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With real theaters closed, actors are turning to virtual reality

The Under Presents is part game, part immersive theater. Its performers have been living virtually for months, paving a way for where all of us may be heading.

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The Under Presents has been running for months. It's a model for where virtual theater could evolve.

Tender Claws

I used to love spending time in immersive theater, in the real world. Site-specific spaces like Then She Fell and Sleep No More, where actors and participants could wander together, exploring and feeling part of something new. Those spaces are closed, at least for now. Real theaters aren't here anymore. I'm not sure when they'll return.

Actors have been performing on Zoom, now. I saw a friend do a live reading of a play in one. Saturday Night Live does Zoom as improv comedy. All the world is a Zoom stage.

There's another way. Since November, actors have been performing in an ongoing virtual theater experience called The Under Presents. The game/experience, available on Oculus Quest and Rift headsets and now Steam VR as well, is a space I visit from time to time. There are recorded performances in this cartoon-like world, like a cabaret space in the Twilight Zone. But there are also live performers who beckon you to join them, too.

These actors, trained in collaboration with the New York theater company Piehole and the VR company Tender Claws, have been living a virtual performance life for months, well before the rest of the world shut down. "We realized that we are suddenly in a position where we're actually some of the actors' main employment in acting... because it's remote. And that's something we couldn't have anticipated," Tender Claws' Samantha Gorman says.

Now, the live performances have been extended until the end of May. Tender Claws is also exploring ways that ticketed performances inside The Under Presents could be a gateway to how live theater could exist in virtual spaces, too.

In The Under Presents, or most VR, it's the opposite of what we get in Zoom. In a Zoom, Hangout or Facetime, we see lots of real faces, but we're on flat screens. In VR, there's movement, presence and I can move my hands and head around, but no one can see my face. 

It's like a game, but it's also an ongoing performing world. 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 the actors are very aware of these discussions that are happening online," Gorman says. "And then, because it's real time and evolving, they can then feed that back into the performance. It didn't really occur that that could happen. And that has become a really interesting layer, how things have evolved."

I spoke with the creators of The Under Presents and several of its actors, months after I first met the team, to talk about what they've learned and what could happen next in the world of virtual performance. A lot of what they're doing could be the first steps in a virtual world of communication that we'll all be living in more.

More like dance than spoken word

In Zoom (or other video-based) performances, everything is about actors and their faces. In VR, theater is the opposite: no real faces, but lots of physical movements. With hand controllers and a headset that tracks head movements, it can become like dance. 

Actors in The Under Presents can talk and have their own toolkit to offer up extra interactions with audience members. They can also look like distinct things: tiger people, dancing crabs, whatever. They interact with the silent audience that watches them. 

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Actor James Cowan, selfie taken while performing in The Under Presents.

James Cowan

"One of the things that surprised me the most was the ability to communicate without words in the game," actor James Cowan says. "So much of live immersive theater is the cues that you can pick up from body language, the small comments that people make, being able to stare into their eyes."

"But when you go digital ... You know, we're a meeting of minds. We're melding and we're having communications and there is still movement tracking, like, very basically. People can shake their head yes, or shake their head no. There are certain body language things people have learned how to do and how to communicate."

Dasha Kittredge, another performer in The Under, agrees. "While you don't have the eyeballs, it's made me notice some very beautiful, subtle body language," she said. "It's brought my attention to some very subtle cues that people give you when they're very intent, or when they're feeling something, or when they start to get distracted. And that's an acquired skill I now have because of this particular project. 

"In a very commedia dell'arte way, they will overemphasize their emotions to express to you their reaction a lot. They're adapting their emotion to the experience as well."

Kittredge says what she didn't expect is how the performances, over time, have become an ongoing storyline. "We've developed these characters, we actually have real relationships with the regulars and they love being seen. And they all look the same, but they've figured out how to be seen, which is so cool, because they have these totems that they make." 

Kittredge refers to players plucking random objects from The Under Presents' world and using them as identifiers. Kittredge often knows who's who by the totems. 

"When you recognize them and see them in that way, or acknowledge that you remember them... even though you can't see their face, you can tell that they love that and that it means something to them. And that's really cool," said Kittredge. "I never expected that kind of relationship-building with the audience. Especially with the loneliness we're all experiencing."

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Actor Dasha Kittredge performing in The Under Presents, virtually.

Jean Yves Ducornet

Alone, together

I think about how VR is changing for people, now that we can't go anywhere in the real world. Virtual performances might be the only option for a while. The Under's actors have seen changes in the virtual world since shelter at home began.

"When shelter in place started out, I noticed in the game people were much more violent," Cowan says of the transition. "They weren't necessarily there just to be entertained. They needed a space to grapple with what was happening in the real world. And they can do that, in this virtual world. As we settled into shelter at home, all of the violence and violent tendencies sort of dissipated a little bit. Now there's more of a need of community."

"In that first week I saw more people coming and giving me hugs, or trying to physically be closer and engage with me in a sweet and gentle way," Kittredge observes. "There started being these in-jokes where they would offer me toilet paper. Sometimes tons of toilet paper. I made an area that is the stash ... It became this kind of running joke."

Will all the world be a virtual stage?

I think about my already virtual life now: jumping from Zoom to Houseparty to Animal Crossing, living across spaces. What difference, really, is a theatrical experience in a VR headset? It's a matter of degrees. But I feel that the silences in VR, oddly, are what get me. On Zoom, it's about talking and looking eye-to-eye, sitting still. But the world of VR is about movement and space.

Maybe the two will intertwine, someday. But also, I wonder when audience members will become more like performers. The Under Presents still keeps a separation between these worlds, allowing the actors a specific toolset and an ability to notice where people are. Could people like myself eventually improvise, become actors, play more of a part in the creation of the experience?

It's early days to figure out answers to this, and even the language is changing. "Restriction breeds creativity. The taking away of the voice, or limiting things, forces you to come up with another way," Kittredge says of the way the current audience performance tools work.

Tender Claws' producers, Samantha Gorman and Tanya Leal Soto, don't necessarily see more tools arriving in the near future. But there will be a lot more opportunities for players to experience interactions with real actors.

The Under Presents is expanding its live performances, launching a Friday and Saturday night series of more interactive shows in May with ten actors moving around and performing on-stage and off (Fridays at 5pm PT, Saturdays at 7pm PT).

Much like how I felt wandering around immersive theater years ago in Sleep No More, wearing a mask and silently submitting to a new reality, VR's next wave of immersive theater might open up to whole new experiences sooner than expected. The actors will continue to live in these worlds; for now, there's no other theater to go to.