NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
In mid-May, Katelyn Schiller, an actress who specializes in devised and immersive work, began rehearsals for a new show, a solo version of Shakespeares The Tempest. Cast as Prospero, the vengeance-minded sorcerer, she would also fill in as assistant director, stage manager, props mistress, wardrobe supervisor and special effects coordinator.
Its a beast, she said, during a video call in late June. The show, The Under Presents: Tempest, is a technological first: a live, scripted, participatory play that you attend, from home, using a virtual reality headset.
After buying a $14.99 ticket (an in-app purchase inside an esoteric virtual reality game, The Under Presents), and powering up at a set time, you arrive in a virtual theater lobby, with your avatar clad in a black cloak and glowing mask. You cannot speak, but you can gesture. A live actor Schiller in my case leads you and six or seven other audience members to a firepit in the Hollywood Hills, then to Prosperos island, then back to the firepit for marshmallows and a dance party.
Amid a pandemic that makes most forms of theater impossible or at least ill-advised, Tempest and a handful of other projects are experimenting with live actors and live audience members meeting in a shared space at precisely timed intervals. Which sounds like theater. Sometimes, it even feels like theater. Is this a brave new world for live performance? Or just another app?
Virtual reality, or VR, became available to consumers in the 1990s, though its headsets did not begin to catch on until the mid-2010s, when a flurry were released. Even so, gamers have come around to it slowly, for reasons that include a high price tag, the clunkiness of most headsets and controllers, the motion sickness some users experience and a perceived lack of compelling software. Sales figures trended downward earlier this year, another consequence of COVID-19.
Still, in prepandemic times, VR provided scaffolding for narrative experimentation, with the Tribeca Film Festivals Virtual Arcade, the Sundance Film Festivals New Frontiers platform and the Future of Storytelling Summit hosting virtual experiences. Many of these experiences owe a debt to theater, arguably the original virtual reality.
A VR setup, which gives the wearer the freedom to focus anywhere within its 360-degree view, has perhaps more in common with theater, where a spectator chooses the focal point, than with film, where the director does. You cant frame VR, said Yelena Rachitsky, an executive producer of experiences at Oculus, a Facebook-owned VR company. You cant really create cuts; you have to use theater techniques to draw attention.
While theater can be slow to embrace new technologies (think of how long it took projection design to take off), some companies, like the National Theater and Royal Shakespeare Company in England, have tried it out. Had the pandemic not intervened, David Byrne would have followed the Broadway run of American Utopia with Theater of the Mind, a theater-VR hybrid that was to have premiered at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts this summer.
Theater of the Mind integrates live actors into VR, as have several other projects, like Jack: Part One, a Jack and the Beanstalk variation; or Somnai, an exploration of lucid dreaming; or Scarecrow, a straw-strewn shocker. But until very recently, you had to arrive at a particular festival or gallery or otherwise-prepared space to enjoy them, mostly because they demanded specialized tech like a haptic floor, which responds to footfalls, or a motion-capture rig or the physical presence of a live hand on your live shoulder.
That is changing. To participate in Tempest, from the VR/AR company Tender Claws, or Dr. Crumbs School for Disobedient Pets, an escape-room experience with a live host, released by Adventure Lab in May, or a user-generated performance on VR chat, I had only to arrive at and then, once my headset was on, bump into my desk. Hybrids of VR and immersive performance, they are accessible from anywhere with Wi-Fi.
Why havent more hybrids made their way into consumer headsets? It is a financial issue and an imaginative one. When a typical video game releases, thousands or millions of people can play it that same day. But an immersive VR experience can hire and train only so many actors, and those actors can guide only so many people, a barrier to attracting and earning back investment. Especially as actors are a continuing cost.
When Max Planck and Kimberly Adams, Adventure Labs founders, pitched Dr. Crumbs to investors, they were met with hesitation. The money people wanted to know how you could scale up an intimate experience with an actor for numberless gamers. You cant, really. But then again, that is also true of conventional theater.
Samantha Gorman, a founder of Tender Claws, argued that you might need people more on the weird art spectrum than on the gaming or tech spectrum to take on the financial and creative risks. She began to experiment with live actors a few years ago, collaborating with the theater company Piehole to create The Under Presents, a game released in November, which sometimes incorporates live actors into its cabaret setting.
In place of human actors, most developers will instead try to make artificial-intelligence characters more lifelike. Tech wants a tech solution, said Noah J. Nelson, who founded a website dedicated to immersive performance. They dont want an actor. Like, Look, can we get a bot to do it?
Getting an actor to do what a bot can do is not easy. Schiller jokes that when she first put on a VR rig she forgot how to act. Every tool that I had filling up the space, checking the emotional temperature of the room was completely useless, she said.
Tara Ahmadinejad, a founder of Piehole who consulted on Tempest, described acting in VR as closer to puppetry or commedia dellarte. You have to figure out how your movements correspond to your avatars movements, because theyre related, but theyre not the same, she said.
In VR, an actor cannot see a spectators facial expression. And in Tempest, audience avatars cannot speak. But Schiller has to make her performance feel responsive. So she riffs off physicality what an avatars head and hands do, how they move through the space and goes from there. While she is riffing, she also cues sound, lighting, set and costume effects. Its super challenging, she said. But I love it.
Besides, there are things a bot cannot do at least not convincingly, not yet like make you feel seen, like tease you about your lame dance moves (that was in Dr. Crumbs) or char-heavy marshmallow toasting (Tempest). Bots can track movement, but they tend to respond generally, not specifically, and they are lousy at improv.
And sharing space with a live actor even virtual, pixelated space demands presence and attention, which many of us have found difficult to summon lately. That responsiveness of a real person whos with you and honoring your choices and welcoming you into their world, theres a lot of special power and magic that live in that kind of experience, said Jennine Willett, a theater maker who consulted on Dr. Crumbs.
When I went through Dr. Crumbs, I had total focus and not only because there was a freeze ray coming at me. That magic works on the actors, too. It feels live, Schiller said. It feels present. Even though were virtual, I feel you in there.
The pandemic did not create this form, but it accelerated it. Gorman came up with The Tempest as a way to keep some of her Under Presents actors employed after their other gigs were canceled. (Eleven actors rotate as Prospero.) Adventure Lab rushed out Dr. Crumbs because Adams saw a hunger for connection. People are burned out on Zoom calls, she said. They want to feel like theyre in the same space together.
Will the form outlast the moment? AI that can credibly interact with audiences a theatrical Turing test cannot be too far-off. And liveness via VR may not feel so necessary when theaters open again. But Adventure Lab has other Dr. Crumbs adventures planned one in space, one underwater. And it is making its blueprint available to other developers.
None of these projects are trying to replicate or replace theater. But they are working through what we want from presence and participation, audience and actor.
With VR, youre just not limited to reality, Rachitsky said. Youre only limited by imagination. The most exciting stuff is yet to come.
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