Why ‘Dragonbutter’ is the escapist distraction we need right now

Ted Lieverman

In the realm of video games, a digital world is created out of the real one. But what if the opposite happened and instead, a real world is created from a digital one?

That question came across Philly-based artist Brian Sanders’ mind during the pandemic, and out of that question comes the city’s latest creative advancement: ‘Dragonbutter Beta Trials (Dragonbutter).’

Most Philadelphians will recognize Sanders’ name from the Fringe Festival, which he has been involved with since the start as a fan favorite, or through Brian Sanders’ JUNK. The immersive performative theater group has been producing interactive shows in the area since the 90s and continuously invites audiences into a world of creative and imaginative spaces.

That goes for their latest with ‘Dragonbutter’ as well.

Ted Lieverman

According to a release, ‘Dragonbutter’ is spread out through multiple themed rooms featuring a stunning light and sound arrangement. Each room challenges players with mini-riddles, and dramatic physical performances, leading up to the finale, a final fight against the “Boss.” Reminiscent of old-school video games, the story reveals itself in layers and begins when you and 11 other “players” enter the abandoned laboratory building, filled with haunting lobby music eerily playing through speakers.

Sanders started working on this latest concept during the pandemic. While self-isolating, the artist began to find inspiration in both his space and one of his favorite pastimes. While working on some prototypes for upcoming performances for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and while playing video games for the first half of quarantine, this real-life video game experience was born much like the creature audiences eventually meet inside of it.

“The prototypes of contraptions [for the Orchestra] became the basis of the story of ‘Dragonbutter’,” explains Sanders. “The story follows a mad scientist who has locked himself inside of his lab. He’s a misanthrope who just wants to keep away from everyone else. Dr. Livingston is splicing genes and creating mechanical and biological organisms that will enable him to fly and part of that result is the merging of a dragonfly and a butterfly inside of the machine, creating Dragonbutter.”

Throughout the experience, players explore a multitude of experimental rooms, which include live dance performances, mazes, and puzzles, which all take place inside an abandoned building with honky security protocols, fault machinery, and even-faultier personalities in terms of its new inhabitants who are tinkering with everything left behind by Dr. Livingston. The real location is near Fishtown/Northern Liberties, but once you step inside, you’re transported to somewhere else.

“Whatever space we are in, we always look for something unique to create a show inside of,” explains Sanders. “This one has been shut down since the 90s, so it has a very dated feel to it, so I made that part of the story. The theme is that this place hasn’t been inhabited since the 80s and all the artifacts we find in there are from projectors to walkmans [play to that.] It’s a giant 8,000 square foot space divided into all of these rooms, so people walk through rooms like a labyrinth which leads to the next piece.”

Ted Lieverman

Audience members are introduced to Lab Assistant Verga, Herb, Professor Doghter and a lab tech named Eft (“E.F.T. for short”). They reveal that the building, formerly DEOS Labs, is set for demolition. The official storyline of ‘Dragonbutter’ also reads that with the building’s security protocols and system still active, it remains unclear what, if anything, lies in the laboratory’s core. The developer has hired Verga, Herb, Professor Doghter, and E.F.T. to secure and evaluate anything that might be of interest before the building is demolished. Unfortunately, time is running out to unlock the mysteries of DEOS Labs.

While walking through, video games lovers may recognize some inspiration from popular video games. Sanders spend about three months revisiting some of his favorites when making ‘Dragonbutter.’

“The very first part of COVID, I sat on the couch and played video games. It’s an art form that I adore, I think it’s a really wonderful, escapist art form and you think about how many thousand people get together to create a universe or a world that as an individual, I get to explore,” says Sanders.

With COVID restrictions still going on at the time of the creation, Sanders first recruited one performer in to workshop while social distancing. While restrictions began to ease up, more performers were added, but the cap on the cast and the audience is still there, not just because of the pandemic, but also because it works well for this experience.

“It’s a lot easier to follow the story when you’re a part of it and literally immersed inside of it. I know for me, if I’m sitting and watching a show, in a good way, my mind often wanders into imagination inspired by what I’m watching. Here there’s no time for the mind to wander, you’re really focused on the task on hand and it keeps the sense of the experience alive and present at any moment,” continues Sanders.

You don’t have to be a video game fan to enjoy this experience, but you need to be a fan of getting involved. Half of the fun is trying to figure out exactly what’s going on. Just like in a real digital experience, there are riddles and some things give you points. Some things are also there to help you in the end in the final fight. But mixed in with it all are just some stellar performances that will entrance you with just sheer creativity and agility.

Ted Lieverman

“With every show, I try to push myself in a new direction some way or another. In this way, it’s certainly that it’s very linear and has a great storyline, but you don’t have to follow the storyline, it can be just a beautiful theater and dance performance. This one is interactive in that it’s challenging for the audience to gain experience points, they actually go into a boss fight in the end,” says Sanders. “This is so necessary right now. To go do something that’s escapist, but that gives us perspective, that we can reimagine things… ‘Dragonbutter’ does that. We go into the experience and we begin to see the possibility of what we thought wasn’t good anymore. It shifts our perspective into a positive light and gives us perspective on the world we have ahead of us.”

Tickets for ‘Dragonbutter Beta Trials (Dragonbutter)’ are $50. Philadelphians should note that July tickets (with dates ranging from now until the 25th of this month) are almost gone, but the show will reopen in September. ‘Dragonbutter’ takes place at 200 Spring Garden St. For more information, visit briansandersjunk.com/dragonbutter