Twin Alchemy’s LARP for two explores love and life-long commitment
I have already forgotten the innocent sweetness of “playing house” in kindergarten. By using tree leaves as “money” to pay for the “groceries,” “baking” sand cakes and decorating them with dandelions, and tucking “kids” to sleep under the tall elm that served as a bedroom in our imaginary house, we did everything we saw adults do and strove to recreate our own perfect nuclear family.
In some sense, The Homes We Build by Austin-based Twin Alchemy Collective invites its participants to revisit this childhood activity, only with all the cultural and experiential baggage we’ve acquired as adults. This interactive, participatory experience is a role-playing game in which two people relive a 60-year relationship over the duration of four hours. They can be themselves or create characters, using a questionnaire that the creators of the experience—Katie Green, Sean Moran, and Michael Rau—have included in the orientation package.
The Homes We Build starts with the orientation package, a long and thoroughly constructed PDF, which is emailed to the participants in advance. I would like to emphasize how well it is designed, as it made me feel safe and cared for for the duration of the entire journey. It covers every question I could think of, starting with props that will be needed (nothing extravagant), safety and consent guidelines, worksheets for creating characters from scratch, and ending with a questionnaire to facilitate safe off-boarding and reflection on what happened. The experience itself is self-guided and there is an MP3 file that comes with the bundle. It can be completed in one session or multiple sessions.
For those who would like to clarify something or generally receive the information better aurally, there is a Zoom meeting preceding the experience. Sean Moran and Michael Rau go over the orientation file and answer participants’ questions. Attendance is optional; however, it is helpful in terms of highlighting the importance of details that can be missed in a quick skim of the initial document. Seeing two of the three authors of The Homes We Build on the screen also created an additional level of trust, and trust is key in LARP. You have to trust the other person enough to go through such an intimate experience and for The Homes We Build you have to be physically in the same space. Luckily, I didn’t have to search long in my quarantine bubble before I was able to enlist my friend Natalia to play my other half. So, armed with a coin, a rolled-up sock, a trashcan, and a few other props, we ventured into a new life as “Chris” and “Nora” by pressing “play” on the audio player.
A placid male voice comes in after the sound of a meditation chime. The narrator acts as a sort of director, describing various situations, voicing the thoughts of our characters, and giving prompts for improvisation. He also tells us how much time we have for a scene. The Homes We Build consists of a couple dozen of vignettes, each a glimpse into the lives of two people in a romantic relationship. The journey together appropriately starts with the first date, the scene to which the longest period of time is allocated. Understandable, since both of us need not only to find out everything we want to know about the other person, but also to find out who our characters are and slip into a new skin. The awkwardness of the first date layers perfectly on the awkwardness of the beginning of the LARP. But you would be surprised how quickly the transition to a full relationship happens. By the end of the 25-minute “snapshot” of our first meeting, I could literally feel the butterflies in the stomach of my character, Nora, who was falling for her new guy.
Some prompts are only meant for one pair of our ears and we have to toss a coin to determine who will possess information that the other one doesn’t have. I found these moments in The Homes We Build to be the most fruitful in terms of improvising a scene together. There was one vignette where I was offered a choice of three situations that lead my character into a certain state of mind. That narrative fork felt like a relief after being told what is happening to me by the experience. As much as my character wanted control over her life, I, as a player, wanted to take some authorial control and to challenge the character, to build her arc as well as as embody her reactions. As the player, I was given a chance to be creative with how the story unfolds. But as a character, I got to make my own decisions ( right or wrong) and not just react to the circumstances that were handed over to me by the almighty “playwright.” I wish there were more instances like this, yet, there were limitations to that creative license.
The experience of going through The Homes We Build is likely to be unique to every twosome of players. (I also enjoyed how Twin Alchemy Collective incorporated physical touch into the experience but don’t want to give away any spoilers.) Despite the pre-existing script, we each bring our own baggage and fantasies to the experience, which might bring forth different aspects of it. Along the way come topics of trust, responsibility, commitment, caregiving, and death.Going through scenes indicating relationship milestones of various significance and scale evoked a lot of emotions in me. Living through happy occasions, trying times, and everyday moments together mostly felt very real but, occasionally, it was puzzling and pushed me out of the experience.
It felt like the characters that we had created, an asexual trans male and a cisgender female, were shoe-horned into the paradigm of a heteronormative relationship. The experience’s creators didn’t set limits on who we dreamed up but the scenarios they gave us didn’t really take gender and sexual fluidity into account. We might be discussing how the institute of marriage means very little to us, and then, in the next scene, we would be asked to say our wedding vows by the LARP. We could be talking about focusing on our careers for a while and not having kids, and then next prompt joyously announces that we are pregnant (or had gotten a green light on adoption). For myself and my friend, in order to keep up with the development of the story that somebody had already pre-written for us, we had to really stretch our imaginations. Spoiler: that’s how we ended up with going parachute jumping instead of a wedding and an adopted son who was practically left on our stoop. As my LARP partner noticed, “Sometimes things just happen.”
But both my character and I were outraged by how control over one’s body and personal life can get snatched from you in an experience like this, especially for non-conforming subjects. This might be read simultaneously as both the flaw of the experience (I felt like I am being forced to do something I don’t want to do) and its biggest success (in a very dramatic way, I faced the pressure marginalized others feel in real life). Learning not only about yourself, but also getting closer to understanding the experience of the “other” is precious.
After all, isn’t that what art is about?
(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on 9.11.10)