Winifred Ward and Harriet Finlay-Johnson, LARP’s Forgotten Mothers

I have backgrounds in two communities that do not realize they are related. Mostly, this is because they are not aware of each other. Their members tend to move in different spaces both physically and intellectually, and they are each sufficiently obscure that few people from one are likely to see articles or information about the other. It is in an effort to correct this that I have written this article.

The two communities are Creative Drama and Live Action Roleplaying.

Recently, members of the Live Action Roleplaying (LARP) community held the second Living Games Conference. As this was partially an academic conference, there were a wide variety of presentations and talks, many of which were filmed and are available for viewing online. Although I could not attend myself, one of the most fascinating segments for me was the Role-playing and Simulation in Education Conference Hub. As you can see from the archived videos, there are many educators and gamers exploring ways to use immersive improvisational roleplay as an educational tool. There is some great work that these presenters are doing, and you should definitely check it out.

The only thing that’s missing is the awareness that this practice already has a 100-year-old academic legacy, and it’s called Creative Drama.

The Origins of Creative Drama

While the growth of creative drama was certainly organic and based on previous explorations of imagination and play, much of the 20th century work in the field came about because of a book by British educator Harriet Finlay-Johnson, The Dramatic Method of Teaching (1912). In it, she details several examples of her practice of teaching a variety of subject areas through student-led improvised dialogues that she called “plays.” (This is the word she used because that was the only term she had to describe the student interactions.) In these plays, students would declare characters for themselves and then act out how they felt the characters should behave. If they were studying history, they took on the roles of historical figures. If they were studying botany, they took on personifications of various plants.

Throughout Finlay-Johnson’s book, the focus is on the instruction, but the subtext is one of engagement. Students are shown to be inspired and excited to study topics they had otherwise found uninteresting. Learning is social and the learners motivated to participate. The teacher acts as facilitator rather than lecturer. And knowledge grows out of the students’ desire for accurate portrayal rather than the instructor’s desire for perfect retention.

At about the same time, Winifred Ward was sparking a new cultural and educational movement at Northwestern University and in its home town of Evanston, Illinois. As a professor at Northwestern and a partner with various arts organizations in the community, Ward developed the ideas of both theatre for young audiences and children’s theatre as performed by young actors, and she later oversaw the birth of the Children’s Theatre Committee of the American Educational Theatre Association. Meanwhile, she also shepherded the creation of what she called creative dramatics (now known as creative drama) as a curriculum in the Evanston Public Schools.

Ward was more interested than Finlay-Johnson in the performance side of drama, but she also developed numerous methods and practices regarding dramatic exploration not intended for performance. In particular, she focused on storytelling and reflection through play. Students would hear a story first and then take on roles or scenes from the story to portray, often examining those characters or images from multiple perspectives. Ward also incorporated theatrical elements like pantomime and tableau into these reflective exercises, creating a language and a repertoire of activities that still typify creative drama today.

The two primary styles of modern creative drama are exemplified by the differences between Ward and Finlay-Johnson. Ward often focused on the idea of reenacting a known story. This style allows for repetition and exploration of presentation, as well as an ongoing dialogue between actor and audience that breaks down such roles. Finlay-Johnson tended towards the idea of immersive play in which the only requirements were full engagement in one’s character. The more British approach to creative drama tends to involve open-ended exploration of social situations or historical events, sometimes without full knowledge of their outcomes in real life. This approach provokes reflection of and empathy for experiences outside of our own.

From Drama to Roleplay

Winifred Ward’s influence on 20th century American theatre is not always fully appreciated. It is, quite frankly, nothing short of profound. Her work was shared by fellow Northwestern instructor Neva Boyd, who then taught Viola Spolin. Spolin, of course, essentially invented the idea of theatre games and modern American improv. Without her (and Ward’s legacy through her), we would not have The Second City and its transformative effects on American theatre, television, and film.

Practitioners of live action roleplaying generally acknowledge at least some roots in Spolin and American improv theatre. However, since its earlier incarnations were focused more on entertainment and fantasy, LARP quickly distanced itself from the less obvious academic aspects of its heritage. In many ways, LARP represented a return to an older, shared legacy of imaginative play. Yet without the educational and theatrical undercurrents of Winifred Ward and Harriet Finlay-Johnson, modern incarnations of imaginative play would probably look very different.

Early LARPs more closely resembled the techniques of Finlay-Johnson – particularly in terms of immersion – but with a sense of story more like Ward’s. They involved taking on characters that were fantastical but then imbuing those characters with as much life and realism as possible. As with Finlay-Johnson, the audience was irrelevant and the instructor primarily a facilitator.

However, with the growth of American Freeform LARP, we have begun to see more didactic approaches to roleplaying. Game concepts and story topics have grown more serious and introspective, but at the same time the participants have taken on more of the theatrical techniques of Ward and Spolin. Tableau, inner monologue, spotlighting – all of these and more can be seen in modern freeform LARPs. Players may even explore and deconstruct the roles of audience and performer at various times throughout a game.

And now, with this educational track at the Living Games Conference, we have come full circle! Here we have educators seeking to use LARP and dramatic techniques to foster experiential learning in the same way that creative drama has been doing for 100 years. So to support their efforts, we need to reunite this estranged family. We need to provide these eager LARPers with the wealth of knowledge and methodology that creative drama has to offer, and we need to inspire creative drama with the playful energy that LARP can bring.

-Eric Simon

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