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You won't know who's real inside this immersive theater VR experience

Real actors help fill out Oculus' The Under Presents, making you part of the show.

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Get ready to go on a pretty VR-meets-theater ride.

Tender Claws

There is a freeing feeling about performing, but joining a theater production is a time commitment that's hard to balance between a full-time job and kids. But a new experience making use of Facebook's Oculus Quest put me inside a show filled with characters -- some played by real actors and others that play with my emotions anyway.

Somewhere, on a desolate wreckage-strewn plain, I'm following a cat-person. Its smile is wide and unnerving. It dances near me, beckoning. We walk to a fountain. And we stand there. The cat snaps its fingers. I snap mine. I remove my face and snap my fingers over it and conjure onions, which I throw in the air. We dance together.

And then I walk away.

This isn't a terrifying dream, it's virtual reality's closest thing to immersive theater. Inside The Under Presents, a bizarre cabaret-meets-time-travel game-theater VR hybrid that launched this week on Facebook's Oculus Quest, I feel like a visitor to the underworld and a participant in an immersive experience that's presented with live performers (like Sleep No More or New York's long-running Then She Fell). I feel lost. And this may all be according to plan.

VR needs new experiences. And live theater, which has been making increasing moves towards immersive experiences that border on virtual reality in the actual world, is seeking new directions. The dovetailing, for anyone tracking both industries, seemed inevitable. Oculus has been hinting at a blend of VR and immersive theater since last year. The Under Presents first emerged as an early interactive demo at this year's Sundance festival, and now it's launching on Facebook's Oculus VR headsets for everyone to try. 

The Under Presents, made by LA-based company Tender Claws in collaboration with New York theater company Piehole, feels like a theatrical labyrinth or a time-traveling nightclub. Tender Claws cofounders and The Under Presents creators Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro describe it as a "time-bending theatrical adventure" or "Journey meets Sleep No More." And it's well worth losing time in, if you're up to feeling unmoored in other worlds.

It's also a sign of where virtual theater could be heading. Maybe this could be VR's next big experience? Or, perhaps, a preview of how more complex virtual worlds with real people, like Facebook Horizon, will begin to feel.

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"Wet Food," one of the many live and recorded acts in The Under.

Tender Claws

The future of virtual acting

It's the live theater part of The Under Presents that's the most interesting: A variety of actors (around 10) will perform live in the experience over the next four months. You may encounter these live actors, or you may not. You may not even know they're live actors. The Under Presents aims to make the line between live and recorded feel fuzzy and unclear.

Many parts of The Under Presents take place in a semi-deserted nightclub of sorts, where a ghostly MC appears to introduce weird musical and theatrical acts that feel like burlesque or cabaret or drag. It's more of a venue than a game, says Tender Claws' Cannizzarro.

"This is the intersection of cabaret, drag type performance, and commedia dell'arte, mask type performance and puppetry. That intersection is not unprecedented in experimental theater in New York," says Tara Ahmadinejad, Collaborating Director on The Under Presents and Co-Founding Member of Piehole, of the performance styles adopted by actors so far in dress rehearsals. For Ahmadinejad, it's the first time working in VR on a theater project.

I have no idea, when I'm moving through the world, whether some performances are real or recorded. "So much of the whole story is about people caught in a loop and free will and breaking out, so conceptually it made a lot of sense for us to really play with that line," Cannizzarro says. "What is the difference as a player when the character goes out of being prerecorded and starts responding to you? The liveness, and what is liveness?" 

"These instances of liveness are little sparks that make the thing seem exciting and real, in the context of this fake world, this other world," says Ahmadinejad, who directed the actors in Los Angeles remotely from New York, using a special interface built for the performers.

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A play-within-a-play lets you follow characters on a ship in a pre-recorded time-jumping story.

Tender Claws

While players can't speak in The Under, actors can. They're also outfitted with a special interface that puts creative tools at their command. These include the ability to take audience members and put them on stage for interactive bits, or "punish" them for misbehaving by placing them in a cage. Actors have a backstage area where they can prepare between performances. 

"We made a series of tools or powers that the actors have," Cannizzarro says, calling it "an improv toolchest."

I wish I could use those tools too, and do some sort of VR improv. But those performer tools aren't for audience members (not yet, at least). As a wandering audience member, I'm just an anonymous black phantom with hands and a golden mask-face. I can't speak. I can just snap, and occasionally conjure magical things from my mask like onions or eggs. Why? How? I don't know yet. My mask feels like something I can hide behind, though. I feel free.

"Having players not speak allows for more exploration, in a way, and it gives the actors a little more control in guiding the player's experience down the different paths," says Ahmadinejad. 

At times, it feels kind of like a VR version of the experimental theater I miss going to see downtown. One act, called "Wet Food," is about dancing cat-people that want to be fed.

In another act during a live dress rehearsal in VR days before the app launches, I end up being selected for a brief game show called "Don't Press The Button." I'm asked to... not press a giant button in front of me. I don't press it. Everyone in the audience applauds. 

Yeah, it's weird.

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Sometimes, time loops back on itself.

Tender Claws

Time-travel and self-discovery

There's a story inside The Under and it has to do with time. A clock hangs in the virtual nightclub, showing the actual time in the real world, and every hour a special performance happens. 

Another part of The Under Presents plays out on a ship, where a multi-act play, recorded with actors, takes place in multiple rooms. I can wander around, removing my mask-face and turning time backwards and forwards with my fingers. It's like a hologram of an immersive theater performance that I can experience again and again.

At one point, I see another figure doing things I did a few moments ago, at a slight delay. After a moment I realize I'm seeing myself in an endless time loop.

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I "grab" the world with my hands and pull things towards me, zapping forward in leaps and starts. I grab things and throw them, seeing what happens. I wander outside the theater, into the desert, trying to find the end of the world.

The live performances inside The Under are also time-limited, taking place over just the next four months, although the main app and game will live on, playable well after that. "We have two updates already planned of different things we're going to add for the live actors, new characters and abilities so they can keep evolving over time," says Cannizzarro. "We're also interested in seeing, does this show have another run or does it get extended?"

Even what I've seen may not indicate what's coming next. "We can plan different events, surprise events," Gorman says. Cannizzarro adds, "for launch week, we're probably going to have this infestation of these giant skeletons."

As a ticket to a virtual theater event, $20 (the app price) seems reasonable. I'd love to actually try performing, too, not just being a silent audience member. But maybe I'm just dreaming of what might come next.

First published Nov. 19.