Kelly Leveille was dressed as an elf during a foam sword battle in Seattle when a group of bad guys started moving her way. She was scared, injured and — worst of all — separated from her friends. But then a savior appeared from out of the blue.
“This guy picked me up, healed me and protected me the rest of the time,” Leveille says. “I didn’t know who he was, and I never saw him again. But it was a special moment.”
Leveille wasn’t dreaming. Nor was she hallucinating. Instead, she was fully immersed in one of the nation’s largest live-action role-playing events: Big West 2019.
Big West is hosted annually by Alliance, a “high-fantasy LARP set in a medieval realm where you have the opportunity to be a hero, a villain or anything in between,” as its official website states. Alliance has 17 chapters across the United States and Canada — including one in Asheville, known as Alliance Crossroads (XR), in which Leveille often participates.
She knows it’s all make-believe, of course. But when she’s in-character as her elf-self, as it were, the line between fantasy and reality becomes pleasantly blurred.
“That’s one of the great things about the experience,” she says. “Logically, you know it’s not real. But when you’re in the moment, a sense of panic overtakes you. It’s this feeling of ‘my character is in danger, and I might die.’ When in reality, you’re just getting hit with a foam sword.”
Alliance exists in a highly complex and coherent world known as Fortannis. Its continuity allows any player to seamlessly jump into any game, regardless of location. As Leveille explains, each city (or chapter) is its own individual sandbox, but each sandbox exists on the same beach: Fortannis.
Each chapter has a plot team, which sets the action in motion for each game. Leveille gives an example: “It could be that a farmer has lost his daughter and needs help recovering her.” Throughout the course of the year, the mini-plots coalesce into a narrative arc.
And, of course, there’s combat.
“When you look across the field and see everyone fighting and taking it seriously, it’s so neat,” Leveille says.
Alliance has garnered a sizable following across the continent, including a contingent of enthusiasts here in Western North Carolina. Ten times per year, upward of 20 LARPers journey to a 33-acre field in Greeneville, Tenn., where they assume their race of choice (there are 14 in total, including barbarians, dwarves, dryads and stone elves) and spend the weekend absorbed in a fantasy adventure that resembles something out of The Lord of the Rings. Cell phones aren’t allowed, nor is anything that could compromise the fictional world’s legitimacy.
“People are expected to be in period dress throughout the weekend,” Leveille says. “They’re supposed to ‘rep their race,’ which means, for instance, I’ll constantly wear fake ears to show that I’m an elf. That’s a big part of maintaining a sense of reality. When you’re participating, you want to feel like you’re fully in it.”
The focus on total immersion allows participants to temporarily inhabit another body. This other-body experience, as it were, acts as a form of harmless escapism — a respite from the pressures of daily life. Indeed, Alliance’s official tagline urges participants to “be all that you can’t be.”
“It lets people shed their outer skin and interact with people whom they might not come into contact with in the real world,” Leveille says.
Alliance participants run the gamut from “heads of IT to Boeing aeronautical engineers to fantasy authors to fantasy geeks and everyone in between,” Leveille says. One of the most surprising things she’s discovered is that LARPing attracts a lot of ex-military personnel. The game allows them to “exercise their combat muscle,” as Leveille sees it.
In fact, it was a military guy — Leveille’s older brother, a Navy man — who initially turned her onto LARPing. He loved it, and as his younger sister, she wanted to be involved too. That was six years ago. She lives in Atlanta, and he’s in Virginia. But they often convene at that big field in Tennessee to enter the world of Fortannis — not as human siblings, but as elf siblings.
“It’s been something we’ve grown together with,” Leveille says. “It’s been cool to see each of us find our niche within the game.”
Sword-fighting is not dead
Alliance Crossroads isn’t the only Asheville-area organization that combines costumes with recreation. There’s also Warriors of Ash, whose members don period wear and duel with longswords and other medieval weapons.
WoA is a nonprofit founded in 2016 by Lochlan Koulouris. Its members practice Historical European Martial Arts, which is quite different than the Eastern-based martial arts (such as karate, jiujitsu and others) that have become staples of Western culture.
First of all, HEMA focuses on medieval weapon-based combat. Perhaps because of that, the combative art form in its original iteration “died out a while ago,” as Koulouris puts it. Unlike a martial art such as karate, which offers self-defense applications, there’s little practical use for learning how to competently brandish a longsword.
But there’s been a movement to bring HEMA back in recent years. In 2014, The New York Times published an article on the phenomenon, which included the following explanatory quote: “Unlike … role players, who don theatrical costumes and medieval-style armor, [HEMA] competitors treat sword-fighting as organized sport.” When Koulouris saw that piece, he discovered something he’d been seeking his whole life.
“I’d gone from one martial art to another, trying to figure out what was right for me,” he says. “When I saw HEMA, I had to have it. I self-studied and when I moved to Asheville, that’s when I got Warriors of Ash off the ground.”
WoA, now about three years old, averages a monthly membership of 16. It’s unique among HEMA organizations in that it emphasizes historically accurate garb. Koulouris takes the emphasis one step further, encouraging his fighters to create their own gear, from hand-stitched chest pieces to leather neck protectors and everything in between.
“A lot of [HEMA organizations] don’t try to be historical with it, but we’re all about it,” Koulouris says. “Each person has a time period they prefer: Some like Vikings, others like Renaissance garb, others go for the poofy pants of the 16th century or Dark Ages clothing. But regardless, we’re the only school I’ve seen that actually makes its own armor.”
WoA, which is part of the Piedmont Historical Fencing League, has earned a reputation for being a group of “well-trained fighters,” as Koulouris puts it. Its members are routinely competitive at big tournaments in Raleigh, Atlanta and elsewhere, but WoA is also highly involved in the Asheville community. For instance, the organization will participate in the Festival of Heroes in Montford Park on Saturday, Oct. 26, which will include dramatic HEMA battles throughout the day.
All WoA events are free, Koulouris says, and most raise funds for local initiatives that share the organization’s values of inclusion and acceptance. Koulouris stresses that WoA doesn’t discriminate based on race, gender, sexual orientation or on other grounds. “We’re as open as we could possibly be,” he says.
This sense of unity has helped WoA form a tight-knit community. And at the end of the day, that’s what makes Koulouris most proud. “I love the camaraderie,” he says. “We’ve become such a supportive family. Everyone calls it ‘the tribe.’”
Dressing up, for history
Jennifer Farley dresses up for the sake of history.
As the West Region supervisor for North Carolina State Historic Sites, she travels throughout the western half of the state, interpreting American history in period-appropriate dress, from the pre-Revolutionary War era all the way through the 1940s.
So how do Farley’s costumes — most of which she makes herself — enhance her teaching abilities?
First of all, they allow her to become whomever she’s dressed as. “The way the clothing affects my movement, mannerisms and even the way others interact with me teaches me about the time period in question … [which] makes me a better interpreter,” she says.
Secondly, the clothing itself educates those Farley meets by virtue of its historical accuracy. “[People] will learn how class and station were reflected in dress, how the styles did or didn’t constrain the wearer and what sorts of fabrics … were available to citizens [at that time],” she says.
Farley has taught, in costume, at the Alamance Battleground (Burlington), Vance Birthplace (Weaverville), the Thomas Wolfe Memorial (Asheville) and numerous other State Historic Sites over the past two decades. In recent months, she’s created two new outfits that she’s particularly excited about: one of a 1912 suffragist, the other of a World War II Woman Ordnance Worker (aka “Rosie the Riveter”). She debuted the former at an event at the state capitol Sept. 7, and the latter at a World War II gathering at Fort Fisher in Wilmington Oct. 12.
And what’s the purpose of it all?
“I hope to demystify the past,” she says. “Hopefully, by seeing myself and others perform routine tasks in these outfits … we can make our ancestors and their lives more relatable.”