Immersive theatre is inescapable.
Over the last five years, most theatre companies have experimented with getting the audience involved in the action. This might mean subtly breaking the fourth wall by asking the audience a question, allowing the audience to make their own way through disparate narratives famously shown through Punchdrunk’s strong body of work, or reinventing classics with full audience participation as in the case of The Guild of Misrule and The Immersive Ensemble’s immersive production of The Great Gatsby.
But while everyone likes experimenting with the form, not everyone gets it right. Productions can attempt to hide a weak plot by relying on audiences roaming around disused warehouses with no real purpose or relying on terrifying an audience with scenarios of torture, death and hard labour. In order for this form to thrive it needs to have purpose: it has to push boundaries.
With WHIST, creators AΦE (an Ashford-based dance company founded in 2013 by Aoi Nakamura and Esteban Fourmi) have developed a performance piece that distorts and changes our notion of interactive theatre. It is part theatrical piece; part art installation and part video game, powered by VR technology.
After a premiere at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury in April, WHIST came to London in June.
For the performance, the audience is led into a room containing large sculptures. A Samsung Gear VR headset is put on – and we are off on a journey into a Freudian world of unfolding dreams. Not everyone is experiencing the same dream – your choice of dream is dependent on playing a game and unlocking the sculptures in the room. You do this by walking around them wearing the headset – concentrating your vision on the right spot on the sculpture’s surface will then unlock a ‘dream’.
During my session I intrude upon a couple arguing at a dinner table; become a voyeur to a woman trying to seduce her partner and experience the mental breakdown of a lonely man. The piece would probably lose its intensity if we stayed in the ‘virtual world’ of our characters for the entire hour performance, but our return to ‘reality’ throughout (as we move on to the next sculpture in the space) challenges us to think about what is real and what is false. A disorientating combination: but a powerful one.
Some of the audience decided to sit down and explore their dream world; others were laughing along to their scenarios; others occasionally bumping into each other – mistaking a human for a sculpture. It is refreshing to see an audience naturally taking ownership of how they want to view a piece – without any restrictions.
There are 76 different possibilities within the piece. Your path within each dream is determined by which elements within it you decide to focus on. At the end of your journey you are given a number based on how you moved through the work, along with a psychological summary which is based on your reaction to the work and which elements of it you showed an interest in. I have ‘jealous tendencies’ according to the analysis!
WHIST opens up questions about the future of interactive performance experiences. We are far away from the dystopian world of Westworld where playing virtual games helps explore dark desires, but I predict that we’ll experience more ‘gamification’ of theatre using VR. It fulfils two strong human needs: solving a challenge and being given autonomy.
It will be exciting to see how WHIST develops as it tours this summer. No two people will experience it in the same way.
Artistic Directors: Esteban Fourmi and Aoi Nakamura (AΦE)
Shoot, VFX and Technology Partner: Happy Finish
Composers: Scott Gibbons, Jozef Van Wissem
Set Designer: James Shaw
3D Sound Designer: Oliver Kadel (1.618Digital)
Dramaturg: Amanda Fromell
Performers: Robert Hayden, Tomislav English, Yen-Ching Lin, Nina Brown, Steve Rimmer
Producer: JiaXuan Hon (Blackwinged Creatives)
Creative Mentor: Jasmin Vardimon
Management Mentor: Ian Ross
Co-produced by Gulbenkian Canterbury and tanzhaus nrw Düsseldorf
Supported by Arts Council England and South East Dance