Ensemble Play

Ensemble Play

Ensemble play has been part of Nordic larp discourse since 2003, but the community is yet to define its exact role in larp design. In this chapter we draw insights from different ensemble-driven art forms, and demonstrate how ensemble skills facilitate better play. We also discuss the most common challenges preventing ensemble play, and offer suggestions and tools for overcoming them.

Ensemble play is most noticeable when a piece of art (music, story, dance, larp) is not defined in advance, but emerges in real time. A symphony orchestra or a Shakespeare troupe can, of course, be described as an ensemble even when their content is pre-defined on sheet music or a script. For the purposes of larp, however, we find it more relevant to look at ensembles that discover and create their piece in the moment.

Musical jam sessions, devised theatre, and other co-creative art forms share a specific characteristic with larp: they all rely on the players’ ability to constantly calibrate their play, and collaboratively negotiate and renegotiate what belongs into the piece, and what is left out.

In a collaborative ensemble performers actively give and take opportunities to shine, and derive enjoyment from their own contribution as well as from the contributions of others. They balance the attention they give to themselves, the group, and the piece, and focus on creating something together as well as on their individual performance. This, we find, is an accurate description of rewarding ensemble play in larp, too.

How do we know when play is ensemble play? A good sign is spontaneous and mutual delight and surprise: what is happening right now is rewarding, meaningful, and unpredicted. Most importantly, we can see from the eyes of our co-creators that they are experiencing the same joy — even if outwardly our characters are screaming in rage. We have become partners in crime, sharing a unique moment in a unique reality, all facets of which are not necessarily visible to others.

Larp Magic — or Ensemble Play in Action?

Most larpers are familiar with the concept of larp magic: a scene, storyline, or chain of events that unravels in the most rewarding way possible, without anyone planning for that outcome in advance. Some larp magic certainly happens due to luck or coincidence — serendipitous occurrences like weather and random encounters can heavily impact our play — but preconditions for surprising and auspicious play can also be consciously created by a skillful ensemble.

To a performer’s eye, larp magic does not look entirely incidental. Most professional performers learn through their practice that a well timed buildup towards a satisfactory resolution is a matter of applying specific skills, such as:

  • listening to co-creators;
  • anticipating opportunities;
  • picking up cues and impulses;
  • paying attention to content other than your own;
  • building for delayed gratification;
  • deciding when to act, when to take space, and when to step back.

All of these skills are regularly employed at larps in order to create more rewarding and fluent play. Some of them are inherently codified in play instructions like play to lose and play to lift.[1]Play to lose/lift is an interaction guideline in Nordic larp, that instructs players to drive scenes towards the most interesting story, rather than success for their character. (Wilson 2019) The notion of playing in ensembles is not new in the Nordic larp tradition, either. Johanna Koljonen refers to ensemble play when describing a particular playstyle in late 1990s Sweden:

The ensemble player employs aspects of his role to support the initiatives of his co-players with the express purpose of creating satisfying dramatic situations for the group experience. The ensemble is collectively responsible for the dramatic arc in the whole game as well as each scene, and may choose to do something implausible or illogical to achieve the most moving narrative.

Koljonen 2007

The first Nordic larp to methodologically design for ensemble play was Mellan himmel och hav (Between Heaven and Sea, 2003). Played over three days in Riksteatern (The National Theater Company) in Stockholm, Sweden, the larp was preceded by three weekend-long workshops, during which the participants learned how to play as an ensemble: How to listen and react to each other’s feelings and impulses, and how to collectively mediate the larp’s artistic vision (Gerge 2004).

In Mellan himmel och hav, ensemble workshops were not only a means to an end. The ensemble creation itself was an inherent part of the larp’s experience design. Ensemble members became fellow creators, contributing to every aspect of the larp, from character creation to narrative design and meta-techniques. The goal of this extensive process was to create an atmosphere of trust, and empower players to explore the intimate interpersonal themes of the larp. (Wieslander 2004)

The co-creative ensemble play in Mellan himmel och hav facilitated unprecedentedly deep exploration of diegetic social roles, and formed a powerful connection between the players in the ensemble (Stenros 2010). Similar ensemble workshops were further explored and developed in several other designs, such as System Danmarc (2005), Totem (2007), and Delirium (2010) (see Stenros & Montola 2010). Today, a subset of ensemble methods are commonplace at larp workshops. Some typical practices include:

  • having structured discussions about needs, wishes, and feelings of co-players,
  • calibrating physical contact and body language,
  • co-designing character relations and social dynamics,
  • and making collective decisions about play styles and themes.

While the word ‘ensemble’ is rarely used in Nordic larp discourse, the importance of ensemble play is still implicitly recognized in our design paradigm: If players do not know how to collaborate and collectively coordinate their play, our larps simply stop functioning. The designer vision of the larp is ultimately brought to life by players’ individual and collective actions and interpretations. The more collaborative and compatible those actions are, the more elaborate and nuanced play we can build on them.

Successful ensemble play creates high resolution larping: subtle and nuanced character interaction of high quality and high detail (Nordgren 2008). Practicing ensemble skills makes us more open to different social cues, signals, subtexts, body language, and invitations to play – and the more details we notice, the deeper and more vivid our interpretation of the play becomes. Mutually observant high resolution play helps us see each other better and feel more seen ourselves. Consequently, playing in ensembles cultivates a culture of trust and inclusive co-creation.

In summary, ensemble play in larp is a method that relies on active inclusivity and reflexivity. Any collaborating group of participants that recognizes the importance of each participant’s experience and takes collective responsibility of the scene and the larp, counts as an ensemble.

An ensemble player is reflexive about their surroundings in order to support the initiatives of their co-players, and employs aspects of their character to facilitate both individually and collectively satisfying play.

Ensemble Pedagogy in Art

Many workshop methods used in Nordic larp, including the ensemble creation benchmarked in Mellan himmel och hav, are based on practices developed for and within pedagogical and artistic contexts. Ensemble exercises and methodologies have been explored and formalized by countless teachers, artists, authors, and gurus, and are used everywhere from art schools and universities to artist think-tanks, improv groups, drama therapies, team building retreats, creative communities, and even literal cults.

While the exercises themselves have many inherent similarities from one context to another, there is a crucial difference to their use in larp: Larp does not have the established institutions, nor the gurus[2]Larp gurus, self-proclaimed or otherwise, are designers, organisers, and academics – not teachers of player skills.. An art student and a larper may both engage with similar ensemble methodology, but only the former has their performance evaluated by a mentor or a teacher.

A teacher has a mandate to observe students and suggest where their weaknesses and strengths lie. In larps we play with our peers, and evaluative feedback on someone’s performance is rare, and often socially complicated[3]Positive commendations for good play, such as Facebook threads after a larp, of course count as feedback. However, whilst reading about enjoyable and praiseworthy play can be empowering and inspire us to explore more of that kind of play, praise tells us nothing about our individual and collective weaknesses. At their worst, public commendations can give players with high social capital more of that capital, without addressing the problems associated with it.. In certain ways this is a missed opportunity: Many of us appreciate advice on how to become better at something we love. Without external feedback, our means of learning new skills are limited to things we individually notice through self-reflection, or stumble upon by trial and error.

The authors of this article have had the privilege of learning ensemble skills in professional contexts, both inside formal institutions and outside of them. During our years studying music and theatre we have come across multiple methods and exercises for practicing ensemble play. One of these methodologies, The Viewpoints (Bogart & Landau 2004), introduces a paradigm for co-creative ensemble work we find highly relevant to Nordic larp.

Originally a composition method for theatre, The Viewpoints teaches real-time artistic collaboration through movement, space, sound, and gesture. The method has influenced performer training widely outside its formal contexts, and offers a framework for exploring ensemble play as its own skill set.

The Viewpoints focuses on a spectrum of aesthetic principles: How to think about movement and sound in space and time. The simple act of walking across a room can be analysed in the vocabulary offered by The Viewpoints, eg. Tempo, Duration, or Spatial Relationship. This helps performers communicate what they see and hear, and also gives them tools to improve their skills by concentrating on one or more Viewpoints at a time.

Training in the style of The Viewpoints often involves open improvisation sessions using specific limitations or instructions, such as:

  • Only five people on stage at any given time.
  • Everyone sits down at the same time. Nobody decides when, and nobody gives the signal.
  • Exactly three people have to be singing at all times.
  • When the facilitator gives a signal, the music must switch to a new key. Nobody signals the key in advance. The music must continue uninterrupted.

The purpose of these exercises is to develop the performers’ ability to pay attention to the ensemble and the space, whilst at the same time making individual choices about actions and aesthetics within the piece. The reflexive analysis and the creative decision making required in the improv are very similar to the mental processing most larpers engage with during runtime in larps.

Through improv, artists are taught to receive and react to external impulses — cues that initiate action. For example, if someone claps their hands, another person may use that as a trigger for their own unplanned reaction, eg. jumping, falling down, or yelling. While this is a very simple example, it forms the basis for more complicated co-creation. Being able to interrupt what one was previously doing in order to react spontaneously to new information is a useful ensemble skill. In larps, noticing and reacting to cues (both diegetic and non-diegetic) guides our interaction with other characters, and connects us to the play around us.

The Viewpoints sessions and exercises are often done with a portion of the group observing as audience. This serves an important pedagogical purpose: Noticing interaction patterns that are hard to spot when we are in the middle of the action. In the action, we are often wrapped up in our own feelings of pleasure, anxiety, or wanting to make a good impression. We may feel like we are listening and reacting to others, but the observers can clearly see whether this is actually the case, and whether we succeed at collaborating with others. Feedback on our ensemble skills helps us become more observant of and reflexive about our co-creators.

Observers also help performers think about their aesthetic choices within the piece. If everyone bunches up together in the center of the space, or all play the lead melody, observers may point out that the edges of the space, or specific harmonic layers, are left unused. Through this feedback performers can evaluate their contributions in a wider context. Next time, before introducing their initial idea, they may look for the gaps in the piece, and contribute to those instead.

Observing the improv is also an active learning experience. From the audience we see the anxiety in the performer who is out of ideas — and their gratitude when others collaborate to support them. We see the beauty of a spontaneous flock of people moving as a group, with no apparent leader. We see the performer who consistently tries to control the way the exercise unfolds, and the one who breaks the flow by refusing to put themselves in the limelight. We see the collective frustration when something is fundamentally not clicking.

In larp, we do not have formal structures for observing each other’s play — but that does not mean we cannot learn from it. Through methods suggested later in this essay (eg. switching between solo and accompaniment, embracing stillness and boredom) we can become more conscious of the multitude of cues and interactions around us, observe what kind of play they create, and adjust our own play based on what we learn.

Forming Larp Ensembles

Like any other aspect of larp, ensembles are a designable surface. As designers, we can explore methods that facilitate collaborative play and ensemble formation in our larp[4]A comprehensive selection of useful methods can be found from Larp Design (Koljonen et al. 2019), esp. “Designing the Mechanics You Need” (Wilson 2019).. As players, we can think about our interaction with other players within the ensemble framework, and make conscious decisions about negotiating and calibrating ensemble play both before and during runtime. A good starting point for designers and players alike is to acknowledge that an ensemble is not simply created when players get along together naturally — it is formed and maintained through conscious efforts and skillful play.

Most pre-negotiated larp ensembles are formed through character relations. Whether pre-written by designers or co-created between players, a diegetic friend circle, military squad, or secret society creates a natural premise for an ensemble. While the characters may have known each other for a lifetime, the players, however, often have not. They need to bridge that gap by employing ensemble skills: being reflexive about each other’s suggestions and cues, and collectively embodying the essence of the character group.

Ensembles are also organically formed in individual scenes. During runtime, any combination of characters interacting with each other positions players into momentary ensembles. This is often where our individual ensemble skills become most visible: Even if we have no idea who these characters are and what they are up to, are we still able to join the scene, collaborate with other players, and allow something interesting to happen?

Players failing to collaborate as an ensemble can easily wreck even the most carefully designed storyline or character group. Conversely, a successful ensemble can create amazing play even in the shoddiest of larps. For this reason it is understandable that some players prefer custom ensembles (i.e. playing with people they already know) and even custom scene content to those randomly created through casting and organic gameplay. While there is nothing wrong with a moderate amount of pre-planning and custom casting, overly opportunistic ensemble optimization can lead to unwanted exclusivity — or what Anni Tolvanen calls the dance card school of larping.

Popularised in 19th century Vienna, a dance card was a system for booking partners in a ball: A lady would pre-plan her evening by accepting dance invitations from particular gentlemen, who would book specific dances from her dance card. In larps, players pre-negotiating content with pre-casted ensembles are metaphorically filling out their dance cards — and the fuller the card, the less availability there is for new, unexpected dance partners.

Dance card larping produces ambivalent outcomes. If our attention is focused on exclusive plans with pre-casted ensembles, we are not open to impromptu invitations and reflexive serendipity. Furthermore, players who are not part of pre-negotiated cliques may feel excluded and rejected, especially if some of their plots or relations get pushed aside for more appealing dance card items.

The core difference between dance card larping and successful ensemble play is inclusiveness. While both may contribute to amazing and powerful scenes and story arcs, only the latter creates open and equal opportunities for co-creation. Organic ensemble play — accepting and embracing the unpredictability of ensemble compositions — leads to mutually cooperative exploration and discovery, where everyone’s presence is acknowledged, and everyone has the possibility to join play they find interesting and meaningful.

Understanding Solo and Accompaniment

Conceptually, all players in an ensemble have equal agency in any given scene. The same is not true for the characters, as the narrative or dramatic spotlight is often focused on particular characters (e.g. a murderer and the police officer who just caught them), while other characters remain in the background (bystanders witnessing the arrest). Some characters may have more diegetic agency to impact the scene than others (the officer can give commands to the murderer as well as the bystanders).

In order to be inclusive collaborators in an ensemble, we need to map[5]Mapping is the mental process by which a player tracks the overall structure of the larp and their character’s current position within the fiction. (Saitta, Koljonen & Nielsen 2020) what is going on in the scene, and figure out whether we should contribute to it by solo or accompaniment.

In the context of larp, a solo is best described as the initiative to set the tone or the direction for a scene, a plot, or a narrative. A soloist positions their character into a central role in the scene, and/or strongly steers towards specific interaction or outcome. A solo gets its power from accompaniment: Other players reacting to it, supporting it, and building on it. Without accompaniment the scenes and narratives we build become incoherent and meaningless. If no one acknowledges the murder of the queen, did it even happen?[6]In Nordic larp discourse this dynamic is also referred to as inter-immersion: the existence of a character being dependent on all players collectively treating the character as a part of the storyworld.

In an ensemble we have the privilege of expecting support for our solos, but also the duty to make sure everyone else’s solos are given the support they need. Essentially, the division between solo and accompaniment acts as a tool for self-reflection: Which role am I currently taking? Which role would best support the scene or my co-players? Which role would create more interesting play?

Dynamic play relies on players introducing solos and giving new directions to plots and scenes. Concurrently, it’s useful to remember that refraining from a solo does not mean stepping into sidelines or being less important to a scene. Accompanying others requires as much (or even more) skill and focus, and can be as rewarding and enjoyable. Taking turns between solo and accompaniment means we can both boldly suggest our own ideas, and gracefully give space to others without the fear of being ignored or forgotten.

Overcoming the Barriers to Ensemble Play

Most of the barriers to successful ensemble play relate to our needs, desires, ego, and fears. The barriers are not unambiguously negative player traits — most are useful in the right circumstances and in moderation. In this section we talk about how to recognize the impact of our barriers to our play, and how to turn barriers into constructive player skills.

The Desire for Perfectionism

Ironically, the desire to create something flawless is one of the easiest means to prevent anything amazing from happening. Aiming for perfection, we may plan, practice, and steer our play to the point where we are no longer larping, but performing a script. If we fixate on avoiding imperfections and hold on to past failures, we are not open to unexpected challenges and invitations to play.

So what can we do? Instead of dreading failures, embrace them. Some failures we can move past gracefully, while others will turn out to be gifts. If we are in sync with others, and engaged in mutually supportive play, even our unexpected fumbles can be collectively picked up and transformed into something beautiful.

The Hunger to Play Big

This barrier entices us to play our scenes with fierce commitment to our vision, without pausing to consider whether our play is in sync with others. Instead of looking for a way to collaborate with the ensemble, we focus solely on what works for our character.

Some very talented players fall into this trap, and their performances can indeed be impressive — but are they listening to or playing with others as equals? Few players enjoy spending their whole larp playing second fiddle to someone else’s neverending solo, no matter how believable and powerful that solo performance is.

The hunger to play big can be hard to solve on our own, because we are not always aware of how forceful our impact is on others. Luckily, there is an easy solution to test this in play: Instead of acting on every impulse and idea that pops up, try deliberately letting some slide by, and actively make room until others take initiative.

The Fear of Standing Out

Hiding inside an ensemble is another barrier to play, although an understandable one: We may fear appearing demanding, weird, or uncool, and rarely go for the play we truly want. We may feel easily rejected and would rather withdraw than ask to be included.

Being part of an ensemble does not mean that good things will come to us without us needing to put our necks out. We have all met or personally been the devastated player in an afterparty who did not get the play they wished for. Sometimes that player was indeed lacking the support they would deserved, but sometimes they also did not step forward when they should have done so.

The moment to claim our space rarely comes on a silver platter and with visible safety nets attached. It is simply on us to take the jump, and trust that our ensemble will catch us. To quote the beloved icon of audacity, Carrie Fisher: Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.

The Obsession with Larp Magic

The perfect can be a powerful foe of the good. If we chase the most magical scenes and the best exclusive plots, we often miss what is right in front of us. We may have a specific bar for satisfying play, and deem anything below it unworthy of our attention and effort. We can even become envious and frustrated if we think a better scene is happening elsewhere.

For an ensemble to function, we must play the scene we are actually in, not the scene we wish we were in. Players pining to be somewhere else, doing something else, suck all the energy out of an ensemble. Treating the present as a hindrance to our preferred play is not only unconstructive, but also disrespectful towards our co-players. Larp magic always begins with interaction in the here and now: concentrating on the present brings us closer to it.

The Terror of Silence

One barrier is the fear of being still. We may want to make sure we have something going on at all times, to have our dance cards full, and avoid boredom at all cost.

Silence, stillness, and empty space are essential ingredients in any work of art. Trying to fill every empty moment prevents us from noticing that something is already happening. A player who bursts in on a delicate scene with an outlandish agenda is often attempting to fix a problem that does not exist.

A good ensemble player discovers the scene, instead of forcing it to happen. If we challenge ourselves to indulge in moments of in-character stillness and spend some time just observing, we are likely to spot something interesting. Others may even join our stillness and start something that turns out to be unforgettable.

Disagreement Over Matters of Taste

Differences over taste need not be barriers to a working ensemble. However, if we feel like others do not understand our play style or we do not understand theirs, this can become a hindrance. We may conclude that no functional play can come out of this situation, and give up on co-creation entirely.

Taste differences will arise — but a generous ensemble player does their best to try out and support different kinds of play. Even in the rare situation where finding a functional compromise seems unlikely, it is good form to remain open to collaboration of some kind. Sometimes we just have to pick our battles, and that’s completely normal in creative work.

Social Bias

Most players put strong emphasis on player chemistry, attractiveness, verbal skills, or social status. This is human. However, remaining unaware of our biases creates barriers for play. If we do not challenge our prejudices and inhibitions towards people who do not fulfill our criteria, or who we think are unapproachable or “out of our league”, we needlessly limit the composition of our ensembles.

Larping is an intimate activity, and it would be irresponsible to say that everyone can play as an ensemble with everyone else. Yet, sometimes our reluctance to play with others is a question of lukewarm chemistry or petty prejudice, not insurmountable social conflicts.

A picky or suspicious attitude towards coplayers destroys the co-creative trust needed to form an ensemble. Unless there are serious real-life implications involved, we should never entirely ignore someone’s request for play. Being respectful and open-minded costs us very little — and may make a huge difference to someone else’s larp.

“Today’s Just Not the Day”

Finally, there are times when good ensemble players show up, are present and reflexive, contribute both solos and accompaniment, and have the desire to create and maintain the ensemble — and the magic still does not happen.

Accepting things as they come is an inherent part of ensemble play: we need to let go of the things that are not working out. In any given larp we interact with several overlapping ensembles. They will not all be equally functional, nor will they all be equally good matches to our personal preferences. The natural ebb and flow of co-creation always includes weak, embarrassing, dysfunctional, and disappointing moments, and a strong ensemble, as well as a strong ensemble player, faces those moments with grace and acceptance.

We Give and We Gain

We all join ensembles with our personal challenges, inhibitions, talents, and resources. The task in ensemble play is not to perform perfectly in all areas simultaneously, but to calibrate our own fears and desires, and contribute in the moment with what we have.

Ensemble play grants us moments of magic we cannot predict or design. It also makes us challenge our insecurities and inhibitions, and contributes not only to better player skills, but a better off-game community by creating play where players feel supported and able to take risks; fostering unexpected connections and rewards for cooperation; adding nuance to characters by giving them a wider array of interactions; providing the framework for a personal practice of social intelligence; and reducing the impact of off-game social hierarchies on who gets to play.

Bibliography

Anne Bogart & Tina Landau (2005): The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition. Theatre Communications Group, Inc.

Tova Gerge (2004): Temporary Utopias: The Political Reality of Fiction in Beyond Role and Play. Ropecon.

Johanna Koljonen (2007): Eye-witness to the Illusion: An Essay on the Impossibility of 360° Role-Playing in Lifelike. Projektgruppen KP07.

Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell & Elin Nielsen (eds.) (2019): Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences. Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Andie Nordgren (2008): High Resolution Larping: Enabling Subtlety at Totem and Beyond in Playground Worlds. Ropecon.

Eleanor Saitta, Johanna Koljonen & Martin Nielsen (2020): Maps, Loops, and Larps in What Do We Do When We Play? Solmukohta.

Jaakko Stenros (2010): Mellan himmel och hav: Embodied Amorous Queer SciFi in Nordic Larp. Fëa Livia.

Jaakko Stenros & Markus Montola (eds.) (2010): Nordic Larp. Fëa Livia.

Emma Wieslander (2004): Positive Power Drama: A Theoretical and Practical Approach on Emotive Larping in Beyond Role and Play. Ropecon.

Danny Wilson (2019): Designing the Mechanics You Need in Larp Design. Landsforeningen Bifrost.

References   [ + ]

1.Play to lose/lift is an interaction guideline in Nordic larp, that instructs players to drive scenes towards the most interesting story, rather than success for their character. (Wilson 2019
2.Larp gurus, self-proclaimed or otherwise, are designers, organisers, and academics – not teachers of player skills.
3.Positive commendations for good play, such as Facebook threads after a larp, of course count as feedback. However, whilst reading about enjoyable and praiseworthy play can be empowering and inspire us to explore more of that kind of play, praise tells us nothing about our individual and collective weaknesses. At their worst, public commendations can give players with high social capital more of that capital, without addressing the problems associated with it.
4.A comprehensive selection of useful methods can be found from Larp Design (Koljonen et al. 2019), esp. “Designing the Mechanics You Need” (Wilson 2019).
5.Mapping is the mental process by which a player tracks the overall structure of the larp and their character’s current position within the fiction. (Saitta, Koljonen & Nielsen 2020
6.In Nordic larp discourse this dynamic is also referred to as inter-immersion: the existence of a character being dependent on all players collectively treating the character as a part of the storyworld.

Authors

Anni Tolvanen
Anni Tolvanen (b. 1982) is a Finnish composer, sound designer, and educator. She works internationally on participatory art and games projects, and has co-created various larps over past 20 years.
James Lórien Macdonald
James Lórien MacDonald (b.1977) is a Finnish-Canadian stand-up comedian and performance artist. He has been working on crossovers between larp, theatre, and performance for over a decade.
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