Indiana State University Newsroom

‘Leveling Up’ offers layers of human analysis

February 16, 2016

Indiana State University's latest theater production may delve into virtual realities, but it's when it explores human relationships that it gets real.

There's Ian (Zach Van Meter), a champion gamer in his early 20s. Then, there are his roommates Chuck (Simon McNair), an all-around good guy, and Zander (Riley Leonard), a wheeler-and-dealer. And lastly, Jeannie (Peighton Emmert), Zander's girlfriend, is a sweet-and-innocent college student.

"‘Leveling Up' is a term in the gaming world for when you move up a level. The playwright is using it as a metaphor for growing up," said director Julie Dixon, associate professor of theater. "They're trying to navigate what it means to grow up."

And how their relationships change during this maturing process.

"One of the boys is struggling because his parents have been supporting him, but they've cut him off," Dixon said. "He's not somebody who likes to have talks about these things, and now he's in over his head. He's struggling to find a way to pay his rent and maintain this image he's got of a cool guy who has everything together."

As a result, Ian ends up supporting himself and the delinquent roommate -- and takes a job with the National Security Agency when they approach him to be a drone pilot based on his gaming talents.

"This is based on real information," Dixon said. "It's not like every good gamer is recruited by the NSA, but they have been known to recruit gamers because they have the ability to look at a screen for hours on end and not get bored."

The lines between reality -- accidentally killing a child -- and virtual reality -playing a game -- quickly become blurred for Ian.

"He's haunted by the consequences of this real job," Dixon said. "The playwright asks you to think about a generation that has been raised to adulthood by what they see in video games. What effect does that have on them?"

Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer offers more of an anti-gaming perspective than Dixon said she's comfortable with, but Laufer still poses important ideas for consideration, such as the emotional toll of cybersex.

"It raises some issues that I haven't encountered before in a play," Dixon said. "It's this weird, squishy line. I know students who have said to me, ‘Our characters (in a virtual reality) are having sex. It's not real.' Yet, it bothers the other person in the relationship. They'll say, ‘But it's not me. It's my character.' But you can't divorce that, those two things are related."

When reviewing possible plays, Dixon usually gives a script about 15 pages for it to hook her before moving on the next. Scene four of "Leveling Up" made her literally react out loud.

"It was a really arresting scene for me. It was a really high-stakes scene that would be really interesting to do, and it jumped out at me," she said. "The gaming hooked me for the kids, but that scene really got me."

Van Meter, a veteran actor of now 10 State productions with "Leveling Up," says this role has taken more research than others.

"Every time you say something you don't understand," you have to research it, he said. Or to portray what it would be like to play video games for hours on end, Van Meter said he investigated "what that would do to you, physically. What that would do to you mentally. How you would behave in that scenario."

The senior theater major from Attica finds much to identify with in Ian.

"(Roles) all require you to find a different part of yourself to put into it," Van Meter said. "Any given character that you're required to play brings something else out of you. We all have a little bit of everything in us - just depends on how deeply you can draw from that one thing to get whatever you have to get."

Video games have become this generation's gateway to theatrical performance.

"A lot of my students game, guys especially, but some girls. I think what gets them into theater is it's a major that's close to this gaming world," Dixon said. "For older people, they used to get into theater because of the movies -- they would go to movies, be swept up this story, and it would be really amazing and they would want to do that. Now, I find that a lot of my students say that about gaming. They're playing a game and they get swept up into it, it's like roleplaying and they disappear into it."

With profanity and sexual situations, "Leveling Up" is not appropriate for young audiences.

Performances are 7:30 p.m. March 2-5 and 2 p.m. March 6 in Dreiser Theater. Tickets are $10 each, with up to 50 seats available for presale, noon-4:30 p.m. Feb 29-March 4 in the New Theater lobby, 536 N. 7th St. All other tickets will be available for purchase beginning 90 minutes before each performance. Indiana State students' admission is free with a valid student ID.

For more information, call the ticket office at 812-237-3333.


Photo: -- From left, Zach Van Meter, Peighton Emmert, Riley Leonard and Simon McNair star in Indiana State University's production of "Leveling Up," March 2-6 in Dreiser Theater.

Contact: Michael Speck, instructor, department of theater, Indiana State University, or 812-237-3337.

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or

Story Highlights

Performances are 7:30 p.m. March 2-5 and 2 p.m. March 6 in Dreiser Theater. Tickets are $10 each, with up to 50 seats available for presale, noon-4:30 p.m. Feb 29-March 4 in the New Theater lobby, 536 N. 7th St.

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