UWG and LURe Journal hosted their 12th annual Undergraduate English Research Conference on Oct. 20 and invited Dr. Emily Friedman, an associate professor of English at Auburn University as their plenary speaker.
The conference dealt with topics, essays and research tackling a variety of subjects, including themes about Feminism, Tolkien, South Africa and even young adult novels like Twilight. For Friedman’s talk specifically, she shared how her life served as a text in creating her own story and then moved on to speak about her career and research.
“I currently am someone who is writing for academic pop culture venues about the intersection between the eighteenth century and today,” said Friedman. “My specific research interests include the history of audiences and how works have circulated in different time periods and in different technologies.”
Friedman has published the book “Reading Smell in Eighteenth-Century Fiction,” which is, as the title insinuates. For her next wave of research, she is exploring the history and forms of fanfiction, both in the eighteenth century and modern day.
“I have recovered never published manuscripts that are basically fiction that circulated outside of commercial print culture from between 1750 and 1900, which is a book project I am calling ‘Before Fiction,’” said Friedman. “Most visibly these days, I am at work on a new genre in formation right now, which is referred to by audiences and practitioners as Actual Play.”
“Actual Play,” also known as live play, is what Friedman defines as roleplay games as performance for an audience. Typically through podcasts or livestreams, Actual Play incorporates comedy, improv and other genres.
“That includes Critical Role, which is the most successful of these,” said Friedman. “[Critical Role] is the most successful kickstarter of all time in TV, film and animation. They have a multi-season deal with Amazon.”
Critical Role is a Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) series live-streamed over Twitch which features multiple big-name actors and actresses in the voice acting business, including Travis Willingham, Matt Mercer and Laura Bailey.
Other successful Actual Plays include Dimension 20, The Adventure Zone and HarmonQuest. Additionally, outside of broadcasted Actual Plays, DnD and other roleplaying table tops are a popular activity among friends.
“We’re really early on in the formation of this genre,” said Friedman. “You’ve got a genre that’s still trying to figure out: ‘What is it?’ ‘How do we make it sustainable?’ What’s amateur versus professional— Does that even matter?’ And I became fascinated by it because those were the same questions that were happening to the eighteenth century novel, and to a certain extent, 18th century theater.
“I try to apply what I know as a narratologist and a book historian, and thus as a media historian, to try to connect what I think might happen [to the genre],” continued Friedman. “Or at least how I can study it with this kind of eye; this thing that is coming into being and trying to define itself.”
Friedman and her students are amongst many scholars currently studying the creation and evolution of a genre in real time. Asking themselves what goes into the livestreaming production backstage and how the actors manage to sustain their narratives in a performative way.
“It’s been fun to talk to students about those layers of performance because the pleasure of Critical Role in particular and those that follow that particular format is that not only are you watching a collective story being told. You’re watching the people do the process of making,” said Friedman.
With a surge of roleplay table tops in broadcasted entertainment, the field of theater, improv, and comedy will forever be changed. Actual Play is changing the digital landscape of performing arts wherein the audience, actors, writers and producers will determine the longevity of the genre.