SIGNA’s Performance Installations: Walking the Liminal Border Between Larp and Theatre

SIGNA’s Performance Installations: Walking the Liminal Border Between Larp and Theatre

In the narrow hall of an old county hospital building, two rows of people stand facing each other. The Open Heart organisation has sent out an invitation to the general public to meet and stay with the people in their care. To foster empathy, they say. To become compassionate. The people in the hospital’s care stand in one line; The Sufferers, they are called. People on the fringes of society. Drug addicts, homeless people, criminals. Every single sufferer is a tragic tale of how life can beat you down. In the other line, the Compassionates stand, looking around with mixed emotions; curiosity, pity, regret. The sufferers will each choose compassionates to live their lives. Wear their clothes, sleep in their bunk, and become them for the evening and night to come.

This is the opening scene of the performance installation Det Åbne Hjerte (Eng. The Open Heart), created by the artist collective SIGNA in Aarhus, Denmark 2019. The sufferers are paid actors and the compassionates are their audience. You might, like me, see the similarities this performance piece bears to larp. The experience requires active participation from everyone, which eliminates the border between actor and audience that is usually found in theatre. If I replace the term “actor” with “non-player character” and “audience” with “players”, it would look like a larp. Both groups exist fully within the fiction, but while the audience are there to experience it, the actors are there to facilitate and steer the experience. 

In this article, I aim to look into the overlap between larp and theatre, with SIGNA’s performance installations, that bear resemblance to both practices, serving to guide my exploration of this liminal space. In addition I aim to tease out approaches SIGNA use, that might be gainful for our development of larp. To gain insight into the methods and intentions of how SIGNA creates what they term performance installations, which I will introduce in the upcoming chapter, I asked them for an interview, which they generously granted.

The Performance Installation

When I experienced Det Åbne Hjerte in 2019, I was chosen by a young, too-skinny man with bleached hair and pale skin, named Blondie. While I was being dressed in his clothes, he told me about himself, and his life. He was open, brutally honest and believable. I quickly forgot that Blondie was a fictional character.

”Our point of departure is to create universes that are a sort of reality simulation. Not necessarily copies of reality, but simulations of hermetically sealed universes […] These universes are then populated by characters who improvise with the audience in processes that, depending on the given work, are more or less planned. However, what they say is up to the individual participant in accordance with the framework.”

This is how Signa Köstler describes the artform of performance installations, a concept of her own devising. With her background as an art historian, she had previously worked with the concepts of performance and installation, and the combination of these seemed to encapsulate what she did.

The power of performance installations, according to the Köstlers, lies in the heightened engagement they elicit. This emerges from three factors: participants navigate labyrinthine spaces, experience sensorial stimuli, and build relationships with characters. In Det Åbne Hjerte, the old county hospital had doors open into washing rooms, offices, cantinas, bedrooms and so on, and it was full of smells, sounds and actions. These were tied together through the relationships. As my sufferer, Blondie, chugged a whole beer, puked all over the floor, mopped it up with his shirt and led us through the tunnels of the hospital to the washing rooms, all senses were stimulated. The unique quality of these interactions allows for genuine emotional connections, akin to the impact of cinema or theatre but with the added dimension of direct engagement from the audience.

These real emotions and feelings, created by deep immersion and interaction with a fictional universe, begin to sound exactly like what we argue for, when we talk about the value of larp. In fact, when Simo Järvelä (2019) describes the magic circle and alibi in the article “How real is larp?”, he writes: 

”Designing a larp is about constructing an artificial situation that is completely real. The players treat it as fictional – which it is – but it is also something fully embodied by the players” (Järvelä 2019).

That these two descriptions line up so well, gives us a look into the landscape where theatre and larp can meet. It is interesting to look at how the audience’s relationship to the characters are formed. Is it passive, as with traditional film and theatre, where an audience relates to the situation happening on stage, or is it active, as with larp and performance installations, where the audience builds relationships based on the actions they personally take in the fake reality? 

There isn’t a clear cut between these two categories. In the more experimental forms of theatre, the audience often has an active role that comes near to larp or performance installations. For example, in Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More (London 2003), the audience is allowed to move about freely in a six-storey building transformed into a set for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, though they are separated from that reality by plastic masks. Although the audience members have little actual power to influence the experience, they are not just passively sitting and observing. This illustrates how temporal media – that is media which we experience live – can range from traditional theatre to sandbox larps. 

Three permance artists from the SIGNA piece "Det Åbne Hjerte" sit on a bench

Three performers from the SIGNA performance installation “Det Åbne Hjerte”. The performers depicted from left to right: Arthur Köstler, Larysa Venediktova, Stine Korsgaard. Photo by Erich Goldmann.

Manipulation of the audience

After arriving in the afternoon and moving among the sufferers, learning about their pain, it is time for bed. We compassionates share bunk beds with our sufferers. It quickly becomes clear that this will be no easy night. Many of the sufferers have difficulties, mental or otherwise, that trigger at night. The worst comes in the middle of the night, as one of the sufferers starts screaming. It startles me awake and as staff rush past, my curiosity battles with tiredness. As the screaming continues, curiosity wins and I drag myself out of bed to find the source. 

SIGNA employs diverse strategies to guide the audience through specific scenes and emotions. The masterplan is a carefully orchestrated framework that serves as a roadmap for performers to interact with participants. SIGNA has different approaches to the masterplan depending on the performance installation. Sometimes the masterplan includes instructions for sending the audience between performers in predetermined patterns, other times it is almost like an itinerary that the performers follow, while the audience are free to move around in the spaces where the performance happens, as was the case with Det Åbne Hjerte. Interestingly, Signa Köstler notes that more recent plays have proven that the most optimal format is for the audience to be attached to specific performers:

”… Audience members are attached to one or two characters, whom they will always gravitate towards. When this attachment has been created, either of loyalty, security or the like, they [the audience member] will always come back to it. Then they can be set free a little, and they can be with others, but you can always pull them back in again pretty quickly. Then you can move about with an invisible masterplan, while they are satellites you can pull along with you.”

The Köstlers say that the actors need to be in a “hyper-aware” mindset when they follow these master plans. Their focus is split between ensuring the picture of the scene stays in place, that the acoustics of the installation are balanced, and that the minds of the audience are engaged with the fiction. In other words, the actors need to keep in mind how the audience sees a scene and hears a scene, and to be aware of how engaged they currently are. Reading the body language of the audience becomes a crucial skill to balancing the experience, as this is a core tool in understanding what the audience currently experiences emotionally. As Signa puts it, the constant mindset is ”What can I contribute with? What needs do the audience members I am responsible for have, right now?”

This relates interestingly to another scale of variances between larp and traditional theatre. The performers don’t need to improvise reactions to audience responses unless the audience actually has a certain degree of freedom to respond to the stimuli. In traditional theatre, the audience is expected to sit still, and clapping or crying out are the strongest responses the audience is expected to have to the events on the stage. The smaller, more nuanced reactions are usually visible only to other audience members. While they may create liveness in the room, they do not directly affect the action on stage. 

Experimental theatre and performance installations have a higher degree of audience freedom, which introduces an element of uncertainty into the artwork. Most larps fall into the opposite end of the scale compared to traditional theatre. In larp, audience interaction is expected and needed for the artwork to progress at all. Det Åbne Hjerte performance installation is slightly more towards the larp extreme on the empathic response scale, as the audience participates actively in the action. However, it is slightly more towards the traditional theatre extreme on the audience influence scale, as the plot is made for the audience to explore it, rather than to influence it. An audience member might try to influence a cast member’s actions, but usually the cast member will still be at the next spot on their master plan itinerary. 

Performer from the SIGNA performance installation sits on the floor surrounded by trash

Performer from the SIGNA performance installation “Det Åbne Hjerte” sits on the floor. Depicted performer: Arthur Köstler. Photo by Erich Goldmann.

Character handling

One of the sufferers sits in a hallway, with a blanket with random low-quality goods spread out before her. Plastic toy dinosaurs, old DVDs and lighters. I strike up a conversation with her. She wishes to sell the goods, not to profit from it herself, but because she is at the bottom of a pecking order that The Open Heart has allowed to persist amongst the sufferers. The meagre profits she gets from selling her wares go to another sufferer. Seeing this suffering, upheld by the system of The Open Heart, I get angry. I storm into the manager’s office to tell him off. 

In SIGNA’s universes, there is a rule we rarely see in larp: no-one ever breaks character. I first assumed there were exceptions, but there aren’t any. The rule can be upheld, because the performers have a lot of practice before stepping into character, and because safety is mapped out in advance. In fact, I asked the Köstlers if they could give one tip to the roleplaying community, based on their experiences. Their answer was to try this out. There are two parts to safely upholding this rule. Allow the characters to be fallible and take responsibility for any action you take: and have an order of command in the fiction, that allows for safe response to real-life emergencies.

First of all, the character is seen as a whole, and should be made to withstand any emotion, action, and the like. The situation they wish to avoid, as Signa puts it, is to ”feel that the character only exists when you have everything under control”. The character should be allowed to have any response you could have, from being tired or overwhelmed, to having a headache or an upset stomach. If the character can take responsibility for those situations – that is, if it can still be the character who feels them and acts upon them – it allows for a flexibility that can ensure that the fiction is a whole, simulated world. Or, as Signa puts it:

”And maybe it’s also about, when working with these forms, being prepared to let go of control and let go of perfectionism.”

Secondly, SIGNA has procedures that allow staying in fiction when an emergency strikes, for example if someone breaks a leg or the building catches fire. They have carefully planned these in advance. In any given universe, accidents like broken bones or fires can occur. Creating a chain of command that is ready to handle these kinds of problems, just as they would in real life, makes it a natural part of the story being told. If there are hospitals in the storyworld, an injured participant’s character will be taken there within the fictional world of the performance installation. If the installation is set in the front lines of a war, the performers would speak about the hospital as a lazaret. As a part of the administrative preparation, SIGNA makes sure to keep all the health insurance certificates alphabetized in a box, along with money enough for taxis and lists of relevant phone numbers, so that the character who is responsible in the fiction can access and efficiently handle the out-of-character parts required without breaking the fiction. This also extends to audience emergencies. 

“When it happens to the audience, we have experienced that it is worse to go out of character for them. When they, for example, have an emotional breakdown or the like, it is much better to take care of them in-character. We have a room, where you can sit down with them and make them a cup of tea.”

When someone gets aggressive, they meet them with an equal measure of calm, to de-escalate the feelings. Arthur Köstler especially promoted the concept of being prepared to nip any breakdowns in the bud – reading up on communication theories and learning about body language to see potential breakdowns coming. 

When I heard this, it felt like a very high bar to aim for, but SIGNA noted that they do have a significant advantage to most larps. They have five weeks to practice up to the performance installation itself. When talking about it, I explained that we often do workshops before a demanding larp. Using the Sigridsdotter 2018 run in Denmark as an example, I explained the day-before workshopping for internalizing the gender-norms we were to play, as well as for introducing the storyworld and setting common boundaries for the larp. The Köstlers noted that their practice corresponds to five weeks of constant workshops, attending to all the potential need-to-knows of the performers and forming the installation together.

The interview left me inspired to see how I could work all that I had learned into my larp praxis. With time, we will hopefully be able to find more points of connection between artforms, to explore how the borderlands and liminal spaces are formed and how we can use them to create unique, creative experiences.

As I barge into the manager’s office, he meets me with a calm expression and tone of voice. I yell about how fucked up the system is, how unfair it is to allow the discrepancy in power to persist among the sufferers and how The Open Heart should take responsibility for the people they are claiming to help. In a slow, measured cadence, the manager answers all my worries with corporate speak. It only makes me more angry. But his tone of voice, and the cup of tea he offers me, gets the edge off and at some point I sink into the futility of trying to convince these people that they are doing anything wrong.

Later, I talk to the sufferer who chose me and express interest in helping. He gives me his phone number. He texts me once, after the performance installation is over, but nothing comes out of it. Weeks after the final performance, I hear from another audience member, that a blonde sufferer had dropped out of the program and died from a drug overdose. I text to hear if Blondie is okay, but in the end he never responds.


Järvelä, Simo. 2019. “How real is larp?”. In Larp Design – Creating Role-Play Experiences. Edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jakko Steenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell and Elin Nilsen. Landsforeningen Bifrost.


Barrett, Felix & Maxine Doyle. 2003, 2009, 2011–2024. Sleep No More. New York.

Köstler, Signa & Arthur Köstler. 2019. Det Åbne Hjerte. Denmark. 

Renklint, Lukas, Kaya Toft Thejls & Anna Emilie Groth. 2018. Sigridsdotter. Denmark. 

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Solmukohta 2024 book. Please cite as:

Lyngkjær, Rasmus. 2024. “SIGNA’s Performance Installations: Walking the Liminal Border Between Larp and Theatre.” In Liminal Encounters: Evolving Discourse in Nordic and Nordic Inspired Larp, edited by Kaisa Kangas, Jonne Arjoranta, and Ruska Kevätkoski. Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry.

Cover photo by Erich Goldmann. Photo has been cropped.

All photos in this article are used with permission from the artistic collective SIGNA.

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Rasmus Lyngkjær is a Master's student in Dramaturgy with a robust background in both formal education and voluntary work. He completed his Bachelor's degree in Dramaturgy in the summer of 2022. His expertise spans communication, theatre analysis, and arts management. He is a long-time organiser at the Danish larp campaign Fladlandssagaen (Eng. The Flatland Saga) and has some fledgling larpwright experience. He is a member of multiple boards, from The Union of Dramaturges in Denmark to Østerskov Efterskole.