In the desert, a single theater stands. There’s a big sign: THE TEMPEST. Tickets are available. As I get closer, I pass the box office and enter the lobby. There’s an empty bar and abandoned snacks. Crabs crawl on some piles of sand. And slowly, my fellow audience members arrive. We’re all silent, masked ghosts. And then the lobby disappears and our show begins.
I’m suddenly standing in front of an old house in the Hollywood hills, where a man in front of a campfire tells us how he, an actor, was going to perform in The Tempest before the coronavirus happened, and is now going to cast us to take part in the show.
I’m taking part in a 40-minute immersive theater production of Tempest in VR, produced by Oculus and Tender Claws within the gaming-slash-theater app The Under Presents. The $15 ticketed performances have just begun for what is the latest experiment in our stay-at-home world: trying to find a home for live theater in virtual reality, and .
I join in by way of an Oculus Quest headset in my home office. I don’t know who my fellow theatergoers are and where they’ve come from, because in the world of The Under Presents, no player can speak, and no one has a face. Except, that is, for the one actor performing with us, telling us his tale.
I’ve spent many hours in The Under Presents, where live actors are hired to perform in a gaming world along with home players. Now that actors are still mostly unable to participate in theater as it once existed before the pandemic, Oculus and Tender Claws are experimenting with live ticketed shows as a way to find more opportunities for actors.
Tempest, as envisioned by this VR performance, isn’t normal Shakespeare: It’s a loose, and extremely interactive, interpretation. The three other audience members I’m with can do things like search for items, wander around, nod and wave hands and silently emote. (Performances starting July 9 will be for six to eight audience members, randomly assigned to different performing actors.) We are like a VR Greek chorus, in a way, evoking reality while the Prospero actor/character choreographs and guides us. It’s immersive theater, which expects audience members to be a part of the show.
A few months ago, I was asked to play a virtual chorus member in another VR theater project called Pandora X. The feeling of being a masked participant was similar. In virtual worlds where we’re free to wander, what does being an audience member mean? How much can we interact? And how much can we control?
The world of Tempest is all bright colors and flat shapes, like a 3D cartoon. This is what The Under Presents, the app the show is hosted in, feels like too. The art style and tone remind me of the also-theatrical indie game,. Virtual reality can’t do human faces easily, and instead of trying, this production lets everything look like basic cartoon avatars. The effect largely works, but it also makes the experience feel, at times, like a video game. Sometimes I need to remind myself that the performer in front of me is a real, live person, a real actor somewhere else (Terence Leclere, one of 11 actors working on the production, whose real face I can’t see, but I can hear and see embodied in a burly actor avatar).
I’ve tried VR escape rooms that bring four people together with a VR actor host, and in a certain sense this is a similar idea. Think of the host as a type of dungeon master that can summon objects and transport the players to new locations, or weave their story together. We became the pieces that made his tale a reality.
I was cast as a captain of a ship at one point. I helped celebrate a wedding in another. I was under the ocean, watching a giant spirit speak. I nodded my head a lot, and waved my arms a lot. Being a silent participant was sometimes odd, and at other times I wanted to be more invisible, free to wander and watch with the detached feel I had in real-life immersive theater like Sleep No More or. I find immersive theater to be an experience of creative submission. This Tempest production gave me more direct interaction than that. And yet, this piece isn’t designed to have me speak or improvisationally transform the show, either.
The $15 ticket feels a lot more reasonable than the $25 to $100 prices I’ve seen for other online and virtual live games and performances, and it also includes the vast game world of The Under Presents for free to use after (another multichapter experience in The Under, called Timeboat, is now being sold as an extra $12 add-on, changing up the price of the original app.) The length of Tempest is perfect, too. After too much time in VR at a stretch, I can get fidgety and tired.
At the end of our journey, we are given a souvenir of our experience. I won’t share what it is, but receiving something reminded me of immersive theater moments I’ve had like that, in real spaces. Getting an object, or a letter, to take home with me. The virtual memento felt important, somehow.
Tempest sometimes feels like a game. Sometimes it feels like theater. Sometimes it feels like a choreographed, ticketed, custom-build version of the multiplayer things already happening in social apps like. And it’s experiments like this that I hope continue in VR: collaborative, artistic. It won’t be the last.