Immersed in a Pandemic - Digital

A look at how artists were able to create new work or adapt existing works during the COVID-19 pandemic. Explore projects that take advantage of advanced technologies to help audiences connect to different stories.

AIRED: May 11, 2021 | 0:27:32


Gracenin: People love immersive entertainment for the escape,

the escape, the escape, the escape.

For the next two to three to four hours --

however long the experience is -- you get to escape.


Blum: And we stumbled onto this new virtual immersive space

as a means to create during a really terrible,

difficult chapter in history.

Jean: The people that were used to the drive-in

were like, "I don't know what happened.

There was, like, tons of lights around me,

and I got a bit distracted."

So it was pretty fun.


Whitehead: In a way, we try to emulate

what it's like to be at a physical show

but also celebrate what's different about it.

Gracenin: You kind of almost forget

that you're looking at a camera

and you're looking at a Zoom screen.

You feel connected to the person who's talking to you.

Audience member dissipate from the set circumstances

as to which got them there.






Jean: Moment Factory exists since 2001,

and basically our mission was always to gather people

to live collective emotions.

From the beginning of time,

where people would gather around the campfire

and, you know, and today the campfire being digital,

it's still our mission and vision.


We used multimedia to create our narrative

and our storylines and our voyage

and still aiming to gather people.

Our motto is "We do it in public,"

and right now we do it in public, a little bit online,

but we're still doing it in public.


Vroom was really born in the pandemic,

We kind of scratched our head and said,

"What can we do in this time?"

And one of our creative directors came up with the idea

of using a drive-in to create an experience.


We came up with this idea to create a whole story,

and this whole story was based on a little boy

that would travel through lost fables.

And then we're going to be able to use sound, lights,

and videos really to spark people's imagination.

And it was really built, also, for families.

We thought about adding characters,

like, why not try to connect people through, you know,

characters that would play in a safe distance

to really enhance the experience

and create that communication channel

between people who cannot --

You know, two cars are two cars. They cannot be together.

But the characters really helped connect people together

in the experience.


We came up with the idea of using short films,

so we talked to the Canadian National Film Board.

They just welcomed us arms wide open.

Like, "Wow. Okay. Cool."

And then they sent us links to their catalog.

And it's very cool short films

that will apply to all kinds of attendants.


So we select a couple of frames, have the overarching story

imagining the path from the forest,

the characters, the sound and lights and lasers,

smoke effects.

What can we do with our technology?

Because Moment Factory is always trying to innovate

and push the boundaries of technology.

So we created a car photo booth, basically,

called Vroom-O-Maton, and basically it was

an artificial-intelligence car booth

whereas you come up with your car

and you park in front of the green screen

and then it says to stop, and then you just exit your cars,

like, "Hey!"

And then the beauty of it is that a few seconds later,

you can retrieve a small animated GIF.


It was quite a challenge

because when you kind of re-invent

the drive-in experience,

you're talking to a wide range of crowd.

So you're talking to people who are interested in short films.

You're talking to people

who are just curious about entertainment.

In this case, we were talking to people that had nothing to do

because, you know, since everything shut down,

there was no movie open, there was no concerts going on.

We had all kinds of different feedback from people like,

"Wow. This is amazing what you guys did."


I think in today's world,

people are so connected to the digital platforms,

and there's nothing that's going to replace people

going out there to live and experience

and participate to an experience.

And how far you can push the boundaries of immersion

is quite fascinating.

And I believe that with all the new technology

coming up, with augmented reality and with RFID,

there's going to be a new level of engagement

for the crowd in the near future.

You're so much looking at a 2-D environment all the time,

everything that influences, that inspires you

through your social platforms.

That's why I think people are more and more eager

to go out there and to be inside these worlds.



Ross: Immersive Van Gogh takes place in Toronto

in the former printing-press room

of the Toronto Star Building.

And when you come into the building,

we are projecting on 600,000 cubic feet

of projection, of walls and floors and pillars and columns.

And the entire building and the architecture of the building

participates in the art.

And things like brick and cement floors and metal beams

come to life with projections of Van Gogh's sunflowers

and his clouds and "Starry Night,"

created by a team that created a very famous

Van Gogh immersive show at L'Atelier des Lumières in Paris.


We call it immersive because this particular experience

happening around you, 360 degrees,

and it's working with four major senses.

We don't have a smell.

That's the only thing that we don't have.


They're showing us the way

of how the artist arrived to the end result,

trying to kind of get into the mind of the genius.

And the other thing that is happening

is they're giving us a story of the evolution of the art of Gogh

at the end of his life.

We walk through the different segments of his life,

and that's combined

with not just an extraordinary visual animation

but also a specific soundtrack

that's been written specifically for this experience.


We were proceeding in January, February, and March.

Our projects over those three months

was to take an industrial space, this former printing-press room,

and turn it into a space that the public can come into.

During the first phase, I would go down once or twice a week

just to see how the construction workers were progressing

on the project.

There was a ramp into the Toronto Star printing-press room

that the vans used to take to go pick up newspapers.

So I would actually drive up this ramp,

drive my car right into the construction site,

park my car, and get out

and go talk to the construction workers.


When COVID hit and the arts world was shutting down,

we kind of looked around and said,

"I guess we're gonna have to close.

What can we do?

We're no different than anyone else."

And so I drove down to sort of survey

what the situation was, how we were gonna close up.

And I realized if I can drive into this,

then anybody can drive into this.

And that was kind of the beginning of the thought,

"Well, hold on a second.

Why not become the world's first drive-in art exhibit?"

And so that was really how it began.


Dvoretsky: This exhibit is not meant to be viewed from the car.

It's meant to be viewed and experienced by foot.

Usually people stay as long as they want

and they lie down and they take a nap

and, you know, they do all kinds of things.

We've been able to convince the artists

that maybe this is the only way we can do it right now

and to be a first in the world, a drive-in art exhibit,

it may not be a terrible idea.


When the concept of walking in was, we thought, not possible,

we then announced drive-in and sold a lot of tickets

to people for driving it.

And the government of Ontario

did something really interesting.

They announced that in stage two,

walk-in art galleries are legal.

What we do is we had enough space

in the Toronto Star Building to build two galleries.

So currently we have gallery one,

which is the original walk-in experience

that we intended to execute.

And gallery two is the drive-in experience.

If we could figure out any way to keep the entire team together

and keep this going

and to be able to present something exciting to Toronto --

everyone was sitting at home with really nothing to do --

I was determined to figure out how to do it.

It was part luck and part determination, I think,

that brought us to it.


Dvoretsky: We would never say that this experience

is replacing your visits to the museums.

It could be enhancing your visits to the museums.


Ross: I think it's the top-selling

art event in the world.

We opened July 1st, right in the middle,

right in the heart of COVID.

And so far, we've had 150,000 people come through.


Dvoretsky: We can do an excellent job

in describing the experience,

but experience is called the experience

because it's all sensory.

We consider that,

and so I'm sure a lot of people would agree with me --

It's a completely new form of art.




Bates: "The Under" is a multiplayer game

in which players arrive at a fantastic, surreal space,

a desert that's populated

by a bunch of different attractions or acts.

There's an actual stage in "The Under"

where people perform either pre-recorded or live.

Are you looking for a little entertainment?

You've come to the right place.

Gorman: We're a studio that works with emerging tech

through the lens of art and entertainment.

There was a lot of lip service to how immersive theater

and VR were similar.

So about two years ago,

we partnered with a theater troupe called Piehole

out of New York who we knew could do, like,

really great live, like, no-proscenium theater

and who would probably be up for the challenge

of trying to translate what it meant to create intimacy

and connection from the physical --

you know, a physical space into a digital realm.


"The Tempest" is a 45-minute- solid ticketed performance

that happens at a specific time

within the large venue of "The Under."

I've been working with the cast

and getting to know them since November,

and we wanted to create another avenue or another show

or an ability for them to kind of,

you know, keep working, keep doing their craft

until theaters, hopefully, opened up again.


All right. Cue lights, cue sound effects.

Bates: "The Tempest" invites players --

a player audience, really --

to come into the world of this actor who is at home.

And they were going to be playing Prospero

in a production of "The Tempest,"

which is now not happening.

And these players, with their own abilities,

are able to realize that production

and help this actor achieve that dream of playing Prospero

and making this production a reality.

Oh, really good job up there, you guys.

Really good job.

Gorman: It's not like you're watching a movie.

It's more like you're very much live and intimate with the actor

and your audience members.

You could be assigned roles to perform with each other.

You think you can harm me? [ Laughs ]

You can't hurt me more than you could wound the loud winds

or with bemocked-at stabs kill the still-closing waters.

Bates: There are multiple actors who are all playing this part,

be it Prospero or Prospera.

And I think ultimately the experience of the show changes

depending on who you have as your guide, your actor guide.

Gorman : Our rehearsals were all remote

because we have a system that allows me as a director

or assistant directors to enter into the VR environment

with other actors.

We can actually kind of intercept

and give them notes during the performance.

And then the assistant director would go in as a player

or we'd have several players, and I'd watch the scene

and then give notes after the scene.

I could then reappear visibly,

and we would all sit around the virtual campfire

discussing the scene.

So it was pretty robust and allowed us to do that.

Bates: We've been given a lot of liberty and opportunity to play

in, I think, like, great immersive work.

We respond to the audience itself within the show.

So much of that is,

like pretty much everything else that's immersive,

is going to be dependent on who's in the show,

what they're doing, how they engage with them,

how they interact.

And we've been given a lot of permission to react to that

and to incorporate that in our performances.

Go ahead and go that way,

and I will catch up with you, all right?

I'll catch up with you after I feed my cats, all right?

What's really exciting about this

is there's something about VR, I think,

that gives people permission

to do a variety of different things.

It's sort of like anonymity

that's not always present in physical immersive theater.

You are, for all intents and purposes,

with other players, anonymous.

And so there's a permission that comes with that

to just go for it.


Gorman: We've gotten a lot of people

who have said it's really moving

and feeling like basically they --

It was the first time in a long time

they felt like they were in a space with other people.


Bates: Now there's just a much bigger opportunity

for people to experience immersive.

And some of these people are in, I think, North Dakota

or, you know, in Europe.

And these are not places that are necessarily known

for having, like, budding immersive scenes.

And so the fact that they're able to engage with this work

and engage with the stuff that we're doing is really exciting.


We're really lucky to have a community of players

and a community of audience members.

I think people are really appreciative

of having the opportunity to just experience this,

go through it and have that connection with a performer

that makes immersive so special, even in this virtual world.



In just a moment, you'll see the doors to our main stages,

each on a different floor of Eschaton,

each a very different flavor.


I'm glad you're here with me.

Eschaton is an immersive theater experience

in a nightclub that's all set virtually.

So it's dozens of different rooms

that you can get lost in once a week,

and it's free roaming for an audience to explore.


Whitehead: Britney and I created Eschaton

when we were discussing our shared experiences

as performers.

And a parallel to our experiences as performers

was the mystery genre, weird enough.

And for us, it was that intrigue

and that compulsion that you feel

to unravel what's happening and figure out what's going on.

We felt the same way about live performance.


Blum: Originally, this was meant to be

a physical nightclub in New York.

Basically, the context of this piece

is that there is a performer that you hear about

at the beginning of the show, Mary, who's disappeared.

And with the lead performer of the show disappeared,

there's this question among all the performers

of whether or not this club can even exist anymore.

What is a nightclub without a performer?

And all these performers are struggling with this idea, too,

because they've been stuck in this place alone

for so many months,

is what is a performer without an audience?

Ironically, this was the story we were thinking about

before COVID.

Obviously, post-COVID,

these questions became much more relevant,

especially to our performers themselves.


Whitehead: When we started thinking about Eschaton,

it was supposed to be a physical production.

And so reconceptualizing this entirely as a virtual piece

was a totally different beast, literally night and day.


Blum: For us, it was an obvious decision

just to continue developing and kind of make this pivot

and see, like, -- Let's just try and see whether or not,

like, immersive theater can exist virtually.

And we genuinely asked that question.

We genuinely didn't know the answer.

I think it was in some ways that genuine shrug

or that genuine question mark

that gave us the the creative liberty to just try.


Whitehead: The amazing thing about working in a virtual show

is that we have --

In the early days, we had 25 rooms.

It varies, again, week to week.

And so almost nowhere in New York City

are you going to go to a show that has 25 physical rooms.

No matter where you are,

whichever performer is hosting that room is slipping you

a few different room keys to adjacent rooms,

and you can explore from there.


Has anyone seen the magician tonight?

I told you my favorite card is in that deck, right?

Blum: We knew that we were giving a lot of responsibility

to the performers,

because essentially each of these Zoom rooms

that we had within our show --

and when we started out, we had up to 25 Zoom rooms per show --

was essentially a stage

that we were giving to certain performers to take on.

Are you ready?

Woman: I'm ready.

Rock, paper, scissors. Shoot!

Oh! Scissors. You win, you naughty little...

Whitehead: This room is really cool

because it's sort of a microcosm for all of Eschaton itself,

because Thomas as a character is a trained actor

and he does some monologues and some skits and bits

and also a studied clown.

And he represents, like all the performers in Eschaton,

what it means to live and die by the attentions

and the energy of the audience.

Eschaton itself is sort of a sci-fi,

otherworldly club that is fueled like a battery

by the energy of the audience.

And the audience literally determines

how the performance goes.

Tell me in that chatter box --

What are you drinking tonight?

Gracenin: When you enter the Cherry Lounge,

you meet Willa, the character I play,

who a little bit of a deviant.

She is a self-proclaimed narcissist

and she wants to kind of flirt her way into your life via Zoom.

So if there are couples or a group of three,

I will try to beg my way into that situation,

and the night changes depending on the different audience.

So it really is audience-dependent, my show.


Whitehead: We subvert and toy with this idea

of the fourth wall,

which is something that's drawn directly

from the origins of immersive theater itself

in the way that we give directives to the audience

and in the way that the performers actually interact

directly with the audience themselves,

whether it's speaking or engaging in certain ways,

because we wanted to create both a good immersive show

as well as a great, fun nightclub.

And so part of that is the excitement,

the titillation of seeing who's across the way,

who's, you know, standing on the other side of the bar.

Who can I buy a drink? Who can I private-message?


Gracenin: I had a lovely encounter the other week

with a fella who was in Brazil.

And he said, "Oh, I just miss the immersive theater.

I miss partying. I miss having fun.

But I'm with all of you."

And about 40 people were in the room,

and they all turned, kind of dancing around

and cheering with him.

It's nice.

You can feel really connected in an experience like this,

which was an unexpected bonus for me.


Blum: We're in an interesting place,

where before, when we were building physical real estate

and working on physical shows,

we were anchored -- anchored to a specific place,

to a specific audience, and to a specific price point.

And now what we're able to do here

is we're able to bring in audience members

from literally around the globe

so they can hang out and play with each other

in a way that feels authentic and interesting.

We hope to keep creating, we hope to keep experimenting

long past the pandemic.

I hope we found a new medium to entertain

and connect globally for a long time to come.


Whitehead: As Eschaton continues to develop and grow,

something we want to cultivate even more

is that sense of excitement and community

among all of the audience members.

I think it just was filling a need for people

in a time where they felt really lonely.

And we were giving them a place to connect,

but also we weren't turning away from that loneliness.

We're talking openly about what it's like to be virtual

and how much we miss being an open nightclub

and how much we miss being able to touch your face

and give you a hug.

And I think that's an important element of it,

acknowledging the strife.

And it's been --

Yeah, it's been really happy reactions all around.

And as long as the audience continues loving it

and the performers continue loving it,

then we'll keep going.


Bates: One of the great things about VR

is the platform it's given to people

who may not understand what immersive is

or haven't had that experience

but now have a sort of benchmark.

And I think it's a good experience as well

to sort of encourage them to try some more things out.


Blum: I certainly don't think that there is a world

where we want to go back to being solely physical

at this point.

I feel like the virtual landscape has been something

that we stumbled upon

out of a means to just figure things out

in a time where everyone was just wildly trying to figure out

how entertainment and theater could continue.

But it's allowed us an incredible amount of access

kind of across the board

that has just made this so, so much more truly immersive.

We're able to really get into people's homes

and meet them exactly where they are right now.


Gracenin: I think there's going to be some unique entertainers

that come out of this,

and I hope both they'll remain virtual as entertainers,

but also live whenever it's safe.

As far as the pandemic is concerned,

I've realized as an artist on my own,

it's either my time to cheer myself on

or I can wallow and not believe in myself.

And what's it all for if you don't root yourself on?

You should believe in what you make and what you do

and your importance as an artist.

Now I can I can do it all on my own,

and I feel invigorated by that.






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