Road Trip was like no other larp I’ve ever done. I felt like I’d fallen down the rabbit hole, with a constant interweaving of fiction and reality.
Road Trip, a joint production of Dzobiak Larp Studios and Imagine Nation Collective, was a 7-day Nordic larp held in July 2017 in which a rock band and its entourage went on a road trip on Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica. In most larps, a group of people decide to mutually support each other in creating a fantasy world, isolated from the real world as much as possible. But for Road Trip, we were larp characters existing in the real world and interfacing with people who didn’t know we were larping. The characters were assumed, but the interactions were all honest and real. We weren’t pretending to be a band — we were a band. In particular, we were The Runaway Sound and its entourage on our first US tour. Our band was little known in the US, but had made a radio hit that went viral in Romania and Bulgaria. This trip was in preparation for our US tour. (And helped explain why so many in our entourage were European).
But we were a band that was to play in real venues, without the audience knowing we were anything other than a real band. This led to an unusual amount of insecurity for me in the lead up to Road Trip. I’ve played a variety of characters in larps and enjoy playing against type. My larp friends might not even know what I am like in real life — a (gulp) middle-aged single mom of two amazing and challenging young adult children. I am a pediatric radiologist who has held leadership positions in my practice, a choir director, and performer in community theater. Responsible, caregiver — these are the kinds of descriptions I get in real life. Oh, and physically I am just under 5 feet tall with the energy of someone much larger. When I do theater, the roles I am cast in are determined by how I look and sound — usually a comic or quirky character. I am never the ingenue, never the evil witch queen, never the leading lady. Which is why I love larp. I get to take a vacation from my life and become someone different of my own choosing, not governed by my age, stature, or real life skills. Younger or older, different strengths or weaknesses, often capable of things I wouldn’t feel capable of in real life. And the magic of larp is that my fellow players honor my choices and treat me as my character would be treated.
But in this case, my character was to be a singer in a rock band, performing in real venues in front of audiences who were not part of the mutual contract of larp. I knew I could handle the singing and the performing — but it was the real life physical stuff that scared me: going against type on stage.
I incorporated these fears and how to respond to them into my character design. Valerie Saunders was the daughter of an unwed teen mother from Bridgeport, CT who had a difficult childhood, often pushed into being the responsible one. She was drawn to rock music from an early age, but was hampered by her insecurities. At the age of 20, she went to an open mic night but was unable to overcome her stage fright. That’s when she created an alternate persona for herself — Valentina Sunder. Valentina was uninhibited and fearless, a creature of impulse and energy. Valentina had no problems performing on stage, and soon began to build a reputation as a singer. While initially an intentional construct, over time, Valentina became more of an alterego who fought with Valerie for control: a form of dissociative identity disorder. Valerie was the responsible one, all superego. Never having gone to college, she worked as a receptionist and was the one who paid the bills. In her spare time, she dreamed and wrote songs. Valentina was pure id; offstage, she was equally uninhibited, drinking, drugging, sexually promiscuous. She often ended up in trouble with which Valerie had to deal.
My intention in playing this character was to give myself permission to use the Valentina persona as a way to overcome my fears of being seen as an impostor. She was a goth through and through, wearing black or purple wigs, heavy makeup, black leather, fishnet stockings, and platform boots. Wearing these clothes gave me the courage to BE Valentina. But I didn’t want to be forced to dress and act like this for the entire trip. That’s where Valerie came in. I could wear my real hair and more comfortable clothes a good deal of the time. At first, Valerie was more like me in real life, but I intentionally found ways for her to be different. More insecure, less educated, never left the northeast. And she dressed like a hippie, wearing bright colors.
I intended lots of drama between the 2 personas. Valentina throwing tantrums before shows, major dysfunction, a breakdown that might lead to the integration of the two personas into one.
And then the larp started and it all changed. The 4 members of the band in the US had rehearsed twice prior to the start, and we hoped to rehearse with our European based lead guitar player on the Sunday, but it never happened. I was Valerie the first day while traveling, and then changed into Valentina once we hit St. Louis. So far so good. But then Monday night, we ended up onstage in an amazing venue in St. Louis — and let’s just say it didn’t go well. I remember all the details why, believe me, but don’t need to belabor them.
The band members talked the next morning at breakfast — mostly out-of-character — and asked to speak with the organizers before we started on the day’s plans. We told them they had two choices. It was clear to us that, if we were to succeed as a performing band, we needed some things. We needed significant dedicated rehearsal time in one of the vans, with no band members driving. We also needed real support from our entourage. Everyone had “jobs” as part of the role-play, but with a few exceptions, it felt like that first night it was the band members doing all the (literal) heavy lifting while everyone else was just having fun. That would have to change.
Or, if they didn’t feel that could happen, we wouldn’t perform live again. We would play and sing at times we were just with the other larpers, could do some video footage, and spend our energy being our larp characters rather than being musicians.
The organizers agreed to try option one — in fact, we had a long rehearsal in the van that day and followed that by recording footage for a rock video. But something happened with my intentions for the character along the way. You see, I’ve been a singer and musician far longer than I’ve been a larper. And the music took priority for me.
While I didn’t stop playing Valerie/Valentina, a lot of the intensity got dialed back. Neither of them had both the discipline and assertiveness to aid in helping a group of musicians in become a band. And it was more important to me to rehearse and give/get honest feedback about the music and performances than to create drama. And truthfully, for me that was the drama. Were we going to be able to pull off a successful gig? Make the video we wanted to have made? Make our potential fans into real fans?
Meanwhile, the band members bonded. Kelsey, our guitar player/lead singer, with a voice like an angel and an attitude of making the best of tragedy in his past. Tony, our lead guitar player, who led impromptu jam sessions in the van. Lily, our singer who realized partway through the tour that she loved the journey, but didn’t want to perform — and then got an unexpected inheritance allowing her to sponsor the band’s further journeys. And Cholly “Thunderlizard” Skolnik, our larger-than-life drummer. The Thunderlizard’s original heavy metal band, Vermithrax Pejorative, was still a legend. His hobby was joining cults. He regaled us with endless stories of his adventures on the road, making every van ride with him a treat. I still intend to write a song entitled “The Legend of the Thunderlizard,” lyrics completely comprised of quotations.
The other thing that led me to dial back the drama was that there was plenty of potential conflict in what we were doing already. Moving 22 people plus luggage plus band equipment in 3 vans, driving 4-6 hours a day, getting unpacked each night, sharing hotel rooms with various other characters. Hotels varied from pretty nice to very sketchy. One night we stayed in an Airbnb, which had its own private pool. However, it also had one bathroom for all of the guests, who slept in rooms with up to 14 bunk beds. None of this sounds exciting, but it needed doing — and throwing a tantrum as Valentina during the process didn’t seem like a good idea.
And there were the exciting parts too. One part, about which I can’t overstate the amazingness, was exploring a whole chunk of America, and even better with a bunch of Europeans who had never been here before. Seeing the country and landscape through their eyes. In Missouri, there was a gun shop, which was the first time many of them had ever seen a real gun. Several players took the opportunity to use one at the shooting range, sparking a whole range of reactions. Noting how many churches we passed. Noting how many cows we passed. Their amazement at the landscape especially as we got into Texas and further west.
All of our conversations with locals. And many, many conversations in the vans about politics, religion, economics, and philosophy. This was another place I found myself modifying how I was playing Valerie. As originally designed, she had a limited fund of knowledge or experience, and I found I wanted to dive deeper into the conversations. Stories about my kids in real life morphed into stories about my niece and nephew.
There was also the pleasure of interacting with the other characters as we traveled. Keith, our spiritual adviser, really ended up as a therapist and guide for many of us. Sarah, a fundamentalist Christian widow, got on the wrong tour by accident — she meant to travel with a Christian band — and was transformed into Cadillac, the best drum tech ever. Dickie, another religious type, was our roadie and gofer, entangled in a crazy relationship with the sister of a band member. Nico and Eliza, our videographers, fell in love during the trip.
More about Nico and Eliza. The real life players of these characters are a couple from Poland who are videographers that are part of Dziobak. On Thursday, during our gig in Albuquerque, Nico got on the stage and asked Eliza to marry him. Eliza said yes — if they could be married in Las Vegas.
Talk about the blur between real life and fantasy… The organizers looked at each other and said “I guess we need to change plans and head to Vegas.” Of course, in real life, this was planned ahead of time, but none but a few knew that, and it -felt- spontaneous. After a stop in Winslow, Arizona (of course), we made it to Las Vegas. The characters AND the players were married by Elvis at the Graceland Wedding Chapel. The ceremony used their real names — yes, they were really married. Wow.
The organizers also did a great job of planning stops. The Uranus Fudge factory, where we filmed a segment of our video, was a glorious hodgepodge of western memes. Aside from the General Store that sold fudge and souvenirs, there was saloon, a gun store, shooting range, a tattoo parlor, a giant rocket ship, a double decker bus, and a dinosaur. We shot our video on the porch of one of the buildings. I was on the roof in blistering heat, plus the wig and all. What we sacrifice for our art!
There was also the Route 66 museum in Oklahoma, which helped provide a historical backdrop to our trip. As usual, we struck up conversations with people there, including a photographer for Playboy and Penthouse who was taking a vacation from his job, traveling Route 66 with his wife and son and photographing families on the way. He photographed our whole group, and he and his family made it to our gig in Amarillo that night. But an impromptu stop for a picnic lunch in a neighborhood of cookie cutter tan brick ranch houses made an impact as well. So bleak and colorless…
Our stop at the Blue Whale of Catoosa in Oklahoma was surprisingly spiritual for a monument to kitsch. Keith, our spiritual adviser, explained about the legend of Jonah and the Whale and encouraged us to come out of the belly of the whale open to change in our lives.
The band had video shoots and photo ops, and I got to experience in a very small way what it’s like being a celebrity. There were curious glances from passers-by as I strode out into the Texas desert in my black platform boots and fishnets for our video shoot at Cadillac ranch. Having a group of 20-somethings in Amarillo ask to have a photo taken with me once they knew I was in the band. And being part of a podcast for The Future is Virtual on Altspace VR, half in- and half out-of-character.
Our next gig — open mic night in Amarillo — went much better. In fact, a couple of the locals came back to the hotel and partied with us. Which presented me with a conundrum — they had met Valentina, but I really wanted to get out of her whole getup. And the dual personality part… at the spur of the moment, Val decided to explain herself as twins. I ran up to my room and changed, and came down and asked everyone how the show had gone. We talked one of the local guys into coming with us the next morning to Cadillac Ranch to be part of our video. He walked up to me as Valentina prior to the video shoot and asked whether my purple hair was a wig. I grudgingly agreed that it was, but that it allowed me to change my hair color whenever I wanted. He came to the shoot and played the tambourine. And as far as we could tell, he never knew that I, or the rest of us, were anything but what we claimed to be.
But so much of the experience was the ordinary stuff. Conversations with locals, conversations with each other, jamming and singing in the vans. A beautiful desert rainstorm. Watching the scenery change.
The fact that it was a larp meant that glitches along the way were seen as opportunities for role-play rather than annoyances. And there were glitches. One major event was that Tony, our lead guitar player and his two friends decided to leave the tour while we were in Texas. In real life, we respected their decision and wished them well. Meanwhile, the band members were fuming and panicky, and Thunderlizard was plotting to have his biker gang friends abduct Tony and bring him back. Also, the gig in Albuquerque was in a real venue, but there was a misunderstanding between the booker, the venue and us. We thought that the venue was publicizing and selling tickets for our performance, the venue thought we were doing that. So beautiful venue, no audience. Rick, our film director, solved that. He instructed the group to head out into the streets and recruit an audience for a rock video that we were filming. Twenty minutes later, there was a respectable crowd for our show.
Vegas was and always is surreal. It was 114 degrees F/45 C. We left there and drove through the Mojave desert — the most barren place I’ve ever been to. We passed the Ivanpah Solar Power plant — the largest in the world — which looked for all the world like an alien installation from another planet. We drove through the mountains and then we arrived at our ultimate destination, the Santa Monica pier.
We all walked down to the Pacific Ocean. Keith, our spiritual adviser, told us that this journey had changed us, and that it was up to us to decide how the changes would look in the future. He took us each of us into the water for a private conversation and baptism, and brought us back, introducing us to the group by our real names. This was the most beautiful and effective de-roling process I’ve ever been through.
I’m sure the organizers are evaluating how it went and how they might change things in the future. There is video footage for a rock video as well as documentary footage to process. They discussed the idea of getting a pre-existing band for a future tour, but to me, the coolest thing was creating a band on the fly. However, if I were designing future runs, I would carefully audition potential band members and schedule a couple of extra days at the beginning for rehearsal. That way the band could hit the ground running in performance. Would I like to do the European tour as Valerie/Valentina? Tell me where I can sign up!
Cover Photo: Members of The Runaway Sound, the in-character band for the larp Road Trip. Image has been cropped. Photo by Nadina Dobrowolska from Dziobak Larp Studios.