The Last Supper Club / Bernard’s Story

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On Saturday we ran a new larp concept that I’ve developed with my friend Christian Thompson, around the idea of ‘exquisite dinners for those about to die’.  This one was held in Beziers in 1209, on St Mary Magadelene’s Eve, the day before the first great massacre of the Cathars.  It feels too early to write about the larp itself as a larpwright – this being the first that I’ve properly created from start to finish – and so I want to talk about the story of my character Bernard.

IMG_20160202_083740 (1)We used a Tarot deck to help write the characters and Bernard was the Eight of Pentacles – hard working, cautious, methodical.  He was a 41 year old Jewish man in the employ of Alphonse, a 53 year old Cathar trader. Bernard’s traumatic childhood as a refugee from Italy, who then lost his family to plague aged 14, had left him deeply cautious by nature, focused on security above all.  

In the past week Bernard and Alphonse had been forced to flee their home town of Lodeve, now occupied by the invading army.  As a wealthy Cathar, Alphonse had lost everything and was in danger of complete collapse. Bernard, ironically, had invested elsewhere and was the owner of a farm, secure in the mountains.

En route to Beziers, where Alphonse’s friend and fellow Cathar trader Guilleme would offer shelter, they met with the Aragonese troubadour Lucie, who led us to the woodland house of Sophie, a midwife and sage femme. Alphonse requested a Tarot reading from Sophie, and she prophesied Death.

This was, in hindsight, the point at which Alphonse set his course.

Bernard was made uncomfortable by these two improbable travelling companions, but tolerated them. At dinner he was pleased to see Marc, the Jewish City Clerk of Beziers, but troubled by what he saw in Raymond, the knight chiefly responsible for the city’s defence. The none too bright warrior was feeling divided loyalties, uncertain whether to defend the city (and his young Cathar wife Marie) or to assist the Catholic armies outside the gates.

It was beginning to dawn on Bernard that he had forgotten to live a life. And as he woke up (oddly moved by Lucie’s song, and the poem recited by Jacques) he began to wonder what he had missed. Above all he was moved by great tenderness for Alphonse, his great friend and benefactor.

Then, half an hour before the end, Death arrived. I won’t say too much about it, but everyone experienced this moment as traumatic and shocking.

Here I need to say something about another device we used in the workshop, which was a deck of Spirit Animal cards.  All the players picked one just before the larp, and there were many gasps of recognition. The prophetess Sophie, for example, got the Giraffe (Foresight). It was suggested that these cards might become significant to their characters in the final act. Bernard chose the Bear (Strength): “Stand Your Ground”. Alphonse, the Raccoon (Resourcefulness): “You have everything you need”.

The truth that was staring both Alphonse and Bernard in the face was that they loved each other – and this was true for Bernard, at least, in an erotic sense – and that they could probably choose a life together in security and relative wellbeing on Bernard’s mountain homestead. But Bernard had no words for this, or none that Alphonse could hear. Alphonse, overwhelmed by the loss of everything he owned, chose to undergo the Rite of Consolation, which meant he would be henceforth a member of the Cathar Perfect – celibate, austere and dedicated to God. It also meant that he would probably be signing his own death warrant.

Bernard wept for this, and then dedicated himself to the defence of Beziers, inspired by Raymond’s decision to fight. The next day Bernard would die, along with everyone else in Beziers …

… unless of course by Raymond’s change of heart we had created a counterfactual history, in which the city repelled the Crusaders?

It was interesting for me to play a gay character, however repressed and closeted. Homosexuality isn’t something for me in real life, and so the larp was an opportunity to explore that possibility in some sense. I was lucky to have in Alphonse’s player someone who was willing to go there with me. More resonant was Alphonse’s age, 41 – perhaps the age that I was when I had a somewhat similar realisation that I needed to wake up and live more fully.

I’m grateful that I had more time than he.

 

New Voices In Art

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11049448_10153347893813022_7610488186419282559_nThis dazzling – if uneven – exhibition hosted by the Save the Whales campaign (sponsored by Shell) featured the work of seven artists now making an impact on the Berlin scene. Showing now till 31st December, make sure to get yourself a ticket.

Front and central, the latest triumphant work by the enigmatic Chapman Sisters features four shoddily-made female dummy heads, a dustbin and a letter appare12189589_10156273249505381_5456770048430920259_nntly written by a boarding school girl name Dorothy. Work apparently thrown together in a few moments is a trade mark of the Chapmans (in fact the nom de guerre of a single woman suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder). A closer look, however, reveals that the dolls include a large quantity of the artist’s (or artists’) pubic hair. Ouch!  Less exciting was Icelandic artist Guthmundir. Covering his poorly-painted work with wordy cod-philosophical jargon, and with a title featuring of all things a hashtag, Guth (is that pronounced ‘guff’?) might do better to study at the feet of the imperious Chapmans.

12195771_10156273249695381_5475362179035671570_nThe exhibition also features two female artists engaged with themes of ageing and eroticism. Grete has long been known as the Queen of the Berlin Scene, teaching many young artists in her long career at Berlin University, but she has not made the breakthrough to commercial success in her own right. The work selected here seems an odd choice, a recent piece assembled from two identical late-60s soft-porn prints, at different stages of decay. Though echoing the Chapmans’ piece, I fear that in this case the teacher has been surpassed by the pupil. Moon, meanwhile, has created a powerful sculpture/painting ‘Breathe III’ from polystyrene and spray paint, echoing at first glance a cheap stone-clad fireplace, such as she might have seen in her youth in the early 1970s, but on closer inspection (and the viewer is encouraged to caress this piece) reveals a moving paean to the soft folds and curves of a sumptuous Willendorf Venus.

12227790_10156273250490381_7669016529682885032_nEqually powerful is the exhibition’s only video piece, by Archie, who like Moon has talent to burn but at times lacks the self-confidence to push it forward. A beautiful blonde woman’s face occupies the centre of this compelling installation, moving through a mundane cityscape, shops and flats. Superimposed on her forehead, as if occupying her dreaming mind, is imagery of jungle foliage and a naked man.

12234980_10153347894003022_372863412029880271_nCompleting the show, two contrasting male artists, Banjo Stanley and Davis Blood.  Banjo’s piece ‘Amoeba’ appears to depict a church with quasi-religious overpainted words. Broad brush strokes are the currency of Stanley’s work, fooling the casual viewer into thinking him an idiot. Blood, at 29 no longer passing as the enfant terrible of the scene, has apparently disowned ‘Scalar’, the piece displayed here, a classic piece in his trade mark medium of expression, two-metre oak planks. A press release from his representative hilariously included comments prejudicial to the generous sponsors of the show and even referring to Climate Change.12191943_10153347893908022_2915728958332362513_n

No-one familiar with either of these artists will read anything other than savage self-satirical intention in these strategies.

Beginning – the UK run

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IMG_20150411_170451Beginning was part of the Larparama mini larp festival in Lewes this weekend past.

Beginning is a larp by Danish artist Nina Runa Essendrop. The concept is that up to 12 blindfolded players are creatures being born and evolving in an unknown environment, which they explore over the course of 90 minutes. The experience is rich and varied and accompanied by a lush soundtrack. Periodically, there is a thunderstorm and the creatures stop to make noises and sing in the rain.

Nina is particularly known in Nordic Larp circles for developing embodied, wordless larps with themes of innocence, childhood and transcendence.  I’ve played two of her other larps, White Death (in Ireland) and Innocence (at Black Box Copenhagen in November), but Beginning was my personal favourite, as I’ll explain at the end.

Changes

After consulting with Nina we decided to make some changes. Firstly, when I played it some female participants felt uncomfortable with the element of touch, and we added a section to the workshop around safe touch and exploring how to communicate YES/NO/MAYBE without words.

Secondly, it seemed to me that the larp could be developed and deepened by adding the possibility of mating to the third act. If a creature mated it would receive a piece of clay, and could fashion an egg. The creatures are born alone in this world, and so the question would be how to communicate important things to one’s offspring. We also made clear that not having an egg would mean getting to explore the world further as it changes, and so there was a choice to make.

IMG_20150411_161332We also made some changes to the soundtrack, partly due to not having all of the music available and partly due to personal taste. Our version modelled the five acts on the 5 Rhythms of Gabrielle Roth – flow, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness.  This is not the model for the original music, so far as I know, but I thought it would be interesting to explore this. Mating could take place during the ‘chaos’ part of the game. After that was the lighter, ‘lyrical’ section, and players commented that they did feel much more relaxed and able to play once the mating ‘season’ was at an end.

The Venue

We had an amazing gift in our venue, the Cafe des Artistes in Lewes, which featured an infinity studio. This meant that the creatures were very safe in the space, and also that the visual impact for the workshop and (for we spectators) during the larp was quite stunning.

Reflections

The pre-game workshop was, in my judgement, a big success.  I was very glad that we’d added the touch element to the workshop, because in such a tactile larp it’s absolutely vital that all of the players get used to the idea that they can say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and ‘maybe’.  A useful lesson in life, as in larp.

The larp itself was an absolute joy to witness. At times we Guardians would spontaneously join in with the play, dancing about the space with the creatures. Taking photographs (for which we’d sought permission before) felt difficult at times, although the visual spectacle was so beautiful that it became difficult to resist. I’m glad, now, that we did document it in this way.

The mating experiment was interesting and, perhaps, worked well overall. Our fear was that everyone would mate, but in fact that didn’t happen. Like pandas, our creatures were shy by nature and only two completed the mating (which was a symbolic exchange of bracelets). With hindsight, we would have been better to put the ‘nursery’ at the opposite end, away from the music, as the parent-creatures had a very introspective fourth act.

Here’s some feedback from one player, Andrew:

This was an amazing thing to do and to undergo. I’m really glad that I chose this game. It was beautiful, gentle, enlightening, and fun. There were moments of genuine (at one point, quite intense) emotion. There was a real feeling of connection to others, but without certain aspects of identity and indentification that we usually take for granted.

I’d like to thank everyone involved for giving me this lovely adventure.

And I’d like to thank my co-organisers of Larparama, Adam James and Keane; my fellow Guardians, Annabelle and Anna; and the players who put so much into their play.

Why I wanted to run Beginning

When I played it last year in Sweden at the Knutepunkt Nordic Larp conference, I was profoundly moved by the experience of being born into a world as an innocent, naive creature, and by the realization that this creature would have some of its hopes dashed by an unfeeling world. I cried for the first 5-10 minutes of the game, which was the most cathartic cry I’ve ever had!

This song sums it up for me:

Larparama Hits Lewes – April 11th

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Adam James, Keane and I are running a one-day mini festival of larp in Lewes on Saturday April 11th. The program features larps from Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

Larparama

1.00 Arrive, orientation, sign-up

1.30 Choose ONE from three options:

BEGINNING. An amazing abstract larp from Denmark in which you play a blind creature evolving in an unknown environment. Ideal if you enjoy movement, dance, self-exploration. 12 players.

FALLEN STARS. Powerfully moving Norwegian larp about old, unwanted objects in the flea market … tell the story of how things were in your heyday, when you were new and loved … before fashions changed, you got too old and tatty, and fell out of favour. Existential questions of ageing and death. 12 players.

THE TRIBUNAL. A legendary Finnish larp about justice and political intrigue set in a corrupt military. A crime has been committed, but the defendants are probably innocent. How will you testify? 12 players.

Each larp will be preceded by a workshop and followed by a debrief discussion. The larp itself lasts about 60-75 minutes.

6.30 Food, relax, gather in main room.

7.30 – 11.00 Club Felis: the Nightclub for Cats.
You’re so wonderfully, wonderfully, wonderfully, wonderfully pretty ..

The cats of Lewes are out to play. There are Arty cats, New Age cats, Bonfire cats, elegant house cats and rough cats from the docks. And Fat Cat property developers, hoping to make a quick buck. Whether you play nice or nasty, make sure to bring along your inner cat. Dance to the ScatCat band, drink White Russians from a saucer, and get off your little cat face with illegal catnip. Whatever shenanigans go down in the course of the evening, Club Felis will inevitably end, as it always does, with a mass chorus of Lovecats.

Club Felis is a new concept for a party – where you don’t just put on a costume, but play a character. Face-painting included.

Tickets here

View event details here

Before and After Silence

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The Tin Tabernacle was the perfect venue for a larp based on silence

The Tin Tabernacle was the perfect venue for a larp based on silence

Yesterday was the first time I’d run a larp properly, and I must say that I couldn’t be happier with how it went.

Before and After Silence 

This larp was written by Fredrik Hossmann, who co-designed with Matthijs Holter, and has been run several times since its creation in April 2012. You can find details here, and in the Larps from the Factory book.

This is quite an unusual and innovative larp, as it’s played almost completely in silence.  Each of the characters is inhabiting a different reality or ‘setting’.  For example, one of them might be the captain of a ship at sea, another a prostitute on a street corner, a third a soul looking for its parents, and so on. Each character sees the others through this setting. Continue reading

Blackbox CPH

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So I’ve just got back from Blackbox Copenhagen … some preliminary thoughts.

Inside Me, Outside Me

This was the first game I played, organised by a crew of black box enthusiasts including my sister Carla. There were about 12 players, and a roughly equal number of performers/NPCs, although the distinction quickly broke down.  Afterwards I learned that the NPCs were kind of robots, that initially had to be activated by different triggers; then spent the second act ‘learning’ things from us; and in the third were directing us. Not much of that was evident to me, although it didn’t matter. I particularly enjoyed the second act, where I did some contact impro with Nina and a guy that had never larped in his life, and also tried to teach Gustav’s character about emotions (at some point I started to doubt that I knew what I was talking about). Continue reading

White Death, Slow Burn – and some thoughts on debriefing

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In August I played a run of White Death by Nina Runa Essendrop and Simon Steen Hansen.  It was put on in Limerick by  Carla Burns, a conceptual artist who has been exploring larp over the past couple of years and who also happens to be my sister.

The first thing that surprised me was just how much preparatory work had gone into the event.  We had a fantastic setting, in the Ormston House gallery.  Players had received bursaries to cover travel expenses, and the entire gallery had been cleared for the larp.  The walls had been painted very subtly with graphic forms that reflected Carla’s visualization, and there was an off-game area with sofas, larp publications and some drawings that Carla had done of people from the Nordic larp community.

White Death is a non-verbal larp that has been run many times before.  The story involves a group of people who decide to set out into the mountains to found a utopian community of some kind.  Gradually, however, they all succumb to the elements and die.  As they do so, they transform into ‘White Ones’, benevolent spirits, free of human limitations. Continue reading