Souls Laid BareApr 26, 2023 03:10PM ● By William Rischling
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Escapism is a divisive coping mechanism. Certain hobbies hinge almost entirely on a disconnect from reality; submersion into a realm of creativity unconstrained by the outside world. Perhaps the most widely known example is the tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. Often shortened to ‘D&D,’ the game has had a fickle relationship with popular culture since its inception in 1974. However, 2017 saw a meteoric resurgence of the property with the release of the game’s fifth edition ruleset—introducing millions of newcomers to a system of boundless storytelling and self-expression, including Katie Otten.
An Omaha transplant, Otten has established herself as an adjunct theater professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a model, and an actor.
“I moved here about nine years ago now. I'm from Wisconsin originally, and when I moved here, I thought, ‘Okay, I'll just be here for about a year or so for a contract at a theater and then I'm gonna go off somewhere else.’ But I ended up really finding my people here and finding that Omaha was a really cool, welcoming place,” she explained. “I really like that anything you put your mind to, you can do, and it's maybe easier in some places, maybe there'll be more resources, but there's always going to be people to support you and to help make it happen. You can afford to be here and do it, where with some cities you definitely can't.”
No story of success is without struggle, Otten’s notwithstanding. A characteristic common to people possessing great talent is a paralyzing lack of confidence—a wall that Otten threw herself against repeatedly.
“When I went to school for acting in Wisconsin, I only wanted to be an actor, that’s all I cared about. Thing is, all of the other actors had this extreme confidence,” she recalled. “They would be on stage and just sparkle and command attention. In comparison, I was so scared and confused, I had really bad confidence issues. After two years of working my butt off and not figuring out how to find that confidence the teacher sat down with me and said, ‘Y’know, maybe you’re just not meant to be an actor.’ That destroyed me. I wondered what I was going to do with my life…it was all I ever wanted.”
Reminiscing on this painful memory, Otten’s voice never wavered with regret, bitterness, nor self-pity. It was recalled with the same reverence and appreciation of a cherished memory—one of personal growth.
“That’s when I tried teaching, and teaching forces you to be confident even if you don’t feel it,” she continued. “You have to pretend you are for the students’ sake. Pretending to be confident actually made me confident; I faked it until I made it.”
This steeled optimism propelled Otten throughout her career, eventually leading to the creation of her passion project: Inner Worlds. Uploaded to YouTube for anyone to watch for free, the Inner Worlds web series follows a group of friends as they navigate their daily lives. These characters are vastly different from one another, but are united in their love of D&D. It is through fantasy and roleplaying that the players share and shed their anxieties, and together, process real-world traumas.
Now on its second season, Inner Worlds is an extension of Otten, wearing its uniquely bright outlook of the world on its sleeve, no matter how dark things may get.
“I started writing when the pandemic started. I lost a whole bunch of paid gigs. And I was like, ‘Oh, what am I going to do?’ And I always had sort of wanted to write something related to D&D, because I'm a huge Dungeons & Dragons fan. I was really interested in the show The Guild with Felicia Day, which is about an online game but it had little five minute episodes,” Otten said. “And I was like, this seems like a really cool way to digest information and focus only on what's important in the story. And so I thought, I can write something like that maybe. And once I started to write it, then I was like, ‘Oh, well now I'm really invested in this, I have to make it.’ So there was no going back. It was right at the beginning of the pandemic, really, and it's kind of never stopped.”
Jessica Johnson, director of Inner Worlds and a close friend of Otten’s, explained, “She's probably one of the most generous artists I think I've ever worked with. She is very open about sharing her work and sharing the creative process with other artists. While at the same time being very confident in what she's created which makes it really easy to create something collaboratively. She is probably one of the most joyful people I've been around.”
It can be a frightening prospect to lay bare one’s individuality, whether playing a tabletop game with friends or creating a show for strangers—a risk Otten embraces and encourages.
“There are still times where I doubt myself but I have to remind myself that everyone has something to contribute, a story to tell, and everyone should get that opportunity,” she beamed. “I’ve made something that wouldn’t exist if I didn’t make it. I think that’s a reason to do anything. It can be hard but you have to remember that your unique self is something to be cherished instead of being afraid of.”
“The things that make us unique are also the things that make us wonderful.”