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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

A Stranger At The Smoke: Some Thoughts

I went to The Smoke (a LARP festival in London) for the first time last weekend, had a great time, and wanted to reflect a little bit.


For reference, I’m an interactive theatre maker (with a background in opera), who also plays and designs tabletop roleplaying games. I’ve done various forms of improvised performance, though worked primarily as a writer and director.


So, what did I enjoy?


Culture of Support


Everyone I know lives in an environment of false claims of wanting to support wellbeing. The Smoke’s claims are not that.


There is a constant support team available to help with distress. There was a quiet space. Both within the LARPs and around the venue, there was a clear etiquette to indicate a desire for silence, less or more emotional play, and a general understanding that people could leave a conversation to go somewhere else for their own comfort and safety.


That is to say: during one session I attended, a player found the LARP too loud. They were able to leave without question, went to another event, and were welcomed despite it being an hour into that event’s runtime.


The only question was whether that player was OK. There was no sense of insult or taboo-breaking. It was OK.


This culture of open communication, especially around safety, was wonderful to see. I’d noticed it in friends of mine on project lure-Leo-to-a-LARP, and enjoyed seeing it in action.


Community of Oddities


Perhaps because of this, or perhaps due to it, the LARP community is filled with neurodiverse and queer people. The best summary, I suspect, is that it’s a they-by-default space, which will make sense to anyone who’s been in such an environment before (including my mixed-race self being among the least-white people there, though this was acknowledged as a problem the community is trying to solve).


There is an awareness and a pride in this quality; a sort-of defiance among a group of people who spend their lives in other spaces, and come together to form this community for themselves.


At some point, I’d love to hear more about how this version of LARP evolved from the older stereotype around in the ‘90s (which I suspect was rooted in fact to some extent, because it rings true to other areas of nerdery I’m more familiar with) of white cisgendered heterosexual men - all nerds - being exclusionary in a field.


But as an outsider, I was actively welcomed. People did not mind that I was not from the LARP scene, though obviously were also pleased to encounter one another again.


Some, evidently, also enjoyed encountering one another in their own skins, rather than as characters.


A possible thought might be to have a designated ‘I know nobody here’ area to invite people to acquire friends. For I am sure that almost all of The Smoke’s community would want to know who was most isolated.


It was a community forming their own utopia.


Glorious Amateurism


LARP is an amateur form.


I do not mean that in the contemptuous tones some professional actors use about amateur actors, where two groups of people do the same things, but some get paid (and are usually much more skilled and using a very different skillset in order to function at their level).


I mean that the concept of being a professional LARPer is absurd. Even being a professional LARP organiser is odd (with the possible exception of Empire, the UK’s largest LARP).


This is amateurism in the tradition of the Victorian gentleman-scholar, the 1920s debutante watercolourist and amateur athlete, the 1940s dream of the writer who just happens to dash off the occasional novel: the idea that you should be making art because you wish to.


Obviously, this also comes with implications about access to LARP and being able to create LARPs. Which I am sure other people have talked about, so I want to focus on the positives.


People are doing this because they care. They are supporting each other in a recognition that nobody wants money for it; they want people to enjoy each others’ creations (admittedly, there is a bubbling ecosystem around LARP selling clothes, accessories, and so on, though the core remains amateur).


This extends to the extent that even those creating and running LARPs at the festival get offered a  25% discount on their ticket… which is in proportion to the fact that they will not be able to attend a LARP while running their own, while everyone else will attend 4.


From a theatre background, this is astonishing: those creating the content should of course attend for free, and be paid!


But this is not theatre. This is a culture of amateurism and wanting to share with others.


Some were longstanding LARPers, others new to the form and enjoying showing off their exhibits.


In an intangible way, it has a magic that is lost in many of the forms I actually work in: the magic of actual joy as well as craft.


Range


This is not a surprise, but the above all come together to allow a wonderful range of output.


I’m not going to go into detail, because I’m not sure I could say anything that looking at the programme would not reveal. But from introspective artsy LARPs to highly thematic and literary nordic LARPs to big schlocky fun LARPs, I really enjoyed myself and how all of these things were thought compatible.


The Comfort of Skill Levels


Finally, I want to talk about something that is important to my practice: skill levels.


I do believe that some performers are better than others. I choose the word ‘performer’ because it highlights an understanding that LARP consciously or intuitively understands: that LARP is not a form of performance. It is a form of play.


It does not matter that the person playing a senior diplomat is not doing a great job at creating the kind of life-like impersonation that we might hope to see on stage, and certainly not hitting the subtle undertones we’d ideally experience.


First, that person is having fun. Second, everyone around them is having fun in their own roles; they have the responsibility for their own fun. Third, everyone is agreeing to support each others’ fun. Therefore we all accept a shared responsibility for reacting to that senior diplomat as a senior diplomat (I am aware that at some LARPs, there is a tendency to favour more experienced players for ‘major’ roles).


This is where the aforementioned communication tools come in handy: one of my favourite moments of The Smoke was saying to a fellow-player that I was entirely OK with it if they wanted to escalate our mild spat into a full-blown denouncement that would lead to my character’s death. They then did so via a superb monologue. We both got to tell our own stories and define our characters, and despite the vicious argument, we were both confident that we were having fun.


Were we acting well? Probably not. Despite both of us having done so professionally.]


Because at LARP, the performance is not the point.


Closing Reflections


I enjoyed the LARPs I attended, and will probably blog about tips for anyone going to The Smoke for the first time next year. Highlights include playing an excited and brazenly naïve space pilot, experiencing nordic LARP for the first time, aforementioned betrayal, and playing an adult entertainer pretending to be a dashing space diplomat, to the horror of the others watching (there were reasons I ended up in this latter role, I assure you).


There are three thoughts in my head.


One: I definitely want to join this community of amateurs. I want to offer something at the next Smoke. Not sure what yet, though there’s a couple of possible titles I’m enjoying.


Two: are any of my tools of use to LARPers? Would such a thing be wanted?


I was worried I was being too loud or such. I’m not a LARPer by experience.


Then someone told me, after I picked up a character with the possibility of playing it in poor taste: “I’ve only played once with you, but when I saw you picked it up, I thought ‘don’t worry, Leo’s got this’”. Which was an enormous compliment. After the game, they told me that they saw me as a really experienced player.


I was, and remain, genuinely touched.


I’d got the tone right. They asked, after discovering my colossal inexperience, what I had done, and nodded when I mentioned improv, TTRPGs, and interactive theatre. (Admittedly, I am part of an arts culture in which a novice stepping in and being admired as an expert would be... odd. I might wish to reflect on this further).


Perhaps someone would want a workshop on dramaturgical ideas around creating characters for improvisation, making offers, and radiating different presences.


But it potentially feels like the Great Expert striding into the community of Benighted Peasants and offering a solution that will merely destroy their way of being. There is no need for these things.


The only way I can see this offer being of value is this: that if I was ‘getting it right’ on my first try, that is because of the same reason that I can unpick that and share it with others to support their fun-having. Because it’s really not the same as preparing, say, the title role in Hamlet.


Maybe I’ll ask around. The offer’s there.


Three: LARP is fun. I’m going back.



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