Updated: May 5, 2019
I've been hungry for some character creation!
When I was a kid, I loved letting my imagination run away with me, creating dramatic characters out of the world around me and performing dramatically to anyone that would listen. If I hadn't become an actor, I would certainly have been a writer. Each person's uniqueness, their ticks and funny habits fascinated me. Knowing that everyone has their own story, their own beginning, middle, and end had me enraptured. I wanted to know those stories: how everyone is so wildly different, but all fall into narrative tropes, regardless. This is the reason I became an actor. Telling stories-- especially the stories of those who cannot tell their own-- makes my heart beat fast and leaves me feeling excited and dizzy.
While working on the work of old, established writers is such a privilege and pleasure, I've been eager to create something of my own that no one had really seen before. I used to write a great deal as a kid, and I miss it to this day. Acting is my true passion, and I wouldn't change it for the world, but it does take up a lot of time that would go to writing. But, perhaps I can have the best of both worlds!
Living in Chicago, sports is everywhere. It's inescapable. What is always astounding to me is the loyalty of fans. I'm getting a bit off track from my point, here, I know. But bear with me. Cubs fans will gather from all across the country to watch a team that is not known for winning. Even though the Cubs have broken their losing streak and won the World Series, they continue to draw massive crowds every year around Wrigley. All Chicago swarms when the Cubs play. Traffic swells and transit slows. For Cubs fans, it is about the game, the not knowing if it's going to be a win or a loss-- it's about spending time together with friends and family and watching the game for the pure pleasure of just that-- the game.
I've always been jealous of sports for drawing such a crowd. Fans will spend incredible sums to travel to Chicago and see a game, or buy season tickets for their whole family, regardless of wins or losses. Winning streaks are sure to fill seats, to be sure, but it's not always about the money and it's not always about winning. It's about the not knowing, the game of it all, the experience.
Since moving to Chicago, I wished that theatre could capture some percentage of that crowd. If only folks could see live theatre the way they see a ball game. And I feel like Chicago has become a quiet hotbed of theatre that is growing in this way, trying to make theatre more like a sport:
*A game with an unknown outcome
*Interactive and immersive
*Episodic, with a narrative that spans multiple games
The greatest virtue of live theatre is its reality, it's tangible truth, that nothing is digital. It's very nature is immersive. It almost begs its audience to live next to the action. So much immersive theatre has blossomed in response to this-- the more theatrical theatre becomes, the more immersive it begins to seem. There is now a huge demand for theatre where the audience can walk with the actors, drink their tea, sit on the stage's couch, and play right along. The most well known of these shows is Sleep No More by the company Punch Drunk in New York. Immersive companies have erupted all over the country, hoping to capitalize on this new interpretation of the fourth wall.
Yet, could there be even more?
Last year the artistic director of Otherworld Theatre, Tiffany Keane Shaefer, reached out to me. I auditioned for them a few weeks earlier. Tiffany reached out to me to take part in the non-theatrical branch of Otherworld, Moonrise LARP Games. She wanted me to come LARP with them, playing in their primary episodic LARP, Chronicles of the Realm.
At this time, I had a lot of preconceived notions about LARP. I only knew what I had seen from television and a small cohort of very cherished, nerdy friends. I wasn't sure it was 'acting' in the way that I had learned it. I had little idea what to expect.
Tiffany and I got tea, and immediately she began telling me of the world she and the game master Steven Townsend had built. The world immediately felt three-dimensional. There were mysterious cities full of enchanted history, complex politics that felt all too familiar, family trees and tangled family feuds that made my heart race, magical rules that governed odd cultures, and a world full of people fighting for their own definition of freedom. In minutes I was spellbound by what she had laid out before me in her descriptions. It made me feel like a kid reading the newest Harry Potter book. My imagination began to race. I was being drawn in.
Tiffany said I would play an important character, Finn Corsin, a scientist and polymath genius boy who was taking the Iron Age and moving it quickly into a steampunk technological era. Finn invented indoor plumbing and electricity and was the reason there were swords and knights but also coffee machines and cars. He was afraid of magic because of a terrible accident as a child. She continued on about Finn's childhood on a pirate ship, how he was all but kidnapped from his father and mother at the age of six, how his family were assassins and lived on a wide estate called Soracine. I knew I couldn't pass up this character. I accepted and began immersing myself in the world, the lore, the family trees and the geography, my allies, my enemies. There were a thousand relationships to prepare for.
Chronicles of the Realm is episodic. The narrative spans a few years with the same characters. There are four episodes to Chronicles, and each episode takes place over a weekend in a new location. The company out-fits parks, colleges, and impressive venues to serve and locations within the fictional world. I was about to enter Chapter 3 of Chronicles. This would take place in the pirate town of Kalibaba-- or Makanda, Illinois for the locals.
The event was like none other. It truly blew me away. I thought it would-- at the very least-- be a very exciting acting exercise. I had no idea.
The event takes place Friday night, all Saturday, and into Sunday afternoon. Essentially I was in full character for two days straight with very few breaks. The only time I had to break character was to sleep or use a restroom. All other times I moved, talked, ate, and worked as Finn.
Improvisation was absolutely essential. With LARP, the audience is in character as well. They are citizens of the world with their own goals, grudges, and games to play. The company builds events for each 'playing character' (or PC) as the audience is called. Actors are known as NPCs, non-playing characters. NPCs know the overall plots, have specialized motivations and goals, and work to give the PC's a fun experience depending on their goals.
As Finn I had to improvise with characters of every type of political leaning, religious creed, or class or background. Also, as the mysterious scientist whose discoveries brought lightbulbs and toilets, I had to speak at length about science and mechanics to those Iron Age folks who didn't know how it all worked. Luckily enough: I worked at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and have a very fluent working knowledge of all sciences, so this was the least of my worries.
What I found most interesting was the theatricality of the entire experience. It was immersive theatre: we were in a park surrounded by trees and fields-- so far out from the cities that cell phones didn't get reception. Everything was a long walk across the park from camp to camp so travel had to be intentional. It was tiring in the most satisfying ways that only really bold theatre can be.
The LARP was also a game with high stakes. There were three possible endings to the show, based on the choices of the audience. Characters are consistently given choices and dilemmas that will determine how their characters grow. Each choice is prepared by the company and comes with consequences, either way. At the end, the characters must vote together to determine the ending of that episode for everyone. The events of that episode were very dramatic, and all concluded from the work of the audience, the PCs.
One of the joys of the LARP is its episodic nature. And this is what I feel ties in with sports. People know the Cubs will lose and keep coming back because there is a narrative to the whole season that they must 'stay tuned' for. Just like binging episodes of a streaming services theatrical experiences are becoming more episodic Only this theatre is fully immersive and game-ified. Audiences can have three-dimensional game experiences that let them create and develop the narrative over an entire series. Can you imagine screaming at characters in a horror movie and have them actually listen, but then the killer comes after you, only for you to escape-- but is the killer really gone? This is what Chronicles felt to me as an actor, and it was truly a revolutionary experience. It revitalized theatre as an artform-- what theatre can be.
So, in my opinion a good actor is also a good audience. Actors need to see acting, need to watch as much as they perform. But how to do this in this new medium of theatre? The answer is simply to develop a character and join in the chaos on the stage!
Moonrise LARP Games is putting on a new LARP called Dark Labyrinth. Rather than an Iron Age fantasy, Dark Labyrinth is a gothic horror themed show. It takes place in 1899 in this world. It will be filled with vampires, witches, werewolves, and I believe it will feature a lot of blood and spooky hijinks. I'm very excited to join in as a playing audience member for this show. I get to develop my own character to whatever length I need and will perform along with the NPCs and can hopefully improvise my way through solving games and riddles and hunting mysterious things in the dark!
I've already typed up a 30 page backstory for my character. I'll spare you all the details, but my character is named Danvers Rochereau. He is a French necromancer whose mentor died in a mysterious fire. While this LARP is only going to be for one night instead of a weekend, it does go for a straight 12 hours: from 7pm to 7am. So I will be dressed in a nice velvet suit (got an insane deal at Macy's!) and will be speaking in a French accent for 12 hours straight.
I'm hoping this character is as distinctly different from Finn Corsin as possible. Danvers is not as nice or well versed in thermodynamics as my Iron Age scientist is.
After this show is done, however, I must jump back into scripted work.
I've been working diligently on another show, Lonely Hearts with Birch House Theatre, and our technical rehearsal is the day after Dark Labyrinth. It promises to be another great acting exercise, to be sure.