What is a theatrical experience?
A theatrical experience, also known as “interactive literature” or as “live-action roleplay” (LARP), is essentially a play without a script or an audience. It's a story-driven game that taps into the creative energy kids use to play Let's Pretend, but in a structured and thematic way.
Explain further. What am I actually supposed to do? What's expected of me?
The short-short version is: you're supposed to spend the game portraying a character. That's the heart and soul of it, and everything else is gravy.
Some time before the game itself, you'll be given a document called a character sheet. This will tell you everything you need to know about the character you're playing – your backstory, your psychology, your personality, your motivations, your connections to other characters. Read your character sheet well, show up at the game, and...be your character. Act. Say what your character would say, do what your character would do, go after the things your character wants.
So...basically it's some kind of improvisational acting exercise, then.
Partly. There is more to it than that, but the details will depend on the specific game. Each different theatrical experience has its own rules around which the scenario is built, and its own abstract systems to represent the characters getting things done. All these things will be contained within a simple rulebook.
For example: if the scenario at hand is a masquerade ball for nobles, then the rules will explain how it is that the characters pair off for dances. If the scenario is a political conference, then the rules will explain what issues are at stake, and there will probably be some formal system for determining what policies get enacted. And so on.
Basically, there'll be some special rules to shape the experience, and you'll be expected to know them and follow them. But within that structure, you'll be inhabiting your character's skin and doing improv acting.
This sounds intimidating. What if I don't know what my character would say?
No doubt about it – performance can be scary. And it's true that a theatrical experience isn't, and can't be, a spectator sport. If you're playing, you're going to spend the whole time being active, living out your character's life. There's a lot to do.
But for all that...it turns out that it's really easy for people to enjoy the theatrical-experience medium, even people who aren't performers at all
Part of it is that there's no stage, no spotlight, no audience of any kind. All the action takes place at once, and the only people who see a given “scene” are the people who are in it. You don't have to impress anyone; you're just messing around, being someone else for a while.
And part of it is that these games are designed to help you make enjoyable stories. The burden of making the narrative work isn't all on your shoulders; the characters are written to have interesting things to say to each other, and the rules are written to put characters in interesting situations. Just say and do whatever seems natural, given your character sheet, and you can trust the game to carry the rest.
Once you let yourself get into it, you may be amazed at the quality of your own acting, and by the grandeur of the story that you're living out...
What happens if I'm confused? Because I'm going to be confused. I'm confused already.
A theatrical experience is managed by someone called an Orchestrator, also known as a Game Master (GM). It's his job to understand everything that's going on, and to help all the players have a good time. If you have any questions or concerns, go talk to the Orchestrator. It's what he's there for.
Am I supposed to wear a costume? Put on an accent? Use a weird vocabulary? Write lines or speeches in advance?
Whatever floats your boat. Really. Do whatever you think will help you have fun being your character. If that means using a different, special way of talking – go for it. If that sounds silly or pretentious to you – don't worry about it. All the interactions and “scenes” are improvisational, but if you want to, you can certainly spend some time beforehand coming up with things that you'd like to say in likely-seeming situations...just like people do in real life.
Having a costume of some kind is usually a good idea. It lends a lot of atmosphere to the proceedings if everyone looks the part, or at least looks like he's actively participating. But don't sweat it.
Can you give this to me in five super-easy bullet points?
Know your character.
Know the rules.
While the game is running, be in character.
Listen to, and make use of, the Orchestrator.
Don't worry. You'll be great.
I've seen the terms “PC” and “NPC” floating around somewhere. Can you explain that?
“PC” stands for “Player Character” or “Primary Character.” A PC is simply a character portrayed by a player of the game. The PCs are the main characters of the theatrical experience story, and the game is engineered for their benefit.
“NPC” stands for “Non-Player Character” or “Non-Primary Character.” The NPCs are portrayed by minions of the Orchestrator, and they have specific jobs to do in order to make the story work. They may have greater or lesser autonomy, depending on the scenario, but ultimately they are there to make things go as well as possible for the PCs.
One other thing. I think I've seen the term “LARP” before, but it sounded like something totally different.
LARP is a diverse and popular medium, and there are lots of activities falling under that umbrella, which hit almost every point on the spectrum between “game” and “art.” There is a lineage of “boffer LARPs” that focuses on physical activity and simulated combat, often in outdoor settings, which is particularly famous within the US. The theatrical-experience tradition grows out of games known as (surprise!) “theater LARPs,” which tend to focus on the dramatic interactions between complex pre-written characters.