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Theater

The Severance Theory: Welcome to Respite (2021) by CoAct Productions and Ferryman Collective

Show Review
Cyrielle Garson

Abstracts

Theatre review of The Severance Theory: Welcome to Respite (2021) based on an experience of the VR adaptation during the Raindance Film Festival in London.

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Full text

Introduction

1The immersive turn in the field of theatre and performance may have seem at first to slow down due to the practical impossibilities of safely conducting these experiences with an in-person/IRL audience during the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, these experiences, often described as intimate, and breaking any so-called social distancing norms between performers and spectators, were also paying the penalty of largely not having at their disposal any video recording, which could be proposed as a temporary replacement for live immersive theatre.

2On closer examination, however, this decrease phenomenon has not exactly been observed, even during the various peaks of Covid-19 in the world since March 2020, when restrictions were at their tightest. Instead, what we have witnessed is countless artists and theatre companies pivoting over to digital modes of live performance. As a result, new performance modalities started to appear such as “Zoom theatre” with the advent of digital solutions leveraging the convergence of liveness and remoteness, whilst previously overlooked minority art forms such as VR performances began to be considered anew as viable means to create immersive theatre experiences in our “new normal” post-Covid era.

  • 1 VRChat is an online social virtual world platform allowing users to interact with each other via 3D (...)
  • 2 DID is a mental health condition and involves problems with memory, identity, sense of self, emotio (...)

3Interestingly, this is exactly what happened to Welcome to Respite: The Severance Theory (2019) by CoAct Productions, which was originally an in-person immersive theatre and psychological-thriller experience in Los Angeles, before it was eventually adapted in 2021 for the VR medium with the help of the Ferryman Collective, more particularly for the social platform VRChat open to anyone in the world.1 Inspired by true stories of people with DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), the show is not verbatim, however, having opted for a fully interactive experience with the audience.2

4Unlike the original show which was designed for a single audience member stepping into the shoes of Alex – the seven-year-old protagonist in this piece interacting with his/her parents played by actors –, the 45-minute VR version can accommodate up to ten spectators at a time and was not limited to a select few metropolitan participants in the US. More specifically, this award-winning VR experience also varies depending on the ticket chosen by the spectator: a premium ticket enables an audience member to take on the role of Alex, whilst a general ticket (available for up to 9 audience members) gives a more conventional and passive experience for the spectator.

  • 3 In VR, world building is not confined to what is possible in physical space. The only limitations a (...)
  • 4 Degrees of freedom in VR refer to the number of ways in which the user can move through 3D space. 3 (...)

5This adaptation into an entirely new medium also enabled new ideas and concepts such as a more playful relationship with scale, costumes, and the building of “impossible” sets and spaces.3 In addition, the audience can also be “teleported” into a new space within seconds and enjoy the “six degrees of freedom” (6DoF).4

6For clarity purposes, this review will follow the tripartite framework within which the show is experienced by online audience members equipped with a VR headset: the onboarding prelude which helps the audience familiarize with the various settings necessary to take part in this experience and also reach the “affirmation point”, the moment when the audience gets more or less fully immersed in the show and forgets that they are wearing a VR headset; the show itself; and the offboarding finale, which is a transitional moment in which audiences get to talk together about what they have just experienced and ask questions to the creative team before eventually removing their VR headsets.

Onboarding

  • 5 Prior to the onboarding process, the creative team also provides support in getting into the perfor (...)

7When virtual reality meets live performance, new rituals are necessary, and the onboarding process is thus key to the audience enjoyment of the experience. For performances in VRChat, it is for instance common to ask audience members to have their microphone on so that they may speak with any characters they encounter and to remove the name plates they have above their heads before the show proper begins in order to increase immersion, in the same manner as audiences in a physical playhouse are asked to switch off their phones before the start of a show. The two performers in Welcome to Respite are rather busy from the very beginning and have to play multiple roles (stage managers, actors, technicians, directors, etc) to help the audience get in the experience.5

8Even for those among the spectators who are an old hand at VR, the platform itself may be new to them and require some additional guidance. In the pact of performance for a VR show, there is also a tacit understanding that technical problems may occur (glitches and bugs in VRChat, loss of internet connection, insufficient battery in the headset or controllers, the crashing of the app etc), and that the actors will do their best to help audiences rejoin the show should any of these problems were to arise.

9Once the members of the audience have entered the world, they are immediately greeted by two little toy characters (the same actors that will play the characters of Mum and Dad in the show) who proceed with the onboarding session within a fictional frame, before asking audiences to follow one of them depending on the type of ticket that they have. For the audience member playing Alex, the preparation is slightly different, and more complex than merely choosing the right settings in the VRChat menu.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The two live actors as Mum and Dad in the piece.

Credits: Braden Roy

  • 6 The pronouns for Alex will stay above his/her/their head for the actors to see, so that they stay c (...)

10Like in Punchdrunk’s immersive show Sleep No More (2011) which required audiences to wear a mask, the premium ticket holder has to change avatars to transform into 7-year-old Alex, which inevitably increases the immersion. Put another way, the audience member in question now gets to see the world differently, as they have the actual size of a child. The recipient of the premium ticket also has the option of selecting the right pronoun for the role of Alex and even the skin tone of the character.6 The other members of the audience become the alters, or alternative identities of Alex, and are invisible throughout the show. Once the audience is reunited, the show can at last begin …

The show

Figure 2

Figure 2

Some of the numerous special effects in the piece. Here, the audience members playing Alex and the invisible alters are about to discover Alex’s house and their parents).

Credits: Braden Roy

11Welcome to Respite in its VR iteration can best be described as a hybrid performance mixing theatre, sound design, VR and animation. Essentially, live performance in this piece is a combination of voice-acting and full-body puppeteering, as actors perform via avatars. Interestingly, the fourth wall in VR also has a different meaning than in more conventional performances. Indeed, in the context of a VR show, it implies not calling attention to the fact that audiences are wearing VR headsets to access the show and therefore maintaining the audience’s state of immersion, which was the case here in WtR. Similar to the “real” world, audio in this context works based on proximity: if an audience member is close to someone else in VR, they will hear them more clearly than if they are further away from them.

12The story revolves around Alex’s “memoryscape” (slippage of time and space) that the audience traverses. In short, upon visiting their family’s home after the passing of their mother, Alex is remembering being a child in the 1990s, but something feels odd despite the initial joy of seeing their parents and cooking their favourite dish of macaroni and cheese.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Alex preparing some Mac and Cheese with their mother.

Credits: Braden Roy

  • 7 The audience member playing Alex cannot see the orbs.

13There is an undercurrent of sadness, of strong disguised affection perhaps best exemplified by what the alters can read in the orbs, which are memory fragments/information about the subtext to be found at various locations in the house.7 One such example is located next to a coffee mug that reads: ‘I remember the first time I tried coffee, I stole a sip after Dad left it sitting here … it tasted weird to me. Now I know that it was my first taste of whiskey too.’ The walls of the house are perhaps too thin and the masked tension between the parents starts to rear its ugly head. Most strikingly, the show radically departs from realism and the seamlessness of the transitions between the scenes with the sudden apparition of black smoke in the kitchen, which resembles a monster, representing anxiety and dread. This kind of special effects with visual and audio clues in VR attempts to express outwardly what someone with DID may go through internally, with the explicit and noble goal of ending stigma against such illnesses, highlighting the impact trauma can have on one’s life, and creating more empathy for DID people.

  • 8 Various methods are used to ease the audience member into the illusion of being Alex such as the us (...)

14From this perspective, VR can be said to enable an audience to see the world through different eyes, even for a moment. The transformative theory behind these experiences in VR is that if one is put in an avatar that is different from them (size, gender, ethnicity etc.), it is likely that their behaviour will change accordingly. In the case of the audience member playing Alex, they literally acquire the perspective of a child.8 Accordingly, one can assume that these new ways of being embodied, of being tele-presently around people, and moving thanks to VR avatars may lead to new ways of thinking.

Offboarding

15The credits world, a public world in VRChat, takes the audience to a post-performance space where they can learn more about DID, the show and the creative team behind this VR performance, and remains permanently accessible, should past audiences wish to revisit the space, or play with low gravity (one of the rooms in the credits world of WtR has this feature, enabling the audience to interact with the world beyond the limitations of the physical world). As such, the offboarding process with the actors after a VR piece can be understood as a decompression space for both the intensity of VR immersion, and the story itself which engaged with a rather difficult and challenging topic. In some sense, this can be understood as a VR and less formal version of the post-show discussion at the end of IRL performances. As both audiences and actors are still in avatars (but not the same ones they were using in the show), the offboarding experience inevitably becomes an extension of the immersive experience, perhaps not providing the clear break one experiences after a show has ended, but an experience akin to false awakening.

Conclusion

16Post-pandemic digital theatre such as VR shows in the US might finally break the geographic stronghold NYC and other metropolises have on the theatre and performance sector, and allow American theatre to finally decentralize, and perhaps even create a digital Broadway. As I write these lines, with the Ferryman Collective among numerous other theatre companies about to open yet another new show – Gunball Dreams (2022) – and the onset of new technological developments in the XR industry, the current surge of VR performances across the world shows no sign of abating. The latest app in the industry « Heavenue » by Alex Coulombe continues to push the medium forward with less limitations (possibility to have larger audiences in VR) and new affordances (powerfully expressive avatars) thanks to cloud computing. What is more, it becomes now possible to envisage combining VR and AR experiences in which audiences could go to actual physical locations, whilst other people anywhere in the world could join the same experiences via VR in a digital recreation of the space. In other words, the audience members in the physical location could see the remote people in VR thanks to AR glasses. Likewise, thanks to volumetric video capture, the audience members in VR could also see the people present in the physical location. Such hybrid performances for global audiences are likely to become a staple of live XR performances in the coming years, as the divide between location-based VR and VR being viewed remotely is increasingly diminishing. And it is therefore no surprise to see yet another new installment of The Severance Theory: Welcome to Respite in April 2022, this time offering both an in-person experience in Los Angeles via a VR headset and a remote experience for those equipped with a VR headset at home.

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Notes

1 VRChat is an online social virtual world platform allowing users to interact with each other via 3D avatars and worlds. It is theoretically open to anyone in the world as long as they have a VR headset and WIFI at their disposal.

2 DID is a mental health condition and involves problems with memory, identity, sense of self, emotion, perception, behaviour, as well as ability to connect with reality. People affected by this condition in response to past trauma(s) have two or more separate identities that are called “alters” (alternate personalities).

3 In VR, world building is not confined to what is possible in physical space. The only limitations are those related to the social platforms themselves, such as the amount of people that can join the experience without impacting the stability of the experience or the total amount of MB per world, which is now set at 200 MB in VRChat.

4 Degrees of freedom in VR refer to the number of ways in which the user can move through 3D space. 3DoF in a VR headset is the experience of watching a 360° video in VR, which is often equated to “passive VR”: the tracking enables the user to move their head left, right, up and down etc, but not much else. In other words, the interaction between the VR content and the user is rather limited within this configuration. 6DoF, however, enables more interaction with the 3D space (aka as “active VR”), as it tracks both position and rotation. In short, Welcome to Respite allows human movements (exploration of locations, inspection of details, performance of real-life tasks etc) to be fully converted into movement within VRChat, creating a more intense immersion experience.

5 Prior to the onboarding process, the creative team also provides support in getting into the performance space in VRChat and troubleshooting any technical difficulties.

6 The pronouns for Alex will stay above his/her/their head for the actors to see, so that they stay consistent during the show.

7 The audience member playing Alex cannot see the orbs.

8 Various methods are used to ease the audience member into the illusion of being Alex such as the use of crayons to draw on a board in VR.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
Caption The two live actors as Mum and Dad in the piece.
Credits Credits: Braden Roy
URL http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/docannexe/image/45673/img-1.png
File image/png, 1.4M
Title Figure 2
Caption Some of the numerous special effects in the piece. Here, the audience members playing Alex and the invisible alters are about to discover Alex’s house and their parents).
Credits Credits: Braden Roy
URL http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/docannexe/image/45673/img-2.png
File image/png, 1.7M
Title Figure 3
Caption Alex preparing some Mac and Cheese with their mother.
Credits Credits: Braden Roy
URL http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/docannexe/image/45673/img-3.png
File image/png, 1.3M
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References

Electronic reference

Cyrielle Garson, The Severance Theory: Welcome to Respite (2021) by CoAct Productions and Ferryman Collective”Miranda [Online], 25 | 2022, Online since 22 April 2022, connection on 29 May 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/45673; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.45673

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About the author

Cyrielle Garson

Maîtresse de conférences

Avignon Université
cyrielle.garson@univ-avignon.fr

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Copyright

CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0

The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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