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‘Coded’ Premieres at City Lights

In Theatre
SYSTEM ERROR In Coded, game designer Jerrie faces harassment, the industry and reality itself. (photo credit: Taylor Sanders)

SYSTEM ERROR In Coded, game designer Jerrie faces harassment, the industry and reality itself. (photo credit: Taylor Sanders)

In March 2020, after two successful preview nights, playwright and San Jose State professor Kirsten Brandt was dismayed to have to cancel the world premiere of her latest play, Coded

“It was incredibly heartbreaking,” she says. “We had been working for so long on it and it was a world premiere…nobody knew what would happen after we shut down.”

Coded tells the story of prominent game designer Jerrie, who, while recovering from the trauma of an online hate campaign, starts a women-led studio to develop next-generation VR technology. The play touches on many timely themes, including the dangers of organized online misogyny, the travails of women in the hyper-masculine gaming industry and how technology can blur the line between reality and simulation.

This Thursday, after an arduous quarantine, Coded makes its triumphant return as the inaugural production for City Lights Theatre’s 2021-22 season. For Brandt—whose work often orbits technology, gender and politics—the rapid developments during the pandemic offer new meaning to the play’s themes.

“When [City Lights Executive Artistic Director] Lisa Mallette said that we would open with it, I realized I had to address what had happened in the meantime,” Brandt says. “There’s something about the need for virtual space and connection that the play was already touching upon, I realized I could massage it and speak more directly to the immediate times that we’re living in.”

Technology, hyper-modernity and science fiction were all already mainstays in Brandt’s work. The director/playwright has a particular interest in the life of Mary Shelley (“she’s the ultimate sci-fi writer goth girl”) and has at times taken places in Frankensteinian experiments herself, like her “telematic play,” which took place in two separate rooms broadcasted simultaneously to each other.

Brandt’s interest in the gaming industry, however, came out of someone else’s experience. 

“Years ago, my daughter decided she wanted to create games, so I started putting her in classes and summer programs for game design, and I noticed how skewed it was,” she says. “Often, she’d be the only female-presenting one in the class. Some female teachers would pull me aside and they’d ask, ‘You know how hard this is for women, right?’”

Brandt began researching the industry and quickly become a fan of critic Anita Sarkeesian, whose website Feminist Frequency hosts videos analyzing portrayals of women in gaming and pop culture. For her views, Sarkeesian had been made one of the most high-profile targets of Gamergate, an online harassment campaign well known for its extreme violence (Sarkeesian has had to deal with threats on her life, including credible bomb threats).

Horrified by the vitriol, but inspired by women like Sarkeesian’s brave resistance to it, Brandt crafted the story of Jerrie, whose experience of harassment causes her to go into hiding—a plot point that may have new resonance with a society that just went through quarantine.

“The lead character having this experience of being trolled,” she says, “what does it mean now that everyone on some level has shared this experience of being in isolation?”

The production’s biggest challenge was exploring how to represent VR on stage, including the tricky question of how to “demarcate the line between reality and simulation.” The end result was “The Room,” a holodeck-like technology characters enter by wearing goggles and sensors. 

“My background is in avant-garde theatre,” Brandt says. “I’ve done a lot of non-linear plays. This is one of my most mainstream and accessible plays, but when characters come in and out of ‘The Room,’ that’s when the avant-garde Kirsten is on full display.”

The pandemic isn’t the only thing that has given the subject matter of Coded a new urgency. This past summer, Activision Blizzard, the largest video game company in the world, was sued by the state of California on behalf of female employees that describe a shocking and endemic culture of misogyny. Clearly, the stories of women in the gaming industry need to be told, and Brandt is eager to make a contribution to that endeavor.

“As a feminist, the thing that’s most exciting to me is putting real women on stage,” she says. “We spotlight all the different ways women of various backgrounds and generations see the world.”

Coded
Opens Thu, 8pm, $23+
City Lights Theatre, San Jose

 

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