#924: Tender Claws’ Live Immersive Theater Show “Tempest” Creates a New Fusion of VR Storytelling

Tender Claws continues to be one of the most innovative studios pushing forward what’s possible for immersive storytelling in VR by launching a Tempest, which is a live, immersive theater show within The Under Presents. It’s a show that blends the ambitions of live theater with the ambitions of gaming, with some embodied live action role playing in order to tell the story of Shakespeare’s Tempest.

samantha-gormanThe Under Presents has been employing live immersive theater actors since it’s original launch in November 2019, and they’re taking the lessons learned and putting on a 40-minute, one-man show for $14.99. It’s a unique fusion that seamlessly blends the affordances of theater and VR to create something truly unique that yields new innovations for the future of immersive storytelling.

Genevieve-FlatiI had a chance to talk with Tender Claws co-founder Samantha Gorman, who also wrote the Tempest, as well as Genevieve Flati who is one of the dozen immersive theater actors from The Under Presents who will also be taking on the role of Prospero in the Tempest. We talked about the lessons learned from The Under Presents, the process of fusing theater and gaming with inspirations from Journey, how to deal with different audience temperaments, how to make the audience feel seen and connected, and the three guidelines for adding in the “live” element of an experience of setting parameters and boundaries, engaging activity and responsiveness, and assigning roles and permissions.

The Tempest is one of the most innovative experiments of immersive storytelling that I’ve seen so far that starts to create unique group dynamics that will be different every time. Gorman expects to see quite a lot of different variations from performer to performer, and Flati expects that even from show to show that she plans on mixing it up quite a bit. (UPDATE: July 6, 2020, See the text below for more details on pricing.) If you’re interested in the future of immersive storytelling within XR, then this is must-see performance that will give you a really great idea for how to successfully blend together the ambitions of immersive theater and the affordances of VR.

How does pricing work for all this?

  • Tempest will be available for $14.99 (US) per ticket as an in-app purchase and includes permanent access to The Under multiplayer space.
  • The Timeboat single player experience will be available as an in-app purchase for $11.99 (US) and also grants permanent access to The Under multiplayer space.
  • The intro to The Under Presents (about 45 min of gameplay) will be free of charge as a demo of the experience.


Here’s a teaser trailer for the experience:

Tickets to the Tempest show are an in-app purchase for Oculus platforms only (Quest or Rift), and Alex Coulombe walks through the process in this video:

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So I'm really excited about today's episode because I think that Tender Claws is doing some of the most innovative work when it comes to the future of immersive storytelling. So they created virtual virtual reality, which is an amazing combination of exploration puzzle and great writing and storytelling. And then they've also created the under presents, which is this interesting combination of like a single player game that is. a bit like a Sleep No More where you're going around and seeing different actors within this immersive theater stage. But then it's also like a anonymous multiplayer game that has all these little mini games for emergent play. But also they've hired immersive theater actors to come in and work every day and have these one-on-one interactions and whole other worlds that you're able to be introduced to within The Under Presents. So they've had this platform to be able to hire and employ immersive theater actors remotely, and they've expanded that into an entire performance of The Tempest. It's Shakespeare's Tempest, and they're actually going to be starting to sell tickets for immersive theater shows that are about 40 minutes long, and that's going to start on July 9th, and it's just being announced today on July 6th. So last week I had a chance to go through it and actually have the theater experience of the Tempest and then have a chance to talk to the co-founder of Turner Claus, Samantha Gorman, who also happened to write and adapt the Tempest. And then also Jean-Pierre Flady, who's one of the actors, both in the under presents as well as the Tempest. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Wasteless VR podcast. So this interview with Samantha and Jean-Pierre happened on Friday, July 3rd, 2020. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:52.755] Samantha Gorman: So I'm Samantha, I'm the co-founder of Tinder Clause, and I'm the writer and person who adapted and directed Tempest.

[00:02:02.199] Genevieve Flati: And I'm Jean-B.F., or G as my, like, nickname, because Jean-B.F.' 's awful. And I'm one of the actors in The Under Presents and in The Tempest. I guess we're saying words like that now. I don't know. People told me not to say those words. So she said it first. So I'm one of those people, too.

[00:02:21.194] Kent Bye: Well, I had a chance to try out one of the press preview yesterday of the Tempest. By the way, is what I saw, is that pretty much what people are going to see when they see the experience?

[00:02:29.856] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, it's about the length. However, if they don't have under multiplayer, that's also included. There's a bunch of different elements and we can like clarify that too and send you more information.

[00:02:41.380] Kent Bye: Maybe we could take a step back and just sort of set some context as to The Under Presents because I know that you've been building a whole platform to be able to deal with remote actors and immersive theater and the evolution of that, how that went and what led to what you're doing now with The Tempest.

[00:02:57.950] Samantha Gorman: Cool, yeah. So The Under Presents was actually a thing started more than two years ago now and it was built first with the live actor platform and then It is a very different project, both in the way it's performed and its format. And its format is kind of like a long form single and multiplayer game. There's like a single player world that's like a narrative. It's kind of like a sleep no more, where you can follow different characters and storylines around a drama that unfolds in three acts. But that is actually kind of sandwiched in the middle of a multiplayer hub world, where there's anonymous multiplayer, there's some pre-recorded acts. and there are also NPCs that can be possessed by live actors who have been since last November 2019 pretty much in the game, the original hours, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. West Coast every day. So we had a cast of, for Tempest, we have a cast of about 11 to 12, and it's a bit bigger for The Under, which is continuing the multiplayer to run simultaneously. And The Tempest is a 40 to 45 minute one-man show, essentially, that's very heavily inspired by the metaphors of The Tempest, where that overlaps with The Under, and the current state of live theater.

[00:04:10.945] Kent Bye: Wow. Yeah. And Gene, maybe you could talk a little bit about your experience of The Under Presents of being an actor acting in VR and what that's been like for you up to this point.

[00:04:21.398] Genevieve Flati: Yeah, so I got roped in because one of the producers, Tanya on The Under Presents, she and I actually met, I'm a puppeteer for the Jim Henson Company, and so we met a few years ago in that world, and she was like, why don't you come to this audition for this thing? And I was like, okay, whatever. And before then, I'd done some voiceover for another Tender Claws production. Samantha, what was that one called? I don't even remember.

[00:04:46.084] Samantha Gorman: I think you have like a, It was an early prototype that led into VVR, but I think you have like maybe a voice cameo in VVR as well.

[00:04:55.258] Genevieve Flati: Yeah, I just remember I was like a flamingo or something, and I just remember screaming things. That's usually how I do things. And so I was brought into this, and it was an audition a lot like any other audition that actors would go to, where you do a little bit of monologue, they give you some stuff, they give you a little thing to say, can you do this? So we did all that jazz, and then I think our callback, callback, callbacks were actually in the headset, and I'm not, like, a gamer. I don't own an Oculus. And so it was this whole other world that somebody like me, who's never been part of this, got to step into. And, like, just the colors and the way things worked, it was just, like, magical. I felt like it was a kid at Disneyland, just like, what is this? And Sam and the rest of the Tender Claws production team has been a dream for somebody like me, who's a comedian, who's an actor, in saying like, yeah, let's try it. Yeah, let's do it. Let's see what you got. And being very open to all the different kinds of actors and all the different kinds of ideas that come with this so that the cast, it's not just like all the same people. Everyone's different. Every time you come in and you're gonna do a show, it's always gonna be different for the players. It's always different for the actors. It's just, it's just like this really awesome thing you get to be a part of as a player and as an actor.

[00:06:19.458] Samantha Gorman: And I was just, I think it's actually really maybe helpful for listeners to give context to G in terms of your background. And, you know, as I said, there are about, you know, 12 different casts in the under and G is on definitely one side of the spectrum where she was trained as a professional clown and opera singer. So she's coming to acting from a very different than a lot of the other people's and very high energy and very player focused. So if you want to talk to that G for a sec.

[00:06:45.028] Genevieve Flati: Oh, so yeah, I'm an improviser and comedian. That's my like background. That's my job. As I've said, I'm a puppeteer. So I like to do like hit and runs as I call them in the under. I'll go in and I'll just kind of invisibly to another actor's stage or what they're doing and I'll listen invisibly like you would for improv, and you take in a little bit of context of what they're talking about or what they're doing, and then I will jump in and like heighten or destroy whatever they've just created, depending on if I want to yes and them or no but them, and just be like, ah, I am that rock you were just talking about. I know one of the big ones that I did was, and it's still my favorite, they were pretending like they wanted to rehearse a song or whatever and there was a cd player and i was the voice of the cd player and i was insulting them and like ah the cd player is displeased i hate this And so that's kind of what I do. The other actors are, I would say, better trained actors than I am. They're much better at, they have a storyline, and they're making things, and it's beautiful, and then I'm the train wreck that comes in and ruins it for them. I don't know, does that help? Oh, God.

[00:08:03.303] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, yeah. But you know, the audience really like, you know, because she's a stand up comedian, so the audience really gets involved in these sort of like scenarios and scenes that are just happen as they lay out. So it's a very different process than some of our other actors. But, you know, it brings a lot of humor to the space, which we appreciate.

[00:08:22.807] Genevieve Flati: Yeah, I like to give challenges to people. I'm just like, OK, we're all going to do this right now. Ready? Go. Boom. And I like to make it feel like we're still kids playing a game, because at the end of the day, we're still kids playing a game. It's on a virtual playground.

[00:08:40.001] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, to see how the worlds of immersive theater and VR are coming together, you know, I look to some of these flagship experiences in New York City, like Sleep No More or Then She Fell, where Sleep No More, you have this dynamic with like hundreds of people, but you have maybe like winning the lottery, it would be the equivalent of like getting a one-on-one interaction with an actor, which is kind of what you have in The Under Presents with characters that are going around interacting who are able to speak and maybe take them on an adventure. Then She Fell is another experience that tries to architect an entire experience around those more intimate one-on-one type of interactions. And so just curious to maybe get a little bit more context for what you were able to learn from what really works with those types of interactions in The Under Presents that maybe fed into what you're doing with The Tempest.

[00:09:32.112] Samantha Gorman: I can speak and then G can speak. So in terms of like, there's a larger discussion on the crossover between immersive theater and VR and kind of, you know, why we wanted to do this project. But one of the things that I was interested in, I was teaching digital performance classes at RISD for a number of years as a professor before I went to do my PhD. So I am very interested in the idea of liveness in digital space, exploring that concept and exploring creating intimacy and connection. And there's these three premises that distilled it down, but that I would talk to actors about. And the first one was essentially how you create the boundaries and safe space of the rules and the laws of how one operates in that world. Because anytime, like even borrowing from game terminology and invitation to like a magic circle, And there's a lot of crossover, I think, between how you create, like, supposedly stagemizing scene in VR versus, like, you know, in theater and, like, what it means for those one-on-one encounters, the invitation and the address, and the importance of those moments when you're engaging with another person to kind of set the tone for the scene. So there's the invitation to dress, there's the idea of keeping it active and responsive. That's crowd work and taking in the energy of the other people in the scene. And you can learn so much, surprisingly, from the body language. And then there's the third principle of assigning roles and permission. And kind of all of those elements correspond to these scenes. And you know, like, Gee, especially like I I love the way she performs. It's kind of like this like crazy no case energy But there's always you know, she's always really also really conscientious to you and measured about Performing and taking in the audience energy and just kind of like bringing them to like share and have this experience together There was one I don't know G like how many shifts you've had right now and you may not remember it but sometimes I can go in and watch these invisibly and if I if I There's a private channel that we can speak to each other on, but we don't usually do that to interrupt the flow. But there was one where she has this character called Miss Flannery, which is like a secretary in a rolling chair that, like, leads people through, like, adventures in the underground tunnels, among other things. It's sort of like a fever dream, kind of, when you're a G. But she pioneered this thing that a lot of actors in there use now, which I think is really sweet, which is getting everyone to hold hands. and it's almost like a school marm with your students and like they're just really into it you know like it's i think also the like really dominant way that she comedically performs this scene so that's something you can speak to as well as also like what you've learned because i know you you're a director as well

[00:12:14.754] Genevieve Flati: Yeah, I learned a lot from working in the under that I think is preparing me for the Tempest. So I'm excited for that. As an improviser, it's great because you learn how to call out things, which I think actually has been probably the most beneficial part. Of working in the under and making people feel seen because really at the end of the day people want to feel seen They want that sense of connection like you get in the theater, you know If anyone has ever been to a live show a concert or anything, there's that whole like you had to be there. You're there You're feeling the energy you're feeling it and so the challenge for vr and anything virtual is it feels clinical or it feels This separation and so we have to find these moments to make it feel Like you're really there and like we really do see you and so Pulling from my time of working with teaching children, we do a lot of like, okay, everyone, hands in, or come to the circle, put your hands in together, or hold my hand, and, you know, your senses, which determine what is real, you know, it's sight. Sight is a big one for people that have the ability to see. And so, if you're looking down and you're holding hands, there's some part of your brain that's telling you, this is really happening, I'm really holding your hand. And so, in that world of virtual, that now, to a part of your brain, feels real. And it's those like little moments that I think pull people in and that they really like. And it's those moments of stillness and togetherness that I think people really take away from the under that they wouldn't get in like, Mortal Kombat, let's destroy the whatever. I don't know, obviously never played it. I think that's a game, right? And yes, I like to do chaotic things, but also call people out. So if you're over here doing something with a group and you see the kid over there, the player over there that's like flipping a log or throwing stuff off of the thing, instead of punishing them or saying like, come over here and join us. I do what I would do when I was still teaching of like, Let's go over there and do what they're doing! And then they feel seen, they feel like they've inspired something, and now we're all here doing it with them! And I think that those kinds of moments lead to really magical moments for the player, but also just for the gamers, because it does feel organic. It is! It's obviously like, we're doing this now! Screw what we were doing, we're doing this now! And I think that's the best part.

[00:14:29.917] Kent Bye: So it sounds like even within the under presents, Samantha, you were talking about giving people roles and setting forth the rules and creating, I guess, a deeper context. And what's interesting about the under presents is that you can't speak. And so it's all through this sort of embodied interaction, which is actually a really nice way to be thrown into what would maybe be considered an the larger immersive sphere is like a live action role play, a LARPing, where you're like, take on a character and embody that character in a certain way. But you're not expected to have a lot of deep context as to who this character is and what they may or may not say, because you can't say anything. It's all just your actions. And so is that something that you started to play with a little bit within The Under Presents?

[00:15:11.922] Samantha Gorman: So, you know, it's very inspired, of course, by our feelings of anonymous multiplayer and journey, and what that sensation was like the first time we played it when it came out, and it was super profoundly and powerfully moving. It's adjacent but related to what you're saying about LARPing. First of all, I think it gives you permission to be the role that you need to be in that moment without the pressure of having to perform in certain ways. It's part of the artistic decision of like limiting voice but like allowing an expressivity of gesture and allowing for props to allow for emergent play. But that relates to LARPing because actually there's a lot that's inspired and that we talk about in terms of LARPing. So there's the storylines, these characters, Have been um, there's a community of discord that like has crazy theories of all the different it's fascinating like the thing that I didn't anticipate about this project that just has blown my mind is like the immediate feedback between fan and performer and what that means for the evolution of story world and how people perform differently and that is a whole separate thing, but Regardless, The Tempest is based on a lot of, A, the principle of kind of setting rules and boundaries, but a lot of what we found that worked in The Under in terms of borrowing from LARPing principles. Like, I used to be involved in LARPing. And in fact, actually, in April or March, we introduced two actual LARPer actors into The Under. There's, like, foam weapons. It's, like, another level. But it's this idea of, like, even, like, whether you're explicitly like in the Tempest, there was a guy, Michael Bates, who's an actor who created this tour guide. It's an interpretive tour and he would go to different settings and like talk to the players and be like, you are now the druid at Stonehenge who has sacrificed the slam. And then like, you know, get these people in that scenes and people got so into it because, you know, they were given permission for just like a little bit of enough of direction of what roles to perform. So then that really inspired a lot of like the interpretive acting and like collaborative scenes in The Tempest. So there's that direct address to role, but then there's something where G is addressing, which is the being seen and like being able to like almost feel like your actions are like, your decisions are leading a campaign, but maybe not in a traditional black and white, like very obvious way in a way that's subtle, that shifts the energy of a group. You know, and I think like what you were talking about was like student, I was like, yeah, I need to remember that next time I'm teaching kids, you know, the power of like having an outsider be like the focal point of a group. And you know what that means to take on that role, I think is a really good point, Gina is pretty powerful.

[00:17:50.292] Genevieve Flati: Yeah, I think that a lot of people when they're playing video games, or even just anything online, of anonymous, because it gives you freedom. There's, you know, studies about it. And I've researched this a lot as a puppeteer and someone that has worked with masks, essentially, of when you feel like people can't see you, there's so much freedom in it, right? And then they'll take risks, or they'll do something out of the ordinary of their regular life. And then when you add that to the magic of what VR presents, and it's like, we are all doing this thing together, we are all trekking up this mountain together to find the gold or whatever. So we get back to that level of imagination that I think most people still crave and that anyone that doesn't regularly work with children or regularly do performance art might not have that level of imagination being activated quite as much. But then when they get to do things like even Dungeons and Dragons or LARPing or anything like we're doing in the Under, it gets you excited because you're still playing. I love that we keep going back to play in the Under and in the Tempest. It's all about feeling like a kid again. And one of the things that I like personally about the fact that there's limited speech is when human beings are limited in some way, so either you can't speak or you have to close your eyes or we took away your hearing or whatever, you'll find another way. And it gets you excited to work your way through these new challenges because we've had people, like they'll find things and they'll find letters somewhere randomly in the under and they'll try and point at it and be like, try and spell out words to communicate. They'll do interpretive body dances that we have to interpret for them. And so it gives this other level of fun and a new challenge to work through, but it also keeps it innocent. There's this level of innocence and kindness And I really mean like the word kindness in the world of the under where they like to support each other. They like to help. If somebody's new, the veterans are like, we're going to show you how to do everything.

[00:19:42.686] Samantha Gorman: You follow up, hold hands.

[00:19:43.967] Genevieve Flati: We're going over here. And I don't think online there's a lot of places like that where it's this kind, innocent place where it's like, we're going to play together and we're gonna have a good time today. And I like that Sam and Tender Claws have created those worlds.

[00:20:00.404] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I had an experience of Tempest. I'm also hesitant to even talk about any of my own experience. Cause I don't know, like, how do you describe what this is for people? Like what will people experience when they go through it?

[00:20:12.715] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, it is essentially a participatory play, for lack of a better word, inspired by and largely pulling from the motifs of Shakespeare's Tempest, led by Prospero, who's sort of the director and one of the central magician and characters of the Tempest, where the live actor is playing Prospero and you are essentially his spirits. echoing the themes in the play in the actual actions you're presented to do. There's various scenes, so you're going through different worlds as you do a kind of, a very large arc of the play, but the primary shaping and the metaphor of it is, it starts a little bit with, and this changes, I mean, it's a little bit different depending on who you saw. I think it's super fascinating because you saw, I believe, Kelly, and Kelly and Gee are completely opposite spectrums of different performers, so that's why this is pretty hilarious. But I believe Kelly starts with talking about, it's literally inspired by the Cameron, where they're in one of the earliest stories where there are a lot of young people waiting out the bubonic plague, trying to entertain each other and telling the stories around the campfire in quarantine. And, like, you know, we were looking at kind of the TikTok videos done in the Hollywood Hills at this time and kind of, like, you know, what sort of historical crossovers there were. And the live actor you encounter, I am a live actor. The theaters are closed. I was going to be in this production. And then they kind of take you on this, like, reimagining of that production as they're trying to learn and understand this character.

[00:21:41.569] Kent Bye: Hmm. Nice. Yeah. Is there a lot of variation between who you get and what the experience is then?

[00:21:48.024] Samantha Gorman: I think the general form and beats of it might be, but different actors will definitely say different. There's a script, but this is the one, it's very different than The Under. The Under was using devised theater and very different methods. And this one has a script that we worked on, rehearsed and directed, but then got to a point where we're like, okay, now it's just ad lib time. And it's really encouraging all the actors to bring their own interpretations and own voices to it. So Kelly and G's performances, I think, are pretty different. Kelly's trained Shakespeare, theater actor. G's a professional clown and, you know, opera singer. So like there's a there's a wide range of like how you would interpret how to say this role. Some of them have different nuances. There's like a scene in Island where two of the characters are asked to prosper as his daughter Miranda and future son-in-law Fernand to like see each other for the first time and that's kind of enacted and played by players with the actors acting as like puppet guides and directors of the voices. And some of the actors will add in like a funny callback to like Tempest minigame where all the spirits are going to have to help chuck the wood into like a furnace, you know, in under 30 seconds or like something different will happen. You know, some actors don't do that. Some actors then like will also give a short monologue about like the contemporary moment they're living in instead. So there's a variety.

[00:23:15.886] Genevieve Flati: Yes, like Sam said, the great thing about The Tempest, as well as The Ender, but specifically for The Tempest, is you could come to the show 30 times, and you're probably gonna get different actors each time, and it's gonna be a different show each time. And it's gonna be, everyone here has a different sense of humor, a different sense of how to tell a story, and so we have some actors that are so good at dry humor, like it's, Phenomenal. I'm thinking specifically of Michael. He's a champion of dry humor and I adore him for that. And then there are other actors that are so good at acting where they'll be able to like me, like, oh, I'll be quiet. Like Dasha, like you'll just be like, everyone shut up, everyone shut up, she's saying it all along, shut up, listen. Which is perfect and amazing. And then you'll get people like me, and I haven't specifically watched him, but I think Brandon, where it's gonna be a little chaos, It's gonna be a little if it feels like things are falling through the floor It's cuz they probably are but we'll find our way together And so all of those different kinds of styles I think are why people keep coming back to the under and why I think people are gonna keep coming back to the tempest because It'll always be different and it'll always be fun in a different way and you'll hear some of the same words some Shakespeare and Completely, you'll hear different words each time, and you'll have a different meaning each time. Because some actors do it wonderfully, and then other actors like me are just like, beep-a-doot-doot-doot-doot. These are Shakespeare words. I don't know what I'm saying either. What do you think? Great. And so I think there's something for everybody.

[00:24:54.161] Kent Bye: And one thing that I really appreciated was the use of the VR medium to be able to be taken to different places and to use the affordances of what you can do in VR that you can't do in a theater stage. And to do that in a way that is in service to the story as well, not just to do it because you can do it, but to really kind of have that paced out. And so just curious, Sam, if you could talk a little bit about that theater staging versus like pulling in elements of the VR, you're kind of fusing these two different storytelling mediums together in that way.

[00:25:24.575] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, actually, that's a good point. And that's something we could talk about on the VR spectrum, because not too many people I've talked to or studied or known a lot about VR in the same way. So basically, how much do you know about The Tempest?

[00:25:39.728] Kent Bye: I saw an immersive theater production of it here in Portland, but that's my only experience of it.

[00:25:45.833] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, so there's references throughout The Tempest, but The Tempest itself is a play about trickery and illusion. and I think in the original script there's actually a lot more lines that directly address VR as like a sort of theater of illusion and a sort of, you know, a suspending disbelief and like magic and like what is psychologically like real for the moment in the characters, you know, what is, you know, being delivered by like the director or fabricated or It's essentially like The Tempest itself also is a play. It's considered one of Shakespeare's last plays and it may or may not be about him saying goodbye to his art and a director who is taking you through, you know, the beats of like a kind of bowing out, like he or may or may not be as an analog for Prospero, which is some of the readings that's given. And, you know, what is the magician, the person who like creates the illusions, who is also a director, but who's also an actor and the stage manager who's kind of bringing you through this trajectory of the play. And, you know, those themes actually with the MC and other characters in the Under are also addressed. In the Under, the players are also spirits, but in a different way. So it just felt like thematically, metaphorically, there were a lot of overlaps. In terms of like, thinking about what it means to create staging in VR, and I think when people talk about because a lot of like their early articles that came out about sleep no more was looking at it from a game design point of view too and when people talk about like oh it's so immersive i think part of that is linked to a willingness to suspend disbelief like you know what is immersion right like we could pick that word apart forever but like b i think it's also a lot of it is reference to space whether intentionally or unintentionally and that's where they see something like theater is done outside the proscenium and they're like, okay, well, this is like kind of design and multiple dimensions, you know, like what does it mean to be in this space? And I think that is where a lot of the analog comes in for staging in some of these environments. And it's a really interesting thing because if you were like traditionally like doing set design or staging from theater as like, One of the ways I was trying to come at this project, but it might be at odds or different than people who are from games, you know, like maybe what you really want is like a room and what they want to create a, you know, large world, you know, so like, it's like, how do you balance those tensions and exploration versus listening? And that's one of the things that the actors learn in VR, because for me, I realized that this is sort of like a little bit maybe diffuse but I call it like rhythms of attention and that's really like capturing what immersion is to me is like it's not really an all or one encompassing thing but it's rhythms of flow. And also like agency and your decision of what to pay attention to at different points So a lot of like what the actors, you know, very um, if I directly will talk to them about it or you know Hint at it or it will come up through other jitter terminology. It's how do you direct audience attention? To enact a scene when you have a whole world beyond you to explore and what are those competing tensions, right? so like that's something that's really interesting to me and I think is in this case one of the weirder things that VR has brought to it because it's at this overlap between the ambitions of theater and the ambitions of game and like what does that mean here?

[00:29:21.248] Kent Bye: Yeah, I really appreciated the different dynamics of being able to actually participate. And, you know, it wasn't like in terms of story-wise, it wasn't like what I expected it was going to be. It was like something that I had never experienced before. So in that sense, I think from the immersive theater acting side, there's a lot of having to pay attention to the body language, the temperament, and be able to react to that and be able to really create this cohesiveness within the experience that it was something that was totally unique that I've never experienced before. Gee, I'm wondering if you could sort of expand on that ability to read that body language and how to maybe have a range of different temperaments and, you know, how you sort of make sense of, given that someone is maybe more passive, maybe more active, how you are able to tie that into creating this emergent improv collaboration that has everybody participating equally.

[00:30:11.643] Genevieve Flati: Yeah, it's, um, one of the first things that all actors go through is the training of, like, human behavior. How do humans express themselves? Either from the grandest, you know, way of expressing yourself, which would be, I would argue, like clowning, which is very, like, My arms are up here and my head is down here and all the emotions are level 10, level 10 to the very, very subtle side of what would be like film acting and camera acting because the camera is right there on your face. And so looking for big expressions as well as very, very subtle ones is the actor's job of how do humans behave? How do they express themselves? And that's what helps you build your own character, understand when you're reading and doing research for characters that you may play, when you're writing characters as a director, how to help your actors express. So that's something that we are specialized in. That's why we are actors and writers and directors is we are experts in human behavior. And so When the only way that they can express themselves is some kind of physicality, it allows us to laser focus in, to look for any sign. And so even if the difference between them holding their hands up in the air kind of by their sides versus having their arms down. Usually for me, when people are standing there with their arms down, and like their head will be tilted a little bit, they're in a more passive state. They're listening, they're observing. If their head is straight up and their arms are kind of up in a little bit, like in a little bit of game position, like they're holding their remote up, they're ready to engage, they're ready to play, they're ready to do something. And then obviously if they're flipping chairs over and running around and stabbing people with swords, they're in a different emotional place. And so it's just your job to recognize even the difference between where their arms are placed and is their head tilted? How far away are they standing? Are they standing really close to you and standing really far? It's all of these little things that actors have learned how to read in a second and go, this is how that person is feeling and this is how I can invite them in or give them their space, give them the option. It is always our job to check back in. You over there, do you wanna come closer? No? there be creepy in the corner like whatever you want and let them know you're seen if you want to stay away but you're invited closer if you want to and that's something that I think all of the under actors and then people that are involved in the Tempest have specialized in that a lot of regular actors meaning Regular actors that work regularly in theater or film don't necessarily have to pay attention to that, but immersive theater actors definitely do. Anyone that's worked in a theme park that's directly interacting with that audience, they learn how to recognize those behaviors as well, and then what to do to either make them feel included or give them their space. Um, yeah, oh and how to collaborate it's gonna vary actor to actor and they all everyone handles it differently I personally I like to call people out if you're ever in one of my shows you're gonna get yelled at You're gonna get as one of the producers on the Tempest team has said they're like there's something so deliciously masochistic about me wanting to be in one of your shows because if I ever do anything wrong, you're gonna be like look at this person doing the thing wrong. Let's all gather around and look at them doing it wrong. They didn't follow directions. Because it takes away and we learned this in improv as well of if you call out the thing, it takes away the sting of the thing. And now it's a game and now it's fun. And so again, for just humans that are trying their most of their lives to not mess up, and then having the ability to be like, step we're all seeing it you're alive who cares we i hope it gives them a moment of joy and they're able to apply those lessons in their regular lives i'm just like right i messed up who cares here we go um so yeah one of g's performances you know i'm not uh my personality is somebody who

[00:34:01.878] Samantha Gorman: I'm always, you know, a little shy, always like, you know, kind of quieter, tend to just kind of stay back and observe. And like, I have to say though, like somehow, I don't know how she does it. She just, the way that she's describing it makes it sound horrifying, but she pulls me in and it's the funniest thing. Like, I feel like I've kind of been on this weird journey also, this process.

[00:34:24.420] Genevieve Flati: I do think it is very, because some of our other producers are also a little bit quieter, a little bit shyer, and they're just shyer. Haha, Lord of the Rings! They've also said the same things of like, I know that you're yelling at me and calling attention to be doing stuff, but I feel so safe was the word that he used. He was like, I feel so safe when you're yelling at me. And I was like, okay, because it's never, it's never like me actually making you feel bad. There's always like this lighthearted when, I don't know, you'll just have to try it, man. You'll just have to come in and get yelled at and then tell everyone how great it

[00:34:57.057] Kent Bye: There's, uh, there's one more theoretical question I wanted to ask Samantha, and then we can kind of wrap up with some of the other logistics about what's next with this. But Samantha, I know the last time I talked to you, you were still working on your PhD, doing specific research around like user engagement and kind of the whole aspects of interactive theater. Did you finish your PhD? And what did you find from this practice based looking at something like the under presents and what you were able to kind of put into more of the theoretical discussion around?

[00:35:23.725] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, so I did finish my PhD last January and a lot of my dissertation was written but there's parts of it that are the under and behind the scenes documentation and just kind of meditations on process that is a digital form that I'm hoping to release publicly as soon as I get a moment. Because I'm thinking about when I'm writing through this, you know, I'm talking when I'm in defending, I'm talking about, you know, some of the phenomenology and experiential elements, you know, like in an academic context. But I also want to, in very clear terms, help break down some of these lessons we've learned and things we've discovered for like, you know, industry writing. So the public element, I think, will be like, okay, keeping it active. What does that mean? You know, here are some examples that we've lived through, you know, like, setting boundaries and parameters, what does that mean in our particular context, what could that point to, so that you know those are some of the things I'm looking at. I'm feeling really the desire to, because what's really fascinating I think academically beyond like the project is this community too that has sprung up of these people who were there was a for instance a father and a daughter spent like they wrote us they spent over 300 hours together sharing like accounts and so there's like really hardcore people and they like have like whole like relationships with these characters that have been building over months and it's just it's totally fascinating and like I think one of the most powerful moments for me actually recently is when Dasha, who's one of our actors, who has very storyline world, she's very focused on world detail and lore and making sure the storyline is tight. But she's developed these characters and these interactions with some of these people since November. And as we've been switching on to the Tempest, part of her shifts are still in the Under, but part in the Tempest, And like, I realized that she had never played really a game or been really in a virtual world. And she was explaining to me that she was having withdrawals from this virtual world and the friends that she had made there. And like, it was just a real, real moment when I realized that like, and you know, like for us in the performance, and it's just like, okay, yeah, this, you know, she does a shift and she goes about her day job. But this was like, really real to her in a very meaningful and emotional way. and I because kind of like of course you know it would be but I didn't fully like anticipate that extent that these people have helped build relationships but the impact that that means is it's fascinating for performer because in immersive like they could have a series of be like there for like a month and be like okay well we know this is an immersive show and we know there's going to be three acts so we need to get all our audience for the first part in a month and a half and then like very quickly turn around a second part for the second month and a half but this time they're performing and they're going on to these online communities and they're getting their feedback asap And that is changing the way that they deal with audience and the way they deal with performance and storylines in a way that they've never really interacted with before. And like, especially in Immersive, in terms of, we actually even started a LARP where I'll take on, I speak for a character, like the MC, like, there was some people in the community that started to come on as fictional characters in the game. and then like slowly some of that has bled over into the actors and staff then coming into that community and it's just this like emerging thing that's like almost a tangentially but related world that's happening in addition to the under. So I think that is really fascinating and I'd like to explore that much more.

[00:39:00.122] Kent Bye: Well, The Under Presents, as it's come out, I was secretly hoping that it was going to continue to have extended runs. And it does seem like it's expanded out to Steam and also had extended runs. And, and then I also saw just like, there seem to be like very well-reviewed, but in terms of the success, like how do you measure the metrics of success? Because it feels like this is a game that's maybe drawing a different level of engagement or people coming back to it, or maybe playing longer, or like, what can you tell me in terms of the metrics of success for up to this point, The Under Presents?

[00:39:29.888] Samantha Gorman: Yeah, I think you're right. Like it's really, you know, I think I'm proud to help push forward different content than the traditional method, you know, metrics of other games that might be on a, like a VR platform that has console like usage. So I think that's still very much. I know at one point, like we had a really high engagement and people spending hours and, you know, like a following people spending a long time in this world. And that is like a, there's still, I think, a lot of, it's just the beginning of, I think, both institutionally and, you know, knowing how to deal with exactly like make new parameters for what different metrics could mean. So it's definitely something that I think this game falls outside a lot of the normal parameters and like. trying to figure out what that means and how that represents when the Tempest is announced and comes out, it's a ticketed performance. And like that is going to be even just having a nested, the under as a venue that can be placed for multiple apps is a different model than has been seen in the store. So that's something even we have to work through as well. And what that means for the opportunities to release apps and how how industry might be growing different ways in the future like i'm not saying that this is a be all end all or this is our main business model because it's not you know we are we have other projects and a lot of what we do is to kind of like try to through the lens of entertainment, create like critical and magical experiences that kind of also help push industry norms, you know, in different ways and expand the breadth of, we want to kind of explore and keep creating, right? But it's not like we are dedicated to only creating a virtual theater model as a company.

[00:41:24.365] Kent Bye: Yeah. Now you've created a platform to be able to do this. And for actors, this seems to be a whole new livelihood where you could act from home, which I think is great. What's that been like for you, Gi, to be in the midst of a global pandemic, but still be able to work in VR?

[00:41:38.853] Genevieve Flati: It's been a blessing. What were you going to say, Sam?

[00:41:46.855] Samantha Gorman: You can talk about it, but yeah, I mean, that's why we did it, right? Like, why we extended it.

[00:41:51.879] Genevieve Flati: Because yes, obviously around the world, the entertainment industry in particular, especially with live theater, live gatherings, live shows, music concerts, the whole shebang is like, at a commission until who knows when. And that's the livelihood not only for actors, but for directors, for writers, for filmmakers, for costume makers, for the people that work the tickets of those shows. And so we're very, very, very, very lucky and blessed to be able to work with Tender Claws and with Oculus. But what I'll say is, the reason why this is so special and interesting is the world is moving this direction anyway, is moving into VR world, is moving into being on your phones and being on screens. It is the new normal. If you'd ask somebody 30 years ago, would everybody be on this rectangle in their pocket and that's the most important thing to them? They'd be like, that's crazy. And now it's very, very clear that if you are working in Oculus or have played in an Oculus, and then for us in the under and in all of Tender Claws, you can see this is where the world is heading and something that Tender Claws is doing specifically is working towards one the gentler side of of uh hanging out virtually because a lot of the popular games are the like you know group shooter games what are those called give me a real name of one i don't know shooter yeah yeah so there's there's a lot of those kinds of games but what we're doing is It's a gentle side, it's more of a human-to-human connection rather than like, and we're playing this game and it's Fortnite and it's da-da-da-da-da-da-da spoken by someone that's literally never played those games. But we're moving towards the future of people will be in their headsets for hours wanting to just spend time with their friends and do simple things like this that are, over months, building a story, building relationships, rather than like, I'm signing in and I'm murdering ya, yeah! Which is fun in its own way. So I think what Tinder Clause is doing is really special and very unique. And people are gonna enjoy that side of virtual reality as well.

[00:43:58.357] Kent Bye: Yeah, and just the platform that you've created and my experience of having the actor be able to sort of induce magic in front of me through all the user interface that you've created through the under presents and to see that in service of a story in that way, it was really cool to see that as well. So yeah, I'm sure that's continued to go on through many different iterations and evolution, but Yeah, it's just nice to see. And I think for people, anybody that's doing story, they could watch this and potentially get inspired to want to create their own version of that to see how to kind of blend these things together. But yeah, just to kind of wrap things up here, I'm just curious to hear each of you, what you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling and immersive theater all blended together, what they might be able to enable.

[00:44:41.647] Samantha Gorman: For me, I'm particularly interested in moments of unexpected, like, it's almost like you need to put layers and separate what is the codified ways of interacting with people to get at something more human and raw, you know, under that. And through these layers and, you know, maybe through this simulation is where, you know, ironically, you can get at something that feels like the need to, like, have contact with another person. you know, in a way that's just so visceral and present. And I guess the reference I'm making is one of the things players love to do in the under beyond anything else is hug. And like, that's like, not what one would expect if you were starting out making a multiplayer game. And it's just because it's distilled, there's so many layers that what is left is feel so raw. And just like the, you know, the basic connection that I think that's powerful.

[00:45:38.835] Genevieve Flati: I was, as Sam, as you were talking, I was like, I'm going to say the hug thing because I, theater, storytelling, anything with the arts really is about connection. At its core is about feeling connected to another human being or groups of human beings and feeling seen either in the story that is being told or you seeing yourself reflected in, you know, your hero or heroine, what they're going through, and you feel seen and understood, or they really are seeing you, they are calling you out and saying, I see you, I see what you're doing. Because I think as human beings, all we want is connection and to feel seen and to feel safe and loved and all of those things. And so what's, I think, so interesting about VR and the potential of VR and the future of VR is, even though it's fake, it's ones and zeros, and you're not actually touching someone yet, I think in the future we'll eventually have like body suits where you can feel zaps if you're in a shooting game, and you'll be able to feel somebody else's hand. They already did that on Silicon Valley, an episode where they did the kissing, right? Am I right? Is that true? So I think that's where this is headed, because like I said, what human beings perceive as real is through our senses, and one of the big ones for people that have sight is sight and what you hear. And right now we're doing two out of five, just right now. And this is still in the very, very early stages of creating reality, reality. And I think at its core, it's going to be finding ways to connect with each other and what the under does and what the Tempest does and what Tender Claws does is they make those opportunities to connect as human beings with all the magic and glitter of ones and zeros. But yeah, I think you should keep an eye on us and keep an eye on what we're doing.

[00:47:21.453] Kent Bye: Oh, for sure. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:47:25.818] Samantha Gorman: Yeah. I mean, I'm super excited to have this come out and it's just this crazy experiment. So we'll see, you know, what will. happen. And you know, I'm, it's really moving to have been working with these people for so long. And they're kind of, you know, amazing, because they're not only doing all this crowd work, but they're doing this crazy puppetry rig improv. And, you know, they're making it look easy. But if people are interested in attending our performances, like, thanks so much for your support, especially, you know, during this time.

[00:48:00.876] Genevieve Flati: Yeah, I'll say, I think it's worth checking out. I think you're going to have a good time, no matter who you are. I think come back and see as many different performers as you can, because it will, I guarantee you, it will never be the same, especially if you come to one of my shows, because I hardly know what I'm doing. Don't tell Sam that. Don't tell Sam. I'm perfect. I know the script. I think that you're gonna have a good time. And right now, I think a lot of people are going through, because of the pandemic, doing the same thing every day, doing the same thing. I watch Netflix or I watch this and then I get up and then I eat this thing and I blah, blah, blah, blah. This is a way for you to change up what you're doing. If you play games regularly, this is a different level, son. And then if you're used to going to the theater, you miss the theater, this is right there. It's the next best thing. And so I think it has the ability to help so many people for different reasons. So come on out and listen to some Shakespeare in 2020 with the magic of VR.

[00:49:04.279] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, I highly, highly recommend people check it out, especially if you're interested in immersive story and the future of immersive story, because I think you're actually helping to continue to push forward the overall medium of immersive storytelling of blending in aspects of agency, embodiment, LARPing, performance of theater and architecture and VR, you know, all these things that are all coming together that I think it's a really fascinating fusion of how to like reimagine a Shakespeare classic of The Tempest and Yeah, it'll be different than what you expect and it'll be different every time. So, yeah, thanks again for sitting down and for creating it and for joining me here on the podcast. So, thank you.

[00:49:41.976] Samantha Gorman: Thanks, Kent.

[00:49:43.517] Genevieve Flati: Yeah, thank you. Sorry, I have to unmute. Thank you. Thank you so much.

[00:49:48.435] Kent Bye: So that was Samantha Gorman. She's the co-founder of Turner Claus, as well as the writer and the person who adapted The Tempest for Immersive Theater, as well as Jean-Pierre Flady, who's one of the actors in The Enter Presents, as well as The Tempest. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, Well, I think that this is some of the most innovative work that's happening right now in terms of the future of immersive storytelling because, you know, one of the things that Samantha said is they're trying to look at the ambitions of theater and the ambitions of game and really fuse those together in a really elegant way. One thing that I remembered was that you have this open world and you're encouraged to go explore and find an object. And there was a part of me that just wanted to explore this world, but yet I had to also come back to the center after a certain amount of time and to be able to participate in the telling of the story. And so right there, I saw this tension of this desire and need to want to explore around, to play around, to explore different game mechanics within the world, but also at the same time, be guided within this group experience on this whole story adventure. how to blend together different aspects of different moments when I'm being asked to embody a character and play out different roles. And because I can't say anything, then the expectation is that I'm just going to be doing different body language to be able to act out what is being said. And so it's actually really quite interesting. You know, what Samantha said was that she's been really studying this aspects of liveness. Like what does it mean to be alive? And there's certain aspects where you are able to engage and participate in different ways. And there's something that. happens from your participation that's put into the overall unfolding of the story that's being told. And so as immersive theater actors, they have to pay attention to all of these different aspects of whether or not you're giving more cues to be more passive or more active, and how to corral everybody together, mixing those different temperaments and those personalities, and to make it a cohesive experience for the entire group. So one of the things that Samantha said is that there was three different aspects that she would tell her actors. Uh, one was the setting boundaries and parameters. So creating the safe space and the rules of engagement and this magic circle that allows people to kind of suspend their disbelief, but allow them to take on what the rules are when there's the rules, then it actually allows for more creativity because you know, in this case, you don't have the ability to speak. And so part of the innate boundaries and rules that's built into the architecture of the experience itself is that you can't say anything. And so you have to learn how to use your body and your physicality to be able to communicate in ways that otherwise you wouldn't be able to communicate. There's also the active and response. And so how do you engage people to be able to become active and to create like a group experience out of everybody's individual agency? And then the final one is the assigning roles and permission. And so different moments throughout the experience when you're given permission to do certain things like go explore and then come back, or you're being asked to be able to embody certain roles. And then this is a piece where you don't really have a lot of context unless you're already familiar with Shakespeare's Tempest, but you kind of assume that you don't know who any of the characters are. And then how do you make something where you're able to walk people through like who they are and how they should act relative to each other and kind of play out these different scenes. So that's kind of the heart and the kernel of this experience and there's like 40 minutes and you know there's different moments when they really use the affordances of virtual reality and do these different aspects of a storm and different magic tricks and permission to be able to kind of explore around and just have these different emergent behavior. So yeah, I think it's really quite interesting to see how they would tell the story. I mentioned that I had actually seen an immersive theater production of The Tempest here in Portland, and it was way different because the audience wasn't asked to participate in the telling of this play. And so when you do that, I think you have a little bit less ability to go into all the subtle nuances of the story. And like Samantha said, it's like based upon the overall themes of the story and not necessarily like walking away feeling like you've learned every little subtle nuance of the story, but it's still just the overarching dealing with magic, what's real, what's illusion and these other issues of being in the midst of a global pandemic. And those elements of what's happening in the wide world and that wide context being embedded into the story that's being told in that moment. And so I think that's the beauty of this type of immersive theater production is that it can be responsive to whatever's happening in the world and have different elements of that be brought in and having the rough beats in the script, but having the latitude for each of the actors to kind of really listen to what the group dynamics are, the different alchemy of the different temperaments and to see how they try to make some cohesive experience for everybody. And Jean-Pierre was talking about how a lot of it for her is to try to figure out how to have people be seen so they can feel connected and a part of a larger experience of what it means to be human, of telling these stories. But also when I did it, there was certain actions that I was doing. And then when I had, you know, Prospero or the lead actor, kind of like the docent who's leading you through this experience, just to have that reflection of seeing what I'm doing with my action and have that reflected back to see if that is resonant with what I was intending. And it's really quite nice to feel seen in that way. I think there's something really interesting for what they're doing here. And also just this aspect of anonymity and the freedom that it gives you. Jean-Pierre had talked about wearing masks in theater and how that's a whole existing tradition that allows people to have more freedom and permission to be able to explore around and play. And Samantha was talking about this concept of rhythms of attention and rhythms of flow and agency and this tension between the ambitions of theater and ambitions of game. And so either you're directing someone's attention towards something or you're giving them permission to go out and play. And so how you are able to blend those two together. And I think that was probably the thing that it took away the most is that this experience is like a unique blend of these. dimensions that I've never quite experienced before, and really quite nice to be able to see how they're able to use the medium of VR to be able to really fully explore those ambitions of game, but also to have those ambitions of theater to be able to have this overall experience that is a ticketed event. So you're paying for something, and so you're expecting to have some sort of performance that's happening, but it's like this interactive experience as well where you're able to participate with the other people that you're with. And I imagine that it's not only going to be dependent on the actor that you get, that's going to be different and have different variation, but also the other people and their range of temperament. If they're going to be more on the gaming side and wanting to sort of interact or perhaps break the experience in different ways, really push it to the limits or people who are really a lot more passive. And what's that like to be able to be with people who maybe have a little bit more trouble to really engage and participate and maybe more on the shy side and. And it's the role of the actor to be able to sort of look at all those balance and be able to make something cohesive out of the entire experience. So again, this is something that is highly innovative, really pushing the medium forward in a lot of different ways. And I'd say there's a lot of different ways in which they're trying to combine the ambitions of theater and ambitions of game and look at these different aspects of immersive theater and blend them into the virtual worlds. And I think it's just a combination that works really well. And I'd really encourage people to go try it out and to see for yourself. And this is a ticketed event. The tickets are $14.99. I think there's also an ability to get access to the multiplayer aspects for like $11.99 or so. So if you haven't bought the 100% already, which you should anyway, because it's an amazing game and have different aspects of the immersive theater, which as far as the time of the recording of this podcast, it's still going. So I don't know how long they're going to have the immersive theater actors in there. They've been live since like November. Definitely check it out and worth seeing what the future of live performance, especially if you're in a quarantine and you want to, you know, go have something like a live experience. This is something about the interactivity and the liveness and the performance. It was actually really quite nice to be able to participate in something like this. So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listed supporter podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

More from this show