Before We Wake: a short-larp about dreams. Copenhagen Thursday 6th of August to Saturday 8th 2015.
Dreams have been an almost lifelong source of fascination for me. I remember writing down and illustrating a dream in answer to a school assignment when I was 11. Something about a blue giant, maybe Zeus, resting against one of the neighbor’s houses where I used to live. I like the quirky, personal symbols dreams generate, and the strange stories they tell. Or those we tell about them after the fact. I’m also fond of weird fiction and surreal elements in stories and games. So I was excited to take part in Before We Wake, an experimental larp designed with the aim of exploring the players’ own dreams.
The event took place at Copenhagen Music Theatre, which has a large black box space. Thursday was dedicated to workshopping, then the roughly 50 players were split in two groups for separate runs; Friday and Saturday. I played in the second run.
The pre-game workshop was a walkthrough of the method. The larp itself was divided into three acts, with the first two almost functioning as another rehearsal for the “proper” dream-creation in act three.
At its best, I found the larp delivered some truly dream-like and intense moments. At the same time, however, it presented us as players with quite a roleplaying challenge, dialling both fixed character and coherent narrative down to near-zero.Scenography
Both the black box and its equipment were utilized in an effective way. Sounds and lights were continuously “DJed” to echo and affect the player’s actions. A projected video of abstract shapes filled the back wall with shifting light. The room where the larp took place was sparsely decorated with some thin trees and special tape serving as barriers (barriers which the players on my run happily and repeatedly broke through and stepped over; they were constantly being replaced by the organizers). Then there were some podiums placed on top of each other to serve as staircases, cliffs, mountains or hills as the dreams necessitated. It was a cool backdrop for such a game.
The players had been instructed to dress all in white, and were also provided with two sets of white theatre garments of some sort to play around with, one for the head and one for the arms. The white clothes created a striking visual contrast in the dark room.The Night Cafe
The play area had two main zones, used in every act: in the Night Café (with tables, chairs, water to drink and some snacks) you’d play the “dream envoys”, discussing the ongoing dreams from sort of detached meta-perspective, maybe even planning dream content. Elsewhere in the room, you were inside some vague, collective, shifting dream space. Either as part of the abstract, semi-conscious weaver-creatures, or playing the dream envoy playing your dreaming self, playing whatever characters you happened to be in the dreams of others. So the feeling of having one fixed character was not really there for me, most of the time.
The dream envoys are not you, but live inside you and try to communicate important messages to you through dreams. Or something to that effect. It was all a bit abstract to me, but reminded me of a peculiar concept my friend Matthijs Holter, who has a deeper interest in dream interpretation than me, has tried to explain to me without much success for a couple of years. In brief, he seems to believe that such “entities,” separate from ourselves, do in fact exist in our dreams and occasionally appear to us directly. Make of it what you will.
These beings gathered in the Night Café, where we were still in-character as dream envoys, but observing and discussing what happened in the dream space from a more detached viewpoint. The dream envoys could also make plans for dreams together, and collaborate if one of them had some specific content they wished to explore.
There were physical items stacked on shelves in the Night Café, small objects like those found at a flea market. We could bring these into the dream space. In the workshop, quite a bit of time was spent on somehow connecting these items to imagery or themes from the dream journals we had been instructed to keep in the month leading up to the larp. I had a hard time figuring when, or whether it would be a good idea, to introduce concepts from my own dream journal during play. It felt more natural to react to what happened in the game, and riff of other’s input, like with other kinds of improv.
I didn’t spend much time in the Night Café. A couple of the organizers acted as waiters. When I visited, they also prodded me – in character – about how things were going, suggesting things I could do. I read it as friendly concern for me as a player (“Is he having fun? He doesn’t appear to be into it.”) but it also felt a bit pushy or “outside the game.” Simply put: I didn’t know exactly how to relate to them. I did have a couple of nice experiences with other players though. One brief exchange with a Swedish player involved our dream envoy characters sitting at a table talking about ourselves – the players – our “issues” and troubles, what message we needed to hear, etc. We managed to juggle this conversation without going into too many specifics, without revealing the players behind the mask in a way that would “break the game”. I’ve enjoyed that style of metagaming or “fourth-wall bending” in role-playing games and larps for years, and this game catered to that.
A Danish player later requested that I set a scene for him, and gave me some keywords for what he wanted the scene to be about and what characters we were to play. This kind of meta-planning dreams in character was part of the design, and something the organizers had encouraged. I think it was the only time I experienced it directly. We went back into the dream space together and played out a brief scene with me as sort of a coach or GM. It worked: it had a simple narrative structure, and the player told me later on he got a kick out of it, so that made me happy. And for the only time during the whole larp, I pushed through with what we were doing even though other players came running and wanted to change the scene from our “journey of self-discovery in some temple ruins” to “the house is on fire, you have to run away” when the sfx smoke machine was turned on (with perfect timing for what we were initially up to). I don’t think it was a problem for anyone; they had their dream, we had ours. But it goes to illustrate the challenge you’d sometimes have getting any kind of coherent narrative with this design, even for five brief minutes.Weavers
One of the things we rehearsed in the workshops was the concept of the weavers. 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 synced. 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 in an odd way as one. During play, I mostly saw the weavers in action at the beginning of the three acts, as far as I recall. We were instructed to let the weavers feed us “themes” and other content for the dreams.
I felt a bit ambivalent towards the weavers. 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 symbolic level. They were more generative of moods and feelings. 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.
I also had kind of an erotic experience as part of a weaver unit in the first act. Collective… heavy breathing, panting, hugging, softly touching, dimmed lights contributed to that. I don’t think it was just me, and I heard a similar moment related from the run on Friday. I was a bit unprepared for the intensity of it just then, at the very beginning of the larp, and withdrew from the situation after a short while. I was torn between the feeling of “oh, this is very nice, I wouldn’t mind for this to continue” and “oh, I hope the players I don’t know won’t perceive me as some kind of creep” and, to put it bluntly, “getting a hard-on in these thin, cheap, white pants will certainly not look very smart.”In Conclusion
The production felt very professional throughout the pre-game and play, and I mean that in a positive sense. The organizers appeared confident, as though they had really thought the concept through and knew what they were doing. We were told this production had been in the making for one and a half years, and you could really tell. I’ve always been impressed, almost a bit daunted, by this aspect of larping; that volunteer organizers make such an effort for the benefit of the player’s experience.
I had great trust in the experienced organizers, and am usually happy to try out experimental designs. Parts of the larp did a nice job of generating a dream-like quality. It was an interesting production to witness and be part of. Nevertheless, it didn’t quite “do it” for me this time:
I realized over the weekend that out of all the things I appreciate with the larp medium, one of the core things I want to do in role-playing is simply play a character. The second most important thing might be for some kind of coherent, meaningful narrative to emerge from play. Both “character” and “narrative” were dialed down to near-zero in Before We Wake. I assume this was a conscious design decision. Your main character, the dream envoy, was “workshopped” by briefly closing your eyes, and envisioning the character in a room, behind the box containing your “items of meaning”. There were few later exercises directly related to strengthening or trying out that character before we started playing.
Play did generate some scenes that felt very dreamlike: shifting characters, more focus on mood than action or clear-cut narrative. I also experienced kind of a forgetfulness that reminds me of my dreams. It is hard to keep track of the “story” in dreams.
I enjoyed just strolling around playing secondary characters or even sort of game mastering other people’s dreams. I never really felt like a main character, as I usually do in other roleplaying experiences. The concept of utilizing content from my dream journal sounded interesting. In practice, however, I had a surprisingly hard time figuring out how to go about it. I found the concept for transferral of subjects, motifs and themes from journal to the game itself too flimsy.
The design gave us many good toys and tools, but we were also given quite a roleplaying challenge. With no fixed character, we were to play out dream content personally significant to us, but in a setting that worked a bit like “the collective unconscious,” where all the other players and their impulses also had a say on the ever-shifting story. We were to be inspired, maybe, by our own dream journals and the unpredictable results of an exercise in contact improv.
Sometimes it was nice just to look at the game unfolding. I had momentary flashes and scenes that felt both a bit profound, and very dream-like. Feedback during the brief post-larp round and online afterwards indicated many players had a great experience.
These remain, obviously and as always, just my reflections.
Larp designers and project managers: Nina Runa Essendrop, Kristoffer Thurøe, Jesper Heebøll Arbjørn, Sanne Harder, Mathias Kromann Rode, Kirstine Hedda Fich, and Peter Schønnemann Andreasen.
Improv-instructor Alex Fradera attended the first run Friday, and has some interesting perspectives about the design: After Waking: Thoughts on Before We Wake.
Danish larp organizer Peter Munthe-Kaas delves deeper into the design of both workshop, scenography and game structure than I have done here: http://munthe-kaas.dk/blog/?p=646
Swedish author Karin Tidbeck was very happy with her experience, and writes about it in this short blog post: http://www.karintidbeck.com/britas-holiday-village/2015/8/9
Danish participant Thais Munk has also written a personal blog post about his experience: https://thaismunk.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/before-we-wake-about-dreams-a-damn-wise-silverback-gorilla-and-blackbox-larp-as-a-media/
(Many thanks to Alex Fradera, Martin Nielsen, Dave Chapman and Evan Torner for valuable input on this text).