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Posted on 22nd Aug, 2015 in Games

This month I travelled to Copenhagen to play Before We Wake, a debut run of a larp about dreams. Participants produced dream diaries in the run-up, and drew upon this content and a range of techniques to conjure the sensation of dreaming across roughly six hours of play. I found the larp to deliver some of this dream experience, as well as periods of more halting and uncertain play. Overall it was a meaningful experience that has stayed with me over the weeks, and motivated me to put my thoughts onto the page.

A bit about me, to put this in context. I’m a fairly experienced tabletop roleplayer, but only came to larp in 2012. I am also a practising improviser, and one of my groups, The Dreaming, has a goal of producing flowing dream-like content on stage.

It’s worth noting that I got to look over drafts of Ole Peder Glæver's now-published review; it’s a thorough and thoughtful piece, and I’ve given less attention to areas that I think he’s already nailed. Particularly, I am focusing more on my experience in the larp, and not the countless elements that made it possible; suffice it to say that the organisation was excellent, led by a heartfelt team with an aesthetic vision and considerations for our needs (culinary, orientation, accommodation, clarity, support). Please take that as read: these are good people.

Finally, the featured image and all other images from the larp are credited to Before We Wake 2015. Photo: Karin Pedersen / Mathias Kromann Rode / Kristoffer Thurøe (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Layers

The larp used a multi-layered approach: each participant was to play a dream envoy, the agent who purposefully develops dreams; the dreamer who experiences the dreams; the weavers within the dream who non-consciously develop dream content, and -- outside the game -- the dreaming you for whom all dreams are created. The workshop did a very good job of making these multiple layers intelligible, even using visual aids such as a white-board with diagrams of the different concepts and several rounds of live-scribing to reiterate the concept.

Who lives in the dreamspace?

The dream envoy was our primary character, the only role developed pre-game (an avatar or archetype of some kind; I chose an Orange Tree), which we were encouraged to play specifically in the Dream Cafe. In this location, the envoy - an architect fully aware they were operating in and shaping dreamspace - was encouraged to ruminate, devise, and eventually scheme with other envoys to produce dream content, that would ‘send a message’ to the dreaming you be experiencing it first hand in the role of the dreamer. Phew.

I was glad this self-aware role was tied to a specific meta-area. This is because I hoped to interact naïvely with the dreamspace: my experience when I actually dream is not as a dream architect, but as an unwitting visitor, walking the grounds of an intricately-constructed estate. It was left to us how similar our dreamer was to our dream envoy, but for me that had to be clearly separated; in my experience of dreams I don’t feel like an avatar of an orange tree - I feel like myself, Alex, trying to deal with the givens of a situation.

Yet I found it hard to maintain this dreamer-envoy boundary in play. At the start of the larp, play began by ‘falling asleep’ on the floor, guided by voices to take on the envoy characters (the only character reference point available), and then arise into the dreamspace. This was excellently managed, with minimal light, fog, great audio guidance, and I fell into a light trance.

alt text Eventually I opened my eyes and arose into the space:

sparsely decorated with some thin trees and special tape serving as barriers… some podiums placed on top of each other to serve as staircases, cliffs, mountains or hills as the dreams necessitated. (from Ole Peder’s article)

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I fell from trance into confusion. Who am I again? Others were interacting with the scenography like Dorothy in Oz, dazed and naïve, not like all-knowing architects - and right enough, as we weren’t in the Cafe meta-area. I shouldn’t be a self-aware envoy here, but instead… what? An amnesic in an atmospheric but minimal room, surrounded by silent people? Must I mentally author some dream situation, and then immediately switch states to a naïve dreamer perspective? I felt under pressure, nothing came, and I drifted around awkwardly before regrouping in the Cafe.

Flashes of beauty in act one

Granted, the first act began haltingly for me, but I still encountered moments of undoubted beauty.

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Speaking was forbidden in this act, providing expanses of time to pay witness to tiny vignettes, surreal group happenings, or the poignancy of a figure sitting quietly beneath a tree. Once I had gotten my play methodology straight - wander into the Cafe, call to mind an image from one of my real dreams, mentally layer that on to the beginning of the dreamspace, and then try and view every experience through that prism (see pic) - this was pretty immersive and powerful.

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I also enjoyed several adrenaline jags, the most notable involving a threatening ‘weaver’ - a mass of other players - which glared at me as if about to eat me up. Some larps use formal safety mechanics such as safewords that can put the onus upon the least comfortable player to manage the encounter. Before We Wake forsook mechanics and asked all players to manage safety through sensitively and empathetic play, which we practiced in workshop by testing the distinctions between what the character seems to want and what the player actually does. I put this to the test when I met this Weaver, widening my eyes in terror and flinging myself back against a podium as if trapped, my back to a wall…. all the while willing it to swallow me up. The weaving-players read me right, providing me a roller-coaster-terror as they loomed in and drew me deep inside. Overall I appreciated the safety approach; that said, I can only speak to my experience, which didn’t go to very intense places.

Into act two: dreams versus dream-like

In act two the prohibition on speaking was lifted, but we were still prohibited from allowing dream content to merge together, meaning that in spite of players shouting ‘fire alarm, evacuate the school,’ I should reject the suggestion of school and hold to my idea of cutting a path through the jungle. In a feedback round just after play had finished, I described Act One as having the moments that felt, most dream-like, but Act Two most like my actual dreams. As I’ve also made this allusion in this article, I should unpack a little:

  • ’Dream-like’ is an aesthetic, e.g., how a wonderful ballet might open. gentle mist, atmospheric lights, music coming up, figures in aesthetically congruent but fascinating costumes and masks wandering through the gloom
  • ’As if in a dream’ is more about process: dream logic such as people switching identity, abruptly disappearing, having a certain amount of incongruent knowledge or perspectives

Competing realities - too much of an interesting idea

On further reflection, the logic of act two only supported ‘as if in a dream’ to a certain point, and in longer doses it was less supportive to the experience. The act was defined by competing realities- ‘oh no it isn’t!’ - rather than incorporation. This can be refreshing but makes it hard to build momentum. In a dream, even the not-making-sense seems to have a kind of sense to it: well-positioned follies set within the intricately constructed estate. I, and other players, ended up often bending this rule to merge two realities into one, in order to draw out some coherence instead of stuttering through unrelated moments .

In addition, some things happened again… and again.. and again. It was a relief to make it to the final act when that bolognese finally got made (and smeared over a guest’s body), after countless frustrations in the kitchen. This incident was ultimately satisfying, and I also appreciated moments where a dreamer crossed your periphery, still muttering their mantra like Alice’s White Rabbit. But repetition does become repetitive, and even novel encounters sometimes felt stale, when the other dreamer had clearly over-rehearsed making this offer.

As a consequence, my forays in the dreamspace were often cut short, and I felt I needed to lean on my technique of recovering inspiration in the cafe, rather than simply playing. By design - and unlike on an improv stage - the larp restricted building and affirmation from other players for most of the run - and come the second act, verbal blocking of others’ ideas was part of play. Another player commented that they often felt imaginatively empty, in contrast to their normally creative self. I think this antagonistic environment for creating is a big reason why, in my case supplemented by excessive self-blocking, as I tried to keep myself in as naïve a state as possible while in the dreamspace.

In Petter Munthe-Kaas’ account of the second Act, he notes

However it was hard to keep up the personal dreamspace at all times. My experience was rather that I would be in a clear dream and the walk “between dreams” for a while and in that space I would meet people, that sucked me into their dreamspaces, without me having an interpretation of my own.

I found the same.

The Dreaming

Ole Peder’s article describes the Weavers perfectly:

These abstract creatures generated dream-stuff in the setting the organizers had envisioned. The technique was similar to contact improv: starting with their backs towards each other, player groups of two or more would together form a weaver creature. Responding to, echoing and shaping each other’s movements and sounds, they’d gradually become more and more synched. It was a fun exercise, especially when we got into those weirdly synchronized flow states you sometimes get with that kind of improv: forgetting yourself, becoming part of the group, acting as one in an odd way… We were instructed to let the weavers feed us “themes” and other content for the dreams.

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and I agree with his evaluation of them:

I liked them during the workshops, when I had those small, weird, collective flow moments I just described. But the instruction of trying to extract specific themes from the weaver’s actions made little sense to me. I didn’t feel they operated on that level of thinking. They generated moods and feelings, more. I don’t think I brought much content from the weaver-state (intuitive, exploring, feelings, moods) to the dreamer-state (to me: more verbal, cerebral). And I was unsure how I was expected to do that.

Although the precise weaving technique is distinctive, I’ve experience with very similar approaches in my impro group The Dreaming: going organic, returning to flow, pulling into the collective, whatever you want to call it. And our group is very successful in using it to produce meaningful content - both in the moment and as inspiration for more narrative, scenic content. So I find it vexing that my weaving experience was essentially as Ole Peder describes.

I accept that in The Dreaming, I’m privileged to perform in a group who collectively trained in these techniques, and share an excellent chemistry, and it’s a tall order to produce that sort of alchemy with strangers. But I’ll say this: if weaving should generate themes, we could borrow whole-cloth from organic improvisation, originating principally at the iO theatre and then developed further in Boston, New York and elsewhere.

This probably involves a greater range of physical responses: not just direct copying, but complementary mirroring or embodying differentiated parts of a wider whole - rather than four people all making strangling gestures, how about transitioning into a gallows formed out of human bodies, with one weaver repeatedly putting its head in the noose, and then shifting back into stranglers?

More speaking also helps generate theme: naming things, adding details, developing a single point of view and allowing it to shift and develop; this helps generate things specific, unique, that can then seed richer scenes. This can be a little more heady than the contact improv focus of the Weaving process, but from teaching it to beginner improvisers, people can quickly get deep into a flow.

This stuff is hard to explain, so I’m providing a video example from my own group (I looked for examples from innovators like Burn Manhattan but couldn’t find what I wanted). Here is our show from last Christmas, terrible camerawork but the first five minutes give you at least some idea of what I’m suggesting, albeit talkier than you would need in a larp context.

The third act, and abandoning the arc

The larp was far from unsatisfying. Across the run I experienced moments both dream-like and as in a dream, witnessed things of beauty, enjoyed some comical interactions. And the ending…

Each dream envoy (aware architect) had a goal: send the ‘dreaming you’ (i.e. Alex in real life) a message: inspired by themes found in act one, animated by details from act two, and delivered in act three as full scenes/dreams, delivered with other envoys.

My first act was infused with imagery from my real dreams; communal endeavour and people freed from slavery. A theme came to mind: power, its consequences and costs. But this was hard to develop in the chaos of the second act, so I started the third aimlessly. As everything had been fragmented up to this point, commandeering the narrative felt too abrupt a break - and besides, I didn’t know what I wanted to make.

While assisting another dream, I became adrift in the ocean, buffeted and spun by dancing dreamers. In the pleasure of this movement, I had an epiphany: just to be here was enough. Cast ashore, I never again felt the urge to leave the dreamspace.

From this point, serendipity arrived in waves: I met a trio of dreamers who immediately demanded of me ‘are you a merman?’ Some three hours before, a dreamer had painted my feet blue and told me that I was a merman.

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So I inhabited that role, unearthly, darting, teasing, and sometimes threatening; what I wanted to give and I sensed they wanted too. I wasn’t a plotting envoy, nor the cautious, do-things-right dreamer; I was just being and responding.

In the final of a series of collisions with a particular dreamer, I found she had, deliciously, become a mermaid. We returned to the trio and hunted them like sharks, and finally together burst a hole in the earth’s basin to create a great flood, moments before the audio leapt to a crescendo, and the game ended as I spun in my sea.

Describing my dreams

This year I’ve been recording and describing my dreams to cultivate self-awareness and taste (as you do when you review fiction). At times the dreams reveal, through illustration, a false belief: something you see one way, where the truth is the opposite of that.

In Before We Wake, operating as a dream envoy, I had accepted there was something that I must receive through the larp. I identified what seemed the ‘appropriate’ message; appropriately worthy, heavy, and potentially difficult. But finally, I realised the opposite was true. There was no problem; all I needed to do in this Act was pay attention and be and I would be rewarded. So I did.

What followed from this did resonate with the theme of power and (lack of) responsibility. It arrived without a plan, without needing to ‘teach myself a lesson’. In my case, the message that the Envoy needed to send was that there was no message that was necessary to send.

Coda: again?

That was my testimony on Before We Wake: mine was an up-and-down experience capped in a very satisfying way. This testimony was the purpose of this article, and what follows is secondary: speculation on ways to address the things I had trouble with. This might be of some interest to you if you were involved in the organisation or design, or are interested in running it or similar larp approaches in the future. These aren’t intended as didactic solutions, just possibilities said out loud.

Role clarity

Overall, thinking about when I was supposed to be thinking - am I the envoy or dreamer right now? what should I be seeing now I’ve exited a weave? - was the biggest source of not-fun during the larp. Some small thoughts:

  • Beginning: Other players had a smooth beginning, finding it natural to be the envoy surveying the bare dreamspace as an architect would an empty construction lot. With hindsight I should have done this too. Maybe it would be useful to suggest this concept to us in the workshop.
  • Transitions maybe this was covered within the workshop, but I would have liked some guidance such as “At times in the Dream you may feel the dream is less immersive, and wonder what to do. At these points, the Dream Envoy can step in and return to the Cafe, or make small decisions to break away from this corner of the space and wander about again”

Reconsider the use of competing realities

In place of an entire act of the larp, I would find it interesting to use this technique in short sharp bursts. Consider that, late in (silent) act one, a voice bursts into the dreamspace, gently encouraging us to introduce language (“you find you can whisper to yourself”; then ten minutes later “now you can address others, perhaps a word or two, perhaps more”;), so we just have a short phase of bizarre semi-connection.

More space for creative collaboration

Following the previous point, repurpose act two to focus instead on collaboration. I personally found collaboration that happened in real time in the dreamspace more satisfying than setting up and delivering scenes - maybe reflecting my comfort zone as an improviser - and so would be happy with an entire act where dreams could combine but Cafe planning was still off-limits.

Think about the objects

The larp utilised objects, but I haven’t talked much about this because of a practical concern. All objects were arranged on shelving at the back of the Cafe, which best suits an intentional approach: “I will play out this preconceived scene with this item” But I think the strengths of the game involve serendipity, right-place, right-time experiences; when I wanted an object in play, I had to depart the ongoing scene, hurry to the meta-space, and check the object out from one of the Cafe Servers, who addressed me as my envoy. (The check-out was a nice conceit, but ended up increasing the interruption factor).

I really liked the potential in the objects, and the organisers did a great job of curating them… I just would have preferred a different access technique.

  • participants keep items on them for an act, in a bag
  • subsets of objects are strewn across the stage in different acts
  • the objects are stored right at a liminal area - just at the entrance to the cafe, allowing a streamlined grab-and-go process

Reconsider Weaving - described at length above.

Thanks to Ole Peder Glæver and John Agapiou (fellow performer in The Dreaming) for their valuable input to the text.

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