OR: Forgive me, for I have become a LARPer.
I have just spent a joyous weekend at The Smoke: a festival of Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) in London.
I am aware that a number of my regular readers are here for interactive immersive theatre commentary, and that a substantial number of people who are enthused by interactive immersive theatre are apathetic or outright contemptuous of LARP (though I will not bury the lede: this has been less of a topic of conversation in recent years; more IIT makers are looking towards LARP).
With apologies for this, but I really enjoyed it as a hobby, so there will quite probably be more LARP-related content, and I appreciate that may mean some of my writing time is drawn away from interactive theatre. Not much though; it remains my main form of practice.
I also suspect, however, that some LARP people will probably read this, so I’d like to explain the above tension for both groups of people (my opera audience, hang in there).
Both groups, this is all rule-of-thumb, and I am glossing over vast and important chunks like a Victorian anthropologist.
Interactive immersive theatre is a fairly recent form of theatre that invites audiences to come into a world in which they are a specified group of people (such as members of a community, governing party, or criminal gang) who have agency. They usually express this agency by interacting with characters (played by improvising actors) and mechanics that shape the world (for example, they might make policy decisions in a show about being the government, impacting the external world, or gifts for fey beings in a show about bargaining with uncanny things, impacting the immediate world of the show).
What interactive theatre tends to promise is that whatever the audience do, behind the scenes there will be a strong sense of narrative structures, and a flexibility around events and character behaviour in order to ensure that audiences experience a satisfying narrative. At its best, it also matches the best of theatre in setting things up to explore themes and encourage the audience to feel deep emotions based on what is presented.
Often, it does not meet this ‘best’.
LARP, as its name suggests, involves people coming together in the real world (live action) to play roles (role-play). Although its most iconic forms are ‘boffer LARPs’ where people dress up as characters in pseudo-medieval fantasy settings and have battles with foam swords (spoiler: this is a misrepresentation of most such LARPs), over its decades of existence it has evolved various specialised forms.
In almost all of them, the players are told about a world by a Game Master (GM, who has often also written the show), and given guidance on which to build their own characters in collaboration with the GM’s vision. Players also develop relationships with one another’s characters and the world, usually with a GM’s support. This is customarily done before the game in a workshop format.
There are numerous books of LARP theory and history, of which I have read three. There is a clear awareness that players enjoy it for various reasons, whether the chance to pretend to be someone else, use the form as a channel to experiencing a powerful emotion, or something else entirely. Even in the most authorial LARPs, however, where GMs pre-write characters for players and use fateplay to define what events must happen, there is a sense of players having control over ‘their’ characters as co-creators.
So, What’s The Beef?
In brief, I think it descends from something social, and something aesthetic:
1. Interactive Theatre is not LARP, but it is very very similar. By not merging, it creates a tension between the two.
2. One has audiences, another has players.
Similar, But Different
1. LARP is enormous as a field, and does not have to care about IIT. Insofar as LARPers have spoken to me about IIT, they have almost always viewed it as being, in effect, a form of LARP. They find it odd that IIT wouldn’t simply call itself LARP.
IIT, on the other hand, is small, and therefore really does care about the much bigger thing that looks very similar. It also cares about being treated as distinct from it.
This is partly due to a conception of LARP as boffer-LARP, and therefore a subject of snobbery, and LARPers as boffer-LARPers. Who are lovely in my experience, but also somewhat more comfortable with being in an alternative culture than many respectability-invested IIT-makers.
It is also, more legitimately, due to an awareness that LARP is proudly amateur. It does not matter that the acting is a bit hacky; players will support each other. The NPCs are played by volunteers, most events are run by volunteers.
However, when selling a product with professional-quality acting, and a style of performance drawn from theatre rather than LARP traditions, there is an understandable desire to form a clear distinction. Especially since both forms use the same word ‘acting/playing’ to mean different things (‘presenting a character developed within a set of tools typical to the theatrical tradition’ vs. ‘playing a role primarily to enjoy doing so, possibly with some technique but most often rooted in impersonation of stock characters’).
In part, this is because of the actual difference between the two:
Audiences, Not Players
2. LARP embeds the idea of players in its name. IIT heavily implies the idea of audiences for its theatre.
While I usually hate definition-based arguments, I do think it points at the real distinction between the two.
LARP players are co-creators; they are there to have fun in various forms, and expect to be able to make reasonable claims about their place in the world. If their fun involves playing a rugged war hero, and that is something that exists in the world, then they can do that. LARPs will be built so that someone with no knowledge of history or science can play an expert in those fields, with game-tools to support their play.
IIT audiences, on the other hand, are not co-creators. They are almost invariably given an assigned role that is within their everyday sense of themselves. Insofar as they create characters, it is in usually response to a very limited set of questions, like “so, did you see what Jack’s got into the newspaper this morning? [Yes/No] Absolute cock up!”. Their agency impacts the world, but not (substantively) their own character within it.
This is largely because the immersive interactive audience needs to exist in-world from the moment they walk through the door, for otherwise there would not be immersion. There is no chance to prepare characters in a pre-game workshop. Therefore they are given a very clear and simple sense of who they are in-world and expected to follow it. The more complex roles are those of the actor-characters, which are as fully-realised as in any theatre, and used to facilitate the audience experience.
This imbalance allows IIT to have strong authorial voice. While LARP can use worldbuilding and expectation-setting to try and steer its players towards a particular point or theme, IIT inherently does so. In practical terms, IIT creators have an imbalance of power, knowledge-of-world, and expertise-in-roleplay over their usual audience. This enables them to construct their work to express an artistic idea to the audience, rather than with the players.
Both are very legitimate ways for an artist to express themselves. I do not wish to suggest that LARP cannot express artistic ideas; this would be nonsense. But LARP does so by asking the players to collaborate in that idea; IIT steers its audience towards its idea.
This leads to the real beef: that LARPers will turn up at an IIT show and claim to be people in-world, but they are not allowed to! Sometimes, they turn up and claim their character has knowledge of the world, but because it is of their invention it is not part of the authorial vision. This is, genuinely, a problem, because the only response is the not-fun ‘no’. The audience must accept their show’s creator’s curation, and in exchange be given an acceptable experience.
A modicum of reflection will note that this is an issue of communication more than anything, for many LARPs also do not allow players to invent facts about the world.
The Pointlessness of the Beef
I have thought this for some time, for my studies of LARP have been ongoing for a while, despite my recent attendance.
Popular Interactive Immersive Theatre is, in almost all cases, a form of zero-prep LARP. It aims to offer the audience to come along and pretend to be people in an imagined world.
It does not aim to use its authorial voice to make a statement or exploration of any deeper themes; indeed, I’ve noticed an active aversion among several noted creators towards being ‘lecturing’.
Without active use of this authorial voice, I really struggle to see a meaningful aesthetic difference between the two. IIT that actively smothers authorial voice is merely zero-prep LARP with professional NPC-LARPers from an acting background for novice players using limited agency to support their play, or bad IIT.
Which is still an excellent thing. But not necessarily as distinct as people might like.