I listened to this album I was left gasping for air, I had never heard anything like this before. All of my preconceptions about music were ripped to shreds, doused in gasoline, and set aflame. Thematically, the album deals with the concept of freedom, but it is the albums freedom from music norms that has brought me back to it again and again, and changed my understanding of what music can and should be.

Image courtesy of Netflix

Jeffrey Kopp

The zombie genre is nothing new. There have been countless takes on the un-dead over the years, but people are still fascinated and moved by the dead rising and taking over the world. Back in January, Netflix released “Kingdom,” a zombie outbreak story set in Korea during the Joseon dynasty. As someone who loves history, politics and zombies, this was right up my fit and quickly became my favorite discovery of the year. It is terrifying, gripping and emotionally powerful, and is definitely worth a binge.

Vigil held in wake of campus shooting

At 5:40 p.m. on April 30, the UNC Charlotte community was thrown into chaos. An armed assailant fired into the classroom of Dr. Adam Johnson’s LBST 2213, located in the Kennedy building. Six students were shot. Two, Ellis Parlier and Riley Howell, were killed. Drew Pescaro, Sean DeHart, Rami Al-Ramadhan and Emily Houpt were injured. As of May 1, those four students are expected to recover. The suspect was taken into custody by CMPD and UNC Charlotte Police.

A vigil was held on May 1 in Halton Arena to provide a space for students to mourn and express their support for the victims. Kristine Slade and Makala Carrington were co-coordinators of the vigil. Senior Class Council, Senior Executive Leadership Program and the Student Organization Resource Center (SORC) were also involved. A number of businesses and organizations donated candles, water, snacks and tissues.

Members of the UNC Charlotte music department played orchestra music as students filled the arena. By the time of the vigil, the arena was completely filled, to the point where there were no longer any seats for attendees. Many stood along the sidelines. Every time the students stood, it sounded like thunder.

The vigil opened with an emotional speech from Kristine Slade. “The event that occured in our campus yesterday was nothing less than a horrific tragedy, however I have strength in knowing that as a community we will preserve and we will get through this event. Individually, we all cope and process with what happened yesterday differently. However, as a collective, we are Niner Nation and we are Charlotte Strong,” she said.

Chancellor Phil Dubois then took to the stage. He was tearful and his voice was audibly shaken. He emphasized his love and support for the campus community, as well as thanked visitors in attendance. These included Mayor Vi Lyles, retired Chancellor Woodward, Governor Roy Cooper and Congresswoman Alma Adams. Dubois added, “As parents ourselves, Lisa and I grieve for the senseless loss of young life and share in the anguish of their parents, their families and you, their friends. We can’t bring them back. But with your help, we will find a way to remember their presence as 49ers. These next days, weeks and months, will test our collective strength and as I said yesterday, we have no course but to hold up each other, to work through this together.”


Photos by Leysha Caraballo, Chris Crews and Nikolai Mather.

Incoming Student Body President Chandler Crean also addressed the campus community; Vice President Adela Mann stood by his side. In view of the cameras, Crean had been visibly emotional throughout the vigil. He expressed his sincere condolences and support to the injured students and thanked CMPD and UNC Charlotte Police Department for their work. He also stated, “Students, faculty, friends and family, please know that this does not stop here. It can not stop here. We have to stay strong together, uplift each other, love one another and unite as one Niner Nation. What happened yesterday cannot happen again.”

Other features of the vigil included a prayer, led by Makala Carrington, and music by the UNC Charlotte’s Women’s Choir. The Choir performed “Rain Come Down,” a song originally written after the shooting at Columbine High School. “Come, rain, come down, come, rain, come down, Heaven’s tears of mercy, come a-runnin’ down. Say no words, it is too soon, say no words out loud,” the lyrics state.

After a moment of silence, students then filed out of Halton Arena to gather and light candles in West and Star Quad. Jewish and Christian faith organizations were available for students; services by The Center for Counseling and Psychological Services were also accessible. Music echoed across the campus. Speeches and students chanting of “Forty Niners!” filled the air. Candles and signs were placed at the foot of the Norm statue by Halton Arena.

In the words of “Rain Come Down” and the UNC Charlotte Women’s Choir, “Come wash away this grief and pain, and let all hearts be clean.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Rami Al-Ramadhan’s name was incorrectly spelled as Rami Alramadhan. The Niner Times regrets this error. 

Students organize vigil in Halton Arena

To mourn and reflect on the campus shooting on April 30, a number of students have organized to host a vigil at 6:00 p.m. on May 1 in Halton Arena. The vigil is open to students, faculty, staff and allies within the community.

The effort is lead by Kristine Slade and Makala Carrington. A number of student organizations, such as Senior Class Council, Senior Executive Leadership Program and the Student Organization Resource Center (SORC) are involved. Students Alexis Teel and Ashley Johnson are organizing the collection of donations.

Donations are being accepted from businesses and religious organizations throughout the area. Walmart, Sams Club and Target are all involved. Monetary donations cannot be accepted. “However, if people who are able to donate money are wanting to get supplies and just need a student volunteer to come pick it up, that is completely okay.” stated Slade. Possible supplies that can be donated include tissues, water, snacks, candles and water. They can be dropped off at the Popp Martin Student Union Rotunda until 4 p.m. on May 1. Potential donors can reach out to Victoria Bracken at vbracken@uncc.edu.

Alexis Teel stated, “This is what Charlotte does, we are a community. At the end of the day, we go through a lot of things. We’ve been through a lot of things. This is one of the biggest tragedies, and just to see how quickly people are just so willing to support, it just shows our support for all the victims and support for each other as well.”

 

The Center for Counseling and Psychological Services is working to provide assistance to students

UNC Charlotte is reeling in the wake of a shooting that occurred on campus at 5:40 p.m. on April 30. Two students are dead and four were injured. The suspect is now in custody. At 1:41 a.m. on May 1, a NinerAlert, the system that delivered emergency information to students throughout the lockdown, stated that “support services are available for students” and listed the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) as a resource.

According to their website, The Center for Counseling and Psychological Services is “a department within the Division of Student Affairs at UNC Charlotte. CAPS, along with the Student Health Center, the Center for Wellness Promotion, and University Recreation, is a component of Health and Wellbeing, an administrative unit whose primary goal is to provide comprehensive wellness-related programs and services to UNC Charlotte students.”

Dr. David Spano. Photo by Nikolai Mather.

According to Dr. Rebecca MacNair-Semands, Senior Associate Director at CAPS, many staff members — including herself — worked at the Popp Martin Student Union until midnight. They then returned to work at 7:30 a.m.; students were already waiting for services. Dr. David Spano, Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Director of CAPS, emphasized that the Center is really focusing on providing whatever students may need. He stated, “For example, we had some students who wanted to meet. They didn’t want to come to campus because they were afraid so we met them off campus at a location across the street so we can do some work for them.”

CAPS is also meeting with various student groups that requested their services and canceled all appointments for the rest of the week. This does not include pre-scheduled appointments with clients, though Spano notes that those appointments may be shortened. The office is available for walk-ins. “Students should know that they can just walk in or call and we’ll be here right away to see them, so there is really not any need for an appointment or anything at this point beyond just sort of showing up and telling us what they need.” Spano said. He recognizes that this experience has only been compounded by fears about exam cancelation and what the upcoming week will look like.

A number of other organizations are collaborating with The Center for Counseling and Psychological Services to provide assistance. Spano told the Niner Times that, “We’re managing with the staff that we have…we also have back up. The county emergency management office is working with us, Red Cross is on campus and the mobile crisis team is on campus so they can back us up if we get overwhelmed.” Those at CAPS are also grateful for the support they have received from those within and outside of the state. Both the University of Utah and UNC Chapel Hill offered to buy food for the office, though Spano says they have more than enough food from a potluck on April 30.

Dr. David Spano and Dr. Rebecca MacNair-Semands. Photo by Nikolai Mather.

While Spano notes that The Center for Counseling and Psychological Services does not have a lot of experience with the effects of a campus shooting, MacNair-Semands told Niner Times that the office had a meeting as recently as April 29 with the emergency operations team. This occurs periodically so that protocols will be in place. “That’s one thing I feel really good about. Even though we have been extremely busy and the work is emotionally challenging at times, I feel grateful that we had staff training in both active shooter responding and coping with post-traumatic stress. Our team attitude has been amazing and people keep stopping by to volunteer any extra time to help students.”

The Center of Counseling and Psychological Services is available to support students in any capacity they may need. It can be reached at 704‑687‑0311 and is located at 9502 Poplar Terrace Drive, behind the Student Health Center. 

A Tale of Two Plays: “The Ghost of Splinter Cove” and “The Great Beyond”

Two different plays, two unique casts, two different theaters. One cohesive story. That was the goal of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s new productions, “The Great Beyond” and “The Ghost of Splinter Cove.” Written by the same playwright, the prolific and acclaimed Steven Dietz, the two productions take place in the same house on the same somber evening. Upstairs is home to “The Great Beyond,” while downstairs hosts “The Ghost of Splinter Cove.” Part of The Second Story Project, the two plays are strong enough that they can stand alone but complement and reveal the full story when viewed together.

“The Great Beyond” at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte focuses on four adults as they cope with the death of a family member, the father figure known as “The Captain.” Monica (Tonya Bludsworth), the family perfectionist, was his caretaker during the last stages of his life. Now that he’s passed on, she remains in the house to pack up his things. Her ex-husband, Rex (Scott Tynes-Miller), arrives to drop off the children and socialize for a while. Caught in mourning himself, he decides to stay when Monica asks him to remain and help her handle her estranged sister’s visit. This sister is Emily (Robin Tynes-Miller), a woman looking to end her country-wide tour apologizing to everyone she has ever hurt. Her final task? Apologize to her deceased father with the help of her girlfriend Rene (Tania Kelly), who hosts seances for a living.

It is a tightly-wound and emotional performance, existing firmly in the genre of family drama with a hint of the supernatural. Tensions run high between Monica, Rex and Emily, who are frustrated by the fact that Monica refused to share or ask for help caring for The Captain. The sister dynamic between Emily and Monica is incredibly fractured, while Rex and Monica highlight the complex chemistry torn between people-who-care-deeply-for-each-other and trying-to-move-on. Rene serves as an outsider to all of it, often reflective of the audience when large family secrets emerge. For example, throughout the first act, the characters often react strongly to references to camping or The Captain. Eventually, Rene is just as surprised as the rest of us to learn that the sisters also had a brother, one that went missing on a camping trip to Splinter Cove with his father at only eight years old.

These elements provide the complex backstory that “The Ghost of Splinter Cove” rests on though the play can be fully understood without the context. As a standalone piece, “Splinter Cove” focuses on the children in the picture. Rex and Monica’s children, Nate (Chester Shepard) and Cora (Carman Myrick), have been sent to the basement to play/stay out of their parent’s hair. They are joined by Rene’s daughter Sydney (Kayla Ferguson). The three spend some awkward time introducing themselves and their imaginary friend J (Arjun Pande), before deciding to embark on a simulated camping trip with the help of an app on Rex’s phone that can control the lights, fans and speakers in the basement. The trip quickly takes a turn for the unexpected when the children leave their tent and find themselves outside, in the woods of Splinter Cove with a man named Tobias, or The Captain (Mike Dooley).

Despite the fact that “Splinter Cove” is not the play with a seance, it feels much more supernatural. While the events of the seance in “The Great Beyond” are left open to the audience’s interpretation (Did the characters push the cup or write the words to get the closure they needed, or was it the spirit of The Captain?), “The Ghost of Splinter Cove” seems to make it quite clear that the children are dealing with ghosts and supernatural experiences here — though there is definitely a viable interpretation of the show in which all of this occurs in their imagination. Plotwise, they’ve been transported to the night their uncle went missing. Upon meeting their grandfather, they become his search party and look for the lost child. The story then forces each child to face their fears by assigning them tasks they’ve admitted scare them, such as swimming in deep water or trusting others.

Photo of “The Ghost of Splinter Cove.” Courtesy of John Merrick.

All of the children in “Splinter Cove” are played by adults, but it never feels disingenuous or inaccurate. The play never dismisses or condescends, though it does find humor in their conversations and actions. Most notably, it refuses to shy away from dark, surprising, or hard-to-grasp material. It trusts the children viewing the show to understand it.

In terms of performances, there isn’t a single weak actor in either show. The characters’ personalities are complementary, allowing the ensemble casts to play off of one another. Standouts include Scott Tynes-Miller as Rex, Carman Myrick as Cora, and Chester Shepard as Nate (which actually marks the second time I’ve seen him play a child; he took on the role of Christopher Boone in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” in Fall 2018). The set design for both shows coordinates well, but the lights and sound are what really make the supernatural elements work. “The Great Beyond’s” darkly lit room with candles that turn off by themselves balances with “Splinter Cove’s” loud thunder, echoes, and flashing lights.

Seeing both shows is a unique experience, as secrets reveal themselves and depth is revealed that might not have been there without the knowledge gained from seeing the other half. Together, the plays provide a thorough and imaginative picture of what happened on that night. According to The Charlotte Observer, this collaboration of interlocking plays by the same writer, one aimed at adults and one at children, is unprecedented. Watching both feels fresh and original. It is exciting to sit in the audience and make connections between the plays, to wonder about how you might have felt if you viewed them in the opposite order. It is also rewarding to know that these are two original works premiering for the first time in Charlotte, NC. It is a definite win for Charlotte’s theater scene, one I hope continues to encourage experimentation and unique projects.

If making time for both plays is entirely impossible, “The Ghost of Splinter Cove” is the more unique of the two. While “The Great Beyond” is impeccably acted and produced, it sits more firmly in the genre of family drama. It also doesn’t shy away from the tropes of an overbearing wife/laid-back husband pair or the fact that the person of color in the cast is also the only one with a connection to the spirit world. These are familiar character elements, and while they don’t entirely harm the content of the play, they aren’t particularly engaging aspects of the production. What makes it feel new are the smaller bits, like Emily’s need to make apologies, Rex’s connection with The Captain, or the unique addition of a seance into the genre. “Splinter Cove’s” run time is about an hour with no breaks, while “The Great Beyond” runs for 90 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission.

In Dietz’ playwright’s note, he writes, “…inevitably, there are gaps in what we tell ourselves about our own family; uneven knowledge between siblings and parents; events lost to history or covered by silence over time.” The two productions emphasize this, as the children learn things the adults don’t know and vice versa. Even amidst the adults, memories of The Captain are shaped by the person speaking; different perceptions of family events are explored throughout. When reflecting on both shows and their focus on family ties, this idea of performing for both young and old audiences feels more impactful. Dietz wants to engage with both sides of the family, which he writes are “on different continents, separated by a sea of time,” and get them involved in the conversation. The complementary shows encapsulate this effort, providing a well-rounded exploration of an entire family on a single night. The children and adults are all examined with empathy and understanding; their voices are equally important. As an audience member, that feels revolutionary.

Living a double life: balancing a music career with University courses

Writing papers, staying up late to study for tests and forcing your friends to binge-watch Netflix with you in an attempt to procrastinate. For most students, these are the staples of college life. But for Tiffany Ashton, a junior at UNC Charlotte studying economics, history and management information systems, it all works a little differently. One day, she’s running to classes and taking tests. The next, she’s recording music and attending the Grammy Awards as a member of the Academy.

Ashton has the difficult job of balancing college with her career as a rapidly rising country artist. She won “Country Artist of the Year” at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards in 2015 (and has since been nominated for the award again in 2016 and 2017). More recently, she won Nashville Universe’s “Rising Star” award in 2018 and the Carolina Music Awards’ “Best Female Country Artist” in 2017. She credits a long list of musical influences; artists like Ashley McBryde, Alison Kraus, Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert and Garth Brooks are all important to her. She places special emphasis on the respect she has for Taylor Swift, who she admires for writing her own songs (even on co-written tracks) and making them personal. There is a clear parallel here, as Ashton also writes her own songs and aims to keep her life as open as possible for her fans.

Ashton was born in Georgia but her family moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina when she was six years old to obtain better healthcare for her brother. She always had creative talents. As a kid, she liked to dress up and perform shows around the house for her family. She also had a passion for reading, storytelling and writing. Looking back on it now, she views songwriting and performance as a natural evolution of such interests. It just makes sense.

She first learned to play the guitar at age 12. Her parents would drive her to the Mount Airy area to learn from Ralph McGee, a man with a background in bluegrass. While she experimented with opera and other styles, country music is where she found her home. “Country music, what drew me to that, is just the storytelling. The everyday storytelling. Country music is ‘Listen, I had a bad week at work right now. I just got off and I really need a pick-me-up.’ That is what country music is and country music is telling your story,” she says. “There’s a lot of debates about country music…all sorts of like ‘Oh, that’s too hip-hop sounding, that’s too country-pop sounding.’  But really at the end of the day, the one thing that makes it country music is telling the story of the people.”

The first place Ashton debuted her music was a Florida marina owned by a family friend. At one of these performances, she was overheard by radio DJ Brian Hardman. He offered to allow her to record a small demo in his own studio. In a small shed in his backyard, surrounded by lawnmower equipment and forced to turn off the air conditioning to reduce background noise, Ashton recorded her very first tracks. She recounted, “I was singing and recording my first demo. It was 99 degrees outside in Southern Florida and it was sweltering. And I loved every second of it.”

Photo by Taylor Moody.

That was all it took for Ashton to know that music was for her. She began performing everywhere that was interested in having her, from coffee shops to small fairs to bars. Even though she was performing in bars as a young teen, she was largely unfazed by the experience. However, she abstains from drinking based on having to be around it so often at performances back then. “I was the person that at the end of the night that had to interact with all of the people who had been drinking till 2 a.m. and you just seem to realize, you know, it just didn’t appeal to me by the time I was offered a drink,” she said.  At age 14, Ashton would go on to record the EPs “Southern Sweetheart” and “Adrenaline Crush” with Blackcat Studios, a recording studio owned by Jason Hoard in Atlanta. She also worked with Jan Smith Studios, a producer whose client list has included Justin Bieber and The Band Perry. Eventually, she would make the move to the country music capital: Nashville, TN.

Though Ashton has lived in North Carolina since she was six years old, there is a special place in her heart for Nashville. For the past couple of years, it has largely been the base of operations for her music career. She’s recorded music there in collaboration with Erik Halbig out of The 515 Studio and Kim Shrum of Dream Music Group. She frequently plays concerts there, including a recent performance at the legendary Gaylord Opryland. Ashton also recognizes the role it has played in producing and popularizing country music. Despite this love for Nashville, as Ashton moves forward with her career, she feels pulled to try and split her time there with Los Angeles. In that music hub, she collaborates with Del Oro music, including David Longoria and Robert Eibach, as well as Oceanview Record Company.

How does she balance earning an undergraduate degree with a career in the fast-paced and competitive music industry? A deeply-planned class schedule. Ashton schedules all of her classes to occur within two days, which sometimes means she has class from early in the morning to late at night with only a small lunch break. She tries to leave one day in between and one day after to complete all her homework and study for tests. After that, she is free to use the weekend to travel to Nashville or Los Angeles. There, she records music, conducts business meetings, attends awards shows or performs concerts for her fans. Longer tours are typically reserved for the summer when she won’t have any classes to worry about (and when the weather is better).

It isn’t easy. Ashton actually entered UNC Charlotte in the College of Engineering. She came from a STEM-focused high school and considered engineering to be her hobby. In fact, she was a member of her high school’s rocketry team, which won second place in national competition. However, she found that she needed more flexible attendance policies from her professors to make her career and education fit together, as she needed to be able to miss class and make assignments up more frequently to attend award shows or other functions. Similarly, in the one music class Ashton completed at UNC Charlotte, her grade took a dip for attending an award show. Ashton began searching for an area of study that would be more compatible with her career.

She found that in the Belk College of Business. Ashton seems overwhelmingly happy when she talks about it, stating that they’ve been incredibly supportive and accommodating. “Economics was so willing to work with me and my music schedule, so willing to let me travel and understand that I’m out for business and that this is what I’m doing for my livelihood now,” she says. “I am so glad for where I am now.” She also finds it more complementary to her musical talent. The music scene is an industry and Ashton believes that her business background will be incredibly helpful as she tries to navigate it. While she has her parents’ support, Ashton does not have an agent and is learning to move through the industry on her own.

Photo by Taylor Moody.

However, her education isn’t the only thing she has to balance. Social relationships and friendships can also be hard to maintain when one is only on campus two days a week. Ashton has to work hard to make time for friends and to stay in contact while on the road. However, that also goes in the opposite direction. Luckily, she doesn’t get entirely lonely on the road since her parents travel with her.

Ashton is incredibly excited about 2019 and what it might have in store for her career. Granted, it started out pretty strong. As a member of the Recording Academy, Ashton attended the Grammy Awards for the first time in February. She stated, “Just being there at the Grammy Award show was an incredible experience – the talent both on and off stage is the best in the world.” Her favorite part was the Dolly Parton tribute, as she “admire[s] Dolly as a businesswoman and as one of the pioneers of the ladies in country music.”

 

Beyond the Grammys, Ashton hints at a number of projects in the works. The biggest of these is new music, the first of which is slated to release in March 2019. Music videos and commercials are also on the table. Beyond music, Ashton is now looking into the world of acting and movies. “I think in a way, it is an extension of that storytelling…I mean really, a lot of times you are acting on stage because what comes out in the form of songs is often a lot more extreme of a feeling than what you were feeling at that moment.”

Ashton plans to graduate from UNC Charlotte in 2020, armed with a knowledge of the business world and the many years of music experience under her belt. When asked what makes a good performance, she says, “It takes being confident in yourself and knowing that you do have that story to tell and that whenever you walk out on stage, number one, you are there for the people out in the audience. You are telling your story but you are telling your story for somebody else.” Ashton also isn’t shy about pursuing music and plans to chase it relentlessly post-graduation. “There are some people who are just born to dance and born to sing. And I feel like I was born to sing,” she says.

48 Hours: An Inside Look at the Global Game Jam

The only sounds in the room are soft conversations and the clicks of fingers on keyboards. Someone is curled up in a sleeping bag by the window, another has their head bent over their desk. At this point, some of the people in the room have been present for almost 36 hours, putting every ounce of effort into designing and creating a unique video game. This is the Global Game Jam at UNC Charlotte, an event created with the goal of allowing developers to learn and work collaboratively to build new games. The catch? They have to build the game in 48 hours. The Global Game Jam, hosted by the student organization Game Developers at UNC Charlotte, took place in Woodward Hall from Jan. 25 – 27.

How does a group design a video game in just two days? Those of us in the Arts and Entertainment section were curious about the answer. To find out, a roving team of five reporters covered the entire Game Jam, hour-by-hour. Read below to learn what the experience was like.

Friday

6 p.m. Noah

Kicking off the event, an intro video on the theme of the Game Jam is shown. This year’s theme: “What home means to you.” A few people from around the globe display their own thoughts on the theme inside the video, and then the event is kicked off. The officers at the front make sure no new people are without a group, and from there everyone splits off into their teams to begin brainstorming ideas for their games.

7 p.m. Noah

The first team I sit down with is Upside Down Bird, a team well-acquainted with the Game Jams already. Benjamin Hamrick and David Dempsey are UNC Charlotte alumni and founded Upside Down Bird. The two have been participating in Game Jams from as early as 2013. The two are programmers along with Matthew Schwiebert. Also on the team is Mike Murray doing level design, Aaron Schwiebert, Nick DeJohn and Cyrus Homesley as musicians and finally Nick Eldridge who is going to help with brainstorming ideas, food runs, and a number of other needed tasks.

As the team gets into ideas, some of them range from a procrastinating simulator to a smart home escape room, as well as a sibling war game/pillow fort builder. Signature to “Resident Evil” is the safe rooms, the few areas where you are truly safe in the hostile environment and save the game. The team springs off this thought and its relation to home by adding the idea of running one of these rooms where multiple adventurers from different game genres come in to save (The player runs and manages this room).

8 p.m. Noah

Jumping to a new group, Guardian Frontier, the team is well into brainstorming their idea. The entire whiteboard is covered in ideas and extrapolation on them. The plan combines two of their initial ideas of a kid talking to several NPCs and finding out what home means to them. Then each NPC will take you into the gameplay in the form of a flashback, bringing out the story from there. Dillon Zhong works as programmer, designer and project manager. With him is programmer Justin Carrasquillo, 3D-modeler/programmer Michael Helwig, programmer/writer Jacob Miller, programmer Hashim Qureshi, designer Don Albert Collins, artist/programmer Irvin Naylor and artist/designer Christina Andre.

9 p.m. Elissa

In the corner of room 140 is the team Pixelsprite, comprised of four members: Jahdiel Couchman, Charlotte Barrett, Vishal Naik and Stephanie Lam. The first three are taking charge of the coding, while Lam is the artist of the four. Pixelsprite met in the fall semester during their Intro to Game Design and Development class, and have created approximately two games together (though Couchman was not a full member for those games). Their project’s concept is that the player will take on the role of an ant which will seek to find safety and a new “home” after being chased by obstacles, such as a vacuum cleaner.  While coding begins, Lam works on creating the aforementioned ant and vacuum cleaner which are red and pixelated in a classic video-game style.

10 p.m. Elissa

Gaming duo Worst Case Scenario works on their project “Mistep.” Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Nearby is the duo Mike Dorn and Jonothan Sigman, otherwise known as the team Worst Case Scenario. Dorn is in a state of controlled panic, as his Cdrive was accidentally wiped directly before the event. This means all of his pre-made designs have been completely deleted or corrupted, though the team is confident everything will still turn out fine. The two worked together previously when they were randomly placed in the same group during the Fall 2018 UNC Charlotte Game Jam. This time around though, it is clear the team began to plan out their idea before the event. The current concept is a two-player game that takes place in a single, temple-themed room with pressured tiles. At the start of each round, the players will be allowed to link a trap with a specific tile (though this will be invisible to both players once the round begins). When the round begins, both players will set off in hot pursuit of a treasure, both trying to avoid the traps and reach the treasure in the short time allowed. Whichever player survives, wins. It doesn’t really fit the theme of “home,” but Worst Case Scenario is largely unconcerned. Dorn hastily creates graphics, including the tile floor’s layout and animation for when the tiles are activated.

11 p.m. Elissa

As the Game Jam edges into the later hours of Friday evening, first-time team Game PJammers works diligently on graphic design. Half of the team has left the room to go home and grab some sleep, but Shaquiel Smith and Kristian “Axel” Melendez plan to rest later. They hope the team will operate on a shifting schedule in which at least one team member at a time will be working on the game. Focused on the guiding concept of “What home means to you,” their game will be centered around the idea that “friends and stories are what makes a place home.” One will play as a character who has just moved to a new city and will have the option to travel to a number of different locations, such as work, the gym and the library. They will meet new characters at these locations and attempt to befriend them. If they achieve a certain level of closeness, they will receive a reward from their new friend (i.e. a dumbbell or a book) to fill their new-but-empty apartment. At the moment, the main goal is to have as many friends and rewards as possible before the game ends after seven days. At this point in the evening, a few of the original characters and text bubbles have already been created by team member Naima Karzouz. The fourth member, Martin Gutierrez, worked on making an animated typewriter effect for the game’s text before heading to bed. Melendez will spend the evening creating the various scenes and locations while Smith examines various camera angles and different options for how objects can interact with each other.

Saturday

12 a.m. Elissa

One of the less-conventional team dynamics comes from JEM++, a group that consists of current Vice President Jonathan Keku and alumni Matt Ballard and Eric King. They have worked as a team for the past two Game Jams, typically as a cohesive group. This time though, the personal theme of “home” presents a challenge, and each member is working on a different game prototype. They plan to meet within a couple hours to decide which is the most fun and work as a coordinated team from there. Keku and King are both working on varying versions of a “Snake”-inspired gameplay. Keku’s main character is a person, while King’s is a house. Both versions will have the player travel to try and collect houses and from a “tail.” Running into the tail (as well as off the edge of the map in Keku’s case) will result in a Game Over screen. Keku’s idea extends a bit beyond that, as the end of the game in his version will display the way the main character died, as well as list the significant life moments (such as childhood, entering college or getting a job) represented by each house the player added to their tail. Ballard’s strategy is to try various gameplay mechanics until he finds one he likes, though he is currently running with something inspired by “Excitebike.” Midway through the hour, he changes strategy to try and create a sort-of Shuffleboard but with houses.

1 a.m. Noah

Probably the most passionate team I have come across tonight, team Space Shark is making good progress on their bombastic fighting game. Chris Sanchez and Timothy Walker take on programming, whereas Hamilton Rice works on the art and Tyler Johnson handles the concept design and music. The group likens their game to a retro-style “Smash Bros.,” in which the focus is knocking characters off the stage rather than your traditional health bar. The roster consists of four characters, including Heinrich, a hellspawn focused on fire-centered attacks, AieserBeard, deadly captain of the S.S. Grimeback, and Douglas, a muscular dwarf who spends a majority of his time mining in caves. All of these characters feature elaborate backstories on the team’s design document, except their star character Cleetus, whose background simply reads as “Just Cleetus.” I got a peek at Cleetus’ character design, a mountain man who wields a banjo as his weapon of choice. As I sit here writing this, the team debates over whether they should make one of Cleetus’ special moves involve throwing a bottle of moonshine or ramming his enemies with a truck.

Members of Upside Down Bird work on creating their game. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

2 a.m. Noah

Back with Upside Down Bird, the group has settled on the game idea of driving to “the ultimate destination,” home. The challenge presented in the game is that navigation has to be done by pulling up your map, which completely covers your view of the road. With three musically-inclined individuals on the team, the speed of the car will be dictated by changing the radio to faster and slower tempo songs that will control the speed of the car. The team has a driveable car at the moment, as well as a partly designed map for the car to actually drive on.

3 a.m. Noah 

As the night hours draw on, five of Upside Down Bird remain working on their game for the night. At this point, the team has the car driving on a map featuring roads, trees, mountains and other obstacles. The team works on getting the wheel to actually turn, adding hands for the players to see on the wheel, ironing out the kinks in the car’s physics and adding other details on the map, such as a waterfall. It is incredible to see them start off brainstorming their title, and then to come back about 8 hours later and see them have a somewhat playable game already. As the hour draws to a close, the remainder of the team heads home to get some semblance of sleep to be ready to work tomorrow (or today).

4 a.m. Noah

Most of those who remain in these wee hours of the night are either continuing work or getting what sleep they can in sleeping bags on the floor.

5 a.m. Noah

For a majority of this hour, everyone was asleep (or at least trying to).

6 a.m. Noah

The sleep continues…

7 a.m.  Noah

As everyone continues to sleep, the sun finally begins to rise. A pair of students (not associated with the Jam) come into the room attempting to print something. The two are completely unaware that there are multiple people trying to sleep, and after some loud arguing, the two eventually give up on trying to print in the room. A few of the jammers begin to awake because of the disturbance.

8 a.m. Melissa

Hansel Wei is the Site Coordinator of the Game Jam. He is a senior computer science major and Secretary of the Game Developers at UNC Charlotte, the student organization hosting UNCC’s Game Jam. This Game Jam came together quickly: the majority of its organizing occurred two days ago, with some of the work beginning last week. This was partly the result of delays with reservation services. YoYo Games was one of the companies to donate free software which the developers could choose to use during the week of the Game Jam. Their software, GameMaker, enables pieces to be dragged and dropped into the game.

A spotlight on Wei: While he has done some game developing in the past, he now focuses his energy on developing curriculum to teach people about coding. He is currently working on developing a curriculum for UNCC’s satellite location of the North Carolina Science Festival.

9 a.m. Melissa

The Global Game Jam is an annual, international event with sites operating around the world. At the beginning of this year’s Jam, each site played the same keynote speaker video to announce the theme: “What does home mean to you?” There was a social network — similar to Reddit — for the jammers to share their ideas and communicate with other participants. Jammers needed to be careful of the things they posted on their social media (and on the aforementioned network) so as not to spoil the theme for the jammers in the last time zone, Hawaii. The theme could be openly discussed at 11:10 p.m. on Jan. 25, EST.

In addition to the theme, there were specific challenges jammers could choose to attempt that were sponsored by outside companies. Prizes were offered for challenge winners. One such challenge involved creating a game that used iPhones as controllers. As stated by Hansel Wei, “The idea of the game jam is that you band together.” Like an instrumental band with a drummer, singer, guitarist etc., in this game-developing event individuals come together with their specific skill sets to create one cohesive piece.

10 a.m. Melissa

Where are they now? A review of three teams’ progress:

The Game PJammers at work. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

When I first arrived at 8 a.m., The Game PJammers was the only group awake and working. Furthering their theme that friends and stories make a place home, the team concisely states that “home is where you make it.” Having moved on from graphic design for the moment, the team is developing dialogue responses to progress the story.

Jonathon Sigman continues coding solo for Worst Case Scenario as his partner gets some rest. Sigman has just completed writing the code to link multiple traps to a single tile, a game feature that means an unlucky player may set off multiple traps at once. This task was the hardest yet, according to Sigman. Some of the traps proposed for the game include a saw blade swiping across the screen, blow darts and crumbling platforms. A trap that has already been coded is a pit the character can fall into. When a character is killed by a trap, they will respawn so long as it is within the round’s time limit. A round is completed either when a player successfully procures a gem from one side of a room and returns it to a starting place, or when the timer runs out. Currently, the team plans on the game consisting of four rounds. The team’s new response to the query: “Does your game relate to the theme?” is “Yes and no.” The game relates to the theme in the idea that the player is an adventurer, and an adventurer’s home is the places they discover.

Guardian Frontier has begun to develop their cast of characters, that is, the characters the player comes to know during flashback sequences. One such character is Calendella, a soldier who desperately misses her family. A more complex character is Mark. Mark’s parents both died, his mother from natural causes and his father murdered (a fact Mark learns by watching the evening news). With no one to care for him, Mark was sent to an academy for soldiers and put into a class with five others his age. The purpose of the academy is to try and find ways to reduce PTSD. Mark’s backstory focuses on the six characters making up his class.

11 a.m. Melissa

The Game Jam is back in full swing with five teams actively present. The room has grown gradually louder throughout the morning and is currently a hub of activity. In one corner of the room, alumni team, House on Fire works on their game and their fourth member has just arrived. Members of the team have attended Game Jams for the past several years although they have not always worked together. This team is one to watch according to Wei. Wei recalls that last year, they created a game in which players moved physical pieces on a projector (such as pieces of paper) to manipulate virtual items in the game. This year, House on Fire is making a two-player virtual reality game that requires a single headset. The objective of the game is to escape a burning house. However, each player faces a physical limitation. One player, the one that wears the virtual reality headset, is a paraplegic in a wheelchair. This player is to sit in a rolling chair in the physical world outside of the game to simulate the wheelchair. The second player, not wearing the headset, cannot see the virtual world and its obstacles. This character is blind. It is the job of the player in the chair to direct the blind player in moving the chair around virtual objects to escape the burning house in the game.

12 p.m. Maya

At noon, there are still people who are sleeping after a long night. Other participants are currently walking in to begin work, while some are leaving room 140 to grab a bite to eat. There is only a little bit of dialogue between participants. Beyond that, the room is quiet. The only thing you can hear is tapping from the keyboards and clicking from mouses.

1 p.m. Maya

The room is still quiet. Everyone is focused on getting their game finished. Richard Camara from the independent team Game Dev Pro is hard at work. The rest of his team is not there now; they are out taking care of other responsibilities. Even though this is the case, the team keeps in contact by communicating on a message board. In the meantime, Camara is working on a projectile for one of the bosses in the game, which proves to be difficult to create. However, Camara relies on a game engine called Unity for help. It provides tutorials for game developers. Eventually, Camara finds a function that works. It’s not perfect but it’s a start. The artwork seems to be completed already since one team member sent in the artwork. They have made some progress since Friday evening. Game Dev Pro will meet back up 3 p.m.

Tyler Johnson of the team Space Shark. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

2 p.m. Melissa

In contrast to the general buzz of collaboration I left, the silence I return to after my lunch break is deafening. Heads bow over individual keyboards almost reverently. And then the silence is broken by the tinkling of music: many of the groups, having by this time finished the development of their stories, are focusing on the special features of the games. One jammer with the team Space Shark works on designing the menu for the game. Another jammer, Tyler Johnson, works on music, playing a guitar and keyboard. To record the music, he plugs each instrument into a red box and plays. The box is plugged into a laptop, which is then plugged into a monitor. On the computers, the sounds recorded from the instruments can be manipulated. The team plans on creating four songs, one to go with each of the four worlds and four characters (remember: demon, pirate, dwarf and mountain man) in the game. The group is calmly working.

An update on JEM++: Their “Snake”-like game now has a game mechanic differentiating it from the original game, that is, part of the game now includes returning houses to their appropriate plots.

An update on The Game PJammers: Most of the tasks on their to-do list, art withstanding, have been completed. This is far ahead of the schedule they expected. They are now working on the end-game mechanics throwing around ideas such as, angry neighbors smashing the windows of the apartment if the player does not create enough positive relationships by the end of the game.

Global update: Break time approaches. This break time is a feature of the Global Game Jam, with sites responsible for scheduling their own activities for the breaks. Several sites around the world engage in yoga. Others located in the southern hemisphere go swimming in outdoor pools.   

3 p.m. Melissa

The break time was announced and met with little enthusiasm. Some jammers, clearly in the zone, reject the interruption. Others have just returned from staggered break times with their group members and do not feel the need to break so soon. An organizer started writing out team names on the board but gives up on that endeavor as the jammers talk over her in their planning.

4 p.m. Aaron

The teams that are present during my arrival are Team Guardian Frontier and Space Shark. Then, two boys appear.

The duo consists of Riley Jones and Luke Sloop. They are working on a game that features a crab with a colony of shrimp. You control the shrimp and perform certain tasks with them. Jones thinks of the mutually beneficial relationships in marine biology when he hears the theme of this game jam. He thinks of how one big animal needs small animals to clean it while the small animals find the big animal a nice place to stay. This duo has been part of previous game jams. Riley does the art aspects of the game while Luke does the programming and mechanics. The duo met each other through other friends and began to work together during the spring semester of their freshman year.

Continuing on with Tyler Johnson of Space Shark, so far the team has created three out of four of the tracks they were making. He is currently working on the track for the wild character named Cleetus. Johnson has referred to old country music to help give him inspiration for theme track of the son. He uses an unconventional guitar tuning that is D flat tuning (the most common guitar tuning is Standard E). This tuning could be inspired by stoner rock/metal bands such as Sleep, Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age.

5 p.m. Aaron

Work continues on as usual for the teams. Everyone is focused on their work but retains casual conversations with laughter and banter.

The boys of JEM++ so far have most of the basic mechanics of their game. They will be using sample pieces of music as the team does not have a musician in the group.

I begin talking to team Pixelsprite. This team typically does Adventure/RPG games but decided to make a side-scrolling game this time for the convenience. According to Jahdiel Couchman, the previous Game Jam taught them a lot from the sheer scope of what they were trying to do last time.

6 p.m. Aaron

The members of Anticipate (formerly Pixelsprite) present their game, “Bug Out” on Jan 27. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Continuing on with Pixelsprite, Jahdiel Couchman states that if they were given more than just 48 hours, they would have converted the side scrolling game into an adventure game.

As I write my observational notes, the team is very quiet and focuses on the programming aspect of the game. Couchman uses a calculator on his phone to help calculate the place of the pixels and the animations. This will help him know if the items are way too close or too far.

Couchman demonstrates how he is programming the game. At the time of this writing, he is working on placing the items during the game. He hopes to make the items randomly generate after each level, as well as making the vacuum move faster. The items featured in the game are spiders, webs, ledges, walls, etc. Couchman also uses a blank sheet of paper to draw out the level layout to help plan out on what is doing. This is where he would measure out the ledges.

7 p.m.  Elissa

When I walk into the main room 140, there are a number of groups at work. Sometimes, the lines between them are blurred, as the computer-filled room’s setup requires the teams to format themselves in rows.

The duo Worst Case Scenario’s tile/trap game now has a name: “Mistep.” They’ve made significant progress and feel confident about their ability to finish before 3 p.m. tomorrow, the suggested time to submit games before the server begins too slow. Coder Jonothon Sigman believes he’s conquered his hardest challenge: linking the traps to specific tiles. While he had worked on trying to link multiple traps to one tile this morning, that plot has now been abandoned. Now, each tile can only have one trap. He is now embarking on making the game transfer from one round to the next. Mike Dorn’s animations are complete for at least four traps, as well as the movement of characters walking side-to-side. Each small animation takes him between 2 – 2.5 hours. President Alexus Smith travels to each team in the room giving them advice and supporting their endeavors.

I take a trip down the hall to room 154, where I find a group of six people including some members of the team House on Fire. They sit around a table with a hand-made game board consisting of squares and three different kinds of dice. The group is all alumni, mostly ex-officers of the club. According to Taylor White, the unique board game is called “Mundane Heroes” and was created at a Game Jam a couple of years ago. It is now a tradition. It functions a bit like “Dungeons and Dragons,” with a game master leading a group of heroes on an adventure. The trick is that they all have lackluster superpowers, such as the ability to summon a toddler. The adventure they are currently on features one of the players, who has the ability to talk to demons but not to understand them. Unfortunately, this means the group is now under attack by a demon. Actions made to try and avoid the demon include throwing food out of a window and hiding in a barrel.

8 p.m. Elissa

Three members of the PJammers spend a decent part of this hour trying to plan how the conversation feature of their friendship-building game will operate. The team has set up positive and negative responses to prompts made by the various characters. The debate is whether they should create and program the conversation to have multiple threads and tracks based on how the player responds. Instead, they decide that choosing a negative response will simply send the player back to the last stage of the conversation. Beyond this, they have completed designing the apartment and are working on perfecting how the gym conversation will operate. Once that conversation is completed, they will be able to easily copy the coding format for the other characters and places. The list of planned settings the main character can travel to is currently: the park, a general store, the bar, work, the gym and a bookstore. Rewards one can win for friendship include coupons, alcohol and a lucky pen. The team wants to finish the game before 3 p.m. but seems nervous about their ability to do so. They split up to write the conversation scripts and draw the backgrounds for the other places/characters in the game. Their fourth member, Naima Karzouz, is working on some of the backgrounds from home. She is also in charge of music for the game.

I check back in with the musician Tyler Johnson from Space Shark. He has moved on from Cleetus and is now almost complete with the music for the character Douglas. Since Douglas is a dwarf, Johnson would like him to have a Celtic-inspired sound. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an electronic bagpipes (though he does have a number of electronic instruments, from cellos and drums to sitars and synths). He rejects the idea of sampling something, and thus decides to use his guitar instead. After he is done with this track, he will move on to creating the theme for AesirBeard.

Matthew Ballard of JEM++. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

9 p.m. Elissa

An update on JEM++: Jonathan Keku suspects that the team will have no trouble finishing their game in time. At the moment, he believes that the only things they have left to do are create a game over screen, create a better feedback system for players and work on improving the graphics. He is in charge of the latter part and is thinking of creating some animations for when the houses “come to life,” primarily a sparkle effect. He has also created a simple animation of a bouncing/jumping house for when the houses join the chain and travel around the map.

An update on Guardian Frontier: Two members of the team, Dillon Zhong and Irvin Naylor, work on creating the dialogue system and finalizing the art for the game. They have just recovered from a three-hour set back in which the code for the dialogue stopped functioning when they were trying to give it the ability to change for different characters. After strenuous troubleshooting, they finally found the one word that was throwing off the code. While they’ve since fixed the issue, this unfortunately means the two are back to solving the problem of switching characters. The team plans on working overnight to finish the code by tomorrow morning. As of right now, they plan for the game to consist of an introduction, three chapters and a conclusion. It will have four characters. First is Alan, a magic character the player will assume the role of. There is also Mage, a magical hunter, Mark, an engineered soldier from the year 2050, and Calendella, a “regular” soldier from an alternate-universe Earth.

10 p.m. Elissa

Catching up with Pixelsprite, Jahdiel Couchman is working on trying to solve a problem in the code. As the ant moves through the level, it comes into contact with a number of objects. While all of these objects are not squares, invisible squares called “collision boxes” appear around them. These squares are what the ant collides with, and unfortunately, they aren’t lined up exactly with the non-square-shaped objects (meaning it sometimes looks like the ant is floating in space). Couchman would like to simply code for the objects at the same time as the boxes. Organizer Hansel Wei walks over to the group to provide suggestions, though it eventually seems to be unavoidable. Couchman will have to code for the collision boxes and actual game objects separately. Meanwhile, Stephanie Lam works on creating the title page for the game. This presents a challenge as the game still does not have a working title.

Wei explains to me that there are actually three Game Jams a year at UNC Charlotte. Two are local 49er Game Jams. These occur in the fall and late spring. The Game Developers club that hosts them typically tries to find sponsors for the events to provide things like food and caffeinated drinks. The Global Game Jam is consistently in January. Sponsors for Global Jams provide things like code and access to their platforms.

When I walk past room 154, the group of six alumni is still playing tabletop games.

11 p.m. Elissa

Team Space Shark works on their character, AesierBeard. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Team Space Shark is at the point in which they have a working prototype of their game, “Home Field.” They seem surprised by the fact they actually feel like they might have a shot at finishing the game before 3 p.m. Still, there is a lot of work to do. Things still on the to-do list include: a “win” screen, a flashy death animation, adding in the music and the hardest task: trying to make the game use Xbox controllers instead of keyboard commands. They are also considering adding voice lines. Chris Sanchez and Timothy Walker are currently debating over a piece of code that has abruptly stopped working. While they know the code is either A) the one allowing players to select a character or B) the one that carries that character selection on to the next screen; they are unsure which of the two it is.

The biggest area of uncertainty for the fighting-style game is trying to tie it to the theme of “what home means to you.” Currently, the team is running with adding backstories to the four characters that will allow each one to represent a different type of home. For example, the pirate AesierBeard’s ship is always moving and rapidly changing while the dwarf Douglas never leaves his enclosed cave. The team seems unsure of how to make this tie to the theme clear and are toying with the idea of having the backstories appear during the character selection screen.

Midway through the hour, Jonathan Keku plugs his Nintendo Switch into the projector and turns on the game “One Strike” for attendees to play. The room seems torn between watching and trying to ignore it to focus on their work. By the end of a couple rounds though, the room is mostly invested and cheers and laughs at the game.

Sunday

12 a.m. Elissa

As the night (or early morning, depending on how one decides to view it) wears on, discussion about the lack of a “dark room” begins. In the past, the group would book a room specifically for attendees to sleep in without having to leave the Jam. There is not one for this Jam, though people have still brought blankets, pillows, etc. While the dark room was nice for convenience, Marketing Officer Dylan Zhong points out that it wasn’t without issues. People would often walk in and out at varying times, meaning people would be forced awake without planning to be. Without a dark room, attendees have previously slept under tables and in spaces by windows. This seems to be the plan for tonight. Considering the fact that it is absolutely frigid outside, I understand the urge not to leave.

The game playing on the main screen has switched to “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.” The members of Space Shark have been in full control of the Switch since it started. Team Worst Case Scenario leaves, agreeing to meet back in the morning.

The Game PJammers have made a lot of progress in the past four hours. Their debate about how the conversation feature will work is settled. They now have functioning animations for four out of their six characters; scripts have been written for three. At the moment, Axel Melendez is working on completing those last scripts and characters. Meanwhile, Shaquiel Smith is creating the gifts/rewards. Naima Karzouz works on designing the backgrounds at home which she then sends in remotely via Discord. She completes the bookstore scene.

1 a.m. Noah

Preparing for a run to Cookout, the jammers continue to play “Smash Bros. Ultimate” and work on their code as they wait for the groups heading out to be ready. Usually, this event is done as a walk to the actual fast-food hotspot, but due to the near 30 degree temperature outside, travel by car is the preferred method. I ride along with Hansel Wei, Dylan Zhong and Jacob Miller. We talk about our classes in computer science.

2 a.m. Noah

After the recharge from Cookout, some jammers head home, some prepare to sleep and the rest continue what work they can with the energy they still have.

Guardian Frontier presents their game “Where the heart is” on Jan 27. Photo by Niaythi Sulkunte.

3 a.m. Noah

I talk with Dylan Zhong, the sole remaining jammer from Guardian Frontier at this point, a little about what the game itself will turn out as. There is the visual novel aspect as a front for the main protagonist, and the different flashbacks split off into different gameplay variants. The main three discussed include a platformer, a top-down isometric shooter (similar to “Hotline Miami” or “Enter the Gungeon”) and a run ’n gun style game inspired by “Mega Man.” The team has done these different kinds of gameplay as individual games at previous game jams, so the idea is to take this experience into one package. This is the team’s fourth game jam, and when asked about whether he thought they would finish in time, Dylan Zhong said that with cutting certain corners and some retooling, it is always a for sure thing. Essentially, what you can consider “finished” is always subjective.

4 a.m. Noah

Part of the remaining jammers still here are either sleeping or hard at work continuing their games. Dylan Zhong from Guardian Frontier continues programming on his game, as do Vishal Naik and Jahdiel Couchman of Pixelsprite and Shaquiel Smith and Axel Melendez of The Game PJammers. Some time is spent watching short skit videos with Couchman, Naik, Smith and Melendez in an attempt to unwind. Upon asking about their team name, both Couchman and Naik made it clear that they wanted a name change from Pixelsprite. The group opens it up as a discussion for other suggestions, as well as ideas for a name for their ant-themed game. Some ideas included “A Bug’s Life Sucks” and “Bug Out.” Deep theological questions on whether Dr. Pepper actually has his Ph.D. are also discussed, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that the late-night hours are having an effect on all of us.

5 a.m. Noah

Members of “House on Fire” at work. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

I check in on the alumni group House on Fire, though the team has already retired for the evening. Two are asleep on desks, one is on a bed of rolling chairs and the other is in a sleeping bag on the floor. This is a wise decision, as they’ll need as much energy as they can as the deadline approaches. I shadow in on Pixelsprite, and after a bit of explaining in how the designing of levels and the use of XY coordinates work, I get to try out the game for myself. The main objective for Jahdiel Couchman right now is still to make different designs for half of the level so that they can be randomly matched to create a new level on each play. The artwork done by Stephanie Lam is really good, even without considering the amount of time that has been given thus far. Eventually getting into a discussion about game design courses offered in the computer science department, they soon become focused on debating “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” versus its predecessor, “Oblivion.”

6 a.m. Noah

Heading into the morning hours, I sit down with Vishal Naik of Pixelsprite, who gives me a look into adding a smoke effect for the vacuum in his game, which at first glance would seem like a simple task. Essentially an image is used that has multiple sub-images of smoke that gives the effect that it is real, like a gif. There are then a number of values associated with getting it into the level in the correct spot, size, transparency and much more. It’s clear that Naik has a good understanding of how this process works, and he even is able to explain it in a way that makes sense to myself as well. It is a great example of how little things in games can be taken for granted when in reality there is a whole process and amount of time needed to even implement something as simple as a trail of smoke. It makes me much more appreciative of those kinds of things in games, and for the endless number of names in the credits that appear in your typical triple-a game. Satisfied with the progress made, both the jammers left from Pixelsprite and The Game PJammers make a trip to McDonalds for breakfast/dinner.

7 a.m.  Noah

Dylan Zhong remains the only person left coding for the time being and has just finished the dialogue boxes for his game, the visual novel aspect specifically. This gets his team over a tremendous hurdle where a good portion of the work now is to get some art assets created and added in. He now would like to get some sleep. As the sun rises, the McDonalds crew also makes their return with newfound energy. The PJammers present now, Shaquiel Smith and Axel Melendez, both have been working on multiple aspects of the game. Now those pieces are coming together at once so the pair is obviously very excited.

8 a.m. Elissa

When I arrive, only one PJammer remains. The room is mostly empty, and a couple of attendees are asleep at their desks (plus one in a sleeping bag on the floor). Hansel Wei attempts to get some sleep while sitting in his supervising chair. The sound of light snoring fills the room, only interrupted by Pixelsprite’s Jahdiel Couchman as the lone attendee coding. Talking feels like disturbing the peace. Eventually, two other coders awake and work silently on their projects.

9 a.m. Elissa

Finally, there is some semblance of conversation and life. A couple of the coders break into “Tell Me Why,” by the Backstreet Boys, blaming it on the long hours and delirium.

Worst Case Scenario returns; they’ve come a long way since I last spoke to them. “Mistep” is now a (mostly) working game with spike, pit and dart traps functioning. The duo is in the process of playtesting the game for bugs and creating a final to-do list. The main goal is refining the already created traps, and adding in springs and rocks. They tried to create the rock trap last night but decided to come back to it later after it caused persistent issues. Other things on the list include walking and death animations, finding public domain music and fixing some lighting problems with the game.

10 a.m. Elissa

Everyone works diligently at their games. The room is largely silent except for when bugs appear in someone’s work.

An update on Space Shark: This group largely didn’t work overnight and remains about where I left them on Saturday evening. Only one of their team members, Hamilton Rice, is currently on site. He is working on completing some of the final animations; other tasks that need to be finished are adding in Tyler Johnson’s music and playtesting for bugs.

An update on Guardian Frontier: This team still has a fair amount of work to do, probably because their game seems to be one of the more elaborate ones. Irvin Naylor is adding color to the hand-drawn character designs; he will then scan them in Atkins Library to digitize them. Dillon Zhong is working on coding the platforming round of the game. Other rounds still need to be coded for, and the dialogue also has a couple of holes left. Four members of their team will be arriving soon to help finish the process.

The goal of their game is to allow their main character to learn what home means from their three other OCs, each of which has their own definition. What are those definitions? For Mark, it is the idea of not being alone and creating a family of friends that will support you. For Calendella, home is whenever and wherever she can be in contact with her family and know that they are okay (even if that is just via letter form since they are separated by distance). Alan defines his home as being located within himself, sort of like a self-assuredness that he will be okay.

Members of independent team “Game Dev Pro” rush to meet the 3 p.m. deadline. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

11 a.m. Elissa

I travel down the hall to rooms 144 and 145, where most of the alumni and independent teams are working. There I find the team Game Dev Pro, which is composed of a group of adults that attend Meetup game design events at Central Piedmont Community College. Outside of game design, they range from a college student to an eighth-grade teacher to a programmer at Duke Energy. Since UNC Charlotte’s Game Jam is the official Charlotte location, they’ve been using the space during the day but returning home to work at night. Their game’s concept focuses on a young artist living with his overbearing, controlling parents. His “home” is art which he must use to escape his physical house. There is still a significant amount of work to be done; models, the combat system and a boss are only partially completed. Team member Alec Ziskund tells me the goal for today is simply to complete one level and one boss. As a whole, Game Dev Pro wishes they had been able to spend more time working on the game.

An update on Upside Down Bird: This team did not visit campus yesterday, but has returned with an almost-completed driving game titled “Cruise Ctrl.” The aforementioned map still blocks one’s view, but now it also causes changes to the viewer’s perception via filters. When I play, the map causes the game to look blurry and turn into a green notepad. I am absolutely awful at the game, though I am consoled by the fact no one else has made it home yet either. The team is especially proud of the comedic commercials that play on the vehicle’s radio which were crowdsourced from friends using Facebook and Google Voice. The only things left to complete are simple logistics, such as finishing the credits, completing the main menu and inserting a “real” house instead of a simple placeholder one.

An update on House on Fire: Progress is going slowly. Team member Ryan Carpenter is worried about the team’s ability to finish in time but reminds himself that a majority of the coding typically occurs in the last couple of hours at the Game Jam. For now, they have the basic set of the room. However, they still need to add in the puzzles and interactive aspects.

12 p.m. Elissa

Team member Eric King of JEM++ tells me the group is at “rush point.” They’ve rejected the concept of adding any new ideas and are simply sticking with polishing what they currently have. This means adding some simple missing animations for the houses and as well as background music and sounds.

The Game PJammers are also hard at work putting all the pieces of their game together. Currently, three of them are working to code in all of the characters’ dialogues. There are still two locations and two characters left to be animated as well. The exhaustion in this group is palpable (Shaquiel Smith is taking a nap on the desk when I arrive), but they are confident and driven to finish in time.

1 p.m. Elissa

All four members of Pixelsprite collaborate, determined to complete the game by 3 p.m. Charlotte Barrett is searching for music/sound effects for public use. Vishal Naik is still working on the vacuum’s smoke and adding powerups while Stephanie Lam attempts to create 10 different color variations of the game’s background. Jahdiel Couchman has headphones on and talks to no one as he concentrates on coding the game to have new levels generate one right after the other.

The teams are quite aware of the time crunch.

2 p.m. Elissa

While the teams rush to complete their tasks, I interview Game Developers at UNC Charlotte’s President, Alexus Smith.

Smith was elected President almost three years ago, after attending only one Game Jam and maybe two meetings. She had a history of leadership experience and a strong background in computer science. In all, her election took less than 15 minutes. While the Game Developers have been around long enough that only alumni remember when and how the group started, Smith’s goal has always been to maintain and grow the club. She says, “My main focus was to make sure that it existed, no matter what, outside of just the people who always want to do Game Jams, so that there is something for other people that are going to come along and will eventually be just as passionate as them.”

In the past three years, a number of things have changed in the structure of the organization. The days and structure of meetings, the roles of eboard members and the addition of a Discord channel are also components of that list. The club has also shifted to trying heavily to recruit from outside CCI. “When people are like ‘I’m a musician,’ we’re like ‘Yes!’” states Smith. She continues, “Because we are always trying to bring artists and musicians more than programmers. Everybody will eventually program on the team. So we feel like we should supply teams that need that type of specific…you know, someone that can hear and write specific music, or artists, assets. That’s the type of person you need.”

Since I’ve talked to only three women participants during the entirety of the Game Jam, I ask her about her experience as a woman in computer science. She notes that my experience of representation at Game Jam is pretty comparable to her classes where she has typically only seen five or six (always less than 10) women. When asked what that experience is like, she remembers a time recently where a student in her ethics class asked the professor why equality of the sexes in computer science is important. Why is it important? Smith references a study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health that demonstrated that women were more likely to die in car crashes because all the safety features (seatbelts, airbags) were designed with crash test dummies that were men. If more women had been involved, she argues, that would change. She also discusses the fact that Dr. Fatma Mili became the Dean of the College of Computing and Informatics last year. Smith tells me that as an employee of the department, “She’s [the Dean] taken the good staff that we already have and worked with them to say: ‘How do we do this?’ And they haven’t just been like ‘Okay, we’ll quietly implement changes and see if we like them.’ They’ve actually taken the time to be like ‘We’re going to host a forum, we’re going to have one-on-ones.’ The personal assistant of the Dean wants to meet with us next week to talk about what is going on with the college. So I do see the change…it is happening.”

3 p.m. Aaron

One of the members of Chip Boat, the team responsible for “25-Piece Shrimp Meal Organic Fresh-Caught.” Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

I go to catch up with the duo of Riley Jones and Luke Sloop (later known as the team Chip Boat). They are currently test running their shrimp-themed game and adding any else to refine the game. Jones stated that this is a game he is really proud of due to the amount of work they’ve put into the game. He cited the fact that the Game Jam was very early on the semester and that he did not have anything major in his classes to prioritize as reasons the team was able to be very creative and put so much effort into their work.

Jones has noted that the teams in this Game Jam are more ambitious than the previous ones. The title of their game is called, “Fresh Cut Organic 25 Piece Shrimp Meal.” According to Jones, having long titles for their games has been a running gag for a very long time.

I notice that the atmosphere in the room is very vibrant. People are either still working or are talking to each other and laughing. I can only assume that this is due to it being the final hours of the Game Jam. They can at least relax a bit before presenting their games.

4 p.m. Aaron

Checking in on Space Shark, all of the animations that Hamilton Rice made are finished while Tyler Johnson is importing all of the music into the game. They are also testing the game out so they can deal with bugs. One of the bugs in particular features characters being stuck on the floor after performing a particular jump. At the moment Rice does not have a solution to the problem. Regarding his final thoughts on this year’s Game Jam, Rice feels proud. He says that he is much more prepared this time and that this Game Jam was able to fit into his schedule better than last year’s.

I check in with the boys of Worst Case Scenario. Apparently, a game bug has been very persistent and caused a delay in turning in the game. They now expect to be finished by 5 p.m.

5 p.m. Aaron

Mike Dorn from Worst Case Scenario talks to me about the bug in their game. The rock trap that they were working on was described as a “sentient being.” When this trap was activated, one of three things would happen. One, every trap in the field would activate. Two, a random trap in the field would activate the rock. Three, the trap would shoot diagonally across the field like a meteor. The solution for this rock trap? They had to delete everything involving the rock trap and replace it with a GIF that features an animation of the rock falling down. That GIF solved a lot of problems. According to Dorn, this bug took over three hours to settle. The other bugs that they were handling were effectively dealt with. It has already been announced to that they made the upload deadline.

Some of the people involved in the Game Jam had begun to pack up and leave. The link to the server to submit the game is shown on the projector. There are still some teams left working on the finishing touches and uploading their games. It leaves me wondering if 48 hours is enough for people.

6 p.m. Aaron & Noah

Overhearing the conversations of various teams, they are quite relieved about having the whole thing come to an end. The overall atmosphere is in good spirits. Some team members said cheers before drinking their soda.

—-

Final Teams and Games

Anticipate (formerly Pixelsprite)

Anticipate displayed their platformer “Bug Out,” which has players take control of an ant escaping a vacuum trying to make its way to its hole/home. The final game features random level generation, matching two of six different level designs together to make each playthrough different. Jahdiel Couchman handled programming and the mixup system of the level design, Charlotte Barrett worked on the different levels themselves, Vishal Naik worked on the background, powerups and smoke effect of the vacuum and Stephanie Lam created the game’s terrific retro art style.

Chip Boat

Chip Boat created a sea-exploration action game entitled “25-Piece Shrimp Meal Organic Fresh-Caught.” A game that allows one to take control of a crab rounding up shrimp, the game’s underwater art style works well with the given backdrop. While there were only two enemies by the end of the jam, they were unique enough in design and play that they kept things interesting. The angler-like fish had a cute animation and could eat the shrimp that you shoot at them, while the starfish became a pest by knocking away your shrimp and stunning them. Riley Jones handled the art for the game and Luke Sloop did the majority of the programming.

Guardian Frontier

An ambitious project at first, “Where the heart is” is a visual novel that leads to different forms of gameplay at certain story beats. The game follows the protagonist to multiple characters that will each teach the player what home means to them. The game was originally set to include a different form of gameplay for each character’s flashback. However, due to time constraints, this was limited to one platforming level in which the player takes on the persona of a soldier named Calendula, whose flashback involves a game of hide-and-seek with her siblings. Dillon Zhong worked as programmer, designer and project manager. With him was programmer Justin Carrasquillo, 3D-modeler/programmer Michael Helwig, programmer/writer Jacob Miller, programmer Hashim Qureshi, designer Don Albert Collins, artist/programmer Irvin Naylor and artist/designer Christina Andre.

The Game PJammers

The game that probably meshes the best with the Jam’s central theme, “Jem’s Adventure,” finds players in control of Jem, a character who just moved to a new city and is looking to make friends. The main theme behind the game is “home is where your friends are,” which was inspired by one of the game’s own developers, Shaquiel Smith. Smith moved to the U.S. from Jamaica and was faced with the challenge of making new friends himself. The game’s other two programmers were Kristian “Axel” Melendez and Martin Gutierrez. Melendez also authored the game’s story, as well as contributed to the art with the team’s artist, Naima Karzouz. Karzouz also created the game’s soundtrack. The game had an overall wholesome vibe which can really be attributed to its great character animation.

Space Shark

With inspiration taken from “Super Smash Bros.,” “Home Field” is a retro fighting game with four main characters with vastly different backgrounds. There is Heinrich, a hellspawn focused on fire-centered attacks, AieserBeard, deadly captain of the S.S. Grimeback, Cleetus,  a powerful mountain man, and Douglas, a muscular dwarf who spends a majority of his time mining in caves. Just from the well-designed main menu and heavy metal soundtrack, “Home Field” immediately leaves a positive impression. The game was also a huge hit with the crowd during its presentation and garnered a lot of laughter during matches. Chris Sanchez and Timothy Walker took on programming, whereas Hamilton Rice worked on the art and Tyler Johnson handled the concept design and music.

Upside Down Bird

A well-oiled machine with experience making games, Upside Down Bird created the game “Cruise Ctrl.” For the team’s roles, Benjamin Hamrick, David Dempsey and Matthew Schwiebert handled programming. Working on music was Aaron Schwiebert, Nick DeJohn and Cyrus Homesley. Mike Murray worked on level design and Nick Eldridge handled design ideas, crowdsourcing and food runs. In line with the Jam’s theme, the objective of the game is to drive a car to “the daily final destination” — aka home. The actual driving mechanics are intentionally difficult, which can lead to some funny moments. As discussed in their presentation, another challenge in the game is that to see your long-term destination, you have to block your short-term sight by using your map. Not only does it cover up the entire screen, but once it is put away, a distortion to the screen is added as well. This was the team’s first year without an artist, though they did have the three musicians, so music played a large role via the form of the car’s radio which dictated the speed of the car.

JEM++

A sort of combination of “Snake” and “Pac-Man,” “Home Run” has you play as a house chasing other runaway homes, slowly building a chain of houses. The game features a nice upbeat theme song and meshes well with the 3-D, isometric-like art style. You have the option of picking either a small map or a big map, the latter of which definitely fits its adjective of choice. Eric King and Matthew Ballard worked as the game’s programmers, and Jonathan Keku oversaw the game’s art.

Worst Case Scenario

This duo created the two-player game, “Mistep,” in which your goal is to beat your opponent to a prize hidden in a tile-based grid. To sabotage your opponent, you can utilize a number of different traps. The game’s setting is an ancient temple, and the traps are similarly-themed. They include pits, spikes and darts. There were multiple maps planned, though only the temple was ready for the demo. At one point in the jam, the team had the choice of paying for their licensed music or buying a pizza. They chose the music. There is also a funny victory animation for the victor. Jonothon Sigman handled the programming side while Mike Dorn helped with the design and created the art.

No Name

“Boxing” is about moving, and in regards to the theme, runs on the notion home is always on the move. Played in a 3-D space, the game simply has you boxing up items from your house as you move to your new home. Items include rotary phones, slim vases and even your own baby. Once the boxes are packed up, you are immediately taken to your new home, where only the rotary phones will follow you due to a bug in the game. With no team name, the game was created by James Kingdon and Vuong Le. They created the game outside of the space used by Game Developers at UNCC but came in to present their final work.

House on Fire

An ambitious project created for the HTC Vive, “Fire Buddies” is a cooperative game for virtual reality. The main premise is that the player with the headset is in a wheelchair and must guide his blind brother (the player without the headset) to escape their house fire. The team was composed of alumni such as Ryan Carpenter, William Karnavas, Michael Pedersen, Ryan Cook and Bijan Razavi. Vuong Le contributed voice acting. 

Game Dev Pro

This team, composed of Richard Camara, Lynden Hill, Alec Ziskund, Manaka Green and Keith Isham, created the game “Tasukete.” The premise is that the player takes on the role of a young artist trapped in his house by his overbearing parents. He then realizes that art is his true “home.” Gameplay is centered around escaping his overbearing parents and the family home he is enclosed in.

You can play the games and read more about the teams here: https://globalgamejam.org/2019/jam-sites/university-north-carolina-charlotte/games

Correction: The article originally stated that Hansel Wei was the organization’s Treasurer. Wei is actually the Secretary.

‘The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical’ is heartfelt, exciting and incredibly fun

“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” This is how “The Lightning Thief,” the young adult novel from 2005, begins its story. It is also the first sentence the titular character sings in “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical;” an exciting start if there ever was one.  It tells the story of Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell), a twelve-year-old boy from New York who struggles with ADHD and dyslexia, constantly expelled from one school or another. He is angry, frustrated and struggling with feeling abandoned by his father. That is until he discovers there might be another explanation for his struggles: he is the demigod son of Poseidon. Thrown into the world of the Greek gods, Percy learns he must go on a quest to find Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt before the world breaks into chaos. What ensues is a tale of high-stakes adventure, teenage angst and the importance of friends and family.

The “Percy Jackson” series holds a special place in my heart. It is, without a doubt, the book series I loved the most in middle-school. I had a box set of the novels, skipped class to go to a book signing and proudly cosplayed Annabeth Chase. After the movies largely failed to capture its magic, it would have been easy to warily avoid another adaptation (although the Facebook post I made in 2014 when I found out the musical existed: “THERE IS A PERCY JACKSON MUSICAL GOING ON IN NYC I REPEAT THERE IS A PERCY JACKSON M U S I C A L. #IHAVEANEWLIFEDREAM” proves I never would have avoided it). However, “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is a truly worthy adaptation as well as a fantastic piece of theater. It played in Charlotte at the Knight Theater during the early run of its First National Tour from Jan. 15-20.

One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that adaptations of novels aren’t ever going to be the 12-hour reenactment of the books you dream of. They use different mediums for a reason. A good adaptation doesn’t need to be a perfect retelling. Instead, they need to utilize their format’s strengths to tell the story. Changes are fine, as long as the original’s heart is still there. This is what “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” does so well. Scenes are compacted (the book’s many-chapters road trip is condensed into the fun number “Drive”) or changed (Tartarus morphs from a dark, gloomy underworld into an equally life-threating disco version in “D.O.A.”), but they all retain the same spirit and tone of the original. The musical understands what made the novels so special and runs with it in musical form. It also makes the interesting — but appreciated — choice to keep the show’s connection to the larger book series, including hints and plot points that, though necessary for the book series, wouldn’t actually need to be explained for a stand-alone musical.

The absolute highlight of the show is its incredible seven-person cast (four of whom played the same roles Off-Broadway), whose small size often requires that the actors play multiple characters. Chris McCarrell is a strong lead as Percy, traveling between his teenage angst and heroics at equal speed. This interpretation of the character, though played by an adult, really highlights the fact that Percy is actually a middle-schooler struggling to save life as we know it. Kristin Stokes as Annabeth Chase provides a solid counter to McCarrell and highlights Annabeth’s desire to prove herself, both to her parents and to the world. She is unapologetic, smart and knows what she wants and how to get it, but she’s also allowed moments of emotional vulnerability and the freedom to expand beyond the title of know-it-all.

The real scene-stealer, though, is Jorrel Javier as Grover and Mr. D. Javier’s Grover is both heartfelt and funny, highlighted through a number of one-liners and the ballad “The Tree on the Hill.” He brings that same humor (and a large dose of exhaustion and irritability) to Mr. D whose “Another Terrible Day” is an impeccable introduction to the off-beat vibe of Camp Half-Blood. His energy is absolutely infectious and can be felt through the crowd. Ryan Knowles as Chiron/Poseidon/Hades/others is a stunningly-good voice actor whose “gallop” as Chiron is the best running gag in the show. James Hayden Rodriguez as Luke is so charming that I imagine Luke’s betrayal legitimately came as a surprise to anyone unfamiliar with the plot. Jalynn Steele also plays a wide variety of characters and emotions, from providing an emotional center as Sally Jackson to nailing the aforementioned underworld musical number “D.O.A.” Sarah Beth Pfeifer rounds out the show as Clarisse, though I wish the character had been given a bit more room to play and expand.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Daniel.

Set-wise, the production purposely utilizes a minimal set, with many pieces playing different roles. It relies on one’s imagination to fill in some of the blanks. While part of me would have loved for this show to get the over-the-top special effects of a Disney musical, this set feels more comfortable within the style and tone of the show. It is a musical about a group of angsty, rejected teenagers trying to overcome impossible odds. Their mission to save the world doesn’t have expensive gadgets; it’s a road trip with no money featuring everything from a Greyhound bus to a tractor. It fits.

The musical aspect of the show is probably the hardest sell for most theater-goers. Why add music? Why not just a play? For the most part, though, the music proves doubters wrong. It is used to add humor, create tension at big plot points and underscore emotional moments. It lets the characters speak to the audience and give insight into how they are feeling (like they would in a novel) without requiring something like a monologue. Highlights include Percy’s “I Want” number “Good Kid,” Annabeth’s solo “My Grand Plan,” and a number that truly captures the familial feeling of Camp Half-Blood, “The Campfire Song.” It doesn’t always work though.  The opening number and sequence “Prologue/The Day I Got Expelled” struggles from expository weight and sets the musical off on some uncertain footing. The lyrics can also sometimes come across as fairly heavy-handed and there are a couple of songs that while not bad, aren’t particularly memorable.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my time at “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical,” I do wonder at its ability to stand on its own two feet. It was overwhelmingly attended by fans who were already familiar with its source material. A large part of my affection for it can likely be traced back to nostalgia and relief at having an adaptation that loves the original as much as I do. From an outside perspective with no prior attachment, I can see how it might be dismissed. It isn’t a work of musical theater that will be known for its mass appeal or revolutionary approach. It isn’t a “Phantom of the Opera” or “The Lion King.”

However, I don’t think that makes it any less valuable. Not every musical has to be the absolute “best” traditional work of musical theater. “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” has a creative stage design, a solid musical score and a stunningly talented cast. It tells a story that connects with young adults (both in age and at heart); a story about struggling to fit in, about family struggles and about finding your place in the world. It faithfully adapts a popular book and does it justice in a way so few adaptations seem to do. Most importantly, though, it was just plain fun. It is comedic and heartfelt and a sincerely enjoyable night at the theater. It doesn’t need to prove itself any more than that. Thank the gods.

Best Songs of 2018 as Selected by A&E Writers

Album art courtesy of Tessa Violet.

Elissa Miller

4. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” by the “Mary Poppins Returns” Cast: If there was a machine that you could throw your interests in to create a new product, the entirety of the movie “Mary Poppins Returns” would be my result. A sequel to one of my favorite movies? Check. Lin-Manuel Miranda as a character reminiscent of Bert the Chimney Sweep, my first childhood crush? Check. London as a backdrop for musical theater? You got it. While the movie is not a perfect film, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a practically-perfect song and dance number. Clearly mirroring “Step In Time” from the first film, this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (and the movie’s) biggest number. It absolutely screams classic musical theater in both sound and design. Honestly, this felt extremely cathartic, because while I’ve loved the recent resurgence of musical films, they’ve generally failed to truly recapture that signature style. The dancing is absolutely breathtaking. The song is catchy and upbeat. Lin-Manuel Miranda looks like he is literally made of sunshine. I cried.

3. “Burn the House Down” by AJR: AJR crafted a perfect album with “The Click” in 2017. It was hard to imagine that adding anything could improve it, yet “The Click (Delux Edition)” somehow managed to do so when it included four new songs. While I’m a fan of generally every new addition, this the absolute best of them. It is a loud, angry anthem that reflects on Twitter and modern-day protest culture, while still being able to function as a dance track. The band allowed it to be used in conjunction with the March for Our Lives movement earlier this year. Everything about it, from the musical style (the horns in this are GREAT) to the lyrics, is compelling. More songs like this in 2019, please.

2. “Bad Ideas” by Tessa Violet: While Tessa Violet made waves with her other release, “Crush,” this year, I’m quite partial to this second song. One of many musicians to first find their audience on YouTube, Violet has continuously grown as an artist to create a signature style. This is incredibly clear with “Bad Ideas,” which stands out among indie-pop releases for its unique sound. Lyrically, it explores the concept of falling for someone you really don’t want to, while sounding upbeat and light as a musical piece. The music video for this is also a great time and uses color in one of the best ways I’ve ever seen. Violet will continue releasing her new album as singles in 2019; I’m incredibly excited to see how it evolves.

1. “Everybody’s Lonely” by Jukebox the Ghost: I definitely link songs to specific times and places in my life. “Everybody’s Lonely,” off Jukebox the Ghost’s fifth album, “Off To The Races,” was the distinct soundtrack of my study abroad trip in the spring. I listened to it during bus commutes, while stuck in airports and when typing papers at the very last minute. It is extremely fun to listen and sing along to, yet it is also complex musically. It uses a number of instruments and vocal layering; soundwise it is largely reminiscent of the band Queen. I cannot recommend it enough.

Photo courtesy of Sony Classical Records.

Noah Howell

4. “Spidey-Bells (A Hero’s Lament) by Chris Pine: “Into the Spider-Verse” was one of my favorite films of the year, and is easily the best animated feature of 2018. The whole ride is a spidey-bonanza, and waiting into the credits was worth the wait for this song alone. Chris Pine is hilarious here and he gives me the Spider-Man Christmas song I never knew I actually needed. This song, along with the album I discovered on Spotify after the movie, will be a staple in my Christmas playlist for years to come.

3. “Shockwave” by Elena Siegman: Easter egg songs are a staple within every zombies map in the “Call of Duty: Black Ops” series, and many of these, like “Shockwave,” are written by Kevin Sherwood and performed by Elena Siegman. There is a reason for this: simply because the duo is fantastic. Siegman’s vocal performance is always stellar, and while the lyrics take a bit to wrap your head around, her job on the song here is no different. I don’t usually find myself listening to much heavy rock/metal like this song, but perhaps it’s just a great backdrop to the actual gameplay of killing zombies that makes it work so well.

2. “That’s The Way it is” by Daniel Lanois: The score within “Red Dead Redemption 2” is already phenomenal, but the best moments of the game are the long, reflective horse rides which come after key story beats and feature songs from a variety of different artists. This song comes towards the game’s climax and is the perfect beat to go alongside the penultimate moment of the player’s journey. I can’t give away too much without risk of spoiling the game, but the song is right at home at this particular moment and is one that will stick with me for a while. 

1. “Kitster’s Song” by Trevor Moore: When a friend first suggested this song to me, I was on board right from hearing the title. A song about Anakin Skywalker’s somewhat obscure friend in “The Phantom Menace” who had only a handful of lines? Count me in. The song straddles the line of being outright hilarious and emotional all at once, with Moore singing from the point of view of Kitster years after his appearance on-screen, reminiscing on what his childhood friend — now Darth Vader — is doing these years later. I had never listened to Moore before this, but one thing is for certain, he knows his “Star Wars.” Parodies of “Star Wars” songs usually rely on simply changing up the lyrics of an already popular song, but Moore creates an entirely new song on his own for Kitster and it is a great one.

Album art for “EVERYTHING IS LOVE” courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment.

Breanna Herring

4. “Sauce All On Me” by CoCa Vango: Another song to contribute to my high self-esteem! This song raps about containing the sauce. “Sauce” is used to describe someone who has a style, confidence and attraction about them.

3. “Nice” by The Carters: Let’s be honest, The Carters are black royalty. This song serves as a confidence boost for me and motivates me to be successful. Some of the lyrics highlight how African Americans are told that they can do anything in America, but racism and inequality challenge the belief.

2. “Wasted Love Freestyle” by Jhené AikoThis song hit close to home for me. The song describes how sometimes our energy and love are not reciprocated back to us in a relationship. We find ourselves realizing that we wasted our time and energy on someone who was incapable of loving us the way we wanted to be loved.

1. “CPR” by Summer Walker: I adore Summer Walker and can completely relate to her and her music. The song “CPR” is a metaphor describing the artist’s lover. She characterizes his love as air bringing her back to life because she’s been misunderstood and alone for so long.

Album art for “Let’s Go Sunshine” courtesy of Lonely Cat Records.

Tyler Trudeau

4. “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar, SZA: As Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ erupted onto the screen as one of 2018’s biggest movies, the soundtrack, curated by hip-hop icon Kendrick Lamar, also made waves as it brought some of the top names in hip-hop together to showcase the massive influence of the superhero hit. Featuring the likes of The Weeknd, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz and Future, the song that comes to my mind first lies in the Lamar and SZA team-up “All the Stars.” With it kicking off the end credits for the blockbuster film, the rhythmic ballad of SZA mixed with Lamar’s rap inklings remains one of the top tracks from the soundtrack.

3. ”Holy” by King Princess: One of the most enigmatic new artists I uncovered this year was Brooklyn native Mikaela Strauss, or as her fans know her, King Princess. A multi-instrumentalist with soulful vocals to match the atmospheric synth melodies that run behind her, Strauss has already made a name for herself as the next bold revolutionary in the queer-pop genre. As a proud member of the LGBTQ community, the artist has expertly carved her way to the top as one of the most promising new artists out there. While her early hit “1950” might have won the hearts of fellow artists Harry Styles, Halsey and Mark Ronson, her somewhat haunting track “Holy” off her debut EP echoes with sonic nuance and cinematic flair.

2. “No Pressure” by The Kooks: After grappling onto other alternative rock groups like Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes, the unique sound of English band The Kooks quickly drew me into a similar fascination into their more recent releases. While their hit 2006 track “Naive” made for a worthy song to lodge itself eternally within my brain, I didn’t initially pick up their later records until this year’s “Let’s Go Sunshine.” With the rest of the record offering a foot-tapping catalog of drunken nights and unrequited affections, the closing number of “No Pressure” perfectly captures the ease and joys of a new relationship.

1. “Superposition” by Young the Giant: Easily one of my most anticipated albums of the year, the latest record from indie rock outfit Young the Giant kicked off with a trio of sensational, cinematic and undeniably catchy tracks. Escorting us effortlessly into their newest collection of soul-searching tunes of lost love, adrift ambitions and super-sonic melodies, the best of the trio in ‘Superposition’ shows off the band’s talented and atmospheric instrumentals, as well as the dreamy vocal nuances of frontman Sameer Gadhia.   

Album art for “Joy As An Act Of Resistance” courtesy of Partisan Records.

Aaron Febre

4. “One Point Perspective” by Arctic Monkeys: It was pretty difficult to pick one track off the new Arctic Monkeys album as I was thoroughly impressed with the overall product. This song takes the cake due to the wonderful layering of instrumentation, Alex Turner’s witty and observable lyricism as well as one of his best vocal performances. Plus, this reminds me of the 1970s for inexplicable reasons.

3. “Baby I’m Bleeding” by JPEGMAFIA: Released in January, JPEGMAFIA’s “Veteran” is one of the most exciting and intense albums of the year. “Baby I’m Bleeding” shows JPEGMAFIA’s fierce flow that is backed-up with an abrasive production that will leave your jaws dropped. Go ahead and play this, you won’t find another hip-hop track (or album) of this year that as fierce as this one.

2. “Dilemma” by Death Grips: As if all of their music wasn’t crazy enough, Death Grips returned with an even crazier album that made their previous work look more accessible. Out of my favorites from “Year of the Snitch,” “Dilemma” is my favorite for various reasons. Spoken word by Andrew Adamson (the director of “Shrek”), MC Ride screaming “DILEMMA!”, the video-game synthesizer and too many things that are incomprehensible to digest even for a fan of Death Grips.

1. “I’m Scum” by Idles: English Punk band Idles returned with a new album (“Joy As An Act of Resistance”) that is catchier and angrier than their 2017 album, “Brutalism.” This track encompasses the overall sound of the new album: Joe Talbot’s gruff voice, the steady and danceable rhythm, dirty guitars, a chorus that drunk soccer (or football) fans can sing along to, and the theme of “say what you want, I don’t care” in the lyrics make this song a favorite.

Artwork for “TINTS” courtesy of Aftermath/12 Tone Music LLC.

Cecilia Whalen

4. “Bring Me Love” by John Legend: Yeah, it’s a Christmas song. I get it; Christmas is over. But I love John Legend, so I take what I can get. He definitely has one of the most beautiful voices of this generation, and this song is upbeat, well-arranged, and of course, well-sung.

3.“TINTS (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” by Anderson .Paak: I don’t think there’s anything smart I can say about this song, but it’s just fun to sing along and dance to, OK? Plus Kendrick Lamar is featured on it, so you know it’s gotta be a win.

2. “1985” by J. Cole: I love J. Cole’s voice and basically every song he’s done. This song is kind of a diss track to all those who have come out dissing him, but Cole doesn’t just cuss them out and be done with it. Cole warns them about the harm their attitudes and their lifestyles are causing themselves and others — and he doesn’t sound like a bully or a punk defending his own pride. Really, he sounds like a big brother looking out for the hip-hop community, while peppered with the occasional big brother boast.

1. “Brackets” by J. Cole: J. Cole knows how to use rhythm. While a lot of rappers tend to repeat a similar rhythmic pattern, triplet and sixteenth after triplet and sixteenth, Cole masters syncopation. This matched with his poetry creates a whole album of reflection and creativity, and “Brackets” is the climax of both of these musical attributes.

Album art for “Love” courtesy of Reprise Records.

Mayra Trujilo-Camacho

4. “Taki Taki” by Selena Gomez, Ozuna, Cardi B and DJ Snake: It’s a song I can dance to that has a mix of Spanish and English.

3. “Money” by Cardi B: I just think it’s a very catchy song and even a good workout song. It’s very hype.

2. “Scripted” by ZAYN: This song comes from his second album “Icarus Falls,” after leaving One Direction in 2015.  It is a love song with a creative melody and nice chill R&B background.

1. “Love You Anymore” by Michael Bublé: From his new album “Love,” which was released two years after his son was diagnosed with liver cancer. “Love You Anymore” is a very beautiful song. It’s more of a song to forget your ex, but it just has a very nice melody and aesthetic.

Album art for “CARE FOR ME” courtesy of Saba Pivot, LLC.

Arik Miguel

4. Shoota (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)” by Playboi Carti: When I listen to this song, I know that half of what I’m singing is my incorrect decipherings of Uzi and Carti’s mumble rapping. The other half of the lyrics have about as much depth as the line “money on the floor just like some shoes,” but maybe that’s not a bad thing. “Shoota” is fun just for the sake of being fun, and that’s really all we could have asked of these two besties in 2018.

3. “Hunnybee” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra: This is one the most gleefully infectious songs I have heard in a long time. “Hunnybeehas the power to evoke the childhood joy that comes from somersaulting down a grassy hill.

2. “PROM / KING” by Saba: “CARE FOR ME” is Saba’s greatest album yet, and “PROM / KING” is its emotional peak. The seven and a half minute song builds up slowly until Saba is rapping at breakneck speed, describing his cousin’s untimely death. Saba has always had an incredible gift for storytelling, but he’s never told his story as breathtakingly as this.

1. “Noid” by Yves Tumor: Yves Tumor intertwines beauty and violence in an incredibly jarring and exciting way. “Noid” is unlike any song I have heard in my life. Almost as if you asked an alien to compose a song about police brutality.

 

Listen to the music featured in this article via the Spotify playlist below!

INTERVIEW: Kristin Stokes talks “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical”

Greek gods. Monsters. Young demigods traveling cross-country to save the world as we know it. “The Lightning Thief,” a young adult novel from 2005, tells the story of Percy Jackson, a middle-school boy who discovers he is actually the demigod son of Poseidon. A fan favorite, it has spawned multiple spin-off series, two movies and an Off-Broadway musical. The musical originally premiered Off-Broadway in 2017 (though other shorter versions of the production were created earlier). It is now traveling across the United States on its first National Tour and will stop in Charlotte in January. Actress Kristin Stokes, who plays the role of Annabeth Chase, talked with Niner Times about transferring to a National Tour, the purpose of a musical adaptation and staging fight choreography.

My understanding is that you’ve been with “The Lightning Thief: The Musical” for quite some time, starting with the workshop productions, is that correct?

“Yeah, absolutely.”

So you played the role of Annabeth during the Off-Broadway production. What continues to draw you to this musical? What continues to bring you to this role?

“You know, every time I dive into this show, I can find something new and something deeper to kind of latch onto. I feel like, you know, like you said, I’ve been doing this…the first workshop was actually in 2013, so it’s been five years which I think is hilarious because one of the lyrics is ‘five long years stuck at camp’ and it’s going to be true this year. I will be here for five years stuck at camp. But not stuck. Like, in the best way possible.

This time around, I really am feeling this kind of new-found feminism that is kind of taking over the world right now. And that was always kind of a part of Annabeth; she is very straightforward, she knows what she wants, she is very much an individual and a fighter, and I found that. But the last production we did was the first time she got her own song, so it was kind of figuring out, ‘Okay, how does this song ‘My Grand Plan’ fit into these past versions of her that I created?’ Now being able to, like, sit with this for like a year almost since we last did it, you know, it sinks in deeper; the meaning of the song and of the lyrics. So I’m just like really excited to get out there and like tie it all together even more with Annabeth’s purpose and strength of who she is, not just as a character but as a female, and kind of like a female who is standing on her own two feet without the plotline of a love story or anything. She is just like her own woman and I love that about her.”

And is that what drew you to her initially or is that a new thing?

“That’s definitely something that I loved about her always but I’m finding it even more so this time around. I think what initially drew me to her was [that] she’s just like a badass. I was like who is this girl? Why is she like the smartest person in the show? Love that. I’m like, ‘that’s me.’ I love that she’s like, ‘Okay boys, if you’d stop talking for like five seconds, I had the answer like 10 minutes ago.’ And I just really found myself identifying with her. Honestly, she’s allowed me to become more of myself; allowed me to be more of the smart girl in the room as opposed to being like, ‘Alright, well eventually someone will hit the idea I have sneakily proposed a while ago,’ as opposed to now I’m just like, ‘Actually, no, this is the idea. This is the right idea,’ or ‘This is the answer.’ You know what I mean? So yeah, I love her and I just love her even more with each passing year.”

Going from doing something like an Off-Broadway production where you are in the same theatre every night, how is transferring that to a National Tour and approaching that different?

“You know what? I don’t even know yet, I don’t even know. I have the same question! It’s going to be really exciting and it’s going to take the show up a notch even more so. This show is so energetic; we do so much, you know, we’re doing all the fighting and stage combat and movement and it’s a very hands-on show where we, as the actors, we’re moving a lot of…not the set-pieces, but big chunks of the set around, whether that’s like a podium or a chair, or we’re holding this down because now it creates a monster. We are the ones creating the show and so I’m really excited to see how each space is going to inform how we create the show because it’s definitely going to be a part of our journey, for sure.”

I know there are some new additions to the cast as well as original cast members. Would you say it’s more a feeling of excitement than loss of losing old cast members?

“So, I’m very excited. Obviously Chris McCarrell, Sara Beth Pfeifer and James Rodriguez, they are all coming back and we are so pumped. We are so excited, we are making like all of our tour plans. And I also was on like pins and needles waiting to find out, ‘Okay, who are going to be our three new cast members?’ I didn’t even know until the Playbill article came out announcing them. And then I did some online stalking — as everyone should — and I was like, ‘They’re awesome, they are great!’ So I’m just really excited to see what this new family is together, and especially because I have had the amazing opportunity to be in the show since the beginning, I have experienced that with each new reiteration. There are always new people who come in and then we lose people and then they get replaced with someone who’s going to add even more to it. That’s always amazing for me. It’s always why it is never going to be the same show for me because each person that comes to the cast, they really get the freedom (and that speaks to our director, Stephen Brackett) to really invent the character for themselves. So I’m just so excited to see what these three new people are going to bring to the show and the roles and it’s going to be amazing.”

I have a genre of questions that relate to “The Lightning Thief” being an adaptation of a quite popular young adult novel. How do you prepare yourself to take on a role that is an adaptation of well-loved, popular character?

“I read the books. I’ve read them so many times I’m actually reading the series for the third time right now to prepare myself because every time I read it I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right! This happens.’ At least for me, this is part of my prep, I don’t know what everyone else likes to do, but I want to know everything. I want to know everything that we don’t even get the opportunity to touch upon in the musical because, you know, it has to be two hours. So we take short-cuts but we still get the emotional arc and the storyline across, but we might have to cut a few things that are that are more elaborated obviously in the book. Having it be a book, especially as opposed to, you know, a lot of musicals are adapted from movies nowadays and having it be adapted from a book that’s a humongous series, there is just a wealth of information that I get to dive into and it’s basically just like secrets into how this character thinks constantly and it is so helpful, so I just try to learn as much as I can and figure out how she aligns with who I am naturally.”

So would you say that “The Lightning Thief” musical is much closer to the book than, say, the movie adaptation?

“(laughter) Mhm, have you seen it?”

Yes, I went opening night sixth grade.

“Oh my gosh, you did?”

Midnight.

“Oh my gosh, did you dress up? Be honest.”

No, I did not. But I had a blog. Like a fan blog.

“Yes, I love it! I actually haven’t seen the movie because, you know, the fans are very vocal about their dissatisfaction with the movies (as well as Rick Riordan), so I have steered clear, honestly, of the movies and have only been reading the books. But maybe, I’ve always wanted like all of us in the cast to like get together and have a fun night watching the movies and being like ‘Oh, what is happening right now?’ because I know, I’ve heard everyone’s been like, ‘Don’t do it!’ but I have to; it’s like that thing you can’t look at but you want to.”

It is an interesting endeavor. Do you think when people compare books to movies — or books to musicals — is that an intimidating comparison or, you know, musical theater is such a different medium, is that even a fair comparison to make?

“Yeah. More kind of your second option there. I feel like you, especially with books, it is a fantastic source material. But I feel like part of what is the purpose of an adaptation is kind of being like, ‘Alright, what didn’t this version of the story do that we can uplift in this new genre?’ The books are incredible, and it’s like, ‘Okay, so why make it into a movie? Why make it into a musical?’ The characters have such a wonderful emotional life throughout the entirety of the books. Rick does such a great job of, kind of…they’re angsty and their feelings come through with everything that they are doing and I think when you add music to that and underscoring that and you get to, kind of like, within a book you get to hear someone’s inner monologue, that’s what happens on stage with the song. And I think just like when you add music to anything that takes care of someone’s emotional life already, so I just think it’s fun to be like ‘What is the music of these characters?’ And it’s a really cool, kind of rock score.”

I think that totally already answers my next question, which was what is added via a musical format? But I think that exploration of emotional life totally already speaks to that.

“Yeah, and I think also, especially with Percy (since it is his story especially in this first book), you know, he is the son of the sea god and to me, water and the sea [are] all about emotions, and that’s kind of what happens. When Percy feels great or emotional, this kind of wave comes out of him and that’s when he gets to express his abilities, and what better way to express those waves of emotion than with a freaking high belting rock song?”

Was Rick Riordan involved in any way with the production?

“No, not really. We had his blessing, which was huge, as obviously with the rights. His…I think it’s his publicist or manager…he had someone from his office that’s very close to working with Rick, she was with us always and she was such a huge supporter. Everyone in Rick’s office, including Rick, they’re fans of the musical. Rick will tweet out something about the musical, like when the album came out or when the show is running. He’ll probably tweet about the tour and every time we see that, honestly, kind of like the inside joke is like [that] Rick is one of the Greek gods and we are the demigods and we’re like, ‘We’ll never see our dad but we still love you!’

So he hasn’t been able to see the show?

“No, not that we know of unless he’s come incognito and didn’t tell anybody. He’s kind of like Poseidon, where we’re like we love him and know we probably will never see him but we have his blessing to continue on our quest of spreading ‘The Lightning Thief’ all around the world and so that’s all we really need.”

What has the fan response been like for you? Have you ever engaged with the fans?

“Oh yeah, they are very vocal and they love it and I am so blessed. We are blessed by the gods that they love our show because we knew what we were heading into with the dangerous movie territory. Honestly, we were like we got to get this right. That’s really thanks to Joe Tracz and Rob Rokicki who did the book and the music. Joe Tracz also did the book for ‘Be More Chill’ and he also did the adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events,’ so he also is a writer on that show…he is very familiar with adapting young adult novels to current formats. He is meticulous in the story and he just has such a wonderful feeling for the humor and who these kids are, that it is really thanks to him and Rob that this is such a success because, you know, if the book wasn’t good, if the music wasn’t good, then I think we’d be in deep trouble. And you know, he knew [he had to focus on] what are the key points that the fans need? What is the point of these books? It’s not, obviously, I haven’t seen the movie but, it’s not to be like a big, Hollywood blockbuster, star-studded gorgeous-looking-cast-member mystical movie. It’s like, ‘No, these are scrappy kids who are angsty and who are upset about their parents and are finding out who they are and finding out the things that make them different are the things that make them strong.’ It’s really thanks to Joe and Rob that we have the fan following that we do.”

Do you have any standout experiences that you remember from an interaction with a fan?

“Oh my gosh, it’s been like a while, it’s been over a year-and-a-half now, but it would just be incredible to walk out after the show and see, just the lines of people in their own Camp Half-Blood shirts that they made or other shirts that they made. And then after they’d been running, now they are coming and they’re cosplaying like us. There are people that come that wear a blonde wig and buy my shirt and my pants, and the same with Chris. We’re like ‘Okay, you guys have, you are truly on board with this show.’ I get tons of fanart still to this day from the show and it’s, you know, I am so lucky that we have such support of the fans and I love it. I’m like you guys are just the sweetest. Chris would always say (I never got to see it) but during my song, ‘My Grand Plan,’ Chris, who plays Percy, he would get to sit back and watch me vent during this song and he might, you know, do a little peek out into the audience and he was always like, ‘You know what? Every girl in that audience is watching you and hearing everything you say.’ And the lyrics of the song are just so uplifting and powerful for these young girls to hear and so that was always cool, even though I didn’t get to see it, but hearing Chris say that. Yeah, they’re listening for sure.”

What would you say the audience is typically like, is it typically younger kids or is it college-aged people who maybe grew up with it, that kind of thing?

“Honestly, it’s all ages and I was shocked. I thought it was going to be young adults, maybe college kids who grew grown up with it, but it has been spanned the gamut to like young kids or just discovering these books for the first time so it can be like really scary and exciting, to high school/college kids who know everything by heart and know all the facts and they’re like cheering us on, to parents and adults who are really loving all of the like ridiculous adults and their representations in the story. I think it’s something that really brings everybody together because everyone can find themselves in the story for sure.”

Do you have a favorite moment in the show that really sticks out with you?

“Oh gosh, I’m trying to remember. I mean, there’s like a few. I really love the fighting sequences. It just feels like so cool to be like, ‘I have a staff, I have this knife, I’m fighting, I’m super cool.’ It makes you feel like a demigoddess and after you finish the show you’re like (exhausted) ‘Oh My God,’ which you kind of have to be to get through this entire show. But I really love all the fighting sequences, it makes me feel like an action superstar and I love that. I want more of that in my life. Also ‘Drive.’ ‘Drive’ is such a fun montage of a song; it’s kind of our road trip song. There are so many moving pieces and different things that are happening. We’re like on a bus, then we’re on a motorcycle, then we’re like ‘Oh, we’re in Vegas!’ and it’s just the most ridiculous thing. There’s a tractor that we’re on, it is so…it is just the most fun song. For me, it’s the first time that the trio is getting along and that always feels good. Because when you have to have tension for the entire show and now, it’s like ‘Okay, now we’re a team,’ and you really feel that. All three of us are at peace and we’re all like, ‘Oh, we’re all on the same side, we’re grooving, we’re singing this one song, we’re traveling.’ It really is like a real moment of joy.”

How do you train for the on-stage combat fighting sequences? How do you stage those?

“We have an amazing fight choreographer, Rod Kinter, and he’ll go over all the basics and stuff with people who haven’t done the fighting before, but, you know, it’s a lot of training. We spend a lot of rehearsal time learning the fights and perfecting them, making sure they’re safe, and then we have to put them to some pretty fast-paced music. It’s not like some normal fight choreography where you get to take your time and you’re looking for cues and breathing and doing all this stuff. It’s like ‘No, do all that. Plus, can you time it to music? And it has to be done in like one bar. Thank you.’ It’s pretty intense so we start pretty slow and we gradually build up speed until we all feel extremely comfortable. With any show that has fight choreography, we do a fight call before every show. The amount of fights that are in the show, there’s a lot of them, so fight call can take like 15 to 30 minutes (so it’s pretty extensive when like usually a fight call is like five to 10 minutes), so we’re always practicing, we’re always checking in and just making sure that everything is safe.”

So had you come into this with fight experience before?

“Yeah, I had. It had been a while but I had some fight experience in college mostly and throughout a couple different shows, but this is definitely the most extensive stage combat that I have done in a show which is great. It is super fun.”

I think it’s really great that the show has managed to get a cast album that you can listen to on Spotify. What is the process like of recording a cast album and do you ever listen to it on your own time?

“Yes is the answer. I totally do and I’ll totally be listening to it, honestly, to be like ‘Oh yeah, what was that song? How did my harmony go?’ because it’s a really great reminder of everything that I sang a year-and-a-half ago. So I’ll be able to go, ‘Oh, okay that’s right.’ So I’ll probably be listening to it this week before going into rehearsals to get the vibe up. Recording the cast album is super fun it’s like a dream. We got to be in this gorgeous recording studio that tons of other Broadway musicals have recorded in. ‘Sunday In The Park With George’ was recording the same day as us, so for someone has been in theater like all her life, I was like, “Ahhhh! I am on hallowed ground! Everyone has recorded here! This is amazing! Whose mic is this? Should I kiss it? I don’t know…’ It was so awesome. Everyone is like so nice, they were all rooting for you to sound your best. It was just like a dream of a day for all of us to be in a recording studio and looking at each other across the booth and being like ‘Oh my God we’re singing right now, this is going to be the album that other people listen to!’ It was a dream for sure.”

Wrapping things up, I do always like to ask everyone: How did you get into acting and was there a moment that you knew that you wanted to be an actress?

“I got into acting because I was an outgoing child. Honestly, because my mom was into it. She did shows when she was in high school and then she went to college for musical theatre in California. And then she kind of stopped for a while and had a family and had me and my two siblings and then she kind of decided one day that she wanted to maybe get back into it again. The musical that was auditioning had a kid part and she was like ‘Oooh! Kristin, will you come with me? I’m too nervous to go by myself.’ I was like, ‘Okay, sure!’ and that was kind of it. It was a college production of this show called ‘Working’ by Studs Terkel and I got to play a newspaper boy, and I don’t know, that was kind of it. I guess there was like an ‘aha moment’ but for me, it was always the most natural thing in the world. It was already a part of my upbringing with like listening to musicals in the car and hearing about my mom’s shows, and me wanting to do talent shows and dancing. It was just always a part of my life and so, for me, I was very lucky where it’s not like everyone in my family was doing something so different that I was like a black sheep and I was like ‘I’m going to be an actress!’ and they were like ‘No, don’t do it, you’ll be broke forever!’ Luckily, they were like ‘Yeah, that sounds great. You should totally do that,’ because they all loved it too.”

Do you have any advice for people who are may be interested in going into an arts field or are struggling to get into it?

“Oh gosh, you know what? It can just feel like hitting a brick wall with your fist over and over and over again but one day you will break through. It takes unbelievable stamina but as long as you are staying true to who you are…always be checking into who you are and what makes you, you, what makes you unique, and your light and your artistry will always shine through and eventually, you’ll break through into what you’ve always wanted. That’s what I had to tell myself.”

“The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” will be hosted by Blumenthal Performing Arts in the Knight Theater from Jan. 15 – 20. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here: https://www.carolinatix.org/events/detail/the-lightning-thief-the-percy-jackson-musical.

Craver Road, walk sign is on

“Craver Road, walk sign is on.” The electronic voice echoes in front of the Popp Martin Student Union, telling students when it is safe to cross the fairly busy street. Many people don’t seem to actually obey the sign, and jaywalking is pretty common. Despite this, the electronic voice of the walk sign remains persistent, dedicated to protecting the student population from cars and Niner Transit buses. Due to its location at the heart of campus, most students can testify to hearing the walk sign multiple times a day. It has become a part of the campus culture, an inside joke between students. “Craver Road Remix” was simply a natural extension.

The song, posted on SoundCloud in the spring of 2017, takes the walk sign’s key phrase and remixes it into electronic trap music. It quickly spread around campus and integrated itself into the UNC Charlotte mythology. However, the musical artist behind it remained a mystery. For over a year, it was the only song on a SoundCloud account with the username “Just Johnny.” The account’s profile picture is simply a photo of the Craver Road walk sign with fire emojis over it. But now, Johnny is willing to go semi-public. On the condition that only his first name is used and no photos show his face, he agrees to an interview at Peet’s Coffee in Atkins Library, where he answers questions about the song and about himself.

When Johnny talks about it, he almost makes it sound inevitable, like it was something he always knew he was going to do. His friends made jokes about the sign every time they walked by (which, living in North Village, was a minimum of three times a day). They’d often say, “Oh, someone needs to make a song out of that.” So at some point, he actually records the sign’s key phrase on his phone. Due to course load, nothing really comes of it at first. Until he gets sick. And it’s spring break.

Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Stuck at home with an endless amount of time, “Craver Road Remix” is created in only two hours. It is the epitome of a do-it-yourself endeavor, created using Johnny’s own personal Mac, a cheap “digital audio workstation” called Studio One and synthesizers and samples mostly bought online from Native Instruments. When asked about the process of creating the song, he struggles to describe it. His first step is simply to throw the Craver Road hook into the software and decide what direction to take it in. Since the goal is to appeal to as many college students as possible, he chooses to take it in the direction of EDM and trap music. This is out of the ordinary for him, as his own personal style is quite different.

From there, he creates a beat out of various drum sounds and decided on some chords, despite the fact there is actually very little chord use in the song. He just wants to find a musical key. Once those basics are set, he loses track. He zones out. The rest of the music making process is complete “chaos” as he “doesn’t really work in a linear fashion.” How does he know when it’s done then? Quite frankly: when it doesn’t sound terrible and when it hits the two minute, 30-second mark. This isn’t like his more serious music, and it goes much faster than normal.

However, despite its quick creation process, Johnny waits to post it on SoundCloud until he’s back at school. It is posted late at night on a weekday; his friends enjoy it and he goes to bed. The next morning, the number of listens is already at 100 people. He was expecting maybe 20 total. In class, people who don’t know he made it are talking about the song. They approach him, excited and amused, and ask, “Hey man, have you heard this thing?” The only appropriate response at the time seems to be, “Yeah, I made that.”

Eventually, though, Johnny stops telling people. For several weeks, the number of listens on Soundcloud continues to grow. Random people he knows spread it around without any clue that they know the creator. Johnny enjoys basking in the anonymity; enjoys hearing it played around him by people who don’t know it’s his own music. Yes, maybe his friends and roommates know, or the few people he told when caught by surprise during the first couple days of its popularity. But he never intended for it to be connected to him. It’s obvious just by looking at the song and SoundCloud account itself. There is absolutely nothing on there that would lead you back to him, beyond a first name and a description stating that he attends UNC Charlotte.

The most interesting questions then shift from simple ones about production and music to questions about Johnny himself. Why was the song created anonymously? And more importantly, who is Johnny, really? When asked about the first question, he tries to explain it. “One of the draws of music production is [that] the anonymity is amazing to me…for example, [take] someone like Ariana Grande, where she’s singing and everything. But who is, like, the producer behind it? I’ve always been more interested in those people. Just because I find that part of the process more relatable…” But over the course of an interview, a new hypothesis develops. Johnny is someone with multiple personas at once, struggling to balance at least the two major ones. On one hand, he’s a computer science student from a small town in North Carolina. On the other, he’s an indie music artist working on finding his own sound and breaking into the music scene. Adding some other persona, one known around campus for the parody song “Craver Road Remix,” might be too much. Furthermore, it may detract from the more serious image he is trying to cultivate through those other endeavors.

Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Johnny grew up in the ultra-suburban city of Gastonia, North Carolina. The town likes to think of itself as a suburb of Charlotte, though Charlotteans would probably prefer not to consider it one. It consists of a downtown that has been “revitalizing” for years, an ever-expanding road of department stores, and an intersection with a Mattress Firm on each corner. There’s not a ton to do there, especially for teenagers, and Johnny suspects that might be why he was such an indoor kid. He spent his childhood listening to music and playing video games, both of which were also a family endeavor. He gets excited when talking about his family’s early entry into “World of Warcraft,” though he was too young to understand it at the time. A continuing love for video games caused him to decide relatively early on that he wanted to study computer science; whatever it took to get him designing games.

Doing everything he could to get out of Gastonia and into a great academic program, Johnny originally applied to NC State for computer science. After a rejection letter, he found UNC Charlotte’s computer science program. He’s since fallen in love with the school and program, and can’t really imagine leaving the University. The idea of being in such a high-tech industry, of “working in the future,” seems incredibly exciting. However, Johnny’s original love for video games has changed directions. It’s now a side hobby, and his concentration shifted to cybersecurity. The decision was mostly a practical move; it feels safer and more secure than something like game design. There is also another important factor though: he wants it to fund his music and creative endeavors. In fact, he’d leave computer science behind to focus on completely music if he were to achieve success there. Thus, the computer science side is intrinsically linked to his other persona, one focused on music production.

Johnny has no real musical training beyond some simple drum lessons in elementary school. He never played an instrument or joined a high school band. Yet, he grew up surrounded by music and significant musical influences. He distinctly remembers listening to classic rock with his family, specifically the works of Queen and Fleetwood Mac. However, his two older brothers may have played an even bigger role. As a kid, Johnny often mirrored them and picked up their interests. While he eventually became his own person, they still have very close relationships. He credits one of them with introducing him to the band Tool, which led him down a path of “weird, experimental” musical influences.

Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

He started actually making his own music in high school after stumbling across some computer software for it around the age of 15. From there, Johnny states that his sound has gone through three pretty distinct periods. The first he classifies as “long, ambient and electronic” sounding. Other adjectives he included were “weird” and “odd.” According to him, “It was just easier to do as someone who had no idea what they were doing.” By senior year of high school, he’d moved to a more disco and dance inspired sound. It had a more cohesive and recognizable song format and was largely influenced by the music of the ’70s and the more-modern band Daft Punk. Today, Johnny feels pretty confident that he’s finally found his own unique sound. It takes elements of both prior phases and throws some EDM and electronic elements into the mix. His official description: “Electronic music with a slight dance flair that is weird.”

Unfortunately, it can’t really be found anywhere online. This is a sharp contrast to “Craver Road Remix,” which can be found quickly via a Google search. Part of this is a question of location. While Johnny initially had another SoundCloud account for his personal music, he began to question if it was really the right place for it. As SoundCloud generally seems to be aimed more at rappers these days, he took down his original work. Thus, while “Craver Road Remix” continues to draw in listeners, the music he is most proud of can’t be listened to anywhere. Eventually, he’d like to make it available on Spotify or iTunes. He doubts its ability “to be super popular, just because it is very experimental and strange…” Still, he believes there’s an audience for it, “like some subculture of niche music snobs.”

People all cultivate images of themselves. In this day and age, it is both a coping strategy and a necessary tool to navigate the increasingly online world young people inhabit. Johnny has two of these images, or at least it looks like that at first. That isn’t that unusual. He’s a professional, academic-focused computer science student. He’s also a young musical artist who would give everything up if he knew his music could be successful. However, those two sides ultimately have the same roots. A love of music and a need for creative expression combined with a fear of failure and a need for job security. Yet, behind all of that, there’s also an anonymous song floating around cyberspace, continuing to pick up listeners on a daily basis. It is Johnny’s most popular song and a bit of a campus sensation, despite the fact it’s not a work he’s entirely proud of. “I’m still kind of accepting the fact that this song, based on the Internet and the archives of things, is going to outlive me,” he says, surrounded by the smell of Peet’s coffee and the sound of Atkins Library’s radio mix. “I’m going to be outlived by a parody song that I made in two hours, which is both inspiring and terrifying at the same time.”

You can listen to Johnny’s top ten playlist, comprised of his many musical influences, here:

Three Bone Theatre’s ‘ The Daffodil Girls’ highlights women in theater

Kerstin Vanhuss was sick of it. Sick of trying out for school productions again and again, working to earn one of the three roles for women. Meanwhile, the script had room for 10 men. Why were there so little roles for women when they dominated the enrollment of the theatre department? Frustrated, she and two fellow students at Appalachian State University decided they’d had enough. Branching out on their own, the three founded a new theatre troupe with the goal of producing women-only productions. While the group eventually decided to focus more on choosing playwrights who were women, it still provided a space for women and minorities to find the roles they’d been desperately vying for. Years later, it continues under the name WITT, the Women’s and Inclusive Theatre Troupe.

Only a few years post-graduation, Vanhuss is in a woman-dominated cast yet again in Three Bone Theatre’s production of “The Daffodil Girls” where she plays the main character Shelly. The play, an adapted version of the Tony-winning play by David Mamet, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” follows the story of a hardcore version of the Girl Scouts known as The Daffodil Girls, where they are pushed to sell cookies in order to keep their troop alive. The wit is biting, the insults hurt and the play feels more intense than it has any right to be.

Three Bone Theatre is a local nonprofit theater company. It was founded in 2012 and specializes in “adult contemporary theatre.” In the past, it has been drawn to works that wrestle with relevant and sometimes difficult ideas, such as “Fahrenheit 451” and “Motherhood Out Loud.” There is also a civic engagement element as the company works with community partners for each production. For “The Daffodil Girls,” Three Bone is partnering with the nonprofit Girls Rock Charlotte, an organization founded by UNC Charlotte professor Kelly Finley that aims to empower girls through rock music.

One of the reasons that “The Daffodil Girls” is so interesting is because it takes what is typically a story centered around men and centers it around women. Specifically, it centers it around young girls. Here, it is not the men who are the powerful and greedy corporate stereotypes. Instead, it is the girls that are deceitful and mean. They’re power hungry. They will do anything it takes to get ahead. This depiction of girls and women is incredibly rare in any media form, where they are seldom showcased in leadership roles at all, let alone allowed to be desperate for power and money. The show breaks these stereotypes and gives actresses the chance to flex those nuanced emotional muscles. Every role is a different complex and strong female character. While the characters’ ages range from five to 12, the entire cast is composed of adults; all are women. The creative team, with the exception of the excellent lighting, set and sound design (Ryan Maloney and Benjamin Stickels), mirrors this as well.

According to Director Amanda Liles, this isn’t typical of theater productions. She stated, “You’ll find that the majority of artistic directors, the majority of executive directors are going to be men. And the majority of stage managers are men too…but it’s unusual to find, like, a production company where a majority of people are female, and I think that [what] is really interesting about Three Bone is that we have so many people in these power positions who are female, which is great.” Most all of the other production teams she has worked on have been male-dominated.

Does being involved in a woman-centric production team change anything? Based on interviews, the answer seems to be an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ However, the difference is hard to quantify. Liles references a more supportive and enthusiastic working environment (though she also says it may be more organized). Vanhuss, though clear about her preference for working in woman-dominated casts, found it hard to explain why. One of her reasons was that “…a lot of times, women get more committed because there are so little plays for us so we put a lot more work into it.” Another was a feeling of frankness; that “you can open up with your emotions a lot more.”

However, there are other larger reasons. Vanhuss recounted the story of one of her friends who was asked to lose 15 pounds for a role in a local college production. “I saw her not eat things sometimes and spend hours on a treadmill. For college theater,” she stated. She also indicated that’d she’d feel safer bringing up concerns to a woman director than a man, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Liles seconded the idea that theater isn’t immune to the reckoning of #MeToo. She said, “I know from friends and other people’s experiences that sometimes it can be icky. Like there can be people who are predatory or a little too touchy-feely or inappropriate at times in the theater community.”

But while Three Bone Theatre’s production of “The Daffodil Girls” may be an uplifting, safe and more collaborative experience behind the scenes, watching it is hard. It hurts to watch these young girls tear each other down and insult one another in the worst ways. It is painful to witness them tear each other apart, especially while wondering why their parents won’t listen or do anything to stop it. Yet, that’s the point. “The Daffodil Girls” wants to demonstrate just how cruel and hard being a young girl can be. It tells us that they can be mean to one another and that they still have valid problems, even if they are young. Director Amanda Liles emphasizes this as well. In her director’s note, she writes, “We need to do right by our young people. Love them, encourage them, advocate for them and inspire them to stand up for themselves and others.” Hopefully, “The Daffodil Girls” encourages audiences to do just that.

Featured photo by Click Witch Photography.

UNC Charlotte production of ‘Twelfth Night’ was fun, engaging and relevant

Jazz music filled the room, played by a small ensemble band incorporated into the backdrop of the set. On stage sat the body and mast of a large sailing ship, partially sunk into the floor. Beyond the boat, the stage was largely barren, decorated only by grey arches matching the color of the floor, some green vines and streetlights. “Twelfth Night,” UNCC’s second Department of Theatre production of the year, was about to start. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Shakespeare, which I blame on my odd middle school experience of volunteering at the Renaissance Festival for three years. It can also partially be attributed to the lovely web series “Nothing Much to Do” (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”) on YouTube. Thus, when I first heard that “Twelfth Night” would be performed this season, I was immediately excited. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. The audience was packed.

The plot of “Twelfth Night” centers on one of two twins, a woman named Viola (Amberlin McCormick). After the ship she is traveling on wrecks, she decides to disguise herself as a man to obtain work from Duke Orsino (Marcus Fitzpatrick). Orsino is desperately in love with a noblewoman, Olivia (Jacqueline Williams), who is in mourning nearby. The feeling is not mutual. When Orsino sends Viola — in disguise as the male Cesario — to convince Olivia of his love, Olivia instead falls for the disguised Viola. This is only further complicated by Viola’s feelings of love for Orsino and the romantic goals of two of Olivia’s other suitors, a knight named Sir Andrew Aguecheek (James Michel) and Olivia’s steward Malvolio (Jack Murphy).  

However, there is another level at play here as the B-plot provides some of the funniest moments and characters. Olivia’s household members, such as her uncle Toby (Dylan Ireland), her right-hand woman Maria (Isabel Gonzalez) and her “fool” Feste (EJ Williams), continually pull off elaborate deceptions on those around them. When the play begins, the object of one such deception is Sir Andrew. Toby has convinced poor Andrew that the knight has the ability to marry Olivia, despite the fact this will never be the case. Toby is simply trying to get as much money from him as possible. Similarly, the group (now containing the duped Andrew) later conspires to convince Malvolio (with forged letters a là “Much Ado About Nothing”) that Olivia loves him. This is viewed as an act of revenge for Malvolio’s pretentious and condescending attitude, with the primary goal being to embarrass Malvolio and then drive him slowly mad.

Every member of the cast was strong, from the main characters to smaller roles. The star of the show was McCormick as Viola. This was a hard role and she really nailed it. She sold the internal emotional struggle, landed the physical humor and created solid romantic chemistry with two love interests. Her banter with Williams as Olivia was fun and engaging to watch. Olivia herself found the right level of slightly-pompous-but-still-relatable needed to create a bond with the audience. Fitzpatrick as Orsino completely sold the misguided love-sick nature of the part. However, I have numerous words to say about the ensemble of Olivia’s home. Williams’ Feste was absolutely incredible, balancing remarkably fast and witty lines with fun, jazzy vocal performances. Murphy as Malvolio played a great comedic “villain” and clearly had tons of fun doing so. The audience had just as much fun watching him. Michel as Sir Andrew really nailed the awkward dopiness of the part, embodying the stereotype of the lovable idiot (very similar to Maxwell Glick’s portrayal of Mr. Ricky Collins in “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries”). He also excelled at physical comedy, which was seen throughout the play and highlighted in a failed swordfight.

Photos courtesy of Daniel Coston.

UNC Charlotte’s production of “Twelfth Night” was, by far, the best production I have ever seen in my time here. It was exceptionally well acted and had remarkable set and costume designs. Most importantly though, it completely connected with its audience. People gasped at unexpected turns, were invested in the love stories and spent huge portions of the play rolling in laughter. I have rarely seen that many people, especially young people, 1) so completely invested and interested in a play and 2) seen them this invested in Shakespeare. I’m pretty sure the girl in front of me laughed so hard she was crying. After talking with the director, Dr. Andrew Hartley, I went into this performance with admittedly high expectations. All of them were surpassed.

The question then becomes: why did this production connect so well with modern day audiences? My answer is three-fold. One, the play was reimagined in a format that allowed modern/new additions. The best example of this was a spontaneous musical rendition of “We Will Rock You” that put me at a complete loss for words (in a good way). Jazz music, modern dance moves and the contemporary feel of the production design also helped connect with the audience. Part two of what made it so special was the acting and line delivery. Oftentimes, Shakespeare’s writings can be associated with a feeling of stuffiness or thought of as too complicated to understand. The actors in UNCC’s production rise above that easily. The words didn’t feel like words from 400 years ago, they felt like the natural speech of the characters. They are filled with love, sarcasm, desperation and other human emotions. It almost never feels forced.

The third reason is that the play, despite its age, still wrestles with contemporary and relevant issues. “Twelfth Night’s” most obvious issue is gender, which is primarily explored as a limit to meaningful relationships. However, it also ties together gender and sexism. Orsino is unable to truly get to know Olivia because of how he (and the world around him) views women. She is just a romantic object to him and she knows that — and actively dislikes it. He builds a much more engaging and open relationship with Viola (as Cesario) because he treats her like he would a man. Further wrinkles emerge at the end of the play, in which Olivia marries Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian (Deandre Sanders). At the time of the marriage, Olivia believes Sebastian to be Viola’s male persona. However, when it is revealed that Viola is actually a woman and that Olivia has instead married Sebastian, she does not even seem particularly fazed. While Viola and Orsino both get their version of a happy ending, Olivia’s fate feels much more uncomfortable. She’s done the very thing she didn’t want to do with Orsino: marry a stranger.

This fall’s production of “Twelfth Night” was not only a highlight of UNCC theatre department productions, it was also one of the best Shakespeare performances I’ve come across to date. It had a stellar creative vision and succeeded in creating a strong and cohesive blend of set and costume design. The ensemble of college actors was absolutely incredible, taking on their roles with gusto and skill. The production felt modernized. It felt relevant. It had musical numbers and sword fights, love and comedy. What more could I possibly want in a play?

INTERVIEW: Director Dr. Andrew Hartley talks UNCC’s newest production, ‘Twelfth Night’

Shipwrecks. Love triangles. Gender-bending disguises. All of these can be found in UNCC’s newest production “Twelfth Night,” a romantic comedy written by Shakespeare. It is directed by UNCC faculty member Dr. Andrew Hartley. Dr. Hartley is the Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare Studies, an esteemed scholar of Shakespeare and an acclaimed and prolific novelist. Prior to the show’s opening night, I sat down with him to talk about the production, what goes into directing college students and the continued relevance of Shakespeare in today’s world.

You are directing “Twelfth Night” for UNCC this month. How would you pitch or describe the plot to college students who haven’t heard of the production before?

“The plot of the play hinges on mistaken identities and people being cast out into a place where they don’t live. But the core of the story is about love triangles [and] love relationships which are complicated by the fact that the people in them are not who they seem to be, and in one crucial case, one of the women is disguised as a man. I think the focal point of the story, in some way, is about exploring the difference between attraction and connection…One of the things I am running with is the idea that, in some ways, gender can get in the way of forming real, close friendships that can turn into deep personal relationships. Because certainly the Elizabethans (and to a certain extent, we) were raised with the idea that the opposite sex is foreign. Other. And that we have to change the way we behave around people of the opposite sex, especially if they are people that we are romantically interested in. Whereas, within the world of the play, the same-sex relationships are in some ways more honest. So the core relationship between Viola and Orsino is built while Orsino believes her to be a man. To me, that’s interesting.”

Out of Shakespeare’s very extensive body of work, do you have any insight into why the Theatre Department chose “Twelfth Night” specifically?

“Well, a couple of years ago we finished a six-year project which was called 36-in-6 in which we were basically doing something to do with every single play in the canon as we worked towards the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016. So we’ve done a lot of Shakespeare here over the last…I’ve been here, what? 14 years I think? And we’ve done a lot of Shakespeare since I’ve been here in one form or another. ‘Twelfth Night’ is not one that we have done as a main stage production (though we’ve done little workshoppy kind of things). Once we got out of the 36-in-6 thing, in which we felt there was a lot of pressure on us to do representative work across the whole body, we were then able to start saying, ‘You know, let’s do plays that we like; plays that feel like they have contemporary relevance and plays that are well-suited to an undergraduate cast.’ Unless you are doing a kind of deconstructive, postmodern production, I don’t see us doing ‘King Lear’ anytime soon. Our strength as a department is working with our students and we don’t have very many 80-year-old students. So ‘Twelfth Night’ is a play that works well with an undergraduate cast. It is one of my favorite of the middle comedies. We had ‘Measure for Measure’ on campus last year with Actors From London Stage, and the last Shakespeare we did was ‘Hamlet.’ So we’ve been clustered around the middle of Shakespeare’s career and I think this is one of the greatest and most successful comedies of that period. It is also a very musical play and one of the things I was really interested in was incorporating a lot of live music and building that into the fabric of the show; so this is a production that is set in a world that looks kind of like New Orleans and is contemporary and jazzy.”

From a directing standpoint, how do you go about approaching a show that is as well known as “Twelfth Night”?

“Well known is certainly in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? I mean I thought that back when we did ‘Hamlet’ and we were using the Q1 text (the earliest printed script), which is very different from the text that most people are familiar with, and I was anticipating all kinds of pushback because none of the famous lines were in the play. What I discovered in the process was that most people don’t actually know ‘Hamlet’ as much as they think they do, and I suspect that’s the same with ‘Twelfth Night.’ It’s one of those plays that some people know well and some people really love but I think, you know, because of the way our education system is structured at the moment, people come to university with surprisingly little hands-on knowledge of Shakespeare. Even when they have studied it in high school, frequently what that means is that they’ve seen a movie or they have read sort of ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ (where they are not actually reading Shakespeare most of the time). There’s not that much deep knowledge, with the exception of a couple of plays like ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘Macbeth,’ maybe ‘Hamlet’ and maybe ‘Julius Caesar.’ Not a lot else. So, you know, my sense is that people have a sort of vague sense of the place of these plays in culture but most people don’t know them all that well. And I’m not just talking about students, I think generally in the culture as a whole that the idea that large numbers of people are really familiar with Shakespeare hasn’t been true for a long time.”

UNCC production of “Twelfth Night.” Photo by Daniel Coston.

What about this production and interpretation of “Twelfth Night” makes it unique from other productions?

“So as I said, it has a very jazzy kind of feel…it’s not a real contemporary world. The clothes look mostly modern (but slightly stylized), there are no cell phones and some people carry swords. It’s got a contemporary vibe but has an eclectic, deliberately non-precise kind of location. As I was talking to the designers, I kept saying, ‘I want it to feel sort of like New Orleans and to have a lot of the things we associate with New Orleans, but I don’t want, like, Mardi Gras beads and Bourbon Street stuff. That’s not what I’m looking for.’ I want a general sort of coastal city vibe.

One of the things that I wanted to do from the outset, and I don’t know how well you know the play, but it begins with a shipwreck. But unlike “The Tempest,” it’s a shipwreck we don’t see. I’ve worked on this show professionally a couple of times before and we always sort of put focus on the romantic relationships. But one of the most important relationships in the play is the Viola/Sebastian relationship — the brother and sister relationship. In some ways, the huge payoff moment at the end is the reconciliation of brother and sister. I think modern audiences always struggle with that…it’s a very simple thing. They’ve never seen them on stage together before the end. One of the things that we wanted to do from the start was to stage the shipwreck, so you actually get to see that moment of separation, and because this is a Black Box show, it’s very small and very actor driven. Though it’s lush in terms of sound and music and color and so on, it is still small, and so we wanted to begin with one big production number; to sort of wake people up and say, “Boom, here it is!” and then go small and focus on the relationships.

I was looking at the cast….and I suspect this is the most diverse Shakespeare show we’ve ever done. I may be wrong. What interests me as an educator, as well as a director, is approaching something like Shakespeare, which people tend to think of as sort of vaguely respectable and sort of up on some pedestal somewhere, kind of irrelevant and out-of-reach, and what I want our cast to get out of this process (and what I want the audience to ultimately get out of it) is a sense of ownership; that we are separated by 400 years or more from this stuff and it doesn’t belong to anybody any more than it belongs to anybody else.”

Speaking of Shakespeare living and writing 400 years ago, why do you think we continue to find so much value in his work? Why is it still so widely read and performed, at least in the theatre community?

“I think there are two reasons. Partly, it is about the period in which he was writing, with the emergence of early modern theater from the 1570s to the 1620s. By the end of the 1620s, we are starting to see a separation of the different kinds of theaters. There are some theaters that are playing to the general public and some that are much more expensive, but in Shakespeare’s day, that’s not the case. He’s writing for a total cross-section of the population. At any given time in this time period, there are about seven functioning theaters in London. Each of those theaters holds about 3000 people. Population of London is only about 120,000, and those playhouses are functioning as commercial ventures every day except Sunday. So you do the math and a huge percentage of the population are going to the theater on a regular basis. Some of those people are day, itinerant laborers making as little as you can possibly make without being homeless and some of them are aristocracy. The theater is an actual cross-section of the population and that is not something you have very often, before or since. I don’t know that there is a modern equivalent. Maybe some sporting events? But those are not cultural events in the same way. One thing you know for certain, is that the people who are going to see ‘Hamilton’ are probably not the same people who are going to the Panthers game, and they certainly aren’t the same people who are going to the Monster Truck rally down the street. We have, particularly since the 19th century, an increasing separation between high and low culture in all aspects, whether that is books or TV or movies or whatever. In Shakespeare’s day, that wasn’t the case. So part of what makes him continue to work is that the plays were always designed to function on multiple levels. That’s point one.

UNCC production of “Twelfth Night.” Photo by Daniel Coston.

Point two is that Shakespeare, unlike most other writers, is himself invisible in the work. Whenever somebody says to me, ‘What does Shakespeare believe about x?’ You can’t say. You can say what certain characters say. Part of what makes Shakespeare himself is that he is always able to take every character intensely seriously, regardless of their moral status or their function in the story, and give them a plausible set of ideas. What Shakespeare agrees with is very, very difficult to say. That’s not the case with some of his contemporaries. Most of the time we want plays to feel like novels; we want that kind of authorial voice that tells us how we are supposed to read everybody in the play and what we are supposed to deduce. You don’t get that with Shakespeare. This means that every production of the play has the capacity to go in so many different directions.

For example, a play like ‘Henry V.’ Most of the time when it is staged today, it is like a sort of monument to anti-heroism and anti-war. 100 years ago, it was the opposite. It was the supreme patriotic, nationalist play. And it’s not that the play’s changed, but we have changed…The reason we keep coming back to Shakespeare is because Shakespeare is a mirror and we keep seeing ourselves, and the things that interest us now are not the same as the things that interested us 20 years ago or 50 years ago. In class now we spend a lot of time talking about gender politics and sexual identity. Did anyone talk about that in Shakespeare classes 40 years ago? The plays are amorphous and rich and complex, but they don’t insist on a single perspective.”

How do you approach the job of directing college students specifically as opposed to directing some other kind of production?

“The difference with working with professionals is that they have a different set of skill sets that they already know how to use. When you’re dealing with college actors, the rehearsal process is also a teaching process. In many cases, I’m working with actors who have never done Shakespeare before (which would almost never happen in a professional theater). Most of the time when directors are working with professionals, a lot of the key job is putting the right person in the right role and then getting out of the way. Student actors expect a lot more. Our rehearsal space is sometimes a transitional space. Different actors are going to be in different places and some are going to be much further along than others, but some will often want the director to do the work for them and tell them how to interpret, which is ultimately not the director’s job. You have to push them in certain directions and then say, “That’s on you.” So what I’m doing as a director and what Chris Berry, the acting and voice coach, is doing is trying to prepare them to do the work themselves and help them build the right skill set, to ask the right questions and to get them to analyze their lines. We’ll spend a little more time doing table work than professionals tend to where we sit around and talk about scenes. The shape of the process is sort of similar to professionals, but the emphasis is just different.”

“Twelfth Night” is playing in the Black Box Theater in Robinson Hall from Oct. 25-Oct. 28 and Oct. 31-Nov. 4. Tickets are $8 for students, $10 for seniors and active military and veterans, $12 for UNCC faculty, staff and alumni and $18 for general admission. They can be purchased online at: http://unccboxoffice.universitytickets.com/user_pages/event_listings.asp.

Correction: The article originally stated that the theaters in Shakespeare’s day held 300 people; this number is actually 3000.