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Art in Virtual Reality, Act One: Make Us Believe We're in the Audience

That invisible and hard-to-reproduce something, theatrical chemistry, is up for grabs if the tech is good enough.

Eric Johnson / Re/code

Why do people still go to plays? Film, TV and the Internet deliver entertainment that frequently borrows from and mimics the art form, and sometimes can just be a recording of a play, but the theater lives on.

Maybe it’s the experience of being in an audience, rubbing shoulders with strangers and experiencing something together. Or maybe it’s the electricity in the air between that audience and the performers onstage. Either way, a theater troupe called the Department of Badassery is trying to figure out if virtual reality can do what other tech cannot: Re-create the feeling of being at a live play.

“You always get the person who says, ‘Are you going to tape it?’” said Gabriel Montoya, the Department of Badassery’s creative director. “But something gets lost when a play is taped. The chemistry between the actors and the audience is different every night.”

The Department recently opened a dark comedy called “Don’t Be Evil” in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. One night before its official debut, the troupe put on an entire show, with a live audience of about 40 people, but there was a very special guest sitting just off stage right: A virtual reality camera.

Montoya and his co-founder, producer Robin Fontaine, called the filming “historic.” There’s some inherently silly about that claim: What’s so special about recording a play, even if it is in 360-degree video? What will be accomplished by putting this one night’s performance, and the reactions of its audience, into a format that anyone can re-experience?

And yet, there’s also something alluring about the idea. I was at the play/taping, nursing a beer and sitting a good distance from the camera because I was having a bad hair day, and found myself thinking, “This feels different.”

The central claim of virtual reality is that it can deliver “presence,” the feeling of being in a place you’re not, but telling a complete story is still largely a novelty in this budding medium. Nearly every VR “experience” you can find out on the demo circuit is either a teaser for an interactive video game or a short, self-contained video such as Jaunt’s Paul McCartney concert clip.

I was also thinking, often, “Hm, I wonder how well that will transfer to VR.”

Without giving too much away, “Don’t Be Evil” centers on a programmer, William Webster, who develops a Google-like search engine called Alexandria that’s a bit too smart for its own good. There’s only one set, a dull interrogation room at some unknown U.S. government facility.

 Justin Liszanckie, Eric Reid and Daria Johnson in “Don’t Be Evil”
Justin Liszanckie, Eric Reid and Daria Johnson in “Don’t Be Evil”
The Department of Badassery

To state the obvious, the location was nothing — just enough to sell the illusion that this might have happened somewhere, and more than anything else a container for the actors to show off their dramatic and comedic range. What will be interesting to see is how those performances feel when you’re not really in the audience, but instead are just looking through the VR camera at a past performance.

Fontaine described the Department’s embrace of virtual reality as “the first step in a long conversation” about how new technology might affect the theater-going experience. Historic or not, it’s an experiment, and likely the first of many.

“You could have live actors on a virtual set, or virtual actors and live actors performing together,” she said. “You could do Hamlet’s father’s ghost with augmented reality, which is never done well.”

The company recording the show and turning it into something you can watch on a VR headset, CloserVR, doesn’t plan to record another full performance. But co-founder Dave Arendash said it might come back to shoot certain scenes from the point of view of a character like Webster as he gets interrogated, making it possible for the audience to feel as though it is in the play, rather than just adjacent to it.

And according to the other co-founder, Philippe van Lieu, CloserVR didn’t need to have any creative input on the production to better serve its camera.

“We wanted to have them do what they do best, and we’re just in the background trying to recreate what human eyes would see,” van Lieu said. “We don’t want to make the world adhere to our rules. We want our rules to adhere to the world.”

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