The Power of Improvisation: Murder Mystery Party

This Saturday night I had the opportunity to partake in a live action role play (LARP) murder mystery party along with 30 other University of Chicago students. Having just covered the power of improvisation this week, I aimed to actively bring forth the material we learned and apply it in practice. Primarily I focused on the five characteristics of improvisation that Keith Sawyer draws attention to from John Dewey and R.G. Collingwood’s aesthetic theories in his article, Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity. The night began with each of us having already read our character’s backstories along with our motives and abilities. The setting was an Italian mob-ridden speakeasy in Chicago in the 70s. We all dressed in character, some people even going as far as to wear detailed makeup and glued on mustaches. My character was a secret intelligence agent posing as a news reporter, trying to lock up all the various criminals.

The first of Sawyer’s characteristics is the emphasis on creative process over product. Creative process as referenced by Sawyer is the process of actively participating in and experiencing an art medium rather than the focusing on the final product. (Sawyer, 152). Though I knew my character’s background and intentions, I made sure to utilize the first characteristic by not centralizing the completion of my motives one by one like a checklist, and rather focus on the process of actively experiencing the character I was embodying and learning about every other character in the room.

The second of Sawyer’s characteristics is an emphasis on problem-finding rather than problem problem-solving. Problem-finding utilizes a collaborative and emergent mindset to approach a problem or scenario at hand (154). As one can imagine, within a LARP thematically set around a murder mystery, there were no clear approaches to solving the several problems I had been tasked with. While bouncing around the room and meeting all the other characters, I found myself constantly forming new emergent questions and approaches to my character’s motives.

Comparing art to everyday language use was the third of Sawyer’s characteristics of improvisation. He believes improvisation is analogous to everyday conversation, almost like a branching conversation where two characters perpetuate a dialogue that is spontaneous (155). Embodying a secret intelligence agent undercover as a reporter allowed me to have some interesting impromptu conversations with the other characters because I was constantly creating novel excuses for my presence of a reporter at a crime heavy mob-ridden speakeasy.

The fourth characteristic and perhaps the most fun one that I was able to use during the LARP was collaboration with the other characters. With a murder mystery it was only a matter of time before alliances began to form and secret plans began to take place. One of my most brilliantly crafted rouses that night was to frame one of the criminals with having moonshine, as an experiment of manipulation for myself. As the night progressed, I received intel that one of the characters was an incredibly powerful mob boss. After solving who was secretly responsible for the illegal selling of moonshine, I made a bargain with them to confiscate all their paraphernalia and let them off the hook so long as they collaborated with me to take down the alleged mob boss. Along with this character, we devised a plan to have the moonshine dealer sell some of it to this character. Upon falling for the bait, I was able to finally arrest the other character. This was such a fun use of collaboration with the other characters and it all happened through improvisation.

The fifth and final characteristic is to use of ready-made in improvisation. Ready-mades, according to Sawyer are stock phrases that are drawn upon while improvising that help steer and structure the performance (157). I would argue that perhaps the fact that we had such detailed backgrounds and motives could be comparable to such ready-mades. We drew on them to give our character’s direction, supplementary to the constant improvisations we all had with each other.

Reference: Sawyer, R. K. (2018). Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity Author (s): R. Keith Sawyer Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 2, Improvisation in the Published by: Wiley on behalf, 58(2), 149–161.

6 thoughts on “The Power of Improvisation: Murder Mystery Party

  1. Wow! That sounds like it was a lot of fun! It’s impressive to me the amount of thought you put into your character’s actions and improvisation – that almost makes me wonder, if you put thought into improv, is it still improv?

    Did you feel like Spolin’s improv games helped with your improvisation? Were you thinking of this practice as acting or playing a game, or both? Did you feel like you were ever problem finding, as opposed to problem solving? Spolin’s idea of problem finding to me is kind of strange, and at first I found it hard to make it practical. When would I ever want to find a problem, as opposed to solving one? But I think now I’m beginning to understand the concept a bit better. For example, if you’re playing a mystery LARP, and there’s a lull in action, a good improv moment is to find a problem, and therefore help progress the story. How do you feel about the concept of problem finding vs problem solving, especially in relation to improv?

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  2. This LARP sounds like it was extremely fun to play. While reading your post, I was especially struck by the collaborative aspect. The formation of alliances during LARPs and ARGs is something that really interests me in general, and it also links to our reading for tomorrow about collective learning. It seems to be that this collective and collaborative learning is a central aspect to ARGs and LARPs that sets them apart from other gaming experiences. It’s also worth thinking about how this process can create ingroup/outgroup dynamics, like with the alliances that form during gameplay.

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  3. I was also contemplating something similar to Allie: when it comes to improv, to what extent does the context of the situation need to be spontaneous in order for it to still count as improv and not merely as acting? However, I suppose when it comes to ARG this is exactly the weird balance you want to maintain, one that scales purposeful acting (unreality) up against true improvisation (reality). This makes me wonder to what extent should ARG players know about the philosophy of ARGs before playing. It may be that having some formal awareness of ARGs before falling into one may actually help the game progress more smoothly, or, ironically enough, more organically. This could especially be a useful thing to think about when it comes to educational ARGs and getting learners even more involved and invested!

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  4. I find your discussion of Sawyer’s characteristics of improvisation really interesting. Going off of his point that improvisation is analogous to everyday conversation, did you find a lot of similarities between the LARP and everyday interactions? Do you think that honing your skills in one activity makes you better at the other?

    I am also intrigued by the ideas of using ready-mades. You state that you would argue that detailed descriptions of your characters and motives in the LARP could be comparable to ready-mades. However, I disagree. It seems to me that Sawyer’s edition of ready-mades is more similar to a script, while knowing the basis of the character that you are performing is more like having a template through which you can express your creativity, allowing for more freedom.

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  5. Would you say that some roles are more designed to problem solve than problem find? For instance, in my one experience as part of a Murder Mystery, I was one of the causes for chaos and thus problem finding came quite easily to me as everyone scattered to solve the problems that I and the game masters set before them. I have difficulty seeing how the other characters could have been problem finders, but also I did not experience from their side so I do not know. You mentioned you felt like a problem finder. Was this because you also actually caused problems within the narrative or were you more faithful to the traditional role of the detective trying to figure things out? If the latter, how did problem finding work there?

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  6. I agree in that this LARP sounds like it was an awesome experience. Given your emphasis on the collaborative aspect of the game, I am wondering how you were associated with these 30 participants prior to the game. As in, are you all close friends, acquaintances, or did you perhaps only know a subset of the players? I am curious as to how these outside-of-game relationships affect the improv and collaboration that went on in this setting and how game designers can work to mitigate the influence of previously formed cliques and groups.

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