I, like most fathers, enjoyed watching my son role play as a preschooler. I lamented when he stopped, as most young children do and as boys tend to do before girls. Then to my surprise he started up again. When he was in the fourth grade of his elementary school, a six grade music teacher had a problem. The boy rehearsing to play the role of Linus in the play, “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown,” decided he was too old for such things. My son was too young, but he could sing nicely. He was asked to step up. He did a very credible job playing an insecure kid who was terrified of losing his security blanket.
As I watched him play the part, I thought of the children I encounter as a social worker that hung on to anything soft to try and make up for not enough parental touch. I experienced gratitude that my son had enough sense of security to do a play with the big kids in front of an audience.
A role playing star had been reborn. He was introduced to a local youth theatre program. He went on to be the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast,” Hans Christian Anderson in the play by the same name, Charlie Brown in two different productions of “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown,” the miller and then Jack, of bean stalk climbing fame, in two different productions of “Into The Woods.” He was Tommy in the rock musical version of The Who’s “Tommy.” His teenage bother did a fantastic job of playing drums with the adults who made up that show’s band.
He didn’t get the lead in “Grease, ” but did a fine job playing “Rump” the class clown sidekick to the lead. (Grease is the musical that starred John Travolta, who had the hots for Olivia Newton John, in the Hollywood version.) Although performing a minor part, my son got the biggest ovation in the High School auditory when it was time for the curtain call. My son enacting in real life, what he pretended to do in the play. That was to turn his back to the crowd, drop his pants and actually moon the audience. At the time, I thought that he had crossed a line that he should’t have. I knew the director to be a strict disciplinarian when it came to stage craft. I was quite worried as to what she might have to say to me about my son’s performance. As it turned out she didn’t direct any concerns to me. The critique she gave to my son was, “Hey, nice ass.”
My son’s stage career ended on a stage in New York City that was booked as part of New York City’s “Fringe Festival” for plays that were off, off, off Broadway. The play, “Journey To Friday,” was written by the performers to portray how sleep deprived high school students get through the part of the week that they disliked the most to the weekend. The song that he wrote the music and lyrics for lead to a performance I will never forget. My son was a the right place at the right time when a CNN reporter wanted to know what the play was all about.
I had assumed that my son would go on to do some more acting in college or in summer community theatre, but no. When asked why, he explained that he didn’t care much for the narcissism displayed by many people that are drawn to the theatre and he would rather concentrate on his music.
However there was another type of role playing that he had no intention of stopping. Live action role playing (LARP) had become an essential part of who he was. My son got into LARP, because a friend was into it. He liked the idea of emerging himself in a role to become the player rather than just act a part. There was no audience to entertain, just fellow players to play off of under the supervision of adult mentors. There was much running across fields and through woodlands.
The performs created the characters and their quests and the setting. What happened next was improvisational magic. There was instruction in improvisational theatre technique, costume and making pure fantasy feel real. One concept that stood out for me was the “yes and” training of improv actors, as explained to me by my son.
When enacting their real life social roles many men get caught up in power plays. They want to determine who gets to play which part in business deals and during play time. In LARP improvisational role playing a player may declare that they are a wizard and is casting a spell to turn you into a newt. If you respond that it is you who are the wizard and wizards only know how to change people into salamanders, the narrative starts to fall apart. If you respond, “I see that you are a great wizard, well so am I and I will turn you into a salamander before you can cause me to become a newt,” the game goes on.
It goes on even better if there is less “yes, but” talk and more “yes and.”
The prop of choice that my son’s group used were foam swards. The swards were not symbols of violence, but rather of power. The power to do good and evil. LARP participants get the chance to enact many different parts and get a feel for the world view of the wicked as well as the wise. They learn how being a supportive cast member is as noble as playing the lead.
The story lines developed were creative, varied and wild. Stories could include monsters and heroes from faery tales, science fiction and history all in the same play. To play this well called for empathy across a diverse spectrum.
My son told me, he particularly enjoyed plays that went on for days, where he got to go to sleep in reality, as a fictional character and wake up the same way. I often thought this to be a better metaphor than, “walking in another man’s shoes,” towards understanding them. If you want to get to know somebody better imagine what is like for them when they go to sleep and when they wake up.
The leadership of the organization that taught my son how to LARP, told him and some of his LARPing friends, that they were getting out of the business and were interested in letting them run things. This kept my son going. When this organization didn’t play nice and turned leadership over to others, my son and friends decided to start their own non-profit LARP mentoring organization and compete. They won this real life challenge, as the founding organization dissolved and gave their large collection of costumes to my Son’s group free, because they wouldn’t be using them anymore.
My son went on to get quite an education in running a not for profit agency. The not making a profit part was easy. Making pay roll was another matter.
My son is no longer directing this endeavor, but it still exists. The “Wayfinder Experience,” as the agency is called, is still bringing the magic of LARP, to those who are not ready to give up on pretending to be somebody else.
I love the name. It speaks to life as not being about getting to where you want to be, but in the going there. In LARP, as in life, my son learned that you can be anybody you want to be, but you can’t be everybody you want to be and you can’t be anybody all by yourself.
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