A Broadway Show in AltspaceVR.
Neverland Live!, based on the classic story by J. M. Barrie, was performed in a virtual theater, Saturday, December 27 at 7 pm pst. Written and directed for Virtual Reality by Mike the Myth, the twenty-six member cast held a full-capacity audience completely engaged for the entire one-hour performance. The themes of fantasy and reality — and how they can change as we age — are perfect for VR, which raises the same questions itself.
The acting was strong up and down the cast. Some had previous professional acting experience, we learned later in a Q & A, and some didn’t. The two who stood out the most for me were Hook and Wendy. Hook of course is the over-the-top role and Charles Ace definitely went there. He needed to. The avatars we are present with in the theater are small and ungraceful. Life and energy comes mostly from the voice and Hook bellowed.
Wendy played it differently, with probably the most challenging part. She had to be real English girl in a totally unreal situation, and she was. She nailed the accent and the emotion. Her avatar name is Psycho and, full disclosure, she is a friend of mine and not a psycho and also not a young English girl. She had to act.
Everybody had to act. They had to act in a situation experienced by very few actors. Let’s make sure we all understand VR Theater: None of the performers involved in Neverland Live! were together, not one. They were in twenty-six different places, pretending they were together, dealing with audio time lag, tucked away in closets and appropriated spaces at home, wearing funny-looking headsets.
The climax of Neverland Live! is the duel between Peter Pan and Captain Hook aboard Hook’s ship. Their sword/knife fight was a weird kind of puppet drama, with hidden forces pulling strings hundreds maybe thousands of miles away, while an audio bot played the clash of steel. It was completely hokey and 100% perfect.
That scene points to a bigger presence in the show, which was the overall staging itself. I would award the top star of Neverland Live! to the Pirate Ship and the overall presentation of the bad guy’s place. When we left the Darling’s ordinary bedroom in London and the curtain opened on Act II with the Captain aboard ship with Smee and the others in Neverland, I was hooked.
In another bit of disclosure, I am old enough to remember the 1955 and 1956 NBC telecasts, starring Mary Martin as Peter Pan. I was entertained when she sang about flying as she flew, but we knew about the wire. Any production of the Peter Pan story that is not in VR has the big big problem of working within reality to show unreal scenes and situations. The VR pirate ship is much more consistent with the tone of the story than anything a stage team could create in real life. The fact that it looks a little unreal is the point.
And the flying, it just doesn’t get any better than what anyone can do easily in VR. Part of the reason I was so drawn in by the pirate ship in Act II was that Act I ended with the cast flying out of a realistic bedroom and off to Neverland. It was a high.
A final aspect of the staging that deserves special mention is the costuming. Avatars in VR lack a lot of the expressive channels actors rely on. Voice becomes by far the main way to bring the role to life. Costuming is the other. These avatars looked their part. Peter Pan was perfect. Hook, Wendy, John and Michael, all well done.
Tinkerbell’s appearance was strikingly right, with her hovering and her wings. She is of course a pivotal, maybe enigmatic, figure in the story and I don’t want to overlook the distinct interpretation that RazorSmiles brought to the role.
I loved this production and I believe it shows what kind of entertainment we can look forward to in VR — without paying for valet parking or hiring a baby sitter. The medium is still in its early stages and the technical foundations were not always up to the level of the actors. Audio in particular is a problem; think about all those disparate sources traveling over the Internet, coming together in some Cloud Place and sometimes there’s still glitches.
It is easy for me to overlook the glitches and feel the power of the performances and the promise of the future. I see theatrical stages in VR that don’t look like the stages we are used to but are the stages we need to tell new stories. I see stories that can only be visualized where things like matter and gravity aren’t such big factors.
Neverland Live! points the way to that future. Mike the Myth is his VR avatar name, and he and a group of other artists invested time and took a risk — they could have looked bad if everything glitched totally, but it didn’t and they didn’t.
They looked like The Future to me.