Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
One Woman, Ten Characters
Live-Action Role-Playing (LARP) appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon. It branched off from RPGs in the 1980s, giving players the ability to physically perform their characters and actions. But gaming historians have traced LARP roots further back to the 1960s and historical fantasy recreation groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism. Even earlier than that, historians trace it to the 1930s board game RPG Jury Box, which featured mock trials, legislation, and roles for the players to play.
And even before that to the 1800s parlor games where participants played characters in collective dramas.
Yet LARP—and by extension, RPG—roots go much farther back…and owe their popularity to women.
Let’s Set the Stage: Italy, 1564
Enter 10–12 actors, who have recently formed a group of traveling players, or troupe. They act out improvised plays for audiences, with each actor performing a specific stock character. These characters are based on distinct social types of 17th-century Italy and accompanied by masks that exaggerate facial features and convey their personalities. Their stories will mostly center on three themes: the struggles of young lovers hindered by elders, adultery or marital jealousy, or the outwitting of a foolish character by his servant. Props and scenery are kept to a minimum; the focus is on the actors and dialogue.
The troupe will perform in a variety of settings: in the countryside on makeshift stages or in the courts of kings and queens. Some will acquire wealthy patrons, while others will split cities into factions of supporters. By the end of the 1500s, troupes will be traveling throughout Europe, performing both improvised plays and those of some of the greatest theatrical minds in history (like William Shakespeare or Ben Jonson).
Until this point in time, theater has been dominated by men. But as the troupes assemble onstage, something remarkable happens: women appear, and the troupes’ popularity skyrockets.
One of these women is Lucrezia. She is the only woman in her troupe. Originally from Sienna, she is the signora (head of household) for her home in Campo Marzio. But this is all we know of her—and all we may ever know.
She was joined in her trade by other women, such as Vincenza Armani and the woman called “the Roman Flaminia.” In 1567, their fans were so loyal that the city of Mantua divided over who was the better actress. Not much is known about them, though some historians suspect that these early pioneers were courtesans.
But what we know is about to change.
1575: Isabella Andreini
Born in 1562, Isabella is only a mere 11 or 14 years old when she takes the stage as the male lead in Tasso’s Aminto. Within a few short years, she becomes known for her portrayals of prima donna inamorata, and even more so for the character of a young lover (“Isabella”) named after her. She marries another actor and quickly becomes head of their troupe, the il Gelosi, which she will lead until her death.
Isabella was an extraordinary woman who left behind a large historical record. Tommaso Garzoni wrote of her:
“the gracious Isabella, dignity of the scene, ornament of the stage, a superb spectacle no less of virtu than of beauty, has so illuminated the style of her profession, that while the world lasts, while the centuries endure, while times and seasons have life, every voice, every language, every cry, will echo the celebrated name of Isabella.”
She performed for peasants as well as royals, including presenting commedia dell’arte for King Henry III in Paris. She dominated the wedding of Ferdinand de’Medici and Christine of Lorraine on May 13, 1589, with her signature piece, Pazzia d’Isabella (The Madness of Isabella), of which was said,
“as long as the world goes on, her beautiful eloquence and worth will be praised.”
Isabella would also raise eight children and publish two books (a pastoral in 1588 and poetry in 1601). Following her death after a miscarriage in 1604, her husband published her letters and stage dialogues. She became the first woman elected to the male-only Accademia degli Intenti (where she was called “Accesa”). Isabella was so beloved that, after her death, a commemorative medal was produced depicting her likeness on one side and fame on the other:
The LARP Legacy
Isabella and her contemporaries were extraordinary women, dominating the stage and leading theatrical troupes at a time when theater was considered a male-only realm. They broke the glass ceiling for actresses, and were instrumental to perfecting and popularizing Commedia dell’Arta—the roots of LARP and RPG.
According to Kathleen McGill, the presence of women determined the development of improv theater. McGill’s research indicates that when women began performing on stage, they almost immediately became troupe leaders. Their companies were also known in reference to their female stars: “Gonzaga of Mantua wrote to ‘Piissimi and her troupe’; the Desiosi were known as ‘those of Diana’; Maria de Medici wrote to her sister of ‘the actress Isabella and her company,’ etc.”
Her evidence is further supported by the success of the troupes. Theaters weren’t commonplace in medieval and Renaissance times. In fact, very few had been built since the Roman era. Yet, during the time of women-led Commedia dell’Arte, theaters began appearing everywhere, including the Teatro all’Antica in Sabbioneta, Italy – the first free-standing, purpose-built theater of the modern world. Women also led the refinement of improv techniques, publishing their letters and scripts throughout the period.
These techniques would come to be used by RPG and LARP players around the world. Commedia dell’Arte is distinct from LARP and RPG in that the narrative is usually a bit more on-the-fly, characters were based off stereotypes of 17th-century Italian society, and they were acted out on stage for live audiences. Yet, is this really so far from RPG and LARP today? Sure, we tend to sit around tables to play an RPG or enact LARPs in more private settings than a stage, but the basics are very similar. Both rely heavily on stock characters that acquire depth and meaning based on how they are acted out as well as base scripts of scenarios that inform the players’ choices and goals. As explained in Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games,
“Both are improvised, created by the players on the spot. There are no scripts, though there are stock characters and situations that appear in different combinations. And though commedia dell’arte featured characters who were old favorites—those who audiences saw over and over—particular actors individualized their own roles, distinguishing them from other portrayals of the same characters. […] Similarly, RPG characters are many times stock figures with no home, family, friends, or real personality of their own.”
So, LARP and RPG goes back much further than we initially thought. Their roots lie at the heart of Commedia dell’Arte—an improv style of theater that enabled women to enter the stage as actresses and leaders for the first time. It was a style popularized because of the involvement of women.
And over the centuries, the base elements of commedia dell’arte would be adapted to suit many types of games. For modern RPG and LARP players, the base elements of their games—stock characters, simple storylines, and elements of improv performance—are rooted in Commedia dell’Arte as practiced and popularized by women.
Though many of their names are lost to us, the stories of the most successful actresses—like Isabella Andreini—live on as a testament to the fact that women are, and always have been, integral to gaming culture.
Learn More: Membership of the Accademia degli Intenti of Pavia
© 2018 Tiffany Isselhardt