Alumni from the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts produce an off-Broadway premiere.
All good stories have characters who face the unknown. Ironically, most of us do not enjoy facing it ourselves.
We prefer to know as much as we can.
Our society is designed to eliminate the unknown; yet we gravitate toward stories that do just the opposite. We welcome their questions and revel in what could happen next.
Perhaps this is why the world of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) has found its way into mainstream culture. Forty years ago, it existed on the fringe of society. Today, there are an estimated 50 million players worldwide.
There is one specific tradition the world of D&D has preserved from ancient times.
“Hic sunt dracones.”
In Latin, it means, “Here There Be Dragons.”
Centuries ago, this phrase was placed on a map's uncharted territory. Cartographers would use the phrase to let people know, “For all we know, there could be dragons out there.”
And as much as we now enjoy Google Earth, isn't that still the truth?
No one can truly know what lies before them; and that's the message of New York City's latest off-Broadway hit, “Here There Be Dragons: A new musical quest.”
This summer, Austin Harleson, Shayna Isaacs, Bill West-Davis and other Texas Tech University alumni including Lauren Carlton, Ashley West-Davis and Malána Wilson, helped produce this unique off-Broadway premiere.
Harleson and West-Davis both earned their master's degrees in fine arts (MFA) from Texas Tech's School of Theatre & Dance, while Isaacs earned their Doctor of Musical Arts from Texas Tech's School of Music. All three graduates have been working professionally for a few years but remember their time at Texas Tech like it was yesterday.
“I was drawn to Texas Tech because of the caliber of its alumni” West-Davis said. “I saw the success alumni such as Bruce Rodgers were having, and knew the MFA program had to be amazing.”
West-Davis met his wife, Ashley, during their undergraduate studies before they both came to Texas Tech. She studied at the School of Music with Isaacs and other mutual friends.
“We called ourselves ‘The Squad,'” West-Davis said.
The squad loved their time in Lubbock. From cheering one another on at recitals, getting lost in the At'l Do Farms corn maze, to enjoying the grub at Flippers Tavern, nostalgia surrounds their time together.
“We rallied around one another,” West-Davis said. “Ashley was in a car accident during the spring of 2020, right before her recital. Because of the support from our friends, she managed to still give a tremendous performance – and in a cast, no less!”
Most of the squad graduated in 2019 and 2020, finishing their degrees during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We went from having this close-knit community to being isolated very quickly,” Harleson said. “Graduating and starting work itself is a transition that can be lonely, but with a global pandemic it was even worse.”
“Transitioning into the real world was difficult,” Harleson said. “Most of us had gone from undergraduate studies straight to graduate school, so here we are in the middle of a pandemic trying to figure out how to have a career in the arts.”
Harleson and Isaacs became educators at the collegiate level and West-Davis began working as a lighting director for shows all around the country.
They were all facing uncharted territory.
“We kept in touch and tried to support one another the best we could, but you can only do so much through Zoom,” Harleson said.
Some of the group had moved to the East Coast, others to the Midwest and a few to the Deep South.
“It was difficult going from having all this support at Texas Tech, to being out there on your own,” Harleson said. “My mentors and professors taught me well, so I made it through, but it was certainly a hard time.”
Beginning a career in the pandemic was difficult. Beginning a career in the arts was almost impossible.
“I had been in a comfortable bubble,” Isaacs said. “I had gone from degree to degree, and I like the structure that school gave me.”
After graduating Isaacs began teaching voice at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. During this time they struggled to figure out their identity as an educator, while also figuring out who they were as an adult.
“It was safe to make mistakes in school,” Isaacs said. “But I'm learning it's OK to make mistakes as an adult. It's hard though because when you become a professor, suddenly you have all these people looking to you for knowledge and answers.”
The squad has discovered that being a practitioner or director, doesn't mean you don't face the unknown. In fact, you face it more than ever before.
“I think that's just part of being human,” West-Davis said. “As we move through life it's easy to imagine having it ‘all figured out' one day, but the reality is that never really happens.”
The group agrees it's a scary feeling.
“I experienced a lot of loss early in my life,” Harleson said. “I lost six of my friends from college in 2013 and have lost other loved ones as well.”
Harleson says the pandemic was difficult because a lot of those ghosts had time to catch up to him.
“Navigating loss is hard,” he said. “But it's something I've learned to face more head-on recently. If I don't attend to my own mental health, I won't be a very good resource for my students.”
The journey from leaning on his mentors to being a mentor himself has taught Harleson a lot. He believes the mark of a great educator is what you do in the moments where you don't have the answers – when you must teach others it's OK to sit in the unknown.
“I used to go back to my mentors at Texas Tech and ask about issues when I first started teaching,” Harleson said. “There's nothing wrong with that, but I quickly realized my mentors didn't know my students like I do.
“We've just had to realize that despite a pandemic, loss, isolation and other challenges, we have a lot to offer as artists and educators. In fact, maybe the obstacles are the reason we have a lot to offer.”
“After graduation, I met a friend named Chase through the American Shakespeare Center,” Harleson said. “We'd both recently finished graduate school, me at Texas Tech and him at New York University (NYU). We both loved playing D&D, so we played some campaigns online together during the pandemic.”
During this time, Chase sent Harleson a script he'd been working on.
“The script was about D&D, and it immediately piqued my interest,” Harleson said.
The two started shooting ideas back and forth and eventually decided to workshop the script. Harleson was working at a small liberal arts college at the time and had his students workshop the material.
“My students had never worked with a brand-new script before,” Harleson said. “That's really valuable experience, especially at a college level.”
Chase came out to work through the script and they incorporated a composer, Theo.
Soon, the group had a musical on their hands.
Shortly after the workshop, Chase and Theo landed a residency at The Players Theatre in New York City. They realized it was the right moment to premiere “Here There Be Dragons.”
“The process of gathering a team was interesting,” Harleson said. “I knew that anyone coming from Texas Tech would be fantastic, but of course we interviewed people from all different programs and schools.”
After interviewing artists from across the country, the producers hired several cast and crew members from Texas Tech. Harleson was named the director.
“The producers hired many Texas Tech alumni for this particular show,” Harleson said. “So, I have to give the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts credit for the cast and crew members who came from their many programs. To have so many people from one particular college is reflective of its excellence.”
“Here There Be Dragons” follows the story of a tight-knit group of D&D players as they embark on their final quest. They must contend with their anxieties, fears and obstacles, manifested as fantasy monsters and locales, to discover what their future may hold. The final quest takes place on the night before their college graduation.
The story rings familiar with the director and crew.
“It's pretty crazy that we went on to produce a show that mirrored our own story from Texas Tech in so many ways,” West-Davis said. “The squad came back together for this moment, and we were able to tell this story so well because we'd lived it.”
The show is about the strength it takes to choose your friends and the obstacles we all must overcome to make lasting connections – a message needed more than ever in the wake of the pandemic.
“It was a bit of an artistic risk to tell a lighthearted and comedic story,” Harleson said. “Those are always harder to execute than dramas. But I think it did well because this is what people wanted after the emotional burnout COVID-19 brought.”
The show ran from June 16 through July 17 this summer and had many full houses.
Isaacs was brought on as the show's music director and knew very little about the world of D&D before taking on the project.
“Luckily that wasn't a requirement to be part of the show,” Isaacs said. “Yes, the show is about D&D, but even more so, it's about relationships. That's always going to be relevant.”
Isaacs was drawn to the show's concept because of its originality.
“The characters go back and forth between the real world and the fantasy world very quickly,” Isaacs said. “I love seeing their journey in both worlds.”
While “Here There Be Dragons” plays on various character tropes, its simplicity and authenticity contributed to its success.
“I can see myself a bit in all the characters,” Isaacs said. “Each of them has a struggle I can relate to on some level. At one point in the show, two of the female characters share a romantic relationship. As a queer person, I relate to their excitement and their worries. It takes you back to the confusion of experiencing certain feelings for the first time, and it's important to see those experiences represented.”
Apart from the serious moments, the show contains a certain brand of humor.
“I caught myself cracking up so many times, even as someone who doesn't play D&D,” Isaacs said. “The writers did a wonderful job making the storyline accessible and understandable to everyone – despite their knowledge of the D&D world.”
Because D&D is more popular than ever, perhaps in large part due to the pandemic, the timing of the premiere was perfect.
“Dungeons and Dragons is so much a part of the cultural zeitgeist right now that I can't imagine a better time for this show to have premiered,” Harleson said. “It's a great way to reach people who love musical theater but maybe don't know much about Dungeons & Dragons, and vice versa. We hope the show bridged some gaps between groups of people.”
But Harleson's biggest hope was for the message of connectedness to hit home with the audience.
“The show is unapologetic about the value of friendship, and how much it can hurt when you lose those relationships,” Harleson said. “But it also reminds us how important true friendship really is, and perhaps, how rare it is.”
And in a world of so many unknowns, it's these connections that give us the bravery to face whatever dragons may come.