Dungeons and Dragons and Drama is a two-night engagement—March 21st and 28th—where several theatre professionals will raise funds and awareness for theatre communities in Northwest Washington State. As a rehabbed theatre kid myself, and a soggy Pacific Northwest kid, this is an idea that absolutely resonated with me.
This time we’re talking to the immensely talented DM behind this charity stream, Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey! Get to know a little about him, his style as a DM (including his homebrew world), and what the importance of the theatre means to him! And don’t forget to tune into the stream tonight (March 28th) at 6PM PST for what promises to be an amazing finale!
Tell us about your background, how it relates to theatre, why theatre is so important to you, and specifically the theatre community (San Juan Community Theatre) you’ll be supporting.
Thanks for the question, and thanks for taking this on! Quick info about me: my dad was in the Air Force so we moved 9 times in the first 11 years of my life. When he got out, we settled in Kansas City, where my parents and youngest brother are today. My mother was a theatre teacher, and my middle brother and I both caught the bug from around the age of 10. I went to college and graduate school for theatre, eventually coming to the Pacific Northwest because I LOVE it here, and I get to work with great people. I moved from Seattle to Friday Harbor in 2018 to accept the role of Executive Artistic Director at San Juan Community Theatre. It’s been a wild ride of a career, but I get to do what I love.
Why is theatre important to me? I’m a storyteller. For me, there’s a moment in a story (well, in most great art, if I’m being honest) when we become open–it could be a moment of inspiration or learning or pure emotional truth. It’s a space in time in which change of the heart becomes possible. I have been blessed with many such moments, and every time I take on a new piece of theatre, I try to create them for other people.
San Juan Community Theatre is a truly unique place. On an island with 7,000 residents, in a town with 2,500 residents, there is no reason that we should have a 300-seat performance space as nice as we do. But thanks to the foresight of some community-minded islanders, that is exactly what we have. Our year-round season includes 140-150 events including touring musicians, play and musical productions, educational classes and camps, classical music, a film series, streaming performances from the National Theatre and Metropolitan Opera, productions from our local schools, and so much more. And my favorite thing: we have a community outreach ticket policy–if you show up on the night of the performance and can’t afford a ticket, we’ll give you a ticket if we have a seat available.
What unique challenges do theatre communities face on a day-to-day basis? How has that been impacted by COVID-19?
There are simply too many to name. Every arts institution faces challenges every day to keep the doors open, and many of them, including SJCT, rely on the generosity of donors every single year to make it happen. Only 35% of SJCT’s annual revenue comes from ticket sales, tuition, and rental fees. The rest is provided by the support of generous donors. (Thank you, donors!)
Specifically related to COVID, the part of our business model that does rely on ticket sales is based entirely on putting a large amount of people in a room together…so…you can see why that’s a problem. In 2020, we had to pivot to a largely online presence, filming, editing, and distributing performances by local artists for free. (Check it out on our website: www.sjctheatre.org.) We’re a live performance venue and lack much of the expertise that film production companies have, so trying to remain active and engaged with our community has been a truly challenging experience that takes time.
I will say that SJCT was provided an incredibly generous matching grant at the beginning of the year, and we have about $80,000 to go to meet it. So all donations to SJCT between now and September are being matched dollar for dollar by some very generous donors.
What’s it like to DM a charity event? Is there any added pressure or expectation beyond DMing a normal game?
You know, this is only the second time I’ve DM’d for a charity event, and it will be my first ever livestream. To me, the biggest added pressure is that when you’re DMing around your home table, you only have to entertain your group of friends. When you’re publicly DMing, you have to entertain your players and the entire audience. I’ve got a lot of notes about pacing and non-player characters that may jump into the story if we need to change gears.
As for the fundraising side of it, that’s all about making the need clear, and making sure people are aware. In this case, we have a very clear need: our theatres are closed and if we want them to re-start strong, we have to take care of them now. I LOVE to be asked to support things. Even when I’m unable to give, I want to know about the project, and I want to support it by letting others know.
At the different donation tiers the DM and individual party members receive unique and exciting opportunities—allowing the audience to directly influence the game. Which of these tiers are you most looking forward to?
There are SO many good ones. At $750 of support, I get to give the players a talking horse to pull their wagon. His name is Albus Bimblewiggins and I really hope he makes an appearance. At $3000 of support, our changeling artificer gets a magical crossbow that also shoots confetti bombs. We call it the Party Cannon. Those are the two levels I’m most looking forward to.
Tell us—if you can—a little bit about the world that will serve as stage for D&D&D?
Echosia is the world of my home campaign. It is known as the Land of Magic and Story. There’s a quote in the Campaign Bible that really encapsulates how intertwined Magic and Story are in this realm: “From the fire giants of Pyras to the mischievous pixies of the Elden Marshes, one spell holds absolute sway. It can warm the heart of the most stubborn Goliath and turn a dragon’s thoughts from its treasure. And it begins like this: ‘Once upon a time…’”
The heroes of Dungeons & Dragons & Drama are members of the Upright Paladin’s Brigade (UPB). At this time in the saga of Echosia, the Terras Empire has conquered most of the continent. The dwarves have built roads, infrastructure, and ‘civilized’ much of the known world. The downside is that there isn’t much need for traditional adventuring parties. So the Upright Paladin’s Brigade has formed itself into a traveling dramatic troupe, roaming from town to town playing performances or questing as needed.
If I’m reading between the lines, it looks like the party will all have roles near and dear, somehow related to the theatre. What prompted you to choose familiar ground for these sessions? Was there any temptation to include bards in the party or as NPCs?
That is a spot-on observation. During character creation, we not only decided on what race and class each member of the party would be, but what role they fulfill within the traveling troupe. They’re all excellent, but I will say I lost my mind a little bit at the idea of a half-orc barbarian who is the diva of the group and flies into a rage when someone insults her performance.
While none of the core players chose the Bard class, we did have one of our visual artists play a Bard in a pickup game. Very fun, as always.
What goals do you hope you’ll reach for D&D&D? Both financially in support of theatre communities, but also as far as visibility and awareness?
If we could hit our goal of $5,000, I would be over the moon. That’s $1,000 to each participating theatre. But more importantly, I hope we remember there are SO many artists out of work during this time. A bunch of them are my friends and family. I’m hoping we remind everyone of how good it feels to be in a theatre–watching a play, hearing a concert, seeing some on-the-spot improv. Wow. Let’s wear our masks, get the vaccines, and get back into the community, everyone!
Oftentimes the DM is considered the “forgotten player,” because they don’t get to choose a single player character. Do you have a favorite NPC already? Also if you could play as a player character in your setting, what would it be?
Do I have a favorite NPC for D&D&D? Oh 100%. It’s the horse. Our half-orc paladin also has some personal attendants that are very fun to play. There are a couple other favorites that I’m hoping the players meet–because you never know what your players are going to do.
I’ve actually had the benefit of playing in my own setting a couple times because my home game players are generous enough to give me a night off DMing every once in a while (thanks, Adam, Carrie, and Brandon!). I would say about 80% of the time I’m a paladin. Love that class. But for my own setting, I think I would also love playing a wizard–the idea of someone who has studied the ancient stories and myths to perfect their casting is intriguing.
What preparation have you done before the stream, both personally and with the players? What are you most looking forward to on stream, and how many curveballs do you think your cast will throw you?
The big prep was character creation. We spent the most time doing that and going over what every person’s role in the company would be. I’ve also learned how to livestream for the first time. That was a trip. And of course, we did a Session Zero so everyone would have an opportunity to jump into character with each other before we had to do it live.
I think in the stream I’m most looking forward to seeing what my players do. They’re always far more creative than I could ever dream, so my job is primarily coming up with a lot of scenarios and locations for them to be creative. And I love introducing items from their backstories that impact the story that we’re all telling together.
If this is a rousing success, do you think there might be a return engagement in the works?
I’m sure we’d all be open to playing more together. It’s a great group. We’ll see if there’s demand, and how much support we can raise for our theatres.
Is there anything else you would like the readers to know about? Feel free to drop as many shoutouts or links to as many important and relevant people/things as you want!
The big thing is for folks to check out dddfundraiser.com, watch the stream, and donate if they are able to support!
You can find me @baldheadblankcanvas on Instagram. It’s literally only photos of things my wife has put on my head. That’s the whole Instagram.
Visit sjctheatre.org to learn more about San Juan Community Theatre and the work that we do, including our 2020-21 Snapshot Season of local artist films.
Dungeons & Dragons & Drama logo was created by Cammry Lapka.