This past Saturday, I took a leap out of my comfort zone and played at Cabaret. It was a musical larp, based on the musical of the same name. The setting was The Silhouette, the city was Berlin, and the year was 1933.
At this point it probably behooves me to mention that this post is going to deal with the same very heavy and unfortunately current themes as the original musical – the rise of the Nazis, and persecution of Jews, Roma, gender and sexual minorities, and the political Left. Just so you’re warned. Cabaret was not a happy larp. There were moments of comedy, sure, but at least my experience of it was a study of one of history’s greatest tragedies on the level of the individual.
I will also be using the word “diegetic” a lot. It’s a term yoinked by larp researchers from film and theatre studies and I am greatly amused I get to use it simultaneously in both contexts. Basically, it means that which is true in the world of the story. The classic example is background music. For example, in The Temple of Doom, Willie Scott’s opening act singing at the restaurant is diegetic. It’s her job and the other characters present enjoy the show. In contrast, when Indy and co. fly over the Himalayas, they’re not really doing so to the tune of the iconic John Williams theme, nor is there a bright red line being actually drawn across China. These are non-diegetic.
This is not a review, more like an analytical description and utterly biased observation of the larp as I experienced it. It’s also going to be really long since this is the only venue where I get to write as long as I want. Oh, and there’s gonna be spoilers. This may be relevant, since the game script is a thing you can ask for to produce yourself. This was not the first run of Cabaret, and I would not hope that it was the last. The below is solely a reflection of my own experience and my own game, and should not be taken as the view or experience of the designers or any other player, except for certain points made about the Nazis which I am given to understand were, indeed, intentional.
As a final warning, I’m gonna be talking about my character.
Though the larp was based on the musical, it was not slavish about it: the club was different, the date was two years later, and though certain characters had clear models in the source material, there were no familiar characters walking around.
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The basic idea is simple: take a larp and mash in elements of the stage musical. It’s not the first time this has been done: Åbo by Night was a Vampire larp in a karaoke bar, the Russians have done stuff with songs as documented in States of Play, my very first larp experience included singing, the list goes on.
There were three different types of musical number: there were the meta-songs, which were non-diegetic musical numbers. The player would take the stage and belt out a song they’d practiced and prepared that would somehow express their character’s inner conflict. What our characters would witness would not be that character, who might be the 60-year-old landlady with no reason to be on stage, singing a song that likely would not even be composed for another 70 years, but an undefined musical act with the same emotional and thematic content. Basically, how most musicals operate. Everyone understands that in the story, Javert and Jean Valjean are not facing off in a song battle and that even if the Phantom did deliver his threats in verse, Monsieurs Firmin et André didn’t sing them out as they read them. It’s metaphor.
Then there were the stage shows, performed by a troupe of players who’d invested a lot of time and energy to practicing them. These were used to structure the larp and ground it in the source material. They were mostly drawn from Cabaret, except for one piece that had been adapted from Chicago. These existed as we saw them in the world of the game. The characters performing them were the singers and dancers of The Silhouette club, and it was their job to perform them.
Finally, there were the act-ending big pieces, which we all sang together. The first and the last were non-diegetic, while the second segued from a stage piece, was diegetic, and utterly chilling.
The performances were extensively workshopped on the game day. Indeed, there was a great deal of pre-game workshopping, around five hours of it, excluding breaks for food. This included figuring out the meta-numbers, getting to know the people in our social circles and practicing some safety techniques to escalate and de-escalate situations. Cabaret is the most extensively workshopped larp I have played, though I understand that four or five hours is not uncommon when it comes to the heavier and more complex Nordic games. To note: this was only my tenth larp.
The other part of the core concept is that it’s set in a drag club in Nazi Germany.
Cabaret the larp was adapted from Cabaret the musical, adapted from the play I Am a Camera, adapted from the novel Goodbye to Berlin. The novel was Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical account of his time in Berlin in the early 1930s, and was published in 1939. It’s somewhat distant from what eventually won an Oscar – for one thing, Isherwood’s self-insert character exists only as a passive observer in the book. “I am a camera”, he describes himself on the first page. In the stage musical, he’s Cliff Bradshaw, who has agency, who acts. Then, by that time Isherwood’s homosexuality was far less of a scandal.
Between the Imperial Germany of WW1 and the Third Reich, 1918-1933, Germany was the Weimar Republic. Weimar was a very liberal state with liberal policies. Berlin had a vibrant cultural scene and cabaret culture. Though (I think) homosexual acts were still criminal, the laws were largely not enforced. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sex Research pioneered sexological research and advocated for women’s emancipation, sex education, contraception, and social acceptance of homosexual and transgender people.
As the curtains go up for Cabaret, that’s just about over. The date is the 10th of May, 1933. In 1929, the Wall Street Crash hit Germany hard, creating mass unemployment, widespread dissatisfaction and political unrest, paving the way for a populist, nationalist movement. Adolf Hitler has taken office in January 1933. The Reichstag went up in flames on the 27th of February. There’s a crackdown on cultural venues, and most cabarets are closed. The first of the concentration camps was opened in Dachau on the 22nd of March and promptly filled with members of the banned Communist Party. Around the same time, the Enabling Act was passed, allowing Hitler and his cabinet to bypass the Reichstag and the President in passing even unconstitutional laws. On April 26th, Hermann Göring signed a paper creating the Gestapo. On May 6th, the German Student Union, by this point in time an organization nearly synonymous with the National Socialist German Students’ League, raided the Institute of Sex Research and carried away their library and archives.
On the 10th of May, that library, along with works by Jewish, pacifist, or otherwise “degenerate” or “anti-German” authors was burned in great bonfires on the streets. Smoke darkens the skies of Berlin as a crowd of cultural workers, prostitutes, criminals, Nazis, homosexuals, singers, dancers, businessmen and intelligentsia gather for one more night of entertainment at The Silhouette.
It was a moment of uncertainty. This was six years before war would break out and Hitler hadn’t been in power for six months. Communism was a more than just a bogeyman, the USSR was right there, and was rightly considered a thing to fear. The horrors of the Holocaust would have been unthinkable. Although people were already leaving the country in self-imposed exile, street violence was commonplace and minorities were openly persecuted, nobody knew how far it would go before the end. Things had been happening quickly and folk were still reeling.
My Role in All This
The characters were two or three pages long, name, history, contacts, social groups. Some room for players to fill in gaps. They were and also remain public, so you can go check them out yourself.
My character (no I’m not buying you a drink) was Marcel Scholz, second son of a wealthy Berlin lawyer and a Frenchwoman. He was the prodigal son, spending a lot of time in the universities of France and England, studying art, history, literature, architecture, the classics, and also the wine houses, theatres, and pubs. He’d finally been called home and given a cabaret to run by his father who had acquired it after its former owners went bankrupt, and told to make himself useful. To everyone’s surprise, he did.
At 36 he was old enough to have been adult during the Great War, but was also privileged enough not to have seen action or heard a shot fired in anger. This also meant that his university years fell in the 1920s, the age of prosperity and ballyhoo, the era when F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and all the rest were hanging out in Paris, while J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were both beginning their teaching careers at Oxford. I was amused to realize this and took it as an excuse to go through some period classics.
As the stage was set, The Silhouette was one of the last, if not the last cabaret open in Berlin, and that only because his patrons included some prominent Party officials and because he had removed some of the more outré acts, like the drag queen La Scala. Because of a last minute player drop-out from the performers, he had also recently pulled a Romani dancer from the stage under pressure from the Powers That Be.
The Silhouette was also financially in dire straits, and he was receiving pushback from the old patrons for his artistic compromises and pulling in the Nazi crowd. There was a possible investor showing up tonight, though, which was nice.
Nice, my ass.
This is the bit with the spoilers, by the way.
The first act was the soft start. We mingled in the cabaret, met our contacts, kindled the plotlines written in our characters. Marcel’s lover Anastasia introduced him to Mr Moneybags, Anthony Brown, who was looking for investment opportunities in Berlin. He also had to go an explain his decision to exclude Esmeralda from tonight’s act in the dressing rooms, which was immensely uncomfortable. And then there was my meta-song.
It bombed, horribly. It was the worst crash and burn I’ve had on stage since third grade. I was nervous, lost the plot of the song about halfway through, and fled backstage, shaking like a leaf. It was utterly mortifying. Fortunately, some other players reached out, brought me water and helped me bounce back. Additionally, it fit my character so well that a few players didn’t realize it wasn’t planned. Finally, it was pretty much the best spot in the larp for that to happen. There’d already been one song and I didn’t get to set the tone for the evening, and another player’s meta-song came right after me and the audience wasn’t given time to dwell on it. It was horrible at the time, but not the end of the world, and though it left me rattled, I think I managed to draw upon the emotion in my later game.
I’m still happy “Gonna Build a Mountain” isn’t the kind of song I’m likely to hear on the radio by accident. I ran into another player’s meta-song, “Hard Time”, at a shop the next day and was hit with all the feels.
It certainly did set the tone of the later game, when the Nazi footmen began to commit violent acts in the shadows during the second act, beating up Anastasia over something she had written. Anastasia’s father made the executive decision to leave with her daughter to London. Marcel was upbraided by Perle Sommer, an old customer, over his artistic compromises, and came to realize that while he had been rationalizing his actions as a way to ensure the continuity of the club and provide employment and a refuge for his friends and workers, he had in fact committed a graver crime than bad art and invited in the Nazis to prey on them. The second act had me in tears on multiple occasions.
And then there was the closing number of the second act.
What they’d done was take “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago and rewritten it so that instead of the murderers, it gave voice to the victims of the Nazis – a homosexual, a Jew. The Romani singer had been pulled from the act, her chair on the stage was pointedly in the front row, draped with a scarf, and her verse was not sung, the other singers just staring at the audience, accusing.
Then, it was interrupted by the Nazis, and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. And Anastasia turned to Marcel, whispering “I’m Jewish.”
As the song went on, those loyal to the regime joined in first, and then one by one, everybody else, lest they be pegged as dissidents and subversives. Targets. It was an intense scene, and I cannot do it justice with my words. It was the same kind of demonstration of strength and demand for loyalty, demand to join in, as in the clip from the film, except not gentled by the subtlety of the camera. It was brutal, blunt, aggressive.
It also basically settled Marcel’s endgame. There was no way The Silhouette was going to stay open anyway, so in the third act he made his plans to head to London with Anastasia, who made the unorthodox move of proposing to him. He accepted. When, expectedly, people came to twist his arm and force him to sell his share in the club, he acquiesced, sad and angry but also aware he was letting go of a failing business and could rebuild elsewhere. He sold it off for less than the price of its glassware, said his thanks and farewells to the staff, and was at the door the moment the final song, “What I Did for Love”, started playing.
It was a very neat dramatic arc, which I think is my first in a larp. It was all also disgustingly convenient for Marcel, so in his epilogue he got killed during the London Blitz.
(As a side note, when I ran the numbers for the price he was paid, 200 Reichsmarks, I discovered it was actually the equivalent of a few thousand of today’s euros when adjusted for inflation and probably worth even more than that when adjusted for cost of living. But that’s ultimately irrelevant for the purposes of the scene as it played out.)
Not really. They were forbidden, and not just because there was a photographer present and there’s some pictures you don’t want floating around removed from context. The second reason was that the organizers attempted to recreate the atmosphere before anyone knew what the Nazis would be capable of, and thought that having overt Nazi symbolism would detract from that. Personally, I thought it worked. Also, not having the Nazi characters with visual tags on them meant that you couldn’t lump them together or mentally other them. You had to keep tabs on individuals – people, with names, histories, likes and dislikes. The point I am making here is not about humanizing the Nazis. Really. Fuck those guys. It’s more to note that they were not a faceless throng of stormtroopers who marched out fully-formed from a barracks. Actual people, brutalized by an ideology.
It was also a study in how dissension was silenced, and how much easier it is to hunker down, mind your own business, and attract no attention. After all, I was not a Communist, or a trade unionist, or Jew. How, when everyone around you repeats the same things as truth, it’s so easy to go “yeah, maybe it is like that and those folks are to blame”. Tribalism, the lies that our genetic heritage or cultural rituals make us somehow superior to those other people down south.
For Marcel, though, there wasn’t really much of a choice. The “Cell Block Tango” in the script meant that he’d decided to speak out, and since he was already an educated man of the world, it was not a hard decision to pull up stakes and skip town.
And it’s relevant, today. It’s frightfully topical. On the day we played the larp, a Finnish government party elected as their new chairman a person I have no qualms calling a fascist, who’s on record for racism, homophobia, and the kind of violent fantasizing that makes poorly-socialized 14-year-olds particularly unpleasant company. During the writing of this post over the past couple of days, we’ve seen some well-choreographed political theatre play him into leading a stump party in the opposition, but this was not an event that should ever have occurred.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here, but over the past couple of years, the whole Nazi thing in entertainment media has grown stale to me. They’re enough on the news already, and not the kind you can get rid of by aligning the crosshairs and pressing Mouse Left. I rather hope things will never escalate to the point where that’s necessary. There’s also the issue of the present-day Nazi movements co-opting the imagery of even anti-Nazi material, such as American History X and… Cabaret. There is a very good video essay by Lindsay Ellis about this very topic which I recommend to everyone and not just because then I don’t have to repeat its content here.
Larp as a medium avoids the issues inherent in a blockbuster movie, though, since it is ephemeral and (usually) doesn’t leave you anything to replay to your friends, the audience is strongly self-selecting to begin with, and it does not support either mass consumption or passive consumption, certain Danish-Polish productions arguably notwithstanding. To get anything out of it, you must engage with the material on its own – and its designer’s – terms. There may not be such a thing as an anti-war film, but an anti-war larp is certainly a thing.
There is also the pitfall of trivializing the horror of what happened or the experiences of the victims of the Nazi regime. I realize that as a straight, white guy who wasn’t alive when it happened, who probably could’ve coped in the Third Reich just fine, since the kind of diagnosis I’ve got probably wasn’t in the books in the 30s and 40s, and whose country was kinda allied with Germany, I am the last person who gets to make this call, but I think Cabaret avoided that.
Do I feel like I have a greater understanding of history? Well… kinda? But that’s what you get when you do historical research for a larp or otherwise. I don’t feel like specifically the experience of being Marcel Scholz imparted me any greater understanding about life in 1933. Indeed, he was probably very 21st-century, even in the context of the liberal alibi provided by the Berlin cabaret. For one thing, I’m Finnish middle class. I don’t get antisemitism. I have no cultural touchstone, no context beyond history books for it. It would take a lot of reading to get into the headspace of someone in the 1930s who grew up in Central Europe at an era when blood libel was still a thing and the Nazis inundated the media with anti-Jewish propaganda. It’s also really not a headspace I feel a particular need to occupy and while there’s a time and a place for historical accuracy about the nuances of prejudice, I’m not sure it was this.
Cabaret was an harrowing, intense experience. I would not describe it as “fun”. Indeed, there were fewer comedic moments in my game than in the film. Rather than smiling, I spent more time in tears or on their verge. It was, however, a rewarding and satisfying experience, and far too topical in that way that makes certain uncomfortable pieces of art necessary.
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