- The Under Presents by Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro
During the COVID-19 quarantine, audiences were looking for ways to gather and The Under Presents offered an apt but unusual stage: the promise of a venue outside of time and space. Coined as “immersive live theatre meets virtual reality (VR),” The Under Presents was a quirky, playful, and innovative approach to both synchronous and asynchronous performance in virtual space. The production, directed by Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro, was created by Tender Claws in partnership with the performance group Piehole, and premiered at Sun-dance 2019 with a live public run from November 2019 through summer 2020. From home, audiences could enter at any time through their own VR headset and either explore alone or serendipitously meet other people. The space held audience members and actors together in a virtual playground that hosted scheduled stage performances and wandering surprise actors to take advantage of VR as an innovative medium to stage a live performance. Through an animated adventure-scape, this work used VR to interrogate uniquely the pliability of time and space, in both the story’s theme and how it brought audiences together.
Upon first entering The Under Presents, each audience member began alone in a dark muddy wasteland. The spectator needed to learn to snap their fingers until mud flew off layer-by-layer and hands emerged. These hands revealed the body that the audience member would occupy and served as the tool through which to navigate the space. In VR, designing audience locomotion is difficult, as creators map large-scale virtual environments that need to be accessed from small rooms. Tender Claws offered “the scrunch” as a creative solution, wherein the spectator needed to reach their hand out and pull the distance toward them: space bent and warped before the world popped back into focus. This action made space malleable in a way that would not be possible in a brick-and-mortar theatre, as each spectator’s hand could pull them through an abandoned vaudeville theatre and the other virtual terrains. The scrunch thematically placed the story-world in a venue outside of concrete space and also, through metaphor, placed the narrative journey in each audience member’s own hands. In the end, it was the spectator’s responsibility to navigate the elastic terrains and dictate how the immersive stories would unfold.
The Under is not only a venue outside of space, but also outside of time; this became clear when the spectator came to meet a past version of themself. Guided by the MC, an omnipresent narrator and venue owner, the spectator entered a world where time folded into itself. Here, they would find themselves exploring the same scene again, stuck in a loop with ghosts that repeat their own movements from past iterations. In the repetition, the spectator could dance amongst their last movements and sometimes needed to complete tasks through collaboration with their past-selves and future-selves. Immersive theatre often blurs the boundaries between performer and spectator, but Tender Claws’s use of VR complicated this even further as the participant was enveloped in an echo chamber of their own past embodiment.
The “performance” occurred in two separate places within the virtual landscape, each with their own distinct mode of engagement. The first took place in a ship-in-a-bottle called Timeboat that hosted a harrowing three-act survival tale of a crew locked in ice. Timeboat is a preprogrammed immersive play that happened throughout the decks and cabins of a ship, where the spectator could not only alter the outcome, but also control the speed and direction of time. The scenes looped and the characters signaled that they were trapped by the MC in an ever-repeating vortex. The spectator could stay and help the characters, or they could exit through a gift shop and wander off into the open desert.
Stepping away from Timeboat, the spectator spilled into the second space for performance: a dreamlike desert landscape with a stage at the heart...