A Crossover Design
Gertrude was a fascinating production, balancing between theater and larp and the expectations of mainstream theater reviewers, newcomers and experienced larpers. Briefly, Gertrude staged the bachelorette party for Hamlet’s mother Queen Gertrude, taking place on the evening before her wedding to Claudius, brother of her former husband. Gertrude herself was played by Arja Saijonmaa, a well-known Finnish singer and actor. Her bridesmaids, Claudius, and some other roles were also played by actors, and throughout the larp, there were also ghosts present; shadow players played by actors, who were invisible to the characters and could whisper to players to direct their play. The audience/players were all guests at the bachelorette. Players had full-fledged characters and belonged to different cliques – smaller groupings of players (about 25–30 in each) that had their own backstories (not from Hamlet).
The central theme of Gertrude was guilt and redemption. Anyone who has read or seen Hamlet knows that Claudius has murdered his brother, and this is of course the backdrop of the theme – the players do not know if Gertrude was an accomplice in the murder. The cliques had similar back stories; dark events where it was unclear whom to blame.
The larp was heavily railroaded, partly as a result of the merge of larp and theater, and partly to make it easier for newcomers. There was no off-game workshopping or clear larp start: some people went into character right on arrival at Dramaten, whereas others eased into their roles more gradually. On arrival, we signed in with the bridesmaids and met our cliques for a while, to prepare for Gertrude’s arrival at the party. Next, we were seated in the main theater salon, and allowed to interact with the main bridesmaid Nila who gave us some instructions (Don’t break anything! Be kind to each other!) and instructed us on what to do when Gertrude arrived. This whole scene was pretty much standard interactive theater: we had some things to do (throw stuff on-stage and cheer), and we could interact with the actors. Gertrude herself was happy and welcoming, and very much in love!
The next scene was played outside Dramaten, where we staged bachelorette-style pranks for Gertrude and her bridesmaids. This also gave us time to interact with other players (and with people on the streets who wondered what was going on). Back inside the theater, we were all called onto the main stage (it is HUGE and fit us all!) to stage a final prank for Gertrude, now joined by Claudius. This scene got nasty. Egged on by the actors, players started to question Gertrude and Claudius about the late king’s death, and eventually the king and queen fled, angry and hurt. The bridesmaids also left at this time, which allowed the players to go into a more sandbox style of larping. For a couple of hours, we were free to play on the storylines of the cliques, conspire to replace Gertrude and Claudius with a new ruler, or just ad-lib plotlines of our own. The larp ended with another scripted on-stage scene, leading up to the beginning of Hamlet.
While Gertrude mixed larp and interactive theater elements, I would argue that it is hard to find another term than larp to describe it (although my Facebook friend who called it a “selfie larp party” was not far off). All participants had characters and backstories, and there was a fair amount of time allotted for sandbox-style play. It shared both the railroaded storyline and the use of theater scenes with Inside Hamlet, and that was definitely still a larp. It also matters that Gertrude was marketed as larp: the producers used this term to distance their artistic vision from that of immersive theater such as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More.
I think it is fair to assume that Gertrude was designed to be accessible to people who had very little larp experience, who expected to interact with something theatrical, and who had no interest in reading, or intention to read, complicated instructions beforehand. From this perspective, I find the overall design brilliant. Starting and ending with theater scenes made the overall structure that of a theater play. The strongly controlled activities in the beginning, greeting Gertrude on-stage and staging pranks in the city, allowed players to ease into their roles and the interaction with other players. When most of the actors left the larp about halfway through, all participants were well into larping. The final scene was intense and well-acted, and worked well to end the larp.
Personally, I had a lot of fun playing Gertrude. Just think about it: “I have actually been playing on the big stage at Dramaten!” I had tweaked my character to be geared towards rapid development of scenes with just about anybody I met (she was an ugly but filthy rich crook constantly looking for new lovers of all genders), and this created a lot of brief, fun moments during the larp.
Despite this, Gertrude was not an entirely successful design. The main problem was that it was confusing: it was unclear when the larp started, and it was difficult to understand what was going on in the ending scene. It was difficult to understand when we were expected to obey the actors, and when we could interact freely with them (this is a very typical problem for interactive theater). We who played ‘central’ and ‘court’ roles were instructed to take responsibility to drive play for others, but doing so was very difficult when we know so little about when that was appropriate, and what was going to happen. It was difficult for cliques to arrange meetings in-larp to play out their internal plots. And so on.
Even the fact that Gertrude was fun, and fun throughout, was actually problematic. When Gertrude came back in the last scene, she had changed from the initial loving and welcoming woman into a bitter and vengeful queen who did not shrink from murder. To make that change effective, the sandbox larp would have needed to develop somewhat similarly, to become gradually more uncomfortable, oppressive or outright scary. Instead, most of us just went on partying.
“Communication matters. A lot. A lot a lot. In the end, larps (mostly) come alive because the players make them do so, just like a film actor makes a character description become a living, breathing character. The tricky thing here is that we (usually) don’t have directors standing around telling us precisely what to do.”
The tickets to Gertrude were sold from the home page of Dramaten, and it is important to understand that this was the only web page for the production. During recent years, it has become more or less standard for larp to rely on a carefully produced website, where players can find information on practicalities, the diegetic setting, the design vision, roles, rules and meta-techniques, and the larp schedule including potential pre-game workshops. The communication format for larp has been standardised this way because it works. Needless to say, the Dramaten home page does not support this, so for Gertrude the organizers had to rely on a number of other information sources. The most important information came in the role manuscript and the 65 page Bachelorette magazine, both distributed about a month before the larp. Other information resources included a Pinterest board for costume inspiration, links to documents with information about how to read the role manuscript, tips on how to play the larp, and many information posts in the Facebook group for the larp. Effectively, the lack of information on the website turned into a massive information overflow problem: very often I would vaguely remember that I had read something important somewhere – with no chance of finding it again.
Adding to the information issue was that the larp was not transparent (as we were supposed to follow along with the railroaded structure) and that central information was written as in-game information. In particular, the Bachelorette magazine existed in the fiction and we could talk about it in-game. Also the role manuscripts were partly written from a first-hand perspective of the character. Now, communicating within the fiction was common in the nineties as well as in the Alternate Reality games from about ten years ago, but has fallen a bit out of fashion, as clear off-game information is currently seen as more supportive of play. This meant that the lack of clear off-communication upset many players (including me) prior to the game. In hindsight, I think this may again have been an aesthetic design choice inspired by the desire to be accessible to novice players. While clear instructions and off-game information may be useful for shaping play, but they are also a pretty boring read…
I think this was a mistake. Effectively, the lack of clear off-game instructions meant that most of the rules and meta-techniques were not communicated beforehand, but left to us to figure out during play. The use of ghosts was the only rule that was communicated in advance, and even that rule was somewhat unclear (more about that below). Despite this, the game was actually quite rules-heavy. Here are some examples of rules that were not communicated beforehand:
- When seated in the main salon, obey the actors on the scene as well as the ghosts.
- Every clique has their own meeting place, signified by their totem.
- Black glasses contain poison.
- Black paper flowers have some kind of meaning (I never figured that one out).
Some of these I figured out during play, others I only understood after the larp when talking to other players.
The design motivation for leaving so much out might have been the use of ghosts. Both the role manuscript and the Bachelorette magazine contained a page about ghosts, with the instruction “don’t talk about them, pretend that they are not there, mimic their emotions, listen and obey”. They were also nicely demonstrated during Nila’s introduction scene. Notice how Claus wrote that “we (usually) don’t have directors standing around telling us precisely what to do” – but when shadow players are present, there is actually a direct way to instruct larpers in their play. But again, this brief instruction above was all the information that we got about them. Their role in the larp was unclear. Were they there to teach us the rules? Were they there to suggest interesting developments for a player or group, or were they there to control the overall dramatic arc? This lead to some players refusing to take instructions or avoid playing with them. What I found most difficult was how to work with the instructions from a ghost after interacting with them. For example, when entering Dramaten after playing outdoors, the ghosts were standing at the entrance mimicking wind sounds. We played this as a moment of chill, maybe a foreshadowing, but we immediately threw off the feeling to maintain a party attitude – and the event was soon forgotten.
This brief moment illustrates the strong role that ghosts could have had, not only to introduce inspirations and create moments of interesting play, but to affect the overall mood and dramatic curve of the larp. In Cabaret, we used a thin form of fate play to control the overall dramatic arc, by separating the larp into three acts with explicit mood themes. In Gertrude, there was no such development (at least not in the run in which I participated) – but the ghosts could have been used for this purpose. Their role could have been to influence play to become gradually more unforgiving and oppressive, preparing the players for the final scene. However, this would have required players to cooperate – and we didn’t know enough of their purpose to do so.
To conclude, I see Gertrude as a missed opportunity. Through being staged at Dramaten and through its central design choices, the production came close to becoming that hybrid form between larp and theater that would open up larp to a wider audience. But as usual in play design, the devil is in the detail – and for larp, this very often comes down to careful pre-game communication.
Gertrudes möhippa (Gertrude’s Bachelorette)
Production: Jesper Berglund (Writer & Director), Christopher Sandberg (Writer & Director),
Make-up: Barbro Forsgårdh & Nathalie Pujol
Costume: Bea Szenfeld (Gertrude’s outfit), Carina Bornsäter, Mikael Mohlin, Linnea Brun, Barbro Hellsing, Anna Karin Henriksson, Karin Victor, Annelie Johansson, Ewa Johansson, Pia Pernhem, Monica Jansson, Jan Johansson, Kerstin Jeppson, Lotta-Maja Öhman & Cassandra Sandberg
Music: Lilla Lovis (Vocals) & Niclas Lindgren (audio)
Actors: Arja Saijonmaa (Gertrude), Malin Arvidsson (Nila, Best Woman), Karin Bengtsson (Ghost), Filip Alexanderson (Ghost), David Book (Ghost), Majken Pollack (Ghost), Anette Skåhlberg (Ghost), Ola Wallinder (Ghost), Niklas Hagen (Ghost), Anna Mannerheim (Bridesmaid), Anna Svensson Kundromichalis (Bridesmaid), Rebecka Pershagen (Bridesmaid), Cecilia Klingspor (Bridesmaid), Josefine Tengblad (Bridesmaid), Maja Frydén (Bridesmaid), Per Lasson & Magnus Hammer
Date: June 7 & 8, 2016
Location: Dramaten (Royal Dramatic Theatre), Stockholm, Sweden
Duration: 5 hours per run
Participants: 180 per run
Participation Fee: €35 (simple character), €55 (advanced character) & €75 (most advanced character, including costuming)
Game Mechanics: Shadows, cut-scenes, diegetic information