So here I am, splashing around in the shallows of our R&D phase of Fractus. My gut feeling is that storytelling in VR has a lot to learn from/draw inspiration from theatre – and particularly immersive theatre. So when I heard about an immersive theatre experience at the Barbican I immediately jumped at the chance to go along and see what could be learned.
Rooms by Enda Walsh is described: “As one of an audience of six, you are invited to step inside meticulously designed and detailed rooms, exploring each for two minutes before recorded audio begins. Comprising absorbing and vivid texts by Enda Walsh that draw us into the highly intimate lives of five individuals.”
In all honesty, this description lead me to believe that I would have a much more Punchdrunk experience, with intricate set dressing and freedom to explore the space at my own pace. I’d slightly glossed over the part about the audio recordings, and was definitely expecting to find an actor in each room reciting the monologue.
Office. Credit: Andrew Downes
In fact, due to the monologues being recordings what happened was we all stood in each Room/set and just listened (which had it’s own benefits). In addition, the Rooms were not truly built for exploring – most doors and cupboards didn’t open, and after a surface glance, there really weren’t that many layers of details to the sets. But once I’d let go of my Punchdrunk expectations I started to realise that this more minimalist set dressing was still very effective in it’s own way – more on that later.
So what was the overall experience like? First of all, you were randomly assigned a group with a maximum of six people, and once in your group, you were led through into a huge space with five giant white boxes – these contained the Rooms/Sets. That in its self was quite interesting, and slightly made me think of initial VR training spaces where you learn how to manage the controls before choosing which “world” or game you want to step into.
White Boxes at Galway International Arts Festival (Not Barbican) Credit: Andrew Downes.
Once in this dark warehouse space, we were randomly assigned an order of “rooms” which our guide led us through over the 70 minutes. Each time, we six audience members were escorted to and then shut into the room for around 15 minutes in total. Once inside each Room the audio would start after a few moments. At the end our guide let us out and took us to the next white box, which, upon stepping inside revealed its self. As an overall experience, I quite enjoyed this element of anticipation.
Kitchen. Credit: Andrew Downes
It’s worth noting that none of the monologues were directly related to each other – they didn’t make up a “composite” story, which is why we could visit them in a random order. Each character was an anonymous but distinctive voice piped into the Room but each monologue could be placed or started in specific space (the Room).
Of course there were themes that carried across Walsh’s monologues such as loneliness, memory and childhood – all delivered in a beautifully lyrical stream of consciousness. Each monologue and Room was very intense, partly because being shut in a space with nothing to distract you but to listen to this disembodied voice meant you were concentrating very hard. This active listening, while your eye wandered around each Room was very effective.
I was quite relieved for the five minutes outside each box, which allowed me some respite before going into the next set/ Room. It also created a sense of rising and falling action, and allowing a break in which to recuperate so you could bring your full concentration to the next Room. This in its self also made me think about VR – which can be quite overwhelming as so many of your senses are engaged in an extremely active way. It’s worth thinking about how you will create possible “spaces” to ensure your audience isn’t just overwhelmed and inundated with information.
Room 303. Credit: Andrew Downes
So what did I find worked well? First of all I very quickly realised that whether in the real world or the virtual, you actually don’t need tons of dressing and details to create a very effective set which still adds to the story experience for your audience. Having perhaps been overly attached to Punchdrunk my takeaway from this experience is that the use of “magical objects” (something imbued with significance) is far more important for the audience than loads of detail which can in fact mask what you’re really trying to say/draw attention to. (Of course, I know this from traditional theatre, but heading into VR I think I was slightly in danger of thinking that everything had to be ultra detailed and realistic for the audience to “believe.”)
In fact, once I’d stopped trying to open every door and drawer in every Room upon entering, I instead used the time before each monologue to look and see why they had chosen to include a certain object or detail and how this helped create the illusion of a real space or added to the story.
In Room 303 I was particularly struck by the smells – the cupboard smelled of moth balls, and there was a general mustiness that I associated very strongly with my grandparents house. Interestingly, when the monologue started, it was about an old man at the end of his life.
In A Girl’s Bedroom certain early 90’s books, toys and the stick-on glow-in-the-dark stars, immediately placed the bedroom in quite a specific time-period which allowed me to bring my own childhood memories from that time to the piece.
A Girl’s Bedroom. Credit: Andrew Downes
Each set had me immediately ready to try and make connections, to tell a story, to fill in the gaps and anticipate what the monologue might entail, how it may end. We humans are primed to make sense out of chaos – and after all that’s what stories are all about: explaining the random patterns of our existence into a meaningful order. The marriage of immersive set, which offered at times some indication and sometimes no indication or even a discordance, with the monologue kept me highly engaged. It also was a good reminder to choose what you include carefully with regards to your set – in this “storytelling state” when your audience is ultra-alert it’s easy for them to read into something and you might accidentally have them spend the whole time wondering about a very incidental detail. Of course you can play with that, and create lots of anticipation and tension when this is done consciously.
The Room I found most effective in this was Bathroom. Upon walking in I immediately noticed that the sink had been smashed with a sledgehammer. What happened here? I thought. And of course my brain went into immediate overdrive – would this monologue involve violence? And then I noticed, quite deliberately in the corner, the shoes a young child and on the counter two adult tooth brushes and a child’s tooth brush…my heartbeat increased tempo. All of these visual cues were raising an “active question” in the audience’s mind and also creating tension – and it’s worth noting I didn’t really need any more details than that – in fact anything else would have taken away from these very deliberate objects.
Bathroom. Credit: Andrew Downes
Without ruining it too much – all I will say is that the smashed sink was never explained in the monologue. But it served its purpose very well – a symbol of destruction and underlying violence in an otherwise perfectly ordinary bathroom – and a powerful tool to keep the audience guessing “what next?”
It’s also worth noting that not always answering every question was not a problem for the audience – in fact it made us discuss afterwards what we each had interpreted or understood and that in its self was very satisfying.
Aside from the set and the monologue themselves, Rooms also used light and sound as effective cues to grab attention or change the mood. In Bathroom a loud white noise alongside bright flashing lights kept the audience on edge and indicated a change within the story. In Room 303 the overhead light grew dimmer and dimmer as we reached the end of the monologue, just like the character’s eyes grew dim as he headed from life. Sidelights or spotlights were used well to create atmosphere over all.
I could also see that it was quite easy to be distracted from the audio by the visual – which is why the more simple (yet still effective) set dressing ended up working so well. There was just enough for me to believe I was in that Room but not so much that I was busy being distracted by too many details or poking around. This balance between audio and visual is one I am keen to explore when it comes to our VR project, Fractus.
Find out more by visiting the digital programme for Rooms by Enda Walsh.