This past May on a Saturday night in an undisclosed location in San Francisco, I had the pleasure of dressing up in prohibition era outfit, made complete with a sharp looking fedora, to step inside the immersive theater experience called The Speakeasy. It was an amazing night, brilliantly acted, intelligently written, and it was my favorite immersive theater experience I've had, having seen Sleep No More and Then She Fell in NY.
The day after, I was so excited and inspired that I had to write down a bunch of thoughts. I'm finally getting around to posting them. Warning: there are some spoilers! Although considering that I probably only got to follow about 5% of the many story lines, it's not that much of a spoiler.
- The complexity of the experience was in the number of story lines, and not the stories themselves. Each story line on its own was simple enough to describe in a few sentences and based on relatable tropes. It made it easier for the audience to feel empathy because they weren't spending their time piecing together a narrative puzzle. Sleep No More and Then She Fell are great experiences but poor narratives. It's so hard to read a story without dialogue.
- The Speakeasy proves to me that dialogue in immersive theater works! Both Sleep No More and Then She Fell mostly use interpretive dance and I always wondered if the non-linear format just didn't work with words. Given a familiar setting of a prohibition era bar, even a setting all of us have only experienced through movies & books, and simple enough topics, it's okay if the audience misses 95% of the dialogue and walks into the middle of prose. We pick up so much on body language and familiar tropes that as long as the dialogue is smartly and clearly written, we can easily drop one story line and pick up midway in another.
- The moments that felt the best in immersive theater are the ones where the actor improvises on the fly and the audience knows they were going off-script. Much like how a comedian may respond to a heckler with a great come back, audiences love on-the-fly wit. It feels like a display of mastery akin to watching a great athlete adapting to the field. It also feels like a special moment that could never be repeated. Everyone involved feels special. I wish this happened more but when it did, it was magic.
- One of the problems with immersive theater is that you can feel like you're doing it wrong. There were times where I had to fight down a fear of missing out. Was I using my limited time wisely? Was this the most interesting thing going on at this particular moment? Certainly some story lines must be better than others. But when I did discover a story line that was really compelling, the feeling that I had discovered it felt really good. I'm not sure how to address the fear of missing out. Perhaps it's unavoidable and the other side of the coin of what makes immersive theater fun.
- Some of the most memorable moments were when the actors engaged us. It could be as simple as looking us in the eye, asking a rhetorical question, patting us on the back, or handing us something. Handing off an object was especially effective. It makes the connection with the story tangible, literally. This resonates with what we found while developing story experiences in VR.
- The way the play began for us was inspired for the format. We started in a bar with assigned seating and so it felt more like a classic theater experience. It really takes advantage of the "antechamber" idea we found in VR story telling. Before giving us too much choice, they made sure to warm us up to the idea that the story is happening all around. To do that, the bar scene uses paradigms we were all familiar with: we had assigned seats; we were a captive audience; the lighting helped direct our eye. We were let loose to choose where to go and what to do only after we were given time to feel immersed.
- The story line we followed the most was about this particular cabaret girl who felt enslaved to the owner of the Speakeasy as she worked to pay off her brother's gambling debts. To see her emotional arch play out in several venues was enthralling- as a voyeur behind the mirror, as a member of the crowd watching her lash out at her brother in the casino, and then as an audience member watching her as she performed on stage. It was especially powerful to see the anguish on her face while she was dancing and know the reason. It felt like a level of intimacy you cannot experience in any other medium because the choices we made to follow her made it our story too.
- There was a particular moment where the cabaret girl with the deadbeat brother flipped out on stage and then ran into the cramped corridors. She began to tear off her revealing dress in an elaborate display of rage and despair all the way down to a body suit. The act was so elaborate that it became a dance performance. It helped frame the moment as something we were watching instead of something we were participating in. It would have been difficult for her to express her rage as well as improvise against the variability of the audience in this confined space. Unfortunately, this broke immersion for me. I would have loved it if the actress had a way to flip out in the context of whatever the audience was doing in that small space. If it was busy, she could shove passed people. If it was only a few people who stared at her, she could lash out and say "What are you looking at?" To see her emotionally and physically stripped bare without losing immersion would have left an impression that would have been unparalleled.
- The act of chasing a story thread was really fun. I loved the moment where our cabaret girl ran out and we were so compelled to just get up out of our seats and follow her. I am wondering how you could capture this same idea in VR considering the difficulty with locomotion. My only thought at this time is to design an experience with zero-G locomotion mechanics so the audience feels like they can follow with grab and pull. Teleporting always breaks presence for me.
- There were times where I could tell the theater design was working around the limitations of an audience who didn't know what they were doing. For example, the beginning scene at the bar was designed so everyone was seated in known spots the actors could work around. In VR, the story makers have a lot more control over a visitor's presence, how they interact ability, and whether their voice is audible, or even how it sounds. This gives a lot of power to a VR host to control the moments where agency may get in the way of readability. If the audience member violates the rules of the world with that agency, you can easily mute action and voice.
- One of the most impactful scenes for me was a quick act of infidelity with Viola, an innocent cabaret girl learning how to hustle, and the "Hardware guy", an unremarkable bloke with a weak moral compass. We all watched this intimate moment behind the glass as what played out was heart wrenching. It was a type of moment that would have been told with a wide framed, long shot in cinema, letting the slow burn soak into us. But the fact that this wasn't shot behind a lens and that it was happening live right in front of us made it almost too real and incredibly memorable.
- The mechanics of being able to see behind the dressing room mirror and being able to look into the owner's office through little windows felt fantastic (and fantastical), but broke our immersion in the space. It felt like we were stepping out of our character and into the role of a ghostly voyeur. Especially considering how dressed up we all got for it, it felt like all moments should have been grounded in the roles we were playing. That being said, the moments where the story blinked into dance or memory or theatrics where the actors no longer inhabited the physical space but acted out dreams, memories or flash backs were really cool. I was willing to suspend my disbelief for those context switches. What may have made the experience better is that when we were blinked into a detached scene, along with changing the lighting and sound, it would be amazing if the set mechanic changed as well. Imagine a moment where the audience didn't know there was a one way mirror in the set, and only during one of these blinks does the mirror suddenly become transparent. If the set could shift to have the physical space reflect the emotional space the actors were blinking into, it would be amazing. This is expensive and complicated to do in the physical world, but in VR ...