#574: Blending Immersive Theater & VR with ‘Draw Me Close’ by NFB & National Theatre

johanna-nicollsThe National Theatre has created an Immersive Storytelling Studio to better understand the practices, protocols, opportunities of how virtual and augmented reality technologies are creating new storytelling possibilities. They collaborated with the National Film Board of Canada on an immersive theater piece called Draw Me Close that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. It featured a one-on-one interaction with a live actor in a mixed reality environment while the audience was unveiled within a virtual reality headset where you play the archetypal role of a son/daughter as your mother embraces you, draws with you, and tucks you into bed as she narratives a memoir of her life. I talked with Immersion Storytelling Studio producer Johanna Nicolls about the reactions, intention, and overall development of Draw Me Close, which is their first immersive theater VR piece.


The spatial storytelling techniques and skills that theater has been developing for hundreds of years translates really well to the even more immersive 360-degree, VR environments. But with Sleep No More and Then She Fell, there’s also a whole other “immersive theater” movement within the theater world that is bringing new levels of embodiment, choices, and agency into authored theater performances. No Proscenium podcast host Noah Nelson wrote up a great introductory primer of immersive theater that explores the nuanced differences between immersive theater, site-specific performances, and environmentally-staged theater. One differentiation that Nelson makes is that immersive theater has much more of an explicit experiential design that “feels more like an event you experienced than a performance that you witnessed.”

The version of Draw Me Close that I saw at Tribeca took a powerful first step in exploring how live actors sharing the same physical space within a mixed context provides a new dimension of emotional and embodied presence. The haptic feedback of an embodied hug from a co-present human is something that may never be able to ever be fully simulated in VR, and so this illustrates a clear threshold to me of what can and can not currently be done in VR. I also saw the Then She Fell immersive theater piece which featured a lot of one-on-one interactions with performers, and so I think that there’s a profound depth of emotional presence and intimacy that you can achieve with another person without the barriers of technology. You still can’t see the more subtle microexpressions of emotion or perceive the more nuanced body language cues when interacting with other humans while you’re in VR, but feeling the actor touch me provided a deeper phenomenological sense of embodied essence that I was interacting with an actual human in real-time. Directly interacting with another physically co-located person and feeling their touch closed some perceptual gaps and took my sense of social presence beyond the normal levels I have in distributed social VR experiences.

This was also such a new type of experience that I didn’t know the rules of engagement for how much I was expected to speak or interact. There weren’t a lot of prompts for talking or engaging, and so I mostly silently received the story as each moment’s actions were being actively being discussed, analyzed, and contextualized by a steady stream of real-time narration. There were not a lot of prompts, invitations, or space made available for dialogue, but there were a number of interactive actions I was invited to do ranging from opening a window to drawing TiltBrush style on the floor. There was a deliberate decision to be fairly vague in casting a magic circle of the rules and boundaries of what to expect, since the story, characters, and loving embrace of a motherly hug was all designed to be a surprise. This shows the challenging issues of balancing how to receive explicit consent to being touched while also maintaining the integrity of the mystery of a story that’s about to unfold.

Draw Me Close is an ambitious experiment to push the storytelling possibilities that are made available within a one-on-one interaction of an immersive theater piece while the audience is within virtual reality. It was a profound enough experience for a number of people who needed to have some level of decompression and help transitioning back from exploring some of the deeper issues that were brought within the experience. There are obviously limitations for how this type of experience could be scaled up so that it was logistically feasible to be shown on a wider scale, but it’s refreshing to see the NFB and National Theatre’s Immersive Storytelling Studio experiment, explore, and push the limit for what’s even possible. If too much effort is focused on what’s sustainable or financially viable, then it could hold back deeper discoveries about the unique affordances of combining immersive theater with immersive technologies.

Here’s some footage from Draw Me Close at Tribeca by Steve Rosenbaum

Here’s a trailer for Draw Me Close

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Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So one of the most fascinating aspects of virtual reality to me is all sorts of implications when it comes to storytelling, especially interactive storytelling. And so it's kind of like a blending of video games with film, but also this extra dimension of your body. You're actually embodied in the experience and you're having a direct sensory experience. And so theater is also a spatial storytelling medium where you can't control what the audience is looking at. So there's lots of jobs and skills that come from theater that are being applied to storytelling within virtual reality to do spatialized storytelling. And there's also this other trend within theater that is becoming more and more immersive. There's the Sleep No More, and Then She Fell, and all sorts of interactive, immersive experiences are becoming much more popular in places like New York City, and Los Angeles, and San Francisco. And so Noah Nelson of the No Proscenium podcast is really covering the evolution of this immersive theater scene. And I talked to him in one of his episodes about the elemental theory of presence. But at Tribeca Film Festival, there was something that really surprised and shocked me. There was an immersive theater piece mixed with virtual reality. This was an experience where the actor was live with you and you were actually interacting with them in different ways. And so Draw Me Close was a collaboration between the National Theatre of London as well as the National Film Board of Canada. And so I had a chance to talk to one of the producers from the Immersive Storytelling Studio from the National Theater, and Joanna Nichols talks about this process of exploring what the storytelling potentials are with virtual reality. And they started with this one-on-one experience. And it's still very early, and they're doing a lot of experimentation as to what's even possible. So we're still very much in this stage of exploration and discovery when it comes to the potentials of creating a fusion between the insights of theater and the storytelling affordances that virtual reality is making available. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Johanna happened at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, New York on April 22nd, 2017. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:30.245] Johanna Nicholls: My name's Johanna Nicholls. I'm a producer at the National Theatre's Immersive Storytelling Studio. That's the national theatre in the UK. And yeah, we established an immersive storytelling studio about 10 months ago, whereby we are dedicated to understanding what the 360 and VR form means for theatre making, storytelling. We established a studio, which is an R&D space, and we work with a number of collaborators and artists, understanding practice, protocol, opportunities, possibilities, et cetera, et cetera. One of the projects that we engaged in last year was a collaboration with National Film Board Canada, the Toronto office studio, specifically in terms of running a three-week R&D lab, as we called it, a VR lab, where we wanted to understand some of the means in which you can articulate what we described as creative non-fiction. We pulled together two Canadian artists and two UK artists and we had a three-week project. One week in Toronto, two weeks in London in our studio. We brought together the artists, a team of technologists, a bit of time and a bit of space because it was all about rapid prototyping and rapid production. And out of that came this project here, Draw Me Close, was one of the projects in that lab. So we've spent the time since December developing one chapter of what will ultimately be a multi-chapter experience. What you experienced just now was an eight minute piece which enabled you to experience one chapter but we ultimately imagine that the piece will be a 60-70 minute long theatre production using the VR, using the technology. How exactly What that final iteration is and how we ultimately deliver the longer piece is something that we're still, as a team, we're still very much exploring what our options are. How do you scale something like this up? How do you bring more audience into it? All sorts of considerations, questions. At the moment, we're pushing the technology to its edges, in any case. But we've got a beautiful story that we're working with a fantastic playwright, theatre director, Jordan Tannahill. He's a Canadian playwright. We are delighted to be exploring the opportunities of the technology with this story in particular.

[00:04:38.434] Kent Bye: Yeah, so way back in 2011 I had a chance to see Sleep No More here in New York City and it was my first taste of immersive theater where I was able to express my agency and move her all around this warehouse of a hundred different rooms and 23 actors running around playing out Macbeth through interpretive dance and it felt like this almost like a dreamlike quality of really stimulating the right brain and exploration and it was just a really powerful visceral experience that I had. And I think I, ever since I started into virtual reality, I had this sort of sense of like, you know, one of the deepest, most immersive experiences I had was through immersive theater. And so I'd seen this trajectory of virtual reality technologies with this more immersive theater branch of theater. And I always thought, how would you start to recreate that in VR? Would it be like you're in your room all by yourself and you would have people broadcasting and acting over live, interacting with you over the internet? But with this approach, it's much more an installation approach. And I hadn't really thought of that as a possibility, as where this would start to come together, this live theater. where the other actor is in the same room as you and is acting and improv-ing, and it's sort of like this dual role of, by you becoming this participant as a character, you don't know the backstory, the history, or anything, and so there's a bit of narration that is happening live in the moment. and almost some improv where they're able to react to you as well. So for you, maybe you could sort of break down the different components of what you were trying to do in terms of storytelling, immersive theater, virtual reality technologies, and how you see the unique affordances of each of these are kind of coming together in a unique way in this Draw Me Close experience.

[00:06:25.254] Johanna Nicholls: So, yeah, I mean, At the National Theatre we do traditional work but also some modern work as well. Our new Artistic Director Rufus Norris who joined the theatre two years ago is committed to exploring the way in which we tell stories as a national institution and with the emergence of VR and 360 technology it came together in terms of the kind of thinking of the theatre at the time, such that we can really see the potential here. Now, it's not to change. Our theatre practice continues, you know what I mean, and our storytelling remains, the ancient art of storytelling remains so. A beautiful story is a beautiful story, well told. And so ways in which we could see that there was a potential for this technology and theatre was quite profound and the potential was huge. I think what you'll notice what we've done with Jorma Coast is we play with the kind of depths and the detail of the technology versus the live, versus the story. We've got a set but it's fairly deconstructed. We've got an actor and a script and there is some improvisation as you say. You as an individual are receiving the story and there is some agency so we're kind of coming in and out of playing with a number of kind of rules and protocols around how you specialise a story. Yeah, I mean this story in itself, we feel as though the concept is that it's a memory, it's all about memory and the longer piece, this is entirely, this is a memoir based on the relationship of a mother and a son. The relationship is explored over time, it's in the context of the diagnosis of the mother's terminal cancer diagnosis of the mother. And in the context of that, the playwright sat down with this woman and has actually done some sort of a beta and research really over the last two years with her where they've looked at their own relationship and they've explored what that relationship has meant now and over time. And so we're going in and out of memories and the technology enables that sort of coming in and out, that fading in and out. We talk about it being the last synaptic moment you have with someone before they fade away, before they die. And what the technology enables us to do, as you experience, is that we can draw in and draw out kind of sketches of those memories in the way that memories do come in and out to you. And the technology really gives us the ability to kind of capture that memory sensation and what it is to recall something. Yeah.

[00:08:37.915] Kent Bye: Yeah, just as I was going through this experience, I had no idea what the experience was going to be or I didn't have any backstory or anything. And so I'm kind of thrown into this immersive theater set that has some passive haptic feedback. In other words, you know, I'm reaching out and there's things in the story that are correlated. So it's kind of like a mixed reality experience in that way, where I'm able to actually touch things and have that visceral connection with my body and sense of embodied presence. But it's kind of like this art style of just lines, very sparse, no colors, but kind of like this comic book reality that I'm stepping into. And that as there was another character that was there and coming up and hugging me, you know, it was like my first hug in mixed reality where it was actually in the context of a story of having a hug with another character, but having the mixed reality feedback of that. So I just want to hear some of the feedback you've heard, because this is something new I've never seen done before. What are some people's reactions to this, actually getting hugged in VR, some people don't want to be touched, or kind of the visceral reaction that people have to that experience?

[00:09:41.408] Johanna Nicholls: I mean, we have had an incredible response and we are absolutely delighted by the response. There's a kind of universality about it as well. So every single time this happens, it's different because there's a different dynamic that establishes between the actor and the audience member. And it is genuinely unique every time. It's the same story being told, but it's genuinely unique because very early and it's the hug that does it. We've identified, we notice each time that there's a dynamic that establishes in that hug, in that moment. the audience member forms a dynamic and a certain kind of energy with the actor, and the relationship, that mother-child or that parent-child relationship, somehow, and we can see it, rapidly establishing. What that means is that we can, and we have witnessed over and over, we did previews in London, very early previews, just rehearsal previews really, and then we've been showing it every day since launch here, so we're doing about 100 showings a day here. and so we've witnessed hundreds of this relationship occurring hundreds of times and the response that we get is that universally that that personal experience establishes very fast and people go into their own personal recall, that the hug does it, that physical contact somehow. Now we like, we do tend to warn people that there is a bit of human contact because we understand that completely out of the blue that could be quite shocking so and it is a fine balance as to how you tell people there's going to be some contact without giving it away because there's something beautiful in suddenly getting a hug and yet it's an intimate moment so we've taken a bit of a risk really in putting people in their headset, in their VR and then being taken into a physical encounter such as a hug and a hug from a parent to a child there's a huge amount of emotion and intimacy in that and so we have taken a risk in their sense, but what we hope is it's a joyful and it's a kind of, it's a gift that we're trying to bring to people as part of the, kind of to establish the experience. That's when everything becomes real and people realise, OK, this is something else. This is something new. And somehow the technology starts to sort of melt away somewhat. Inhibition starts to melt away. Then you're taken to the next experience where you have to have some agency. You open a window. You start to draw. Ultimately, you're tucked into bed. I mean, that's an incredible kind of like vulnerable space to potentially be in. You've only met this. Well, you haven't even encountered this character. You've encountered this person. You're in a role yourself. You're playing a role yourself. that only started seven minutes previously and seven and a half minutes later you're tucked up in bed. We've been delighted by the openness of each and every audience member that we've had. Somehow it's working and people embrace it and they go with it and they feel their own emotions come to the fore and they go there emotionally. Safely we hope. Did it feel safe for you?

[00:12:25.550] Kent Bye: Yeah it did and you know there was a part of me that as I was experiencing it you know I've done a lot of VR and I am kind of receiving and I don't know the extent to my agency you know to the extent that I could participate in different ways and so I'm curious to hear if you have people who want to participate in the telling of the story and if you are able to kind of improv through whatever people tell you or if you're able to then redirect I mean it was To me, I took much more of a passive role and to kind of see what was emerging without trying to direct it in any way. But, yeah, I'm just curious if you have that level of dialogue and interaction with some of these.

[00:13:03.374] Johanna Nicholls: There's a range of the audience improvising back to us, from absolutely zero through to some degree. We've never had anyone go completely... ..taking us into too wild a direction or too far a direction. The point is the actors are there ready, they're poised to improvise back out, so whatever happens we would improvise in and around that. And we do get people who start to play with it a bit sooner than we imagine they might and that's fine. We find some people who become quite stunned by some of the things that are happening there. We have people, there's a very strong emotional response when people come out and as yet we haven't had that until people have actually taken the headset off and done a little bit of immediate reflection. We haven't had it trigger anything sooner than that. So in the actual kind of moment, the tension of the actual experience. we get through it and then sometimes after that when the headset comes off people kind of go to a place of their own kind of personal recall maybe it is or whatever it might have done that it's kind of brought up in themselves or triggered themselves and what we haven't noticed and haven't had to improvise around but it's not to say it won't happen is that people's emotions start to play out sooner than that and we have to handle we have to offer greater support of emotion if you like The improvisation that we have had from the audience members is typically very playful. They do clap their hands and squirrel with delight and roar with laughter and start to really go there with the drawings and things like this, you know. Yeah.

[00:14:26.798] Kent Bye: I've had this discussion with Devin Dolan, where he talks about these two axes of these different types of stories and narratives. On one axis, you're either a character or you're a ghost. And then on the other axis is that you either have agency or no agency. So most films that we watch, we're just ghosts. We're not a character. In some VR experiences, you may be incapacitated as a character, but yet you can't have any agency. So they're addressing you as you're a character, but you can't really do anything. And then like in Sleep No More, you are a ghost where you're not addressed as a character, you're just there kind of observing and you're just witnessing. But you have the agency to move around all of the space. And I think this sort of sweet spot with where things are going is that you are a character and you do have agency to be able to actually control and interact. and that, you know, with artificial intelligence and drama managers, there's ways to potentially do all the different, many different branches of the author narrative and maybe mediate that, but you lose the human interaction, so the improv. So I feel like right now we're kind of, I see this as an improv experience where it's kind of a pretty linear authored story with maybe some branching depending on the emotional reaction, depending on the hug. But you're essentially kind of ending at the same place and not really branching so much. And there's local agency where you can decide as a character what you're doing and how you're experiencing it, but you don't have any global agency to change the outcome of the story. So, you know, I felt like to a certain extent I'm kind of a ghost, but still a character because I don't know the full extent. You know, there wasn't really an invitation for me to make any choices, for example. So I'm not making any choices. I'm just kind of reacting to improv.

[00:16:11.085] Johanna Nicholls: No, that's right. And in this particular story, as you say, as the immersive storytelling studio at the National Theatre, we're poised to explore all sorts of scenarios around the various opportunities you've just described and how you cross those over and shift things around. This particular narrative, this particular story, the fact of the matter is, ultimately, this is a memoir about the actual terminal diagnosis of of a mother and this is the memoir of a son reporting that and so in this case there is no ultimate agency to change that narrative and yeah so that's specific to this narrative is that the agency is it's probably some playfulness in and around experiencing that relationship but you can't change the outcome in this case the memories will come and go, they will fade in and they will fade out and I guess that's part of the, you know, the dramatic tension that we're bringing to you that you're experiencing and I guess that's part of, you know, that's core to the experience that ultimately the memory fades away and the relationship is concluded.

[00:17:13.993] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I've had different discussions with storytellers and people who are coming from more of the AI emergent narrative perspective, and I feel like Sashka Unseld from Oculus Story Studio would make the argument that if you have many different branches and outcomes of a story then perhaps as a storyteller you don't really know what you're trying to say. And I would counter that just saying that, well, maybe depending on your relationship to your mother, for example, there may be different branches that are more well suited to your own personal experience of your relationship. And so maybe depending on the reaction to the hug, you could start to have different branches that kind of take you on different tracks that you'd be able to take that input into your personal experience and then may deliver a narrative that's actually more finely tuned to what you need as a human.

[00:17:56.753] Johanna Nicholls: No, yeah, no, you absolutely certainly could. And I think that's the matter is that this particular story has been brought to us in the way that it is. And we're and then we're handling that back out in response. But I mean, certainly. Exploring and understanding how you, as you say, agency within story world and all of the multiple options you have around that is where our, you know, in terms of the immersive storytelling studio and National Film Board Canada, our collaborators on that. And so many of us in the industry are exploring how you get to that, what the options are to us and how those options can be made. You know, fantastic audience experiences ultimately, do you know? We're still in a very R&D state, and we don't know when we'll come out of that, so that we've arrived anywhere in particular. We're not looking to get anywhere first. We want to get somewhere well, wherever that might be. So we have the technical options that we have, so vast and so varied, and we're working on some AI storytelling, some narratives that are built around AI possibilities and options as different projects, for example. For us, we're very much about getting there, doing the best we possibly can and not being the first in any given space. But with this, we really do feel as though the harmony between the story, the technology, the illustration that we used. Tava Harrison is a Canadian illustrator who also has the same diagnosis and has been illustrating her way through her response to her diagnosis in any case outside of this project. There are layers and layers of collaboration around this project. The technology is only a part of that, of the world of this story.

[00:19:38.554] Kent Bye: Yeah, and in this specific story, you're talking about a mother and son or daughter relationship, depending on the gender identification of whomever is going through it, but do you find that there's a difference in reactions based upon either the quality of relationship that someone has with their mother, or if it's also if their mother has passed away?

[00:20:00.700] Johanna Nicholls: We haven't, that's what I was saying earlier actually, interestingly, we find that there's a kind of universal response, almost like an archetypal response that seems to traverse your own, in some ways, we haven't put this scientifically to the test and there are many more audience members, not least just at this festival. We've probably got about another 500 audience members to come over the next few days, but so far what we're thinking is, or seem to be seeing, is that there is, yeah, almost like an archetypal response to the kind of parent-child scenario. in that we have not triggered people's own, like deeply, people's own response, very, very personal reactions based on their experience of their parent. If there's been a death involved or there is a diagnosis, that does sometimes personally come in, but just the dynamic of your own experience of your parent seems to sort of, what seems to, people experience the nature of the very loving and very supportive relationship, that kind of, the dynamic that's been depicted in the story in those eight minutes that you're inside that space with that actor, It's a playful, safe, there are unsafe things happening around it, but there's a safe adult-child dynamic there and if people have not had that experience, perhaps in their own relationship with their own parent, they haven't had that safety maybe, that doesn't seem to come up. People just seem to fall into the arms of the mother. They seem to go with the coaxing and the care that the mother's giving them, and they seem to respond quite archetypally in that sense. There's a safety and there's a beauty, there's a gentleness in the relationship that plays out over and over. Now, once they come out of the headset, if they have experienced a death or a diagnosis, then we sometimes talk with them about that offstage, out of the headset. But in the time that they're in there, there seems to be a democracy and a universality around the way people fall into the role, their role as the child. It's interesting.

[00:21:48.643] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this fusion of virtual reality with immersive theater. Because one of the things that I see is that you're able to set a context. environments that would be impossible to create in real life. Because it's mixed reality, you're able to do kind of these tricks of being able to show something and give someone the haptic feedback of it, but maybe it'll be able to take them to a level of immersion that you may not be able to do in a single setting of a, you know, theater. you do in theater changing the sets, but here you're able to do a set of a whole other degree. So I'm just curious to hear where you kind of see this going in terms of using the environmental element of some of the other unique affordances that you're able to do in virtual reality and add it to immersive theater where you wouldn't be able to do that with just immersive theater on its own.

[00:22:39.930] Johanna Nicholls: Yes, so as you say, you know, technology and theatre in some ways is nothing new, you know, staging, lighting, sound design, etc, etc. And we work with a lot of those practitioners, taking them into this new space. So sound design is really, really important to us. and working with the senses vary, so what this technology affords is that all of your senses are being heightened and triggered all at the same time, potentially. So your ears, your eyes are being mediated, you're physically being mediated. We paid attention to the detail of the texture in that quite deconstructed set, but the fact that you take your shoes off and there are different textures underfoot, the touches of the hug etc. Anyway, so this is what we've kind of worked through in this particular piece and I think we are in such an R&D state we're open to any kind of opportunities. I think even six months ago when we were working on our last big project which was actually a 360 verbatim documentary about the refugee crisis in Europe we were applying ourselves to making that really work in the form and to be a strong short documentary, 360 film documentary. How you can then perceive that we could have come to some of the solutions and found some of the convergences working so well with this piece. And so we are still open to and discovering all the ways in which we can use the tech to bring our stories to our audiences in certain ways and so I don't think there's any one answer to that right now and that we're on a total state of discovery with our creatives and collaborators and those who come to us and in and out the studio and with National Film World Canada which has been a fantastic collaboration. We continue to, we just remain in an open state of discovery with the story and the making of theatre being the thing that we ultimately are all about producing.

[00:24:28.565] Kent Bye: Because I saw Sleep No More so early in my, before I had even experienced any modern consumer VR, I always kind of thought to myself, the closest medium to storytelling in VR is going to be immersive theater. And I'm curious to hear from you, what do you think that a theater or immersive theater can teach VR in terms of storytelling?

[00:24:48.612] Johanna Nicholls: Well, so theatre always tells its stories spatially. Theatre, you cannot direct the gaze of the audience in theatre in the same way as you can in film. You can't edit the scene in the same way, you know, so I think that's why this is such a natural medium, it's such a natural form, because there's a huge amount of what we already do. So we feel as though this is a natural, this is quite a natural coming together of how we practice as theatre makers. And it's been incredible actually to see the kind of embracing of the technology by all of our colleagues and collaborators, the people we work with, the theatre makers at National Theatre in any case. We've rapidly gone from doing some small pieces of VR, our first bit of VR was, we were staging a modernised version, a musical of Alice in Wonderland. The production was called Wonder Dot Land. and it was a reimagining of the Wonderland story as a musical by Damon Albarn. And the reimagining meant that this was a modern teenager, Alice is Ali, she's a teenager from a single parent family, she's got trouble at school, trouble at home, she's been bullied at school, et cetera, et cetera, and she escapes all of this by falling down the rabbit hole, which is the internet, on a mobile phone and jumping into, and Wonderland is this virtual world on the other side of sort of like a device. And this was staged, this was a staged production, but it enabled our department as a digital department in the National Theatre to get involved in the kind of, okay, so what is a response, a creative response we can do around technology to this particular production? Felt perfect. Okay, sure, so we did our very first piece of VR around that. We took one of the main songs from that production and made a four-minute Phantom of the Oracle VR music video, basically. Oculus Rift, people put the headset on. and fell down the rabbit hole and landed in Wonderland. And that was a four minute piece and it was fun and it sat alongside a stage production. And we thought, okay, no, but there's something more to it. And our audiences really took to it and really engaged with it. It was in the foyer, it was front of house and it was a free sort of thing to experience whether you went to the production or not. But this suddenly kind of like lit everything up in us and we were like, this is quite easy for us to transfer. where we're coming from with the thoughts and the stories and the content that flows through the theatre, the technology is kind of rising up to the stories and the stories are rising up to the technology and this is all good, you know, we can do this. And so now, 12 months on from that 4-minute VR video, we have our immersive storytelling studio and we're dedicated to it, you know, and we are a busy studio space full of potential, full of collaborators, day in, day out. Set designers who've been in the industry for 20 years who are standing in Tilt Brush and just completely reinventing their practice by beginning to draw out their sets there and then in Tilt Brush, for example. You know, sound designers who are sitting with us and creating, you know, the sound designer for the Encounter, Composite's Encounter. was the sound designer for this piece here. You know, lighting designers, all of the practices of the theatre, all of the protocols that have been established over, you know, how many hundred years ago in a theatre making, are easily adapting and applying to this technology. We don't find it at jars or queries or questions, you know, and then what does it mean for the audiences? The audience response we've had to all of the pieces that we've produced have been our theatre audience embracing and adopting. We see them receiving it as theatre though. Say it again, it's an open state, a constant open state of discovery because we just don't know the answers yet and we wouldn't pretend that we do. We're really enjoying the discovery and it is important to understand that one of our principles are about not getting there first or fastest necessarily. This technology can do this. It's like if it feels right, for some content, a narrative we've discovered, or a story we want to tell, then we'll bring the technology in. And I think this is what we like about this. There's a simplicity to the script, there's a simplicity to the set, there's a simplicity to a single actor standing there talking to you. And we use the technology. We'd like to say we're pushing its limits, but we'd like to say we're also using it quite simply.

[00:28:46.686] Kent Bye: I think that because you're not using the hand-track controllers, you have the Vive tracker on the hands, it allows you the ability to be able to interact in a scene in a way that I hadn't been able to experience before, being able to actually have your hands on and interact in a way. where it's not so important to have the fingers tracked, but just to have the general location of where my hands are and be able to interact with being able to touch a piece of paper or to draw on the ground. And so I think that just gives a level of agency expression that just creates that deeper sense of immersion. And so I'm curious for you, what do you want to personally experience in VR then?

[00:29:23.374] Johanna Nicholls: Good stories, well told. It really is about the content and about the emotional engagement that you come away with rather than the wow, whiz, bang, mullet, wow. This is me personally, I just always hanker after a really good story, really well told and the emotion that that engenders. I think we can 100% overuse the concept of empathy in VR and all that, but the emotion in the story, when you're being told a story and you're immersed in a story, the emotional responses you have to that. With this, that's what we hope we've done. Presented an emotional space into which emotion can be felt, or a narrative space which can be related to and emotion can be experienced. quite finely balanced. It's a very short period of time. You've gone back in time. You've rolled the years right back. You're there, we hope, sitting as a child, sitting with your mother, doing something very simple. But in a bigger, wider world where you know things are cranking and cranking around these two, this innocent scene is actually And that's all occurred in eight minutes. Now, I don't know whether the technology, I'm sure the technology has enabled us to get at speed to that place. Do you know? Could you do that? Have you just sat? Yeah, it's interesting to think that maybe, yeah, the technology has enabled you to get to that state of immersion that fast, I guess.

[00:30:47.777] Kent Bye: Yeah, yeah, I agree. Definitely a deep sense of emotional presence there. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:31:01.178] Johanna Nicholls: Dare I say again that we don't know the ultimate outcome. Everything is moving so fast in terms of the technology that's appearing and the ways that we're being able to respond to it. People say to us, we've got three stages at the National Theatre, three fairly large stages. is it about people sitting there and all the, you know, 1,000 people with headsets in the auditorium and we say, no, not now, not in the foreseeable, that may never happen. Maybe it will if it's right, with the right project, the right content. What is it? It's just, it's hard to say at this point because things are, yeah, it's just moving so fast. Can't predict.

[00:31:42.146] Kent Bye: Okay, awesome, well thank you so much.

[00:31:45.566] Johanna Nicholls: Yeah, I'm sorry I couldn't give that kind of like longer term view but it really is because we We are just identifying and discovering as we go along. This piece wasn't long in the making. We started to work on it in December, late December. Where are we? Mid-April. So we have to be able to be fast and rapid and agile, iterative and responsive. A bit of tech comes up, grab it. We need some motion capture. How are we going to do this motion capture? Let's throw together the Vive trackers and see what we can do with this. The piece that we did, the Wonderland piece, that was only on stage for a short period of time. We had to get that done. The documentary we did about the refugee crisis was set in a refugee camp in France called The Jungle. And that was a volatile and changing situation that no longer exists. So there's something about the technology that enables you to respond fast. There's a kind of natural pace, I think, to working in this. We find that we move at a certain pace. And so the answer that we might give now about what does virtual reality mean for what's it really bringing is invariably going to change in the next five, six months as we continue to discover and technology continues to come in and the standards and the protocols around the actual tech itself shifts and changes and becomes finer and different and better and something new.

[00:33:03.114] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.

[00:33:07.215] Johanna Nicholls: Thank you.

[00:33:08.676] Kent Bye: So that was Johanna Nichols. She's a producer at the National Theater's Immersive Storytelling Studio, and she was at Tribeca Film Festival premiering Draw Me Close. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, I think that there's so much to learn about the future of storytelling that's happening within the immersive theater scene. And I think that this is just the very beginning of where I see this going. There was something that they're exploring in terms of intimacy and emotional presence and mixed reality, where you're able to actually have this one-on-one interaction with an actor, in that, if anything, the thing that was dialed down the most was an explicit invitation for interaction and agency. At no time was there a question or anything posed for me to kind of like think of a response. And, you know, I almost felt like I would have to interrupt in order to actually engage and participate. And so it almost felt like, you know, this was a person that was coming in and kind of narrating the experience of what was happening. And this is the challenge. I mean, this is the thing where it's difficult to be just thrown into a world. You have no idea who you are or what's going on. You're a character in this. experience and so you're interacting with another character and that character has to give you all of this backstory and contextualize everything so that you kind of know what's happening and it kind of starts off with just that hug and that's your introduction to this character and what's happening over the course of this interaction. And so that's the thing that I find really interesting is this balance between the local and global agency of, you know, what are the invitations? What are the prompts such that you have some sense that you're able to engage or participate? And this particular story is a memoir. So it's a story of somebody else's story. It's not your story. It's not your relationship with your mother. And so there was this kind of stepping into the archetypal role of being that either son or daughter interacting with that archetypal mother. And the way that they had the visual style of the experience was very, very sparse and what Johanna described as deconstructed. And it was really just like sketches of the lines of a house such that you just felt like you were walking into this cartoon world and there wasn't a lot of colors, not a lot of vividness. And so it was really like a symbolic reality that you were stepping into where you were able to kind of project your own memories into the experience. And I think that was what made it so interesting is that You have a story that's being told to you, but you also are kind of drawing in from your own direct experiences and using quite a lot of your imagination to kind of fill in a lot of the gaps. And there were quite a lot of gaps. But being able to interact with an actor one-on-one was an extremely powerful experience. And I think that this was an experience that as the Tribeca Film Festival went on, it became more and more harder to get in to actually see it. So the scalability of this type of experience is something that I just thought was so impractical that, you know, who would actually try to do this type of experience? But it seems like both the National Film Board and the National Theater are interested in trying to experiment with pushing the edge of what's possible from a storytelling perspective using these immersive technologies. So at the Venice Film Festival that's happening this past weekend, they were showing another 15-minute version, an extended version, the next chapter of Draw Me Close. And I didn't have a chance to go to the Venice Film Festival to see the latest, but I'm super curious to hear more about it or to catch the next iteration because I think they're going to continue to evolve it and grow it. Perhaps we'll get a chance to see it at Sundance. But again, if it does show at Sundance, this is going to be the type of experience that is going to be high demand but low throughput type of experience so it becomes more of a logistical issue of how do you actually like see these types of Experiences and so this story was a memoir which kind of has a very fixed narrative It's very authored and so where I see the power of this type of experience going forward is to somehow Loosen it up a little bit and maybe have some high-level branches just as an example maybe they're able to figure out like a based upon your relationship with your mother that maybe sends you on to different kind of tracks or story arcs that are completely different. Maybe there's different types of experiences based upon what your relationship with your mother is. I mean that is. something that we're probably pretty far away from, but I think that this is where I see the seeds of that type of experience coming in, where it's reactive to your direct experience and you have much more of an opportunity to potentially kind of project onto this actor and do some level of psychodrama within this situation. And again, this is an instance where, as an audience member, we're going to have to be trained how to interact with these types of experiences. As the technology has evolved, it first goes with the technology, then it goes with the creators, then finally it's up to the audience to kind of catch up to those previous two. So we're having the audience been catching up to the technology, and now this type of content is requiring new skills to be cultivated for how to even experience this type of experience. I mean, in hindsight, as I went through the experience, I didn't know how to interact or how to engage. I was really cautious as to what boundaries I was going to push, because there's this phenomena of immersion, and you kind of don't want to break the rules and break the immersion, if you know what I mean. If you're in a virtual reality experience, you have the option at any moment to stick your head through the wall just to see what happens. But as soon as you do that, you have the risk of breaking your sense of embodied presence, something that is so primal that may be difficult to reclaim. You kind of like see that you're kind of cutting through the matrix in that way. and when I saw then she fell there was rules that were laid out do not open a door and immediately in the very first scene some guy like opened up a door and barged through and it was a little bit of like testing to see what the limits are when you break those rules what happens And so people who are into very high agency type of experiences are gonna treat it much more like a video game than it is like receiving a story. And I personally wanted to see what the story was rather than kind of pushing and finding what those thresholds were to kind of break the experience in order to kind of know how they react to it. I just wanted to see what the experience was without having to be an extreme use case for trying to do something that was so radical that they had to do something that they've never had to do before. So that's what I mean is that like, I didn't feel like there was an invitation for me to really experiment or play with that too much. It kind of felt like the intention that was set within the experience was that it was like, okay, here's a story and we're going to give it to you, which is great for an authored experience. But yet I think that in the long run, that's not where the strength and power for virtual reality is going to be. It's going to be much more like a conversation and an invitation for you to openly collaborate and participate into this experience rather than get given to you in this immersive way. So that's at least my sense of where things are at and where things are going. But of course, there's all sorts of challenges and difficulties in being able to create those branches that kind of make sense in an archetypal way. And, you know, that dilemma that Sascha Unseld said is that once you start to have all these different branches, then you start to dilute the message that you're really trying to say. And it becomes more about maybe an interactive therapy session, rather than to use the affordances of storytelling, which is a time-based medium, in order to craft a sense of narrative tension in an arc that is trying to give a deeper message and meaning. And finally, the other thing that was really striking to me was that there seemed to be a little bit of decompression time that some people needed from this experience, where they come out of the experience and they really need to talk about it, or they may have an emotional reaction where they really just need to be present with that and really cathart their own memories and experience of their relationship with their mother. And so I think there's going to be new structures of the way that stories are told. Perhaps in the future, what we may see is stories being told in segments or increments such that you could have a portion of the story. And then once you have that portion, maybe there's a group discussion to be able to share your own personal experiences of what was the most striking to you in that first section of the story. This is a technique that Michael Mead uses and what he calls mythological acupuncture, where there's going to be a moment in the story that is going to be the most striking to you. And if you just tell the entire story from start to finish, you may lose that aspect of what is really connected to you. And so as we're moving into this more immersive and interactive way of participating in a story, then you may identify with a character and you may be able to say, hey, I really identify with where this character is at in this part of the story. And then you share something that's happening in your own personal life. And that is a little bit more of a way of participating and interacting in a collaborative way in a story that could be told in segments or in different portions. so that you were maybe having an immersive experience of the story and then being able to then go into that kind of decompression or debriefing portion with other people that are maybe your friends and maybe you're really reflecting deeply about where you're at in the story, but by hearing other people's versions of the story of where they're at, you actually get a different flavor of the story in terms of what was striking for other people and actually unlocks these different archetypal dimensions of the story that you may have missed before. So that to me is kind of like the future of where I see this potential for immersive storytelling kind of mixed with this interpersonal depth psychological perspective of being able to be reactive to different things that are really striking to you. And if it is open enough of a structure with the actors being improv, then maybe they'll be able to really do some deep work within that context and really make it a personalized experience that was completely and totally unique that only you were able to experience it in that way. So that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do tell your friends, spread the word, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. I'm going to be having some social VR meetups as well as I'm going to be doing a webinar on storytelling and virtual reality coming up here soon. So, the Voices of VR is a listener-supported podcast, and so if you'd like to continue to hear this type of in-depth coverage about the future of these immersive technologies, then please do donate today and become a member at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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