As you may have heard, I’m a pro­fes­sor of German. And it should be no sur­prise to you then that I’m pos­i­tive­ly stim­u­lat­ed by the fact that we’re hav­ing this talk in a library, sur­round­ed by books. By the end I hope you’ll have rea­son to be stim­u­lat­ed by these books as well.

So, today’s talk is enti­tled Larp as Adaptation.” I’m going to char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly start off with a quote from German film­mak­er Werner Herzog, who gave a talk in Amherst, Massachusetts in April 2012. He said the fol­low­ing thing. For any bud­ding film­mak­er, what I rec­om­mend for them to do is read, read, read, read, read, read, read.” And then he pro­ceed­ed to extol the virtues of an obscure nov­el, The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker. You nev­er real­ly know what’s going to come out of his head, actually.

So, I’m going to say that read­ing is an activ­i­ty we should embrace in advance of our larp prepa­ra­tion. A larp takes a space and makes a place in which we cre­ate fic­tion with our bod­ies, and our voic­es. Although the larp medi­um cer­tain­ly shares a lin­eage with the the­ater and the oral sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion, most of the fic­tion that we con­sume comes in oth­er forms. As films, tele­vi­sion series, video games, Internet fan­f­ic, and of course books. We just can’t help this. 

So we adapt mate­r­i­al. We adapt from pop­u­lar sci­ence fic­tion tele­vi­sion series Battlestar Galactica.

We adapt from pop­u­lar book and film sto­ry uni­vers­es like The Dresden Files.

And Harry Potter.

We adapt from clas­sic plays, like with Inside Hamlet. We adapt so often we often don’t think about the process of adap­ta­tion. We are inspired by the orig­i­nal source mate­r­i­al, and we just graft our rules and expec­ta­tions and all of our cul­tur­al bag­gage onto it for larp pur­pos­es. Which is sim­ple, right?

Well, I’m going to com­pli­cate our under­stand­ing of this a lit­tle bit. After all, we engage in inten­sive media analy­sis in order to adapt a prod­uct to larp. And so there are three types of larp adap­ta­tion of oth­er promi­nent media that I tend to see. 

Re-skinning; accessible, minimal rights issues

The first one is up here on the slide. It’s called re-skinning. Take a pop­u­lar prod­uct, file the ser­i­al num­bers vig­or­ous­ly off of it. Call it a larp. We want mate­r­i­al that play­ers can access but don’t want to deal with the rights, please. So, this isn’t Harry Potter, it’s the College of Wizardry. And we do this all the time. There’s no harm or shame in this, and it cer­tain­ly requires analy­sis of the source mate­r­i­al. Serious analysis. 

Hybrid; accessible, explores themes across works

Another is the hybrid. What if a pletho­ra of dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters from dif­fer­ent sto­ries all exist­ed in the same time and space? The Swedish larp A Nice Evening with the Family, for exam­ple. It com­bines Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, (The Celebration) with Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. And that would be one exam­ple. Another would be [An Evening Aboard the HMS Eden], which was run at Intercon. This is an American game in which all the char­ac­ters are drawn from Victorian lit­er­ary fic­tion. So, we have Sherlock Holmes meets Annie Oakley meets Sigmund Freud. I played Dr. Henry Jekyll and also maybe anoth­er char­ac­ter. So, hybrids explore com­mon themes and tropes cut­ting across all the fic­tion involved, with a degree of self-reflexivity. We do this a lot in our designs.

Strict; (less) accessible?, focuses on a single work

But anoth­er form of adap­ta­tion (and this is the one I’m real­ly going to talk about tonight) is the strict adap­ta­tion. I’d encour­age us to use it more. The strict adap­ta­tion takes a suf­fi­cient num­ber of con­straints from the orig­i­nal work (that would be its orig­i­nal title, its names, its loca­tions, its sit­u­a­tions) that its emo­tion­al and cog­ni­tive propo­si­tions emerge in a larp rel­a­tive­ly intact. The work itself retains its own voice, despite our­selves. It may even seem deriv­a­tive. Actually, we don’t do this enough. 

A card in the style of a party invitation, reading "Growing Up, Anna Westerling, 2010"

The strict adap­ta­tion that changed my life was on Anna Westerling’s Growing Up.” This is a game I played at Fastaval in Denmark in 2010. And it’s effec­tive­ly Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: the freeform larp. I chose the role of Colonel Brandon, so I was sen­si­tive, I had a lot of mon­ey, and I want­ed to mar­ry that Marianne Dashwood.

We pro­ceed to play through the whole plot of the nov­el, piv­otal scene by piv­otal scene, with­out hav­ing read the nov­el or seen the film. And then sud­den­ly, at the end of it I vis­cer­al­ly under­stood what one char­ac­ter’s per­spec­tive was with­in an estab­lished piece of lit­er­a­ture. And then I could real­ly encounter Sense and Sensibility every time I watched it or read it after­ward, which I did, as Colonel Brandon. I could­n’t real­ly shake the character. 

This run then imme­di­ate­ly inspired me to write on the train back from Denmark, my own larp that drew on a work of fic­tion I knew very well, Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent dystopi­an film Metropolis. I designed it because I love the movie, [whisphers] but I hate the ending.

So, play­ers play through a fair­ly rigid three-act struc­ture and use Expressionist the­ater tech­niques to enact this vast city with their bod­ies while play­ers who are actu­al­ly with­in scene pan­tomime the char­ac­ters’ emo­tions. The result con­veys some sem­blance of the film’s core themes, and also its means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the film audi­ence, to the par­tic­i­pants. You can just ask the play­ers who played it or also its Blackbox adap­ta­tion Retropolis, which has run all over Europe, to tell you how it made them feel and whether or not they then watched the movie after­wards and were able to talk about it.

But sud­den­ly, I real­ized that there’s a whole back cat­a­log of German lit­er­a­ture and film that does­n’t have any pres­ence in larp. Suddenly, I real­ized that lit­er­a­ture and film itself is under-represented, even though we adapt from it all the time. We want to avoid copy­right, we want to think that we’re orig­i­nal, we want to sub­sume this oth­er medi­um— Actually, we don’t want to sub­sume this oth­er medi­um under the old­er, dom­i­nant media of the past, right?

Yet grow­ing up in Metropolis deliv­ered such sub­jec­tive, such inter­me­di­al emo­tion­al expe­ri­ences that it helped me ana­lyze the dynam­ics of the object them­selves. We invest these media prod­ucts with more mean­ing and are actu­al­ly bet­ter capa­ble of ana­lyz­ing their nuance when we adapt them to larp. I am a bet­ter film and lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor when I adapt a larp from the mate­r­i­al that I am study­ing. Weird, right? When we adapt and we engage more with the val­ues and the aes­thet­ic of the orig­i­nal, when we bring some of the val­ues and the aes­thet­ic of the orig­i­nal with us, even if we can­not repli­cate the film reels or the inte­ri­or­i­ty of the words on the page. And then our larps with our bod­ies and voic­es are now in dia­logue with the human archive.

So I would say look to the archive. It hous­es many human expe­ri­ences. Some of them are famil­iar, and many more are more alien than we think. Try adapt­ing real­ly great, com­plex books. Gravity’s Rainbow, the larp? Americanah, the larp? Really, we do have a bor­der here that we can push. Try also adapt­ing real­ly trashy books that no one knows, and you can real­ly do what­ev­er you want with them.

Look to the archive. We can take these under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed sources from so-called high and low cul­ture and give them voice through our larp cre­ations. Look to the archive and let our medi­um engage with the unfa­mil­iar, the uncan­ny, the uncouth, to be found there. For we are not just the cre­ators of liv­ing his­to­ry, we are the cre­ators of liv­ing fic­tion. And fic­tion has the capac­i­ty to stim­u­late the mind and body. Thank you. 

Further Reference

Overview blog post for the 2015 Nordic Larp Talks, and for this presentation

Evan Torner’s home page.