Expanded Performance Category
Being here, not there: presence and agency
by Tanuja Amarasuriya
One of my fave things about theatre is that we get to be in the room with the story. Even if we’re not directly influencing the action, we are present. VR can do this too. So I’ve been thinking about presence and agency in theatre – and how that might help me design story experiences in VR where that sense of presence is crucial.
Interactivity is not special, except when it is
Remember early DVDs, where they would proudly list ‘INTERACTIVE MENU’ or ‘SCENE SELECTION’ as special features? They may be functions that didn’t exist on videotapes; they may be useful features; but I’m not sure they were ever special.
Often interactivity is necessarily functional – like pressing buttons in a lift. But sometimes I hear people talk about interactivity as if it automatically produces a meaningful sense of presence or agency – as if the functionality of interactivity creates the specialness.
Adaptative podcasting is great because you can choose what you listen to!
VR is great because you can travel to another world!
But just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. I want to focus on the nature of those choices – the options we’re given or not given, the context in which they are offered, the pressures or expectations that drive those choices, the consequences that ensue, the way those choices and consequences accumulate.
I mean, that’s just good storytelling right?
For a couple of years, when I was on staff at Theatre Bristol, we were given office space at Bristol Old Vic. On the wall by my desk was a BIG RED BUTTON with the word STOP on a sign above it.
For two years, like any normal person, I was desperate to press that button. I’d put my hand up against it so many times.
Eventually, as their renovations were about to start, we had to clear out. The room was empty. This was my last chance. I put my palm on the button and pushed.
Of course nothing happened. But it was worth it for all the things I’d imagined might happen. It was worth it for 2 years of crazy possibilities that were never going to be matched by what the architects or electricians or whoever had placed that button there originally had actually intended.
Where am I me, in immersive spaces?
One of the first questions I ask when I’m directing a show is: who are the audience in this? Perhaps they are playing a character role; perhaps they are the protagonist or antagonist or a kind of gamesmaster; perhaps they are witnesses to unfolding events – events that have happened, or may happen, or are happening. This is what tells me where that liminal space is – the alchemical space between each audience member and the work; the space where meaning is made. I always think about this as an interactive space. Even when there is no physical interaction, I want audiences to feel present enough to intellectually and emotionally interact with the work.
In mainstream theatre of course, the stage is usually separate from the audience. It’s easy to comprehend the gap between me and the constructed story. But how do we use that liminal space consciously when it is physically collapsed – when we are inside the illusion?
I played some online interactive theatre recently. The shows expected me to do a bunch of things that I didn’t intuitively do. When the piece wasn’t moving on, I was prompted by the inciting character to do things that had never occurred to me (I’m not naturally inclined to try and hack into someone’s email or personal files).
So I couldn’t make the choices I wanted to – or, if I did, the story didn’t move on. Nor could I get to those unintuitive choices naturally, through exploration or frustration (as I might if I was playing a video game) because time was limited, so my guide ‘helped’ me by increasingly heavily hinting at what I was supposed to be doing. And if I tried to follow my curiosity down rabbit-holes or make my own little side-quests, the guide would again step in to try and bring me back on course. In short, I had no real agency. The story didn’t allow me to get involved. I ended up doing what I thought the creators wanted me to do; following instructions rather than engaging with any of my own lived presence or care.
As a kid, I was a fan of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. I spent a lot of time playing with Star Wars toys. I understand the mechanic of role-play and the vicarious pleasures of imagining myself hero, villain, warlock etc. And though role-play isn’t an obvious tactic in most of what I make, it underpins my belief in art as a space where we can explore strange, uncomfortable, complex and frightening feelings and desires.
So what wasn’t working for me in those interactive theatre shows?
In each show, there was an amount of scene setting - enough to make clear that, despite being in my house, on my personal laptop, I was engaging in a piece of make believe. But it didn’t invite me not to be me; and it simultaneously expected me to act as if I was not me.
I was being asked to role-play, without being given a character to inhabit or the time to genuinely examine my own responses to the situation. The instructions were clear, but there was no place for me. I wasn’t allowed the sense of my own presence – either as participant or witness – to feel like I was playtesting an alternative reality. There wasn’t enough time for me to learn from my mistakes or play with the possibilities of the world or feel like I’d earned the discoveries. And I wasn’t allowed the agency of thought or action to make any of it feel of consequence.
Or maybe analyzing the interactivity is a red herring. The shows I experienced were essentially alternate-reality-games, so building a convincing world was crucial to the immersion. Perhaps if I’d believed more in its set up, I’d have felt more personally engaged, and therefore more compulsion to get through the game.
This slipperiness between what is real, what is believable, what echoes reality, what is truthful… that slipperiness continues to fascinate me.
Feeling real: visceral believability
I vividly remember news reports in the early 1990s, during the Gulf War, about soldiers doing training in motion simulator units; and how they would describe those simulations as feeling real. It troubled and fascinated me back then as a kid, and it does so still – what it means to negotiate the space between feeling real and being real. It winds through the art I make; from the documentary-esque fiction of The Bullet and the Bass Trombone, to the field recordings made unreal in the electro-pop of LNK_A.
When we toured The Bullet and the Bass Trombone, I found it fascinating which elements people believed to be factual, and which they took to be fiction. We never hid the fact that it was a fictional story; but we wanted it to feel like the story had a clear relationship with the real world – so we were interested in believability. Both Tim (who wrote the script) and I grew up half way round the world from where we were born, and the structure of the show grew from our interest in the ways that we make sense of real world events when we are not right there.
We put an extraordinary factual moment at its heart – a field recording of a whistling thrush, which was captured by accident when a BBC research team were documenting orangutans in Sumatra. And we weaved it like a myth through elements of a whole other story.
Some people couldn’t believe that the whistling bird was real.
Some people swore they “remembered” the photo we describe in the show as if it was real.
Someone said it “transported me back to stories I heard in Rwanda and Sierra Leone.”
Someone described the piece as “a story that felt real. A story parts of my brain were telling me was fictional but all my other senses were saying was real.”
This slipperiness between what is real, what is believable, what echoes reality, what is truthful… that slipperiness continues to fascinate me. When we made The Bullet and the Bass Trombone back in 2012, there wasn’t the kind of mass discourse about deep fakes, echo chambers and disinformation that there is today. But as a Sri Lankan who had grown up in the UK during the Sri Lankan civil war, I was all too well aware of the power of these things and the difficulty of navigating them. Storytelling is a powerful skill exerted by artists, parents, marketeers, politicians... It’s important to keep exercising our critical judgment muscles.
The uncannily believable quality of TBATBT is part of what kept audiences gripped. If a theatre piece, with a clear demarcation between audience and show can problematize our perceptions of what’s real and what’s fake in this way, then what do we do with a form like VR, whose visceral immersion collapses that critical distance? We might consciously know it’s virtual, but it acts on our nervous system like real world stimuli. Can we use that strange phasing between it feeling real whilst knowing it isn’t real, as a creative parameter? And how we do that responsibly?
If VR “privileges the user’s feeling of direct experience”, can we use that to elicit emotional immersion – to allow us to feel – without asking us to occupy another body?
Real feelings: presence and emotional immersion
“I think we’re living in very brutalised and unloving times and we need to learn to ‘tenderise’ ourselves through intimacy.” Adrian Howells, interviewed in Immersive Theatres.
"VR's emphasis on presence and intimacy privileges the user's feeling of direct experience, rather than sympathy, on 'deciding for yourself' rather than witnessing and validating another person's truth." Lisa Nakamura, Feeling good about feeling bad: virtuous VR and the automation of racial empathy.
There’s been plenty of debate around the queasy notion of VR as empathy machine and the toxic embodiment of occupying other bodies. Recently, I came across an interview with Barry Jenkins about directing Moonlight as a piece of “immersive cinema”:
"Trying to build a piece of 'immersive cinema’ was how I described it; so there was going to be no exposition. The film was going to be this process of the audience walking a mile in our characters’ shoes. So a lot of the things we did with the camera were about trying to immerse the audience in the perspective of our main characters.” Barry Jenkins, The Director’s Cut podcast.
I find it hard to even think about Moonlight without getting emotional. The powerful way that film allows us to feel for its central character just makes my heart explode. Film storytelling is so much about point of view, but even when Jenkins’ camera takes a character’s POV, that separation between me and the screen, means I can’t ever forget myself and believe that I’m “walking in the characters’ shoes” (even if that was Jenkins’ intention).
If VR “privileges the user’s feeling of direct experience”, can we use that to elicit emotional immersion – to allow us to feel – without asking us to occupy another body? And do we need a grounded sense of our own body in the virtual space to really feel stuff?
One-to-one performance is the obvious place to reflect on this. I used to be a live art producer, so I have seen A LOT of one-to-one performance. The best one-to-ones stay with me like nothing else. The intensity of those experiences – the focus on you – the hypersensitising of you – is a powerful thing.
Adrian Howells, whose one-to-one pieces profoundly moved so many people, described the way he worked with audiences as: “ ‘a loving manipulation’; the way that a parent who so loves their child might manipulate them because they want to have a particular experience that’s going to be safe, ‘boundaried’… there’s always a tendency to think that manipulation is a negative thing because it takes away agency and ownership from individuals. Something I’m very aware of is empowering individuals to have agency.”
I completely adore the term “loving manipulation” as a way to think about enabling audience agency. What does it mean to design instructions or interaction as loving manipulations?
Howells’ work often focused on touch and holding. How can loving manipulation be designed into virtual spaces?
This makes me think about Stan’s Café’s piece, The Black Maze, which is still one of the most visceral experiences I remember. The installation is built inside a regular transit van. You’re given a set of headphones; you’re told that if you need help at any point you just need to ask, and someone will lead you out; and then the single instruction: keep moving forward.
The Black Maze is a very simple experiential journey – the textures around you change, it’s mostly dark – but sometimes, suddenly illuminated, the floor slopes in different ways, I don’t even really remember the sound beyond the voice in my headphones at the start of the piece… Nothing happened to me, but it all happened in me. In particular, I remember a moment where the room was suddenly lit, and I couldn’t see a way forward. I stood there for ages, running my hands over the soft walls, searching and searching for the doorway. I was on the point of calling for help, when I remember the instruction. So then I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked forward. And sure enough, I was able to walk through those seemingly solid walls and continue my journey.
The exhilaration of that moment is still thrilling to me. The sense of my own presence that the piece had built in me through its sensory design; the agency it had given me with that single clear instruction – and the fact that by that point I trusted the instruction, despite it seeming impossible; all fed into that rush.
I remember that instruction as a woman’s voice, through headphones, as I crossed from the outside world, into the darkening world of the installation. I wonder how much this had to do with my ability to trust it? Was it about tone of voice? Was it timing - that it crossed the threshold of the installation with me? Would I have gone with it as a loving manipulation if I’d read it on a piece of paper, or would that have felt colder – a menu option rather than the advice of a friend? Was there something about the fact that the instruction came through my headphones, so it felt personal and private, which allowed me to act on it without feeling watched or judged?
I wonder if part of the challenge is that it’s easy to get distracted by the immediacy of VR, and feel like you have to populate these environments with billions of STUFFS, from image to interactivity.
Beauty and dreams
“I was trying to make the audience go ‘Wowww!’, but in fact I needed to make the audience go ‘Wowww…’” Jonathan Harris, World Building in a Crazy World
I remember seeing Duet by Kris Verdonck/Two Dogs Company. As audience, we’re sat in a specifically bounded area, for optimum sightlines. The performers – one in a dress, one in a suit - are high up, and sculpturally lit, so they look like they are floating in space. As they rotate slowly, it’s as if the one in a suit is somehow not subject to gravity, but the one in the dress… sometimes is… at least their dress is, and their legs sometimes swing as they hang down. The pair keep turning slowly, clinging onto each other in space, until the light slowly, slowly fades and they disappear like a dream into darkness.
I know the mechanics of this show. I know it’s not actual magic. But its effect is magical and strange and sublime. It’s an incredibly beautiful image that is both impossible and true – it’s full of wonder, and there’s a huge emotional power in that.
The most immediate magic of VR is the whole portal to another place thing. Whether it takes you down to ocean depths, or onto the International Space Station, inside a prison, or inside a magic forest, VR really can make you feel like you’re somewhere else – in a transformative way. Studies have shown that viewing Earth from virtual trips to space can elicit similar impacts to those reported by real astronauts, including tranquility, elation and increased altruism.
But beyond visiting new environments, beyond displacement, can we create things in VR that create that sense of both impossible and true, in a less literal way, in the way that Duet did for me?
How do we comprehend ‘impossibility’ in a virtual landscape? And how do we recognise ‘truth’ in a virtual landscape? Part of why Duet had impact for me was because I knew I was sharing the same gravity as those impossibly turning performers. And it wasn’t just me inferring that – it was reiterated in the performance by the choice of costume (a dress that would hang and fall) and the choreography (an arm or a leg swinging with weight). Its emotional power didn’t come from me believing these dancers were turning in zero gravity – it came from them seeming to be moving in zero gravity whilst clearly experiencing the same gravity as me. Being in the same room as the story.
There were many intertwining elements that made Duet so profoundly affecting for me: the subtlety of the lighting design, creating the sense that the performers emerged from and then disappeared into vast darkness; the intimacy of how the dancers focussed on each other rather than performing to the audience; the distance between audience and performers; the slow, controlled pace of the movement; the quiet of the space; and of course, the gravity. Ostensibly very little happens in the piece – but as an experience it’s burned into my memory; it haunts me as if it was my own dream.
How do we get to this kind of haunting beauty in VR? I’ve definitely felt close to it in various VR experiences – probably most closely within some of Bjork’s Vulnicura videos and bits of Notes on Blindness. I wonder if part of the challenge is that it’s easy to get distracted by the immediacy of VR, and feel like you have to populate these environments with billions of STUFFS, from image to interactivity. I think there’s more depth we can create by working out how we can use tactics like pacing, lighting and especially sound design to create VR experiences that have a more lasting sense of beauty, that we can carry with us beyond the headset. And from what I’m learning about volumetric capture, and as better tools are developing for spatial sound design, I’m sure it’s only a matter of a few dreams away.