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.

All of this is workshopped beforehand for about three hours, which was a lot of fun.  As human beings, we were each given some form of physical limitation, which falls away after death.  Mine was that my elbows and shoulder blades were drawn back, and my head went forward.  Many people were not very mobile due to their particular hindrances, but my legs were unaffected, enabling me to run about freely.  So I became a kind of a bird-like creature, skittishly circling the group, in and out. 

We were also given emotional cues – again, hampering us in various ways.  I was envious of people with different-coloured hair than mine, and since I’m grey haired and nobody else had much of that, I was in a constant state of envy, particularly of a woman with red-purple hair.

Playing the larp was actually pretty hard going for me.  I worked hard at maintaining my unusual posture, which ended up leaving me a bit sore, and even injured.  My right hip still doesn’t feel right, a month later. 

The other thing that I notice about how I played it was that even though I knew we were all doomed to die, I wanted to find ways to keep things going.  We had balloons that symbolized hopes, pieces of paper that meant faith, and coconut flakes which were survival.  I really wanted us to make it work, and I would try anything.  At one point I was trying to invent a kind of religion and make people believe in it.  I didn’t believe the religion myself, but I felt that if others believed then it would somehow be serving a purpose.

It’s literally only in the past couple of days that the significance of this has come through for me.  The way that I played the larp was just how I behave when I’m in a difficult situation, as I am currently in my work life.  I try to keep things going, I take on all the burdens, and I’m unwilling to read the writing on the wall and accept that it’s over.  I hang on to illusions as long as I can – far longer than is reasonable.

I didn’t have to injure myself playing this larp.  I didn’t have to persist in chasing shadows and fantasies of survival and community.  But I did.  And this insight was actually helpful to me in the difficult situation I’m referring to, because I saw a pattern in my behaviour that wasn’t serving me well at all.  It enabled me to find my limit and to state that limit to other people, which has given me much greater peace of mind.

It seems to me that larp often has this quality of being a ‘slow burn’, delivering insights days or weeks later.  I want to thank Nina and Carla for what White Death has given me here.

Debrief – A Modest Proposal

I am also wondering about the debrief process in larp.  When you think about it, debrief is given very little attention.  In this instance, as is normal, we spent three hours workshopping the larp, and half an hour debriefing.  The workshop was highly structured, but the debrief was a chat.  I felt that many people were not expressing what they really felt.  Afterwards, we had a meal, drinks and dancing.  I’m sure there are I’m sure lots of cultural and historical reasons for it being this way, but I’m now feeling an EBI coming on … 

I want to propose that it would be Even Better If  the debrief could be just as carefully developed as the workshop is.  There are so many questions that might be significant here.  For example:

  • how did you play?
  • was that how you usually do things, or different?
  • what meaning does it have that you do things in this way? 
  • Or: how was it to try something new?  why did you want to?
  • what did you reveal about yourself?
  • what did you want to conceal?

The focus then becomes not: was this a good larp?  But: what insight have you gained into how you are, and do things?

Workshopping a larp is about getting into the psyche of the character.  I feel that it should be just as important to attend to how we move out of that psyche, and how our everyday psyche is enlightened, changed, affected or moved by that.

I would be very interested to hear from others about what they think.  Perhaps an elaborate process like this is neither necessary nor desirable for many larps, which might be just about having fun.  Nothing wrong with that.  But for the more artistic, serious, challenging larps, I feel that much more value could be captured by developing a more thorough debrief.

Thoughts?

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