This is a talk about the larp/theatre crossover work currently emerging in NYC, based on the projects Lindsay has been a part of in the past year as a professional actor in New York. Productions include Sinking Ship Creations’ Off-Off Broadway show The Mortality Machine, Calculations by Caroline Murphy of Incantrix Productions, OASIS Travel Agency (an immersive theatre/nightlife/alternate reality game blend with participatory elements by Silver Dream Factory) and more! Discussion includes the experience of being a hired facilitator/actor in these pieces as well as the trend of commercial “immersive experiences” in NYC.
Q&A from the original viewing at Solmukohta 2020 Online event
Q, Anon1: My question on all participatory theater is: How much agency do you think counts as agency? I’ve only been to something like three pieces, and none of them gave me any. (Sleep No More gave me the least.)
A, Lindsay Wolgel: So I wouldn’t consider Sleep No More participatory theatre! I would only call that Immersive theatre, but I agree, I felt the same way when I saw it!
Anon2: I think that’s evolving in a lot of different ways – some companies like PunchDrunk have their own audience literacy, but at the same time it’s no longer the only participatory company out there
Anon3: I would say punchdrunk is mostly interactive, while our pieces are more participative 🙂
Anon1: Whats… the difference, Anon3?
Lindsay Wolgel: In sleep no more, your choices don’t affect the show at all!
Anon4: And not even all that interactive honestly, at least based on Sleep no More and the Drowned Man
Anon5: Be Agreed, in SNM you move the camera and sometimes get easter egg, but you don’t create or influence anything
Anon6: The Camera Anon5 is talking is about – its to my understanding what the broader fin art scene – see as interaction and interactive art
Lindsay Wolgel: Reacting would be living in the given circumstances of your character – aka acting! Yes anding is more of an improv term- where you accept a piece of story someone is offering and you say okay and build on it!
Anon9: Yeah, if I remember, reacting is where you as the actor are able to behave as though this is happening for the first time, because you are attentive to the other actors around you, and the circumstances of the play. It’s a way to get actors to get out of the habit of pre-planning all of their feelings and how they will say things, to try to be reactive in the moment even though you know what the text is. Otherwise you’re just painting by numbers.
Yes and is more of a tool to prevent people from shutting down ideas, so instead of saying no, I don’t want to, you say yes, and I will add THIS to make it mine, too.
Ryan Hart: Anon9 really did a good job with it.
I don’t remember if Lindsay got into it, but when we talked for this piece, I mentioned we really go for a presentational style of acting and roleplay, as I think it’s very accessible to our audience. Which means we want people going through “as if” they were in that situation (usually with an “alibi” in the form of a character) and reacting as they would using their lifetime of experience.
What *I* (not speaking for anyone else here) is that people have to come in and co-create. These experiences are expensive, and run pretty quick, and need to accommodate all experience levels, so I don’t want people to get in there have to make up a story or context. They still have agency in how they deal with the situation, and they still have to take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the experience, but I don’t want someone to come in and have to do the beginning of an improv class to enjoy the experience.
“Yes, and…” is a great technique, but there’s more to improv, and this particular technique tends to get heavy into content creation. We also lose sight of it’s purpose (again, as Anon9 pointed out) which is to get past the “no” response.
All of this ties into the difference between a facilitator and a participant.
Lindsay Wolgel: Ryan Hart I didn’t – I ran out of time to go into everything, so that was a piece that didn’t make it in! I love this extended response
Ryan Hart: So, i’m going to speak for how I use the terms, and I use them very specifically. It’s not like this carries any weight
First, I don’t use the term “player” in theatrical larp. I use the verb “to play” because a “player” can “play” a game, and an “actor” can “play” a role, but a player doesn’t really play a role and an actor doesn’t really play a game. This isn’t a statement about larp, it’s about how I, as a native English speaker, construct those sentences. “Player” implies “Game.” For a variety of reasons (focused mostly on win/lose) conditions, I don’t use the term player, I use the term “participant.” So if a person is playing in the larp, they’re a participant.
*SOME* participants are paid to be there, and involved in the design. They’re still playing a role, but they have to bring the design to the participants on whom the experience is focused. If some is a facilitator, they’re there exclusively for other people. I hope they have a good time, and I’m obligated to treat them well, but I’m not asking them “how did you like it.” I call those individuals “facilitators.”
From a design perspective, there’s two big things:
- Not all participants are facilitators, but all facilitators are participants. So things like safety, code of conduct, and character design (see below) all apply to the facilitators.
- Specific beats general. Certain things apply directly to facilitators that don’t apply directly to participants. So the design has to be parsed out with that in mind.
When you have that split: a group of people who are all playing characters, and some of those people are professionals who are there to express the design to the others, the facilitator / participant terminology works very well.
Ryan Hart: With all that said, we don’t have NPCs… because we don’t have “Non-Participants.” An NPC refers to a character, and all our character design has to be fundamentally similar… we can alter the method of delivery (a facilitator does not need the same materials as other participants) but the character played by a facilitator should be indistinguishable in interaction from other participants (this is part of our 360 design). For example, for Scapegoat, a 4 day, 120 participant larp that happened all over NYC, about 20 of those participants were facilitators, and with two exceptions, none of them changed characters.
So we don’t have “PCs” or “NPCs” in this design, we just have “characters.” The people who play them are participants, and some facilitators.
Anon10: It sounds like facilitator covers more or less the original intent of an NPC, i.e. a character in place to influence the experience of the non-facilitating participants, but that the updated nomenclature is more descriptive of the current situation.
Anon11: With a non-larper audience it’s really important how you name things for the participants, too. They take what they’re called and run with it, not having that much information to build on. So it’s a big difference if you call them players/participants/audience/characters/initiates/whatever. Usually – don’t let them know what you’re calling them behind the scenes!
Ryan Hart: Anon11 That’s exactly why we stopped using the term player.
We also had to, after our first review, explicitly tell people “this is not an escape room.”
Tommy Honton did a great design on TMM, and did exactly what we asked, but if I could make one change it would have been to remove the biggest “puzzle.” We were worried people wouldn’t have enough to do, and so we literally locked up elements of the narrative, and then prominently placed those locks in front of people. They always got the locks open, and generally loved the way they accessed the narrative, but it did put some people into problem solving mode.
Q, Anon12: But Lindsay Wolgel wasn’t the 1 on 2 expereince much less taxing? In my exp the 1 on 1 mean I’m included in everything, there’s no breaks.
Lindsay Wolgel: I couldn’t say! I’ve never done a 1 on 1 larp experience! It was hard in some ways to split my attention between the two participants but there were definitely times where they would be dealing with each other more than me. Two groups actually asked me to give them some privacy while they sussed out what to do 😅
Ryan Hart: I think the 1 on 2 is less taxing, except if one of the 2 is a child. Then it’s my personal version of hell.
It also depends on the phase. Something we’ve gotten really good at is onboarding in role (it’s why I want to take the smaller version of TMM to KP). It’s very hard, when you have a list of bullets in your head you have to hit, in order, with specific phrases, to manage that and a three or four way conversation. It’s much easier to onboard 1 person.
The conflict management and resolution? Easier with multiple people, because if you get a “fish” (a person who just isn’t doing anything, just flopping around) you have other people to play off of. Plus if you get someone who gets the design, it’s really pleasureable.
I actually instruct facilitators to avoid talking to one person for more than five minutes without a “reason.” That’s because actors love people who give them good responses, and if left to their own devices, facilitators will gravitate towards strong roleplayers and have amazing scenes. But I’m not paying for them to give amazing scenes to experienced people who can probably get there on their own… I need them to work with the entire group.
Q, Anon13: Hey, thanks again for this. I watched it again with better concentration. In the title you speak of “Larp/Theatre crossovers.”
Content-wise, these seem like 100% larps to me. Would that be correct?
(I understand that for marketing you might says they are “Participatory Theatre” or “Immersive Theatre” or something.)
Anon14: From what I’ve gathered, it’s rather low on roleplay component.
Lindsay Wolgel: Yes! Calculations was written as a larp where the only thing changed when it became a commercial theatre experience was the addition of one audience member and it being set in a hotel room. The content of the larp is exactly the same! And The Mortality Machine belongs in the genre which Ryan is naming Theatre Larp! So yes, I think participatory theatre is just a naming device that can place these in the theatre world. And to me, they are so much more than immersive theatre so I would never name them immersive theatre alone.. I’d probably add more descriptives to the title!