Q&A With Ryan Hart of “The Mortality Machine”

(Featured Photo by: Liz Paulie. Additional Design: Allegra Durante. Models: Jason Knox, Lara Marcin)

As I delve into different sections of the LARP-o-sphere on this blog, I’m going to be exploring a bit more journalistic content. This may be reviews of games or upcoming, big projects which are doing things to change the face of LARPing in North America. I previously worked with Ryan Hart on Sinking Ship‘s “Project Ascension” and now their next major event is a mix of LARPing and theater in a way I do not think the LARP scene has yet encountered. I am excited to attend the event, but I had a lot of questions which Ryan sat down and answered for me. So, here’s the Q&A about his upcoming project (Warning: Minor spoilers for The Mortality Machine ahead) …

ES: The Mortality Machine is billing itself as as much interactive theater as it is a LARP, but all the marketing I’m seeing makes it look far more like a theatrical experience along the lines of ‘Then She Fell’ or ‘Sleep No More’. What makes this a LARP to you?

RH: It’s definitely a LARP – when you come to The Mortality Machine, we give you a character, and you roleplay your character’s actions throughout the event. The most important element of the design is not dance or the machine or immersion, but in the fact you’re playing a person in an emotional situation, interacting with other people in the same situation. The narrative, the tension, the drama all come from that.

The reason you don’t see the word “LARP” in the marketing very often is that it’s a funny word that a lot of people don’t know. It’s like if I start talking about eating an MRE in the military: other people who were in the military don’t know what I mean, but it can confuse people who weren’t there (an MRE is a “Meal Ready to Eat,” a military ration). So instead of using the word “LARP” I refer to it as “live-action roleplay.”

ES: How will LARPers have an opportunity to interact with the event?

RH: Like any other one-shot, they’ll be able to tell a complete story about their character. The out-of-role portion of the Mortality Machine will be very brief, with only the elements that we can’t tell people in-role explained. The last thing we’ll do is give the participants a character… it’ll be brief, just a 100 words on the back of card… that they can use to motivate their actions in the experience.

RH: Once they’re in-role, they’ll have a number of activities to pursue. They can explore the laboratory for clues, immerse themselves in the narrative revealed by the ephemera, and, of course, dance with the dead. But the primary activity we’re designing is an opportunity to process these experiences with each other, collaboratively telling the story.

ES: Will audience members have a chance to change the outcome of the event every night or is there a scripted ending?

RH: There’s no scripted ending (or even a number of scripted endings). We have a couple events the participants can trigger, and there will be opportunities to resolve certain situations, but we’re designing to a sandbox style game, where you develop your own narrative.

RH: We will offer the participants, both individually and as a group, some choices they might make before the end of the night, and these choices have consequences. However, we have no idea how it will turn out on any given night.

ES: At the heart of it, how much agency do your audience members have?

RH: Almost total.

We say “almost” because there is a very particular “closed door” in the event, that the participants have to figure out how to open. There’s lots of ways to open it, but if a group gets stumped or frustrated, we have an in-role way to open that door for them, so that they don’t spend two hours sitting in a room unable to access the majority of the experience. So we’ve taken away one very specific element of agency: they can’t fail to open that door.  That’s just one small part of the experience, however, and the only place we’re putting in a failsafe.There’s also no violence in this event: you’re not allowed to hit or grapple another participant, and we will have no mechanics for it. So you don’t have the ability to use force.

We’ve heavily focused on participant agency because that’s what we believe defines LARP: the ability to tell a story as you go along. So we’ve reduced the limitations on agency down to just those two.

ES: Do you have measures in place so proactive, strong LARPers don’t run over quiet or more shy audience members?

RH: We do… but you’ll have to wait for the design document to come out to see what that is.

ES: When will the design document be released and how will it be publicized to your audience so they know how important it is to read? Is it important to read? What about audience members who show up at the door?

RH: Our goal is to have the design document ready by Halloween. It’s actually not important to read at all: it will be publicly available on the website and the community group, but that’s for the sake of transparency. Some people will want to read it, and so we want it to be available. It will incorporate everything you might think of in a design document, but it won’t be focused on the participant reading it, but on the designers using it. For example, instead of talking about how to do, say, the OK Check-In, it will talk about how we’re going to teach the OK Check-In, and the necessary deliverables as well. This is because we’re working with a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds.

There’s also going to be a second document, about a month later, developed with the entire team, that is going cover the “how we’re going to pull this off.” We kind of need to re-invent the wheel here, but we’re looking at a number of sources to base it on. This is going to cover stuff like “these are what these switches do” and “here’s what you say when you meet so & so.”  Whether we can make this publically available is yet to be seen.

In either case, no, you don’t have to read anything (part of our design specs is that no one *has* to read more than 100 words). You show up, and we walk you in, and you’ll be roleplaying within 15 minutes.

ES: Your lead dancer seems, from marketing at least, at the heart of the project. How muchMZ0A8912-tint does she understand LARP and how on board is she with a fully interactive experience?

RH: The entire reason we’re doing the project is because of Lara Marcin, our choreographer. We actually met with a number of choreographers and dance troupes working in the city, and we were about to shelve the project completely until we met her. Lara “gets it,” and our collaborative sessions always result in the project coming closer and close to an ideal merge of LARP and dance.

The key thing is what I told her at the beginning: people don’t come to a larp to watch a performance, they are the performance.  If you have a great dance scene that everyone is supposed to stop and watch, it will just interrupt someone’s roleplay. The performance element has to be interactive. To this end, Lara is approaching dance as a medium of communication.

What kind of communication? Let me lay out exactly how the dance works. At some point during the experience, the eponymous machine will allow a participant meet your dead loved ones. When that happens, they won’t move or respond like living human beings anymore; a participant can’t just talk to them. They’ll have to use motion and touch… dance… to re-animate them. And as they become more and more communicative, things start to happen…

ES: How many people, max, will be in each audience? Do you have a minimum audience number needed in order to run? How do you think audience numbers will affect the experience?

RH: The Mortality Machine is designed to run with 12 to 20 people.  In my mind, there’s a sweet spot between 15 – 16, but not so much that it significantly changes the performance.

ES: How accessible is the show: Do you need to be easily mobile in order to enjoy the experience? To be fully immersed? Is the venue fully accessible?

RH: There’s one big flaw with our venue, Wildrence. It is in a basement. There will be one flight of stairs for you to go down at the beginning of the night, and up when you leave. There wasn’t much we could do about that: our alternatives were prohibitively expensive.

We are designing to full accessibility otherwise. If you have mobility in your arms, you’ll be able to participate in the dance. There will be things to read, but we can help you with the reading if you’re visually impaired. And we’ve have figured out how to make sure that we can accomodate wheelchairs in the space itself, provided we can get you down the stairs.

ES: To average American LARPers, the price point of 110 dollars a ticket is out of most people’s range. What are your thoughts on the current debate on accessible pricing in LARP and how it’s becoming a more classist activity because of these higher price points?

RH: Art costs money. It always has. We’re employing eight (maybe nine) performers for a month… that’s a lot of money, and we’re actually right in the middle of the price range of an immersive theatre experience in New York City.

I think it’s important that there are options for everyone. Once a month, we run a Flashlarp! in Manhattan… we charge a $5.50 site fee for that. We have $50 experiences as well, such as Escape From Marseilles. Sometimes you have a vision, and that vision is going to require a budget. Having a $125 LARP doesn’t stop me from also producing $50 LARPs and $5 LARPs.

Project Ascension cost just below $20,000, and the base ticket cost $260. And we paid all the facilitators and storytellers and everyone involved. And in the end, Jason and I could have paid for single meal with the profits. We’re not doing this to get rich. We’re doing this to tell stories. We’re doing this because we believe LARP is an artistic medium, and we have art we want to make.

ES: What were the inspirations for The Morality Machine?

I saw the Linked Dance Theatre’s Beloved/Departed early this year. It’s a retelling of Orpheus in the Underworld, and I was moved by the theme and how primal that myth is. At the same time, I had no desire to do anything supernatural or mythic right now (we have a very mythic event coming up in November of 2019). I also wanted to focus on something with a very mundane element… bodies, machines, stuff you can touch. I’m personally an atheist, and I wanted to try to create an atheistic fable: one where there wasn’t some sort of supernatural design, but where the supernatural elements where just natural phenomenon we didn’t understand yet. Jean François Lyotard’s Postmodern Fables probably had something to do with that.

We should probably also mention Flatliners and The OA, because we’re definitely in the same genre as whatever they are.

ES: Is there anything an audience member or participant should do to prepare for the show? Should they prepare characters for themselves?

RH: You just show up at a bar nearby the venue, and we’ll come get you. Maybe have a drink (but no more than one!) before you come, if you’re nervous. But there is no preparation required.  You can buy a ticket on the spot and fully participate.

ES: What dress code do you recommend when attending The Morality Machine? Should audience members wear some sort of costume?

RH: The event is set in the modern day, in Manhattan. No special costuming is required. We recommend you wear something you’re comfortable moving around in.

ES: If The Morality Machine could change the face of North American LARPing in one aspect, what would you hope that lasting change would be?

That we start looking at LARP as an artform, and larp designers as artists. Our art is unique in that we don’t create experiences, but rather the opportunity for experiences. If we’re good at what we do, we give each participant the opportunity to tell a story, and those stories combine into a greater whole. We want to show people that it can be accessible and easy and fun… and still be extremely emotionally moving and thematic. So I guess the change that we want to make is that we look at every LARP as a work of art, and try to share that art with as many other human beings as we can.

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