The Under Presents has been running for months. It is a model of where virtual theater could evolve.
I loved spending time in immersive theater, in the real world. Site-specific spaces such as Then she fell and Sleep No More, where actors and participants could wander together, explore and feel part of something new. Those spaces are closed, at least for now. The royal theaters are no longer here. I am not sure when they will return.
The actors have been acting in Zoom, now. I saw a friend do a live reading of a play in one. Saturday Night Live Zoom as improvisational comedy. Everyone is a Zoom stage.
There is another way. Since November, the actors have been acting in a ongoing virtual theater experience called The Under Presents. The game / experience, available at Oculus Quest and the Rift headphones and now also Steam VR, it is a space that I visit from time to time. There are recorded performances in this cartoon world, like a cabaret space in Twilight Zone. But there are also live artists who invite you to join them too.
These actors, trained in collaboration with New York theater company Piehole and virtual reality company Tender Claws, have been living a virtual life for months, long before the rest of the world closed. "We realized that we suddenly find ourselves in a position where we are actually some of the actors' top employees in acting … because it's remote. And that's something we couldn't have anticipated," says Samantha. Gorman from Tender Claws.
Now, the live performances have been extended until the end of May. Tender Claws is also exploring ways that ticket performances within The Under Presents could be a gateway to how live theater could also exist in virtual spaces.
In The Under Presents, or most VR's, it's the opposite of what we get at Zoom. In Zoom, Hangout or Facetime, we see many real faces, but we are on flat screens. In virtual reality, there is movement, presence and I can move my hands and head, but nobody can see my face.
It's like a game, but it's also a world of continuous performance. And one of the biggest surprises so far has been the game's Discord group, which has an active community that feeds back into the world of The Under Presents.
"Sometimes even actors are very aware of these discussions taking place online," says Gorman. "And then, because it's in real time and evolving, they can feed that back into performance. It really didn't happen that it could happen. And that has become a really interesting layer, how things have evolved."
I spoke to the creators of The Under Presents and several of their actors, months after meeting the team, to discuss what they learned and what could happen in the world of virtual performance. Much of what they are doing could be the first steps in a virtual world of communication in which we will all live longer.
More like dance than spoken word
In Zoom (or other video-based) presentations, it's all about actors and their faces. In virtual reality, the theater is the opposite: there are no real faces, but many physical movements. With manual controllers and a headphone that tracks head movements, it can turn into a dance.
Actors in The Under Presents can speak and have their own set of tools to offer additional interactions with audience members. They can also be seen as different things: tigers, dancing crabs, whatever. They interact with the silent audience that watches them.
Among the actors in Tender Claws’ “The Under Presents,” from left, James Cowan, Dasha Kittredge, Michael Bates and Haylee Nichele. The photo was taken before shelter-in-place orders went into place. All actors are currently working remotely. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
"One of the things that surprised me the most was the ability to communicate without words in the game," says actor James Cowan. "Much of the immersive live theater is the cues you can learn from body language, the little comments people make and being able to look them in the eye."
"But when you go digital … You know, we are a meeting of minds. We are merging and we have communications and there is still a follow-up of the movement, like, basically. People can shake their heads, yes, or shake their heads, No. There are certain things about body language that people have learned to do and communicate. "
Dasha Kittredge, another performer of The Under, agrees. "While you don't have the eyeballs, it has made me notice very beautiful and subtle body language," he said. "I have been struck by some very subtle cues that people give you when they are very attentive, or when they feel something or when they start to get distracted. And that is an acquired skill that I now have because of this particular project.
"In a very commedia dell & # 39; art way, they will put too much emphasis on their emotions to express their reaction too much. They are also adapting their emotions to the experience."
Kittredge says that what he didn't expect is how the performances, over time, have become a continuing story. "We have developed these characters, we actually have real relationships with regulars and they love to be seen. And they all look the same, but they have figured out how to be seen, which is great because they have these totems that they make."
Kittredge refers to players who extract random items from the world of The Under Presents and use them as identifiers. Kittredge often knows who's who from the totems.
"When you recognize them and you see them that way, or you acknowledge that you remember them … even though you can't see their faces, you can say they love that and that it means something to them. And that's really cool," Kittredge said. . "I never expected that kind of relationship with the public. Especially with the loneliness we are all experiencing."
I think about how virtual reality is changing for people, now that we can't go anywhere in the real world. Virtual performances may be the only option for a while. The Under actors have seen changes in the virtual world since the home haven started.
"When the shelter-in-place started, I noticed that in the game people were much more violent," says Morgan of the transition. "They weren't necessarily there just to entertain themselves. They needed a space to deal with what was happening in the real world. And they can do that, in this virtual world. As we take refuge in the home, all the violence and violent tendencies they dissipated a little. Now there is more need for community. "
"In that first week I saw more people come and hug me, or try to be physically closer and relate to me in a sweet and gentle way," Kittredge observes. "These jokes started to come with me being offered toilet paper. Sometimes tons of toilet paper. I made an area that is the stash … It became this kind of ordinary joke."
Will everyone be a virtual stage?
Now I think about my virtual life: jumping from Zoom to Houseparty to Animal Crossing, living through spaces. What difference, really, is a theatrical experience on a VR headset? It is a matter of degrees. But I feel that the silences in virtual reality, curiously, are what catch me. At Zoom, it's about talking and looking face to face, sitting still. But the world of virtual reality is about movement and space.
Maybe the two intertwine, someday. But also, I wonder when the audience members will be more like artists. The Under Presents still maintains a separation between these worlds, allowing actors a specific set of tools and the ability to realize where people are. Could people like me eventually improvise, become actors, play a bigger role in creating the experience?
It is early to find answers to this, and even the language is changing. "Constraint breeds creativity. Taking your voice away, or limiting things, forces you to think differently," says Kittredge of the way performance tools work for today's audience.
Tender Claws producers Samantha Gorman and Tanya Leal Soto don't necessarily see more tools coming in the near future. But there will be many more opportunities for players to experience interactions with real actors.
The Under Presents is expanding its live performances, launching a series of interactive shows on Friday and Saturday nights in May with ten actors moving and performing on and off stage (Fridays at 5 p.m. PT, Saturdays at 7 a.m. pm PT).
Just like I felt wandering around immersive theater years ago in Sleep No More, wearing a mask and silently submitting to a new reality, the next wave of immersive virtual reality theater might open up to entirely new experiences sooner than expected. Actors will continue to live in these worlds; For now, there is no other theater to go to.