Immersive Intimacy

Artists and filmmakers are using V.R. in documentary films to address environmental problems, social issues and exotic places. Nonfiction Immersion looks at shows and art installations such as “Say Something Bunny” and “The Privilege of Escape”, which incorporate real events and invite the audience to participate in new forms of storytelling.

AIRED: March 18, 2020 | 0:26:00




Jones: Immersive theater, just blurring all of the lines.

Coffey: Sometimes when people say, "Oh, that's not traditional theater,"

well, it's definitely not the intent

to replace traditional theater.

This is a new form of storytelling.

Jones: You went through some kind of keyhole,

some kind of secret universe, and then you come back out.

O'Loughlin: Every day, it's just a new experience.

You go in, and you're like,

"Who knows what this is going to be like?"

You're... Applause for my friend here.

Somebody coming and putting their hand on your shoulder

and looking into your eyes -- so simple, but so meaningful.

No matter how many times you do it it,

it's a little bit like being on drugs.

There is that effect of when you get high.

It's almost like getting high.

Right now I really couldn't give a shit!

Jones: Anybody who gets in line is self-selecting themselves

as somebody who's open to an unknown,

unpredictable experience,

and you don't know who's going to be

on the other side of the door when the slider opens.



O'Loughlin: I broke my hand in a bike accident in New York,

and I started borrowing friends' bathtubs

because I had a cast that was down to my elbow,

and I didn't want to ruin my cast in the shower,

and I had a friend that was like, "Oh, wow,

it's like you're on, like, a bathtub tour," and I was like,

"What if I did that, or what if I tried?"

On, there is an inquiry form,

and everyone is welcome to go to it,

and you can just fill out the form

and tell us where your bathtub is

and how many people you think can fit into it,

and we will get back to you

about whether or not we can make that happen.

Man: Everyone here okay with nudity?

-Yes. -Okay, great.

You're in the right place.

And you might be thinking, like, this is weird for you.

Like, this is weird for me because it's weird for you,

like, this is weird.

[ Laughter ]

It's performance that requires the audience

to be directly engaged.

Instead of being a spectator or being someone who observes

and consumes, you are inherent to the piece.

The piece could not exist without you,

and the piece benefits from your presence there.

It's required that you contribute in order for it

to not only exist,

but for it to be meaningful and substantial,

and it requires you to have an active role

as an audience member.

[ Speaking indistinctly ]

Man: The intimate space, and the way that she connected with us

and interacted and asked questions

really showed the humanity within, like, each of us,

and, you know, in turn, showed her story

and kind of emphasized it a little bit more,

so it was really cool to see the enhancement

of what she went through through what everyone else went through.

Woman: It brought me back to some memories

that I didn't really think for years.

When people come to things like this, shows like this,

there are some who are really...

You can see that they're excited to be there

and they want to be involved,

and others who appear differently,

and I think something I've learned is, like,

no matter what, like, go for everybody

and see how they blossom in this kind of environment.

Whatever happens there,

the group create that experience,

and we, as a group, explore how it is that we engage

and how we create community together.

My mom also worked in a hospital,

so she knows how to, like, handle things.

Woman: Oh, man... I've heard all the stories.

Well, in this instance, I mean, she's naked so,

you know, she's already bare as it is,

and you can't bear your soul anymore being naked,

so you feel like, "Oh, if she can do that,

then I can just tell you what I went through,"

so being in that small space and having that allowance to do

that lets you give your story as well.

The better audience react, actually the perform is better.

Makes it more real and more interesting, yeah.

Have you ever taken a platonic shower with friends before?

In junior high. Okay.

Woman: The personal questions, like, she asks,

like when was the last time you cry,

you don't necessarily think all the time,

so that's why you come here, you know?

It makes it different.

If she didn't ask those questions,

then you wouldn't think about those things.

That's why I said that it brought me back

to some old memories because of those questions.

With the way theater is now,

and, like, Broadway and off Broadway and that kind of thing,

it's kind of like a cookie cutter, you know?

It's a musical, and it's, you know, this play and that play,

and it's all kind of done the same way.

With this, it's someone's loft.

It's a giant bathtub,

so be able to have that personal connection,

to go to a place, to really feel it.

I can smell the soap. I can...

You know, I can physically interact with this person,

as opposed to just looking at the screen and going,

"Okay. That's cool."

Now it's something that I get to, like...

an experience that I get to take with me.

O'Loughlin: It has taught me the art of performer as listener,

and performer as giver, and not just a teller or a taker.

That is something that I have really been studying

for the past 2 years.

You start to think who you are and how you feel about things,

or what do you remember?

Like, what happened to you

before that it has always been there,

but you don't have time to think.

The purpose of art is to make people think,

outside of everyday routine -- work, eat, you know, life,

so that makes life more interesting, right?


Jones: It is, like, a magical portal.

You are in the middle of New York City,

and then you enter into this red velvet-lined box,

and there's music playing, and then an actor is there,

and you do get lost in the performer

and forget where you are.

Theater For One is a performing art space

that is for one actor and one audience member.

It's portable,

and the idea is that it's like any other theater.

It has space for the audience.

It has lights. It has sound.

It has a stage.

I had this fantasy about creating a church for one,

and then I was at a friend's wedding,

and, at the wedding, a magician performed

as part of the ceremony,

and afterwards he came up to me,

and he performed a magic effect right in front of me,

and I had never experienced magic

in such an intimate and close way,

and I was completely blown away by it,

and that got me to thinking about how significant it is

to experience something privately

that you're accustomed to experiencing publicly,

and how powerful that was,

so in that moment, I think the idea of creating a church

for one and a theater for one merged.

Tolla: She brought two references.

One was incredibly close to us because it's the confessional.

So we are both Italian, both of Catholic origins,

whether we like it or not.

And, therefore, had to go through confessional

experiences multiple times,

and then the second one was the peek booth.

Actually, Christine and I did a lot of walking

in the back area of Times Square trying to look at peek booth.

For us, it was very interesting, like, the idea

of this kind of extreme space

that is so small that generates this strange intimacy.

Lignano: And then we started thinking about it as a machine,

you know, because theater is a machine,

and that's how the idea of using the road case system.

That, of course, speaks about theater,

about, you know, theater production...

Performances. ...performance in general.

Two cases, at least...

A system of cases that came together for inhabitation,

which is something that is not really done.


Jones: The essence of what makes the experience powerful

is that this setting equalizes the relationship

between the actor and the audience member.

While the actor is giving the audience member

the gift of their performance, the audience member is, in turn,

giving the gift of their attention and their presence.

The plays are always very much touching upon this idea

of the kind of relationship

that you establish with one another

because as an audience member, no matter what,

you are responding.

You are the only one that is responding,

and the actor is talking to you,

and the actor is acting only for you, so it's mesmerizing.

One of the most interesting things about it

is the serendipity.

The pieces happen in rotation.

The audience members are self-selected

and getting in line without specific knowledge

of what they're going to see,

and there are have been many moments

where the person went into the booth,

and whatever story it was that they heard

felt, to them, like it was something

meant for them in that moment.

That explosion of that person that is talking only to you,

and, of course, people are very smart,

and people, they write theater,

and they write it in this way that, you know,

it could be talking to you literally, you know,

"Where were you last night? I didn't see you?"

You're like, "Okay. He's talking me for real?"

Yeah, there has always been that question of that...

It's how a piece started.

One of the most enjoyable experiences we had

was a young man who got into line.

We opened the door and invited him into the booth.

The door closed, the performance began,

and shortly thereafter, the whole booth was shaking

because when the panel opened, Billie Joe Armstrong,

the lead singer of Green Day,

was performing a song for him in that moment.

As it turns out, he was a huge Green Day fan,

and then he came out

and, you know, was just crying with joy,

so it's really fun when moments like that happen.

It's almost like you are in the train

next to a lot of people,

like you're in a subway car, or...

And then suddenly there is a moment

where you turn and something happen, right?

So the idea that you can quickly turn an interaction

that is very generic and anonymous and silent

to something that instead

becomes really profound and direct.

One of the insights that we've had is that people

very rarely spend 5, 7, 8 minutes in that kind of still,

attentive interaction with another person.

This form creates a relationship that is unlike

most of the other interactions you have on a day-to-day basis,

and that people seem to need it and crave it

and rejoice in it when it happens.

I think in this culture,

inside -- in Western culture, intimacy is hard,

and it's still seen as something

that sometimes you don't want to really deal with,

you know, you don't want to enter, you shy away from,

so I think she kind of brings that up, you know?

When that shutter opens and that person

is looking at you in your eyes and says,

"Are you lost?" it's like, whoa, you know?

You're in it!

Intimacy becomes a material that you're sculpting with,

that you're writing with, that you're choreographing with.

We still, I think, feel the difference

between virtual reality, technological interaction,

and live theater, and the fact that this is live theater,

that it's happening in the moment,

that it's being created between the two people,

it's different every time for the actor,

no matter the fact that they're doing the same

piece over and over.

The chemistry of the other person in the booth

with them changes what happens,

and changes how the story resonates.


Lasko: It's the tale of a hustler

and something that has happened in his life,

and I thought, "Well, it would be great to be in the room

with the hustler, sort of in bed as he talked to you

about this sort of traumatic experience."

"Bleach" was a piece of theater.

Playwright and performer Dan Reeves

performed it sort of internationally at festivals,

sort of as a more proscenium-based,

normal type play.

I asked him to send me the script, and I read it,

and I thought, "This would be a perfect immersive experience."

No matter what happens, I shouldn't worry about

the world being too big and scary

because I am just one person.

I can't fuck up too badly.

I once worked on a show called "The Courtesan Tales,"

where the actress, she would whisper

essentially a poem into your ear.

She blindfolded you, took you into her basement,

and then whispered an erotic story into your ear.

That I thought was sort of exciting,

and, to me, this was sort of an extension of that experience.

It has that kind of erotic edge

that I think works very well for immersive theater.

I think everything that I've done has had

a slight erotic edge to it.

So with the best of intentions, I left the bastards,

and I moved over to the Village where I started selling my body.

Lasko: Creating Tyler's apartment in "Bleach"

was really important to me, and I needed it to feel

as much like a bedroom as I possibly could.

You want that authentic experience.

You really want to be in a bedroom with this character,

and you want the illusion that it's a one-on-one,

even if there are, you know,

nine or 10 other people in the room with you,

to try to make it feel as personal as you possibly could.

[ Vocalizing ]

[ Laughter ]

His hand shoots back.

The room flicks back into focus.

Lasko: The audience participation part of it

I think freaks out a lot of people.

I, myself, hate audience participation,

but that's different.

Like, it's when a whole bunch of people are...

You're being pulled on stage and a bunch of people

are watching you, it's very different

from when there's a small little audience,

and there's only a couple of people,

and everyone there is sort of in the same boat.

No, of course he fucking doesn't.

He spends his money and I perform for him

like a fucking moron.

I was very lucky that I found actors

that like that more improvisational end of things.

It's not about the money.

I really, really don't care what they're paying.

And some nights they would push further and further people too,

depending on how, you know,

how they were feeling about them as well.

If they were getting good feedback,

they would go further and further some nights,

and they could tell, if people were standoffish,

you know, to sort of leave them alone.

Every now and then, they would push people

that felt standoffish,

and, again, sometimes they got good reactions,

and sometimes they didn't.

In the world's most --

Unh! -- exciting city.

Lasko: It's a real challenge for an actor

because it's just you.

There's no one else in the room to help you in any way, so, "A,"

you have to be able to memorize an hour worth of dialogue.

You also have to be vulnerable.

I mean, in this case,

the actor was practically naked the whole time,

so you have to be comfortable with all of that as well.

With film, you can do 30 takes

before you get that one moment right,

but in immersive theater, you're there in that moment,

and whatever happens happens,

and you got to roll with it.

I just think that it's always different

and unexpected every time.

You never know what's going to happen.

You never know what the actors are going to do around you.

You never know what the audience is going to do,

so it really does create a unique experience every time.

I mean, theater is always that,

but it's even more so in immersive theater,

and I find that very exciting.




Are you okay with light human touch?

Mm-hmm. Great.

We're going to put trackers on your hands.

Can you put both hands out like this?


Nicholls: It's an interactive memoir of the relationship

between a mother and a son,

and it's based on that relationship being explored

in light of the terminal cancer diagnosis of the mother.

It's by a Canadian playwright called Jordan Tannahill,

and it's the true...

That's the experience of his relationship

with his mother based on her diagnosis,

and they spent some time together

since the diagnosis exploring their memories together,

and he's developed this memoir,

but we're premiering one chapter here

at the Tribeca Film Festival,

when you are 5-year-old Jordan with mum in a memory.

You were already at the front door

when I arrived like a little dog, barking,

telling me about your day.

Hey, little man.

Give me a hug. [ Laughs ]

Oh, Jord.

Your socks stink. Go open the window.

Coffey: We, as a department, always been looking at kind of

ways in which technology

can enhance audience engagement,

and in 2013, there were a couple of VR

storytelling-based experiences that kind of caught my eye,

and kind of 360 was starting to come into play.

You know, we're very, very early days,

but at that point, we could tell that the potential for immersive

storytelling with these mediums was very, very significant.

It would never be the case that we would work with somebody

that just wanted to work with the technology.

Somebody needs to kind of devise work

that bears those technologies in mind,

but at the central heart of it

is a piece of really good storytelling,

and that's what I think we've got with "Draw Me Close,"

so it was never a deliberate attempt to say,

"We're going to use a live actress,

in the same way that it was never a deliberate attempt

to say, "We're going to use motion capture," for example.

It was more just the case of,

"Okay, these are the things that we have available to us,"

and Jordan used them as he saw fit.

"What a little art fag you are," I think.

I love you so much.

You're squealing and clapping your hands at the sight

of a blank piece of paper.

Nicholls: There's a piece, but the actor

is in a motion capture suit.

The audience member is in a VR headset.

The world is drawn into you through illustrations

by a Canadian illustrator called Taper Harrison,

but a world is drawn into your headset,

and you occupy that space, and then you start to operate

within that space as the audience member,

and you start outside a home, you move into a domestic space,

and then you're greeted by an illustration,

an animation of your mother,

and, in fact, that illustration is being motion captured,

and so is reacting entirely to, and you're greeted by the mum,

and you receive a hug, and that's a real, physical hug

so you're in a space that's been drawn into you.

You are greeted by an actor, and you receive a real life hug,

and you see the actor as an animation,

but she's also motion-captured.

Oh, my God.

The carpet is completely stained with our drawing!

The brand-new wall-to-wall carpeting

that your dad just installed.

I sit there for a long minute just staring at it,

and you watch me.

You didn't know what to do,

and I went and grabbed the carpet cleaner

and brush from the kitchen, and I begin to scrub,

and you just keep sitting there watching me.

You can see that I'm scared.

You didn't realize I could get so scared,

and you understand, and I see that you're scared too.

Coffey: It's interesting. I've never been afraid of saying

that we would put a 60-minute piece in front of people,

and, you know, increasingly we're seeing 20-minute pieces,

40-minute pieces.

I think the thing is, it's less about, "Can somebody

have a headset on for that time?"

It's more about, "Does the story that you're telling want

the person to keep that headset on for the 60 minutes?"

When they came out of "Draw Me Close"

and I asked them about it and I said,

"Now, do you think you could be

in that experience for 60 minutes?"

and they were like, "Definitely, definitely," and that...

You know, there's a lot of reasons why that is --

The storytelling is really strong,

but actually, we're using all the senses as well,

so it's kind of how you're engaging

with the audience member for that period of time.

And I tuck you in.

Good night, love.

It's an 8-minute piece, and you begin,

and by minute 6 you're actually being tucked into bed,

which is an incredible vulnerable experience,

and quite a vulnerable place to be,

but within... That is to say, by minute 6, it seems

that you're able to arrive at levels of intimacy

and immersion that that is absolutely fine because that's

the story that you're in, and that's what's happening.

You're a child and you're being put to bed by your mother,

and that's what happened.

And then in the next room,

you listen to him hit me over and over,

and he tries to come into your room,

but I grab him and scream and won't let him touch you.

The intimacy and the trust that occurs with each experience,

each performance that we do,

each audience member has had a profound experience

and had an emotional response

and emotional connection to the piece,

and we've been delighted by the kind of truth and honesty

with which each audience member has done that,

and I think that's because there's a seamlessness

to the immersion that seems to work.

The hug, the first physical contact

you receive from the actor

takes each audience member directly into that story,

and thereafter they're in the story.

We've had that response from every single audience member

that we've taken it through.

They are immersed immediately.

Coffey: In terms of storytelling, I think we've got more ways

to tell stories now than there has been in the past,

and that creates kind of a very interesting environment

for people to engage in lots of different ways.

As ever, though, it's the craft of storytelling

that's at the heart of it.

I think there does seem to be a return

to form of respecting really well told stories.

I really think that immersive theater experiences are...

They're the ones, I think, that stay with us

because we are so directly involved.

I think it has something really special to offer

that helps us inspire or think

creatively about how we tell stories.

People are looking for something new and different.

They're done with the way things used to be.

It's a new world, and you want to find new things

instead of just going in there, sitting, watching,

clapping, and moving on with your life.

This makes you think. You get to feel.

You really interact, and when that happens, it kind of...

You grow and you learn as well, and you take something away.

To be able to look at someone and say,

"Hey, what was your experience?"

It really gets you inside.

It's maybe not a stretch to say

that people are wanting this kind of interaction.

We're creating experiences for each other

that feed our innate desire for story,

for connection, for magic.

Going to a performance like this,

it feels more like an event or an experience

than it does to simply consume something

that you watch, and then you leave.

Being activated is empowering,

and I think that as we struggle through our political,

social structures that continue to beat us down,

I think we're looking for ways to feel engaged in way

that is meaningful and satisfying.

Artists that are working in these forms

are trying to give people a transcendent experience

through human contact.

Coffey: I think it's very early days, which means there's...

You know, there's a lot to learn,

but also there's a lot of great things for people to invent.






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