October 21, 2020

Theater’s Next Act? A Show That’s All in Your Head

In mid May, Katelyn Schiller, an actress who specializes in devised and immersive work, began rehearsals for a new show, a solo version of Shakespeare’s “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.

“It’s 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 can’t 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 Prospero’s 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?

ImageThe fire pit in “Tempest” — later a place for roasting marshmallows and a dance party.
Credit…via Tender Claws

Virtual reality, or VR, became available to consumers in the 1990s, though its headsets didn’t 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 Festival’s Virtual Arcade, the Sundance Film Festival’s 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 can’t frame VR,” Yelena Rachitsky, an executive producer of experiences at Oculus, a Facebook-owned VR company, said. “You can’t 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.

Credit…via Adventure Lab

That’s changing. To participate in “Tempest,” from the VR/AR company Tender Claws, or “Dr. Crumb’s 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 haven’t more hybrids made their way into consumer headsets? It’s 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 Lab’s founders, pitched “Dr. Crumb’s” 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 can’t, really. But then again, that’s also true of conventional theater.

Credit…via Adventure Lab

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 AI characters more lifelike. “Tech wants a tech solution,” said Noah J. Nelson, who founded a website dedicated to immersive performance. “They don’t want an actor. Like, ‘Look, can we get a bot to do it?’”

Getting an actor to do what a bot can do isn’t 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 dell’arte. “You have to figure out how your movements correspond to your avatar’s movements, because they’re related, but they’re not the same,” she said.

In VR, an actor can’t see a spectator’s facial expression. And in “Tempest,” audience avatars can’t speak. But Schiller has to make her performance feel responsive. So she riffs off physicality — what an avatar’s head and hands do, how they move through the space — and goes from there. While she’s riffing, she also cues sound, lighting, set and costume effects. “It’s super challenging,” she said. “But I love it.”

Besides, there are things, a bot can’t do — at least not convincingly, not yet — like make you feel seen, like tease you about your lame dance moves (that was in “Dr. Crumb’s”) or char-heavy marshmallow toasting (“Tempest”). Bots can track movement, but they tend to respond generally, not specifically, and they’re 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 who’s with you and honoring your choices and welcoming you into their world, there’s a lot of special power and magic that live in that kind of experience,” said Jennine Willett, a theater maker who consulted on “Dr. Crumb’s.”

When I went through “Dr. Crumb’s,” 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 we’re virtual, I feel you in there.”

The pandemic didn’t 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. Crumb’s” because Adams saw a hunger for connection. “People are burned out on Zoom calls,” she said. “They want to feel like they’re in the same space together.”

Will the form outlast the moment? AI that can credibly interact with audiences — a theatrical Turing test — can’t be too far-off. And liveness via VR may not feel so necessary when theaters open again. But Adventure Lab has other “Dr. Crumb’s” adventures planned — one in space, one underwater. And it’s 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, you’re just not limited to reality,” Rachitsky said. ‘You’re only limited by imagination. The most exciting stuff is yet to come.”