When I tumbled into a weekend-long Victorian steampunk LARP this weekend, I got to try out a little experiment. What would it be like to play a character, and actually do everything that character would do – including all of the boring stuff? Would it help immersion or ruin it?
This is how I became a maid.
A lot of the players in this LARP are nobility, and to keep up immersion there are volunteers who bring drinks, serve food and deliver telegrams. They also help out in the kitchen behind the scenes. They work the hardest and mostly they are too busy to really play a role. Cue up the experiment!
I had expected to maybe feel more immersed, but I hadn’t expected that playing a character would make the maid work fun. Wiping a table or serving a drink became a way to give a very strong physical expression to my character. I had a specific walk and developed quite a bit of mannerisms. I was a insecure new maid, so almost all of my movements were insecure, hovering, jittery. It was very interesting to portray a character in such small details.
The subtleties of serving
I used everything I know about serving, etiquette and standing to make a passingly capable maid. A lot of the teachings from our Legend of the Five Rings game and our Ninjutsu class came in very handy.
- I always walked around people with a wide berth – if that wasn’t possible, I would jitter in place and look hesitant till I could find a way to pass.
- Whenever people wrote a telegram, I would hover in the neighbourhood wiping non-existent dust off of things. Just so that I could receive their telegram for delivery the moment they put down the pen.
- Whenever a noble did something emberassing I would attentively look away and pretend to have missed it.
- I would pick up things people dropped, offer drinks to people who fell asleep and ‘subtly’ offer coffee or water to people who appeared to be tipsy.
I also played up the comedy. So even when I tipped over a bottle or did something else wrong, it was just another opportunity to showcase my character. It fit together so well, I would stay in character even when no one was around.
Players easily picked up on the fact that I was playing a role, so they interacted with me happily and I ended up playing in quite a lot of smaller and larger scenes that were even more special by being interspersed with lots of hard work. It was a cool experience, and I if I ever get another opportunity to play a character fully again I certainly will. (Though preferably not for a whole weekend).
I’m a bit torn between traditions when it comes to LARP. The British-American LARP scene is currently in a period of intensely re-evaluating gender, sexuality, personhood and otherness. Our Flemish LARP scene, on the other hand, is more in a period of transition from combat-oriented to narrative play. There is very little self-reflection. So talking this much about my experience at all, and about objectification in particular will probably be really weird for them!
Of course we were flooded with pictures of the event afterwards. I was a little shocked out by this picture up here and how objectifying it looked. I mean: helloooo, male gaze!
Actually, this LARP was the most respectful one I’ve played. Flemish LARPs are often rife with lewd and often crude comments, but here manners were key. The few times I received innuendo’s, it was always about me and a person I had, subtly but openly, expressed interest in. So I felt very in control in that department.
But that doesn’t change the fact that ‘the maid’ is an objectified role with very low agency. That’s kind of what interests me, though! I love taking up a role that has no power and hacking out agency for it foothold by foothold. Building it from the ground up.
Besides, what is objectification in a LARP? It’s having no story. It’s being a backgroundless nameless person who is only there to fulfill an external purpose. So what better way to de-objectify this stereotype that than to play that character. To make clear that actually, your maid does have a name. She does have a background story, objectives, hopes and aspirations that can be crushed or achieved. You know, personhood! Whether or not you see that and interact with it ends up saying more about your character than mine (and playing a cold lord who thinks of servants as things is an equally interesting stereotype to explore).
I already said I was really excited about the scenes I managed to sneak in, so the rest of this post is just the ‘Let me tell you about my character’ bit.
The ‘Let me tell you about my character’ bit.
I thought up a tiny backstory for my servant in the car. I decided my name was Johanna Willems, I moved to Belgium to look for work, because I was involved in a small yet-to-be determined scandal in Holland. Also because Raetsburg has better job opportunites than Delfshaven.
The day we started play was my first day at this new job, working for the manager of the university restaurant as a temp. On the second day, the manager had recommended me, and the rector of the university himself came offer me a permanent contract! I was very happy with that, and served people while bouncing around for the next hour
Later in the game I also got different job offers. Nobles can only advance in rank if they have enough staff needed for that rank, so people are always keen to hire. I had plenty of opportunity to negotiate, and to try to get a better salary. Nice roleplay fodder!
The Burning Man
When we were working in the kitchen a man on fire appeared. We screamed and ran away as he took a few steps towards us, fell down and turned to ash. I ran up into the main hall, and was intercepted by a courtesan. She ushered me to the couch while I protested (“I’m not allowed to sit on that, that’s for the lords and ladies!”). Then she got me water as I protested even more.
I kept telling her I wasn’t crazy. Probably not crazy. Other people saw it too. Does this happen often? She told me she had similar experiences and probed me for details. This was probably my favorite interaction, but I have trouble expressing why exactly.Her way of looking and speaking to me was a little uncanny and the conversation kept slipping into these wonderful creepy silences.
Then the rector of the university came. He brought the doctor to see me, and told him to bill the university for it. The doctor was a cold and businesslike man whose conversation consisted of intellectual humor, logical reasoning and sighs. I didn’t like him at all, he made me very nervous and gave me a pill to soothe my nerves. I asked what his complicated words meant (“What’s ‘trauma’, sir?”), and tried to avoid being taken back to the kitchen so I could reconstruct the scene for him:
Me: I can’t go back in there, sir!
Doctor: Of course you can, you need to make dinner.
Me: But that’s where it appeared! The burning man!
Doctor (coldy): I’ll be there too, and I’ll protect you. Trust me.
Me: But… but… we don’t even know each other!
Doctor (impatiently): Well, my name is Leopold Caullewaart. So now we know each other.
Me: Um… you didn’t ask me for my name, sir? So we don’t really…
Doctor: Quite. right. What. is. your. name
Me: Johanna Willems, sir. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.
Doctor: I’m sure the pleasure is all mine. Now will you please go into the kitchen?
The cava incident
During the day there was a debate between two characters who were running for (some kind of) office. All of the fancy people were in attendance, and my boss was nowhere to be found, so I took it upon myself to sit around in case anyone wanted drinks.
Some people did indeed want drinks, and as I tittered back and forth I knocked over a bottle of cava standing behind our little mobile bar. It started gushing forth its foamy bubbles enthusiastically all over the tiles IN FRONT OF EVERYONE. Good thing I was in character, or I’d really be embarrassed! This way it was quite fun to shoot in a panic, rush around like headless chicken, try to restore the damage… and have to sit down again in my spot afterwards while the middle class people in the audience made mocking or reassuring gestures at me. Afterwards I looked them up and begged them not to tell my boss Monsieur Gaston.
That’s the only thing I actually dropped in a weekend of carrying trays, plates and drinks. So yay me!
The sanity restoring tea
Late at night, I ran into a crazed Englishman (Andrew Neale) who had some scary burn wounds in his face, and who refused to let go off of his gun. I dabbed his forehead with a cloth and tried to pry this fingers off of the weapon, but it didn’t help much. A psychiatrist (Bart Vanderstukken) came and told everyone to leave.
Fortunately, maids are nobodies, and the Englishman said I was ‘soothing’. So I got to witness a funny and elaborate psychiatry session that seemed to go in circles because “The gun makes me feel safe!”. Finally the psychiatrist asked “Well, what made you feel safe before you had the gun?”.and he replied “Well, a splended cup of tea would normally do the trick”.
I rushed to the kitchen and put on water as I searched for a proper cup and saucer. Two minutes later I came back with the perfect cup of tea and the Englishman could hand in his white insanity ring. That was pretty sweet!
After a long kitchen shift, I had signed up for a massage in the Shamrock Inn. But by the time my turn had arrived, it was 5 am, I had drunk a few whiskeys and I was still roleplaying. So we stayed in character as I entered the massage parlour of the Shamrock. It also doubles as a brothel, I think. But my host attentively dodged the question when I naively asked “Why is there a bed in this room?”.
I was asked to discretely take off all the clothes of my top half. Which, in hindsight, my character would have been shocked by way more if my player had been paying attention! Sad I missed out on some potential awkward scenes there :)
The massage was great, but it made me so relaxed that I was ready to fall asleep then and there. That certainly didn’t seem like the right choice for my reputation, so I dragged myself back to the mansion and collapsed into bed. And that’s where my Aether ended!