A larp about friendship, desire and the fear of death

“We’re all going to go crazy, living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it’s like, what we’re going through. We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime, and we’re all in the same country.” – Larry Kramer, playwright and AIDS activist

1982: It was the summer AIDS came to New York City

Two group of friends from New York City celebrate the 4th of July in upstate New York (at the former Saratoga rehab center). The 1970s have been a decade of women’s liberation, youth rebellion, anti-war protests and sexual promiscuity. This changed America forever, but the early 1980s is also a time of a resurgent conservative movement, with President Ronald Reagan as its sunny face. Gay men are migrating to New York to become part of the vibrant and hedonistic scene in Greenwich Village. Unbeknownst to everyone, however, the HIV virus has started spreading in the city. An article in the New York Times the previous summer described a mysterious “gay cancer”, but its cause remains still unknown.

Three years of the Fourth of July

During the larp we play three Fourth of July parties: 1982, 1983, and 1984. Each morning after breakfast there is an act break, where we find out what happens to the characters and their relationships during the following year, and then the next act starts a year later in the story. When the game starts, neither the players nor the characters know who will become infected by the virus, but the lives of all the characters will be deeply affected by the epidemic.

Our goal for the game is that all the characters will have friendships that are important to them, experience a little bit of lovin’ at the summer parties, and feel the fear of death as people around them start to become infected.

A story about two circles of friends

The story will follow two groups of friends: Mr. T’s very gay 4th of July party, and the close-knit friendship circle formed by the Saratoga cancer survivors.

The gay and lesbian group revolves around Terrence Thurlow (“Mr. T” among friends and enemies alike), a successful and openly gay owner of a public relations company. Every 4th of July he hosts a party for friends, past and future lovers, as well as new acquaintances from the scene, whom he finds interesting enough to receive an invitation. This is a party people want to be at, so unless you have front row seats at the Liza Minnelli show on the very same night, you will be there. A subgroup linked to Mr. T’s party is some of New York’s finest lesbians. They have been invited to the party by Pen, Mr. T’s friend and secretary. The Mr. T party represents many of the subcultural gay scenes in New York anno 1982, from Leather Men to Intellectuals and Activists.

In upstate New York, not far from the small town of Saratoga, there is what used to be the Saratoga Centre for Hope and Healing, a rehabilitation center for young people with cancer. The core of the other group of close-knit friends met each other as teenagers at the rehabilitation centre and have stayed connected ever since. Joani, Kohana, and Kim are the informal leaders of this group, and it was those three who took the initiative to write down The Saratoga Pact: in a ritual, they all promised each other to stay friends and to live their lives to the fullest.

After the center closed its doors five years ago, the group of former patients linked by The Pact started to gather here for the 4th of July. In 1977 they all slept in tents down by the lake, but since 1978 they have been allowed to rent part of the old institution. Every year they renew their pact of friendship. The rest of this group are spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends of the cancer survivors. As in many close groups of friends there are many overlapping and past (and future?) relationships in this group. It makes friendships and love lives sometimes quite complicated. These young cancer survivors have learned to celebrate life fully. Some of them are frequent visitors to free-spirited places like swinger’s clubs and some are practitioners of alternative forms of spirituality. The Saratoga group all represent The Alternative America of the 80s.

Last year Mr. T decided he wanted to get out of the city for the 4th of July party and asked Pen, his secretary, to find a place that was remote, but not too far from the city and next to a lake. The result was that Mr. T also rented a house for his guests at the former Saratoga Centre for Hope and Healing. This year, in 1982 both groups will return to Saratoga. Last year the two parties were largely separate, but late into the night they started merging. It is likely that this will happen to a greater extent this year.