Episode 1: Jesse Stanley – Live Action Role Play

Jordan: I’m Jordan Werme and this is Table To Stage. Let’s get the pod started. 

Anytime I start a new project, I always end up reaching out to people that I know first, and this podcast is no exception. I am fortunate that I know lots of very different creative people across many different disciplines. One of the first people I reached out to is a long time friend of mine, Jesse Stanley. He’s an extensive hobbyist – and among those hobbies is live action role play which Jesse was nice enough to sit down and discuss with me. 

If you enjoy the pod, please leave a review on your podcast service or comment on Tabletostagepod.com – and if you’d like to appear on the pod you can email tabletostage@gmail.com or you can send me a message from the website. Of course, you can subscribe on Podbean, iTunes and Google Play. 

Now, here’s my conversation with Jesse for from his workshop. No stormtroopers were harmed during this recording. 

I am here with Jesse Stanley. He’s one of the more creative people I have known. He is involved in live action roleplay and custom costume building. I am going to talk to him about that a little bit today. Jesse, go ahead and introduce yourself.

Jesse: Hi everybody. Like Jordan said, I’m Jesse. I have been involved in live action roleplay since I was 17 years old, was that twenty something years. Twenty-something years. Not forty yet but I have been involved with that since then. I have always been interested in costuming and certainly LARPing has been an avenue for my creative energies there. I don’t do as much cosplay so much as building costumes for a LARP and I love Halloween. It’s another excuse to wear a lot of my costumes out and about and not have people look at me strange or stranger than they already do.

Jordan: How did you first get introduced to live action roleplay because I know the first time I had even heard of it was when I think you brought it up to me. That’s a possibility.

Jesse: In high school, a gaming store opened up near my high school. I got into Magic: the Gathering and I was always into Dungeons and Dragons. This gaming store opened up. I remember watching it being built on the bus on the way home from school. I would walk home and so I remember when it opened I said, “Mom, I’m going to walk to this gaming store.” I went there and I got involved in all these other games, too. There were a lot of different board games, a lot of miniature games, like the Warhammer 40k and all these other games. There was a guy at that store there who was telling stories about live action role playing games. I was like, “What’s going on? What is this?” There were two different games that were going on. There was a vampire live action role playing game and there was also another game called NERO, New England Roleplaying Organization. They had a couple of games in the area at that time. He was telling us all these stories. I read the Dragonlands series and stuff at this time.

Jordan: This was the late 90s?

Jesse: Yeah. Late 90s. I was super into all that and I’m like “What? I could run around the woods and be the characters that I am reading about in the books?” I remember that you had to be, for the vampire LARPS, I started playing those but those weren’t costume intensive so much. You had to be at least 16. My mom would drive me to those things. But the live action role playing games that involved costumes and full weekends and stuff, you had to be 16 to play. 

I remember convincing my mom that it was okay for me to go away for this weekend to do this thing. My older friend was going to pick me up and drive me there and I’m finally was like “Yeah. I am old enough to go.” I think by that time I was probably 17 or something. I was old enough to go and like, “Yeah Let’s go do this.” I went there for a weekend and I think my life was changed at that point. I think a lot of people don’t realize that there are all these little communities out there that are doing this and on any given weekend there are anywhere from 100 to 300 nerds running around, hitting each other with foam weapons, and talking in these voices in the woods.

Jordan: That sounds like a good time.

Jesse: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.

Jordan: Was LARP your first role playing experience or had you been playing the table top?

Jesse: No, I started playing Dungeons and Dragons somewhere in early high school. My friend had kind of introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons. That was my first role playing experience. Before that I got into the fantasy novels associated with that. It was really an easy transition for me there. Fantasy novels, Dungeons and Dragons, gaming, LARP.

Jordan: Nerd evolution.

Jesse: Yeah. In high school, I was not a theatre kid as far as being an on stage theatre. I was always in tech. I was always behind the scenes, building sets, and helping with all that stuff. I was the guy in all black changing sets and doing all the things. I was involved in theatre one step removed. That was a fun way for me then. Also, then, I’d take on roles and do that type of stuff.

Jordan: Have you ever done any stage acting at all?

Jesse: Oh, yeah! I did some community theatre. I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I did Zoo Story at one point. Periodically, I’m like, “Community theatre. Let’s do it.” I do like doing that stuff, too.

Jordan: Since you started with your role playing and live action stuff, from a creative standpoint, what has been your biggest challenge? How have you been able to express yourself in a way differently from other people that are playing with you?

Jesse: It’s a good question. I think that for me it is very easy, especially when you play a live action role playing game, you can do it for multiple years at a time in a row and play the same character. Some of the longest play characters I have had, I played for consistently 8 to 10 times a year for an entire weekend for 5, 6 up to 10 years straight. The same character. It is easy when you first start off. I feel like you’ve got this, “Oh, I got this character concept” outside of the stats. Who cares about the stats. 

But I’m like, “Oh, I’m playing this half-orc who is really dumb but he wants to be a noble one day. He doesn’t even know how to read and he is in this medieval society where they say ‘You’re not even human. We look down on you.’ So you’re like, ‘Oh, cool.’ I’m playing this dumb half-orc who wants to be a noble.” The goal is to play a character that is capable of change and having that change and evolution happen and also then not sliding to being just yourself in green makeup talking in a silly voice. It happens eventually sometimes where in weekend you’re like “Yeah, that was just me cracking jokes in green makeup and not me playing the character,” especially when that role happens over a course of years. That’s the challenging part, I think, for me at least.

Jordan: For playing the live action games, I know that the mechanics for that are similar to Dungeons and Dragons, table top. Obviously you’re not throwing dice at each other to see who’s got the higher role but do the mechanics of that game or any other of the games that you play limit you or do you find that they enhance what you’re able to do creatively with your character or interacting with other players?

Jesse: It’s funny. I feel like you could approach it where the mechanics are your bounds but I think especially when people have been doing it for a long time, the mechanics are there to just express the certain aspects of the game that you can’t otherwise use. Once you’re in role with other people, I think with really good role players, you don’t care about the mechanics as much and sometimes in reality, they get in the way. I think it’s important to have a “Yes” attitude from improv theatre when you’re doing LARP. The way I describe it to people who have no included what it is “It’s like improv theatre with a light set of rules.” 

You’re like “Hey, this is our framework. Go.” There’s a world that usually has been created by the people running the game. You’re like, “Okay. Let me read about the cultures so I can get a good backstory. Let me develop a character that I feel would fit in this world,” and then from there, everything you do is up to you and the rules that are in place are there. I know what happens when someone casts a web spell on me. Alright, cool. I know how long I’m supposed to be standing still for and things like that. But at the end of the day, those aren’t the things that make a really dynamic and interesting game.

Jordan: How has the interaction with all the other players interpersonally changed the way you play your character and how the actual story that you are telling as a group moves forward?  Some of you are probably role playing more intensely than others and so maybe there’s some aspect of it that you might feel like you’re being pulled out of your character at some point. How do those interactions impact the way that you go about playing?

Jesse: I think you bring up a really good point about intensity. Some people are like “Wow, that person is totally in their character” and they could be playing with someone who you’re like, “They’re such an asshole. They’re such a jerk. They’re so mean,” but in real life, they are the nicest person in the world, so understanding that. Also I think for me, I like to think that I embody a decent role player.

There are certainly people who blow me out of the water who are just so in role and so immersed all the time, but I like to think that my goal when I go into any role playing game is to not detract from the scene that’s around me. Sometimes you’re not into it or sometimes you’re not feeling good or whatever. There are reasons why you might not be at your A game. If I walk into a scene that is going on and is interesting, I am like “Cool, maybe I can just spectate and witness the scene” and that’s awesome and it’s not my time to be in the spotlight.

Whatever I do in that scene that’s going on doesn’t detract from other people’s fun. Any decision that I make for my character should ultimately enhance the fun of other people around me and create this more like an interaction and not detract from it. I think if we go into it with that mentality, you’re generally going to do well at any LARP you do.

Jordan: Sure. I guess that even if you’re not feeling that you’re on your A-game or that you’re playing with the intensity that others are, I would assume that being around those people who are demonstrating that intensity and the passion at what they’re doing, it probably drives that everybody around them to step it up a little bit.

Jesse: Absolutely. Definitely. There are people their mere presence in the scene elevates the scene. They’re really into it and then it helps you be more immersed into the scene. If somebody walks in and they’re not settling in and they look awkward and uncomfortable, then everybody around them feels that and sees that and it pulls everybody out. 

Jordan: That’s probably the way I looked at one time I played.

Jesse: But then you come in and there’s somebody who has got this great epic monologue before this great battle and there are people banging on their shields and doing this stuff and then you’re like “Oh, man. Alright.” You forget for a moment that you are holding on to a repurposed golf club with pipe insulation on it and duct tape and you’re wearing green makeup and you’re wearing chainmail armor that you’ve made in your basement. You forget some of these things.

Jordan: You bring up the props and the chain mail which is pretty interesting because I have done quite a bit of theatre, mostly musical theatre. I did the one LARP weekend which was a blast. I had so much fun. I have always found that as awkward as it is for me during the rehearsal process for a show that I am in, once the costumes are coming out and once the wigs go on, you take on this new relationship with the character. How do the costumes and the props and all of that kind of stuff impact what you’re doing?

Jesse: I couldn’t imagine doing without it. Like you said, it would be like being in the awkward rehearsal period. I could pretend to be my character right now and it would feel really weird but if you were to put on the armor and put on the costume it’s so much easier to be like “Okay, cool.” You’re putting on that character. The costumes and the props are everything. You’re asking a large group of people to pretend for an entire weekend, and the majority of that weekend. There’s not a lot of downtime.

Certainly you go back to your cabin and you could be “Alright. Decompress for a bit” whatever, but for the most part, we get there on Friday night and we end on Sunday afternoon. For the majority of that time, you’re on. Certainly the props and special games, some games kind of overboard in their special effects and pyrotechnics  and whatever going on, really helped to drive that immersion. Then it’s much easier to be that character and not feel awkward about it. “Hey, I’m with 100 other people who are doing the thing.”

Jordan: Everybody else is wearing chainmail, too. There’s nothing weird about it for me there.

Jesse: Yeah, exactly. But I will say getting involved in LARP for me has been developmental as a person outside of LARP. I think in high school I was certainly a shy person and then on the weekends, I’m charging into the phase of 100 Undead, battling, and having big political discussions with the king or knight. It helps you with the social skills. Then outside of that, it was the crafting aspect of it. 

I have learned how to sew. I’ve learned how to do leather working. I have learned metal working. I took a welding class so that I can do better metal working. I learned how to make armor and I learned about history and I learn about all these things and it’s so fascinating. It drives a lot of my hands on craftiness. I am not an artist by any means. There are people who draw and paint but that’s not my thing.  But if you tell me “Hey, make a costume and work with this fabric. Go to Walmart and wander ailes until you find that weird bath strainer that you can decorate to look like something else,” I’m there.

Jordan: Wow. How many costumes have you made just for your LARP characters over the years?

Jesse: I have a walking closet that is 100% dedicated to nothing but costumes and props. I have other costumes and props that don’t fit in my walking closet. I have been playing LARP for twenty something years and so I’ve made a lot of different costumes. You can repurpose certain things, of course.

Jordan: Sure. Is there a favorite one that has a sentimental value to you?

Jesse: Oh, man. I have a piece of costuming that I know I will never wear again and it is like the cheesiest, easiest thing in the world. It is nothing special compared to other things that I have done but it is hanging out from my closet and it reminded me of the first iterations of my ork that wanted to be a noble. I made this tabard for him and the goal was to make the crappiest tabard ever. It was seriously a piece of white fabric and we cut a hole out in it for my head. It was a whole fabric about shoulder width wide, belted, and it went about to knee length. I painted on it the symbol for his clan with my hands. Finger painted it on. 

Jordan: As orcs do.

Jesse: Yeah. The goal was to be like that. And then I proceeded to then take this white piece of fabric and rough it up, throw it into the mud and dirt. At one point I had a friend. I threw it on over my chained armor that I had made for his character and I had my friend drag me around in the dirt.

Jordan: That’s dedication in character.

Jesse: Yeah. Very dedicated. I wore that tabard and it was so ratty and really poor. Compared to the other parts of my costume, he’s wearing real armor and he has got those really piece of crap fabric that he threw on and he hand-painted the symbol on. It was really funny and then eventually if you look at that character later on in the line, I was wearing very nicely sewn surcoat and a very nice armor. The character eventually became a knight, eventually became a noble, and eventually learned to read.

Jordan: You adapted the costume as a character change within the game?

Jesse: Yes, absolutely. But then I have that piece sitting there hanging up and I’m like “Oh, yeah. I remember that.”

Jordan: You have a dirty sheet in your closet?

Jesse: I have a very dirty sheet. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be washed.

Jordan: That’s sort of a low brow DIY costume. What would you say is the most complicated or technically impressive piece of costume you’ve ever done?

Jesse: It’s hard to choose right now because I have a couple that I have been crazy on. I want to talk about two, real quick. One was, it wasn’t for LARP but it was for halloween. I did a four-legged monster on stilts.

Jordan: Is this like something out of the dark crystal?

Jesse: Yeah, kind of. It looks like that. It wasn’t a specific reference of something but certainly if you Googled four-legged stilt costume, you will find the costume I am talking about that people have done their interpretations of. I have built my own peg stilts. I have used the large foam and fabric and things to build the body and the legs. I took crutches and took out the bottom part and extended them and built the foam around that. I was walking around in all fours, basically. I was probably over 8 feet tall-ish and we’re all set and done.

Jordan: This was for Halloween? 

Jesse: This was for Halloween. I walked around my front yard and terrorized small children for a couple of hours.

Jordan: I can imagine the terror.

Jesse: It was amazing. But I have become known in my neighborhood as “The House”.

Jordan: Yeah, that’ll do that.

Jesse: Then I went downtown to Northampton and I walked up and down Main Street because Halloween was on a weekend. There were people in the bars and clubs and I just walked around. They had these restaurants and the windows of the restaurants where people are sitting are above street level and I was eye level of the people who were sitting there and I’m looking in the window at them while they’re eating. It’s fantastic.

Jordan: Terrorizing adults during dinner now.

Jesse:  Yeah, it was fantastic. That was my probably longest and biggest build.

Jordan: How long did that take you to build?

Jesse: Shockingly, a week and a half.

Jordan: That’s faster than I imagined that was going to be.

Jesse: I didn’t have a life on the week and half. My girlfriend at that time was helping me out a lot. She was instrumental in getting that done then. She was also very crafty, so it helped out.

Jordan: Oh. That’s very handy.

Jesse: The other costume that I did for another Halloween was a demon on stilts again. These stilts were digitigrade stilts. They had the backward bend animal legs.

Jordan: They’re like the jumping stilts.

Jesse: They’re not though. There are jumping stilts but these are specific. They’re not springing like the jumping stilts. I bought those stilts and then I built four covers with hooves for those and build the costume around it and I had a very elaborate mask. The wings didn’t get done for that Halloween but I am hoping to finish them. They’re animatronic wings on the remote control of pneumatics, like electro-pneumatics.

Jordan: Something simple.

Jesse: Yeah.  Something simple. Basically, it looks like a car remote and I can make the wings expand and contract. Those are in the process of being done. I will probably finish them for this year if I get around to it behind the other costumes I’m building.

Jordan: I need to see that when it’s done. It sounds incredible. I know you’re a bit of a Star Wars fan. We’re in your workshop right now. I don’t know if a blaster went off and disintegrated a bunch of stormtroopers or what’s going on here? But there’s armor everywhere.

Jesse: There is. Yes. I am in the process of building a screen accurate stormtrooper armor and I am trying to join the Firber First, which is a  Star Wars costuming group that does charity events and things like that. In order to get in, you need a screen accurate pseudo stormtrooper armor. I have got the kit. Obviously I haven’t built it from scratch but the build itself is pretty involved.

Jordan: Does it come with a blaster that can hit anything or do you have to do that yourself?

Jesse: I won’t hit anything with any blaster. I don’t have a blaster. Actually, blaster isn’t even required to get in, which is cool because some places they’re like “Ah, fake guns.” But here it is. I have my armor and I’ve somebody else’s armor who I met through the group who lives pretty local. He’s building armor, too, so that he and I can get together and hang out and drink beer and build stormtrooper armor.

Jordan: As you do. What’s the biggest challenge for you for something like this because just seeing all the pieces, when my kids pull a puzzle off the shelf I get a little bit nervous. This is going to take forever. This is a long term thing, I would guess. 

Jesse: I think the thing for me is I don’t want to screw up. It’s not like you can just go to the store. If I screw up a costume I’m sewing or something, I’m like “Oh, man. I sewed that wrong. I can undo some stitches or I could go back to the store and get more fabric and it’s cheap” This is ABS plastic that’s being vacuum molded into the straps, the armor, and you have to do a lot of fitting, a lot of gluing, and a lot of clamping. I want to make sure that it’s done right in the first time. It’s nice that I’m working with some people who have built this before who are helping me out, doing a little guidance.

They’re a really good group of guys whom I met through this who are coming over. We do armor builds and parties, stuff like that. It’s a slow process, especially if you have to wait for that glue to dry and cure and free to move on. My goal is “Do it well. Don’t mess up.” If you mess up, there’s a certain amount of messing up you can do and then there’s a certain amount of messing up you can do where you’re like, “I need to go buy a new piece.” That could take a long time to get replacement and it could be very expensive.

Jordan: In your forays into this costume building and live action role playing, have you ever come across somebody that you would consider a mentor or somebody that you’ve learned a lot from along the way?

Jesse: Definitely. To be honest, I met some of my best friends in life through live action role playing games and certainly people who I have admired, their role playing or the way they’re in character aned stuff, I look up to them. Any activity that you’re in to. For you, regular musical theatre. I’m sure there’s somebody out there who you’re like, “Oh, they’re amazing!” and you almost fanboy. 

Jordan: Honestly, the reason I do it all is so that I can watch most of the people I get to perform with.

Jesse: Right. There’s definitely people who I admire and respect as role players or as costume builders. There are people who I am really good friends with whom I know if I have a question about a build or something, I could be like, “Hey, how do you do this?” and they will know the answer or together we can work on it. Especially as you’re starting out. They’re like, “How do I do this thing?” The first time you’re like ”I am going to cut this piece of fabric and I don’t know if it’s going to come out the way I want it to.”

I will credit my sewing ability. I definitely credit it to my aunt who got tired of me asking her to make stuff for me because she was a fashion designer and went to school in New York City, lived in LA and did all that stuff and was back in Connecticut. I remember being like “Hey, can you make me a cloak, can you make me this, can you make me that?” I asked her one too many times and she’s like, “Yeah, no problem. I’ll totally make that for you.”

I came over and I had some fabric I bought at the store and she’s like, “Great. This is how you use the sewing machine.” She definitely gave me some of the confidence and the room to mess up and showed me some stuff so that I was able to be like, “Oh, okay. I know enough to explore this on my own without her” and call for questions.

Jordan: Yeah, that’s great. When you were growing up, were you supported in all of these endeavors? You’ve been all over the map as far as the different things you’ve gotten involved with.

Jesse: I always say my hobby is collecting hobbies. I do a lot of things. My parents were very supportive. Asking your mom to pick you up from an event where you run to the car and you’re in complete makeup from all exposed skin and your hair is at a different color and you’ve got armor on. You’re like, “Hey mom. Can you pick me up from this?” They come on to the site and see they see like 100 people like that and they’re like, “I don’t know what my son is into but we’re happy he is excited about it.”  My parents have gotten used to this over the years and as I become an adult and everything, “What are you doing this weekend?” “Oh, I’m going to play my games.” They’re like, “Oh, great.” They’re happy about it. 

Some of the stuff I have done and elaborate builds, they certainly went like, “Oh, wow. You learned some skills and done some stuff.” I remember when my parents even when I was young helping me out and stuff. My dad’s super handy and he would help me build armor, props and stuff when I was much younger and I was not as confident with power tools and things. I’m like, “Hey dad, can you cut this for me?” He’s like, “I’ve got this idea.”

He’d get involved in it a little bit, too. It was kind of nice. I always felt really supported and I imagine it would be much harder to engage in LARP especially if you’re a young adult still living at home and your parents are like, “What are you doing?” I imagine it could be very difficult to get involved.

Jordan: Why can’t you just play football like everybody else?

Jesse: I have so little interest in sports. It’s awesome. But LARP is like a sport. I run around, I engage in combat with other people, and it takes a certain amount of dexterity, agility, and strength.

Jordan: At this point I think I’d like to ask you, of all the different things that you’re experiencing in the creative realms that you are in, is there anything else that you are involved with now or that you have seen recently that has just drawn you in so much that you have to share it with other people? It could be theatre, a record that’s come out, a movie that you’ve seen recently, just something you’ve come across.

Jesse: Dancing. That’s my passion beyond LARPing. I got involved in dancing probably 15 or 16 years ago or something and I love it. It has allowed me to travel to different parts of the country and have instant friends. Wherever I go for work, I look up where I can go dancing and I’m like “Oh, this is great.” I taught. I worked professionally as a dancer in a variety of capacity. For me, I love to share that. I teach. Dance on a regular basis, almost weekly.

I did it full time for a while but now I do it just periodically and I think if you want to learn a skill that will introduce you to a lot of really interesting people and also teach you a lot about American history and culture, for certainly like swing and blues dancing are where it’s at.

Jordan: Blues dancing. I didn’t even know Blues was a type of dance. Wow.

Jesse: It’s amazing. There are amazing events all over the country, workshops and competitions, and all sorts of stuff. It is a great peak into American cultures. Especially with blues, African-American culture. It is amazing and the music is just outstanding. Can’t beat it.

Jordan: Blues music is great. I love it. Alright. Now we’re going to do what I’m going to call front row center. I am going to give you a few questions rapid fire. Just give me the first thing that comes up top your head. This first one I think the know the answer. Star wars or Star Trek?

Jesse: Star Wars, duh. 

Jordan: Favorite movie?

Jesse: Can I answer star wars again?

Jordan: Sure. There’s no wrong answer here.

Jesse: Star Wars is never the wrong answer.

Jordan: Unless it’s episode 1.

Jesse:  It started up with 4. But outside of that, just to veer away from Star Wars a bit, I am a huge fan of the first Matrix which was so good.

Jordan: Great movie.

Jesse: I had no idea what I was walking into before I went into the theatre for that.

Jordan: I don’t think anybody had.

Jesse: It was crazy. I still have a soft spot in my heart, please don’t judge me, for “Shakespeare in Love.”

Jordan: It’s been too long since I seen that, I can’t judge anybody.

Jesse: I had a thing for that movie through college for some reason.

Jordan: Best meal you’ve ever had?

Jesse: Probably the last meal that my mom cooked me because I don’t get to see her often enough. I am going to tell her. “Mom, I mentioned you at one hour into this podcast”

Jordan: Is it been an hour?

Jesse: I don’t know.

Jordan: No, it’s been half an hour. A place everyone should visit once in their life?

Jesse: I would say, Montreal, Canada because I have been going there a lot recently and I have fallen in love with that city recently. I think it’s absolutely amazing.

Jordan: I’ve never been.

Jesse: Gorgeous. So many interesting and wonderful things to do there.

Jordan: Nice. Most importantly, is the illuminati real?

Jesse: I cannot talk about that.

Jordan: Perfect. Thank you very much, Jesse. I really appreciate you taking the time. If there’s anything else you’d like to say.

Jesse: I think that if someone is interested in LARPing, there’s likely a LARP in a very easy driving distance from you. If you’re listening to this definitely look it up. People in the LARP community are awesome and would really love to help new people. Definitely check it out. Ask questions, shop around, go do some LARP. You can engage in it extremely cheaply. People who play roles at LARP generally get in for free and they will provide you with the costuming and all that stuff. You can just go do it for a weekend.

Jordan: No excuses.

Jesse: No excuses. Just go. You can go for a day. Just go try it out. It’s lot of fun. You will meet some amazing people. That’s my LARP plug without dropping any specific LARPs that I’m involved in. I’m currently playing magical. But it’s okay. 

Jordan: Alright. Great. Thank you very much.

Jesse: Yeah. Thank you.

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