Friday, October 22, 2010

Immersive Theatre, Improv and LARP

Innovation often happens at the margins, where one discipline or world-view ends and another begins. Two areas of interest to me - theatre and LARP - are part of a continuum, with improv lying somewhere in the middle. I'll start with theatre and come back to LARP.

Thanks to the Ontroerend Goed Trilogy (part of the recent Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival), Irish theatre-goers have had a chance to experience "immersive theatre". Immersive theatre is theatre with the fourth wall removed: the actors interact with the audience. This is more than just an acknowledgement of the audience presence by the characters - the audience members are typically right at the heart of the action.

My experience of immersive theatre was Internal, the second part of the Trilogy. The scenario was speed-dating-meets-group-therapy. Like many other participants I found it fascinating and thought-provoking. (In my case though, the thoughts were mostly to compare and constrast it with improv and with LARPing.) The power balance lies firmly - and perhaps necessarily? - with the actors, because audience members don't know what to expect or how to react. In my own case, I was tempted to push matters, even to create a character, but I didn't want to risk ruining the show for the other participants.

Advocates of immersive theatre could point out that the productions are, in principle, entirely open to audience push-back, and certainly there must be a great deal of rehearsal by the actors to prepare for the crazy situations that could arise. However, in reality most members of the public aren't jerks and aren't going to hijack a show for their own personal amusement.

A key reason for the power imbalance is that it's not clear to audience members what the "rules of engagement" are. How far will the actors go? How far can we - may we - push them? Internal contained partial nudity and in some instances some pretty intense actress-on-participant kissing. Where does "legitimate theatre" end and borderline "immoral earnings" begin?

The lack of rules is, for now, part of the experience. Personally though I think this could in time become a problem and a limiting factor. If the "will they won't they" aspect of immersive theatre is its main selling point it will soon wear thin: it's a nice trick but neither original nor likely to impress if repeated frequently.

Now I'd like to approach the subject from a different angle. As well as enjoying theatre I'm also involved in LARP. A LARP is a freeform game very similar to improv acting: the participants each play a character, making up their lines as they go along, with no-one knowing how the scene will end. Unlike the sort of improv you'd experience in a drama class (such as No Drama Theatre) the scenes can be very long and highly complex. A typical Irish LARP runs for three hours, often as a single scene with 10 to 20+ players. In some cases the interaction is physical - Nick Huggins' new LARP series, Midway, uses airsoft guns and LARP weaponry. (Sidenote: LARP in the UK typically means something different than in Ireland: it's a bit like medieval recreationism.)

A key difference between LARP or improv and immersive theatre is that the social norms of acceptability are clear, sometimes to the point of being written rules. There is no power imbalance between actors and participants: everyone plays a character. In Internal it was unclear if the actors were playing themselves or characters or (as I suspect is the case) something in between, not entirely themselves but drawing heavily on their real lives. I was shocked at the end to see other audience participants giving the actors their addresses when asked for them - these were characters in a play!

In LARP there is a clear distinction between "In Character" (IC) and "Out Of Character" (OOC). Airsoft has something similar, "off game" calls for real emergencies. Immersive threatre generally seems to lack "safe words" and aims to go to great lengths to avoid breaking character - "We take the ethic that the audience can do what they like and at no point would we come out of character or break the fictional world to stop them", as one company puts it.

You want to avoid breaking character? Fine, rules of engagement please. Safe words, rules, an OOC guide, whatever: you can't generally expect audience members to participate in an active way - rather than passively reacting - if they haven't a clue of what's acceptable and can't ask (because the actors are in character). Yes, for now this blurring of In Character and Out Of Character is part of the fun, the unsettling experience of the unknown, but my (13 years) experience of LARP tells me that that's not likely to be sustainable in the long run, at least not if immersive theatre is to be anything more than an occasional novelty.

I'm no expert in immersive theatre, far from it, and I enjoyed Internal, so I don't want to be too critical. Quite the opposite: I think it's great that the world of theatre has in recent years tried out this new and interesting idea. However, longer term this genre needs to move past shock value and exploiting the audience's lack of suitable social norms. Frankly, mixing IC and OOC is a cheap stunt that won't keep working (and some day might just get someone sued). I don't claim to have a solution - full on improv/LARP with characters for the audience might be overkill and cause its own set of new problems.

So I guess the question is: is there a theatre company out there willing and able to go beyond the current controlled-yet-dangerous approach of current immersive, and head down the long, challenging road of true audience participation, towards improv/LARP? It could be a catastophe - but trying new perspectives and approaches can be theatre at its best.

This weekend you can experience LARPs at Gaelcon, Ireland's leading games convention. Be warned though, gamers are rather nerdier than the typical cool, artsy theatre-goer! This year's crop of LARPs reflects that, so it might not be ideally suited to drama types looking to try a LARP for the first time.

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