going off script, and succeeding

| 21 Jul 2015 | 10:50

For two hours, I was Shaktideva, one of the most promising entrepreneurs in the Terrestrial Coil. I had one mission: to convince six strangers that humanity’s future was within my field, reality engineering. If I could do that, I would obtain the Thousand Worlds Archive.

I was reserved, private and a bit cold. The first person to speak at the funeral was in tears, but I was more than furious.

Although I had no script and plenty of trepidation, I was determined to play my part.

I had acted in high school plays, but this — LARPing — was something entirely out of the ordinary.

LARPing — Live Action Role Play — is both an innovative art form as well as an interactive theatrical and gaming experience. LARPs generally feature a story with pre-written characters, each with their own disposition, incentives and goals but without a script. Participants interact with each other through improvisation, with the freedom to choose their own actions and dialogue.

Warren Tusk, 30, grew up in Westchester County and has been involved in gaming and theater ever since he was a child. But it wasn’t until he attended Harvard that he had the chance to fuse the two when he joined the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association.

“I didn’t learn about LARPing until I joined this club in college,” he said. “But it certainly pushed a lot of buttons that I was familiar with, so it didn’t take me long to fall in love pretty hard and fast.”

Ever since then, he’s enjoyed being an author and designer of theatrical experience games, but only on the side. He has a full-time job with the Treasury Department, but would prefer to LARP for a living.

“I think it is a median that needs people to popularize and work on full time,” he said. “But that doesn’t seem to be viable right now.”

In 2006, Tusk put together one of his best-known works to date, “The Dance and the Dawn.” It is a gothic fairy tale that features dancing and the quest for love and draws on sources from philosophy-of-gender thinkers to Japanese anime. It premiered at Harvard and has since been played dozens of times at LARP conventions in Ireland, New Zealand and China.

On July 10th, Tusk hosted another one of his games, “Inheritance,” a tale of strange technologies, property rights and trans-human dreams, at the West 101st Street home of one of the participants.

As I walked up the steps of the house, I thought of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage.”

The apartment’s décor mixed modern and classic under a very high ceiling. For an evening it became a stage for seven participants, including me.

I had read all the materials and logistics of the game before getting there, including the suggestion that we dress in character if we wanted to get creative. I chose not to, but all my LARPing colleagues did. I was a bit intimidated, not just because everyone was in character while I was in ripped jeans and sneakers, but mostly since everyone was much older than I, and seemed like they had all done this before. I kept telling myself that it would be alright, that the experience would be singular. But I was stressing.

We were given some time to reread any final points about our characters and their relationship with the others before we began. I felt a bit more at ease. I looked at my character as a real person, and tried to understand her and put myself in her position. Matters would just fall into place thereafter.

“Ladies and gentleman ... take a deep breath, close your eyes, and the next time you open them, you are no longer you, you are now your character,” Tusk said, while roaming the perimeter with his big black cane. “Let the games begin.”

I’m certainly not the first person to have found LARPing a bit strange initially, since, according to Tusk, LARPing is stigmatized as nerdy and weird.

“As things stand socially speaking, it has a lot of strikes against it that I find personally painful,” he said.

Most shut down and decline to participate because they feel self-conscious and shy about acting in front of people they don’t know. But people who initially think they wouldn’t enjoy it end up having a lot of fun, he said.

“It’s not a weird or inaccessible pastime that only particularly unusual people can appreciate,” he said. “The market of people who could enjoy LARPing is the same as the market of people who would enjoy watching a play or reading a book.”

Take Sarah Judd, 27, for example, a fellow participant of Inheritance who heard about LARPing from her friends. The first LARP she ever participated in was in college, and she played the role of someone’s best friend. Once it was over, she shook the person’s hand and began talking to him as herself and automatically felt comfortable. She felt there was no awkwardness with this person, even though he was a stranger, because she had been pretending to be his best friend for two hours. Since then, she thought LARPing was a great way to learn about other people.

“It’s a lot of fun to get into someone else’s head and play in that head for a while,” she said. “You get the fun out of theater without having to worry about cut-throat auditions; you just get to be someone.”

Before I knew it, I was no longer Shaktideva anymore. The two hours flew by, and I was taken aback with how involved I had become. All of the participants were friendly and welcoming, so much so that my stress had evaporated. And I won! Well, technically, we all did. All seven of us were able to agree on cooperating and sharing the Thousand Worlds Archive. My first LARP, which I had approached with apprehensiveness, had been a success.

Tusk wants to find ways to, well, replicate my experience and to popularize the medium.

“To put it in a pretentious way, I am an artist. I will keep doing what I do, regardless of if it makes money or not,” he said. “I’m just trying to bring this to a wider audience.”