Review by Sarah Hoover, producer / workshop leader / GM
April 19, ten people (and me) arrived at the NUIG campus to play When our Destinies Meet, described by writers Morgan Jarl & Petter Karlsson as a black-box Brechtian larp.
Verfremdungseffekt has been translated as “alienation effect” “distancing effect” or “estrangement”. According to Brechtian scholars Bloch, Halley and Suvin’s 1970 article “Entfremdung, Verfremdung”: Alienation, Estrangement” an early usage of Verfremdungeffeckt in German literature occurs in an 1842 novel in which parents are verfremdet when their children speak an unfamiliar language in front of them: “…they feel estranged, treated as if they were not present, or as if they were servants who were not supposed to understand.”(121) There is a certain contempt implied in the word which shows Brecht’s frustration with bourgeoisie audiences who saw a show, laughed, cried, and left without ever critically examining the on-stage situation or its real-life analogues. Brecht’s heroes aren’t heroic; they are criminals and cowards and liars – or are they simply that because the situation and community makes them so? They are also shown to us as if the actor is commenting on the character while playing her, complicating our view of the people we see on stage. Brecht, as a writer and director, used a varieties of techniques to confuse and shock audiences into intellectual engagement with the performance. When our Destinies Meet (WODM) interprets this intention literally, asking participants to step out of their characters to examine the situation on stage and the playing-out of relationships in front of them.
Which leads us to Haltung, or “attitude”. The word has connotations of repeated social patterns towards each other, which is the real strength of WODM. Characters are drawn in terms of their identities in each other’s eyes, the primary social relationships they have toward each other.
First, the eleven of us (two directors and nine players) decided what kind of party we would be staging. In our case, a fundraising party, in which a Society for the Protection of Cheese is trying to raise money to influence politicians. The lobby wants lawmakers to raise rates or taxes on already expensive cheese, and maintain very high traditionalist standards – excluding some cheese producers.
We were feeling a bit silly that night.
Once we determined the setting, we created some characters based on their relationships, a mechanical exploration of Brecht’s habitus. Many we used were from the game writers, and some were specific to our game.
- Cheese producer
- Romantic Partner
Discussion about which characters to involve established a creative tension between seeking greater structure and detail in planning a narrative before the game begins, and wanting to leave open character traits for the actor to develop and allow the narrative to evolve from the social relationships.
One of the interesting parts of the pre-game workshop was when participants commented that we were describing people based on a single part of their identity. This came when the suggestion ‘vegan’ was under discussion. Especially as some vegans and vegetarians experience contempt or annoyance from others, identifying someone as ‘the vegan’, it was decided, was both too limiting and too broad. What kind of relationship with a neighbor or a co-worker is signified by ‘vegan’? So we decided to leave that out of the possible character list.
Next we mind-mapped the relationships. The game was designed to give each character two connections to other characters, which seemed an ideal number for most players – not too much to remember or to manage, but enough to provide a ground for action within the game. Our triangles looked like this:
We also decided on a little fateplay.
The big climactic moment, we decided, should be something between people not in the same triangle. We talked about several different possibilities, and decided that “the future of cheese should be threatened”: the lobbyist and the cheese producer reveal an anti-cheese plot. This was not the most slapstick suggestion… To help us decide which fateplay event we wanted and make sure we were all more or less in the same play we picked a genre: political drama. The consensus seemed to be that drama offered more opportunity to play a complex character in a complex world, which is an interesting balance to the innate comedy of a cheese-based confrontation.
While I ran some pre-scenes with various triangles and let them get to know each other as characters, Aisling Smith created a Lars Von Trier-style set including kitchen, cloakroom, bathroom (with toilet, bath, and bidet) and large main room with cheese stands and a dais.
Then we played. Aisling and I acted as directors. We used metatechniques like internal monologues, pre-scenes and after-scenes, shadowing and others, many of which are described in the WODM materials. Relationships and dramas evolved. Some were narrative, like the ex-partner / romantic partner / employer drama which exploded several times across the stage and ended in divorce and possibly the sale of the house in which we stood. Some were based on competition and victory conditions, like the cheese producer / sibling duo who ended up being business and donation rivals. Some were experiential, like the neighbor and ex-partner hanging out in the bathroom and in what became a wine-bath. Each act ended in a focus scene, and I directed the beginning of the next with side-coaching about the increasing tension, also reminding players to step out and watch. Eventually the party-crasher, with his mother’s encouragement, flooded the bathroom; the cheese producer and lobbyist declared their new position outlawing all cheese, and the ex-partner denounced… well, everyone and everything, basically. And so our political drama ended.
General comments and observations:
Participants with more game-like experience or gamist motivations consistently sought greater detail about the social roles, looking for connections and motivations available between all roles for exploitation in ways that would benefit their character. Participants with a more theatrical background looked for an overarching narrative. As the director, I pushed us to leave these questions open to interpretation by the person playing them and open to the evolving relationships in the room.
Comments following the game demonstrated that the time constraint left everyone feeling there could be more to play with. And no one actually stepped out to distance themselves from the event, so the Verfremsdungeffeckt took place, if it did for any given player, after the event itself. But on the whole the attitude of the Neighbour summed up what most players confirmed:
“It was great craic!”
Thanks to all who attended, and special thanks to Aisling Smith who acted as another director. If anything I’ve noted here contradicts your experience of the game I would love to have feedback! Actually, I’d love it anyway. See you May 24 for New Voices in Art!