VRChat Live Theatre? Performers Explain Why It Works So Well

The Severance Theory: Welcome To Respite recently premiered as part of the Tribeca Film Festival and the theatrical experience comes alive inside VRChat with live actors performing with a participant embodied as a child named Alex.

The experience is also open to invisible audience members who can access unique parts of the story without the pressure of participation. The performance is part of a growing and quickly evolving trend of simulated theatre. Performers in different parts of the world can put on VR headsets and don avatars to perform in ticketed productions while toying with scale in ways physical theatre cannot. We saw The Princess Bride adapted for Rec Room a couple years ago, Tender Claws’ The Under Presents offered a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that played with similar audience participation ideas as Welcome To Respite, albeit in The Tempest the participants were muted throughout the experience. The Sundance Film Festival earlier this year premiered a reflective experience called Tinker that was accessible with headsets at home, and there’s even an escape room-type experience guided by a live performer in Adventure Lab’s Dr. Crumb’s School for Disobedient Pets.

I recently embodied Alex during one of these recent showings of Welcome To Respite as performers Deirdre V. Lyons and Braden Roy played my mom and dad. Here’s a description of the experience from the official website:

Upon visiting your family’s home after your mom’s passing, you are whisked into a forgotten memory from childhood. Each interaction is as meaningful as it is fascinating when you rediscover your past and delight in the simplicities of being a kid once again.

However, something is not quite right. Perhaps it’s the masked tension between your parents. Maybe you are hearing voices that seem to be only in your mind. It could even be that there is a monster hiding in your closet. After all, respite is only temporary when you are at the whim of your own mind.

Welcome home, Alex.

Overall, I was impressed by the capabilities of VRChat as a delivery platform (no wonder the startup just raised $80 million from investors) for such a production and found myself pretty deeply impacted by the experience. I invited Lyons and Roy into our recording studio for an interview diving into exactly what it takes to put together a performance like that.

Embedded below is our edited discussion and you can follow along with the transcript underneath.  If you’re interested in theatre, how to get started with it in virtual reality, what VR does that physical theatre cannot, we covered those subjects and more. Please note that there was a bug in our recording software that caused some slight issues with the audio quality.

From Physical Theatre To Virtual Theatre

Ian Hamilton: Thank you so much for joining us, we’ve got two guests in our studio here today. You’re both the performers in ‘Welcome To Respite’. Can you tell me about the experience and how it came together and what you’ve just finished at Tribeca.

Deirdre V. Lyons: Hi there. I am Deirdre V. Lyons, I am the producer/performer on The Severance Theory: Welcome To Respite. It has that first part because in theory it’s going to be a four-part series. So this is The Severance Theory: Welcome To Respite. And the next one will be The Severance Theory: Cognizance as we go on we’ll change the last part there. This all kind of started back in August of 2019 when I was part of a production as just a little voiceover role that I did for a friend doing an in real life performance of this show that I went to see later. And I had such a beautiful experience there. For me, it was all about the parents and the love and this sort of feeling of wonder and a memory that felt like it was mine, but wasn’t mine. As we were working on our other productions PARA and Krampusnacht I kept thinking about the kind of thing I wanted to bring to VR, which was this sort of intimacy that I had seen fleetingly in moments of my past work. And I approached Lyndsie [Scoggin] about it – she’s the creative director of CoAct [Productions] – she didn’t even have a headset at the time. I brought it to the rest of the team. I said, ‘Would you consider this as our next project?’ And luckily they said, ‘yes’.

Braden Roy: Indeed we did. Yeah. Deirdre and Steve [Butchko] approached Brian Tull and myself, by the way hello, I’m Braden Roy, one of the co-founders of Ferryman Collective. Steve and Dierdre approached us and as we were kind of getting towards the end of our run of our prior production, Krampusnacht and basically said exactly what Deirdre said just now and kind of said, you know, “It’ll be just this small thing. We’ll do it really quick. It’s simple. It’s just a house and the parents and the child, and it’ll be a nice piece that we can take to festivals and stuff. And then we got started and we spent six times more development on it than our prior projects. And I couldn’t be happier for it. It’s beautiful. It’s been quite a journey.

Social Tools Like VRChat Versus Custom-Built Apps

Hamilton: My daughter was the one who went through The Tempest with you. I went through an early version of The Tempest myself and then bought a ticket for my daughter to experience it. She loves acting and I really wanted her to experience this. Prior to that I had seen a production of The Princess Bride that was put together in Rec Room. That was really cool to see attempted, and it’s interesting to see these two extremes of an acting VR experience. In The Tempest you’ve got custom-built tools, a purpose-built world just for the realization of that entire Tempest experience. But with VRChat, which is how you delivered this most recent Welcome To Respite experience you’re co-opting a social experience much like Rec Room was co-opted for The Princess Bride a couple of years ago. Are we going to see VRChat and social worlds like that used for these live experiences more often? Or do you think it needs a custom built world just for acting and performances?

Roy: It’s going to be both like right now, VRChat is making strides towards offering creators of worlds methods to monetize their content in some respect, they haven’t drawn any lines in the sand, so to speak, but they’ve said they’re kind of looking towards ways that people can do that in ways that they can improve the user experience. I believe Altspace and Rec Room and all the others are likely having similar conversations, just because there are a lot of people that are taking these worlds and taking them in directions that the creators didn’t originally intend necessarily, you know, they’re having raves with live DJs and live musicians and improv groups and theater, more traditional theater, like, the Orange Bucket Acting Troupe in Rec Room who had put on Princess Bride and some other things and all that combined I think the creator of these social platforms are realizing that there’s a market for this, that they’ve given the community these tools and these tools are being used in ways that they didn’t necessarily anticipate, but they’re looking for ways to support and to allow it to thrive. Having said that, having bespoke apps similar to, The Under Presents or, another similar experience, Dr. Crumb’s Home For Disobedient Pets, which have their own, tailor-built app that’s specific to it. There’s very, very much a place for that just because you have tools exactly as you need them. You don’t need to worry about pushing up against the edges of the limitations of a platform that was designed without the sort of creations that you’re making in mind. So I think it will be both, there’s definite pros and cons to each one. A bespoke app costs more and the development resources are much more, and it doesn’t have a built-in audience while social apps have free resources available and the ease of access for someone getting their start.

Lyons: The social VR apps are available currently and you can start using them and creating stuff. And I think there is a market and an interest in an app that would be just for theater makers. I know that there are people talking about that and wanting to do that.

Using VR For Emotional Impact

Hamilton: Let me recap my experience of going into this. So I went into VRChat and the very first thing was an onboarding experience where I was basically walked through how to deactivate some of the safety precautions that VRChat has built into the platform to keep people out of your personal bubble. And I knew this was going to get pretty intimate. So I started preparing myself for that. Then I went to the experience, the fact that it’s a VRChat world and the way commands the user’s view changes everything around you and then puts you exactly where you need to be was really surprising to me. I did not expect to see that out of VRChat. You really have some narrative control. What I remember of the experience were the intimate moments where I was child-sized. And with you as actors maybe two thirds larger than I was really put me in an entirely different mindset. Then you come up to me as parental figures. I didn’t actually know what my relation was supposed to be to them. I knew they were parental figures in some form, but I didn’t know how much I was supposed to be attached to them. Who are these people to me? And it made me judgmental and really trying to process whether these people were going to hurt me in a very deep way. There was this conversation between the two of you where [you] talked about drinking and it really struck a chord with me pretty deeply. Do you often get this reaction out of people that these things key in on their own personal histories?

Roy: Yes. And everything that you’ve described to this point is by design to a certain extent. Alex, the main primary audience role who steps in to actually interact with the mom and the dad and plays a child and is interacting with them, he, she or. they, suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder which at the time of this memory they are unaware of – they’re just seven years old. All that they know is that things are different, they’re returning to their home for the first time after having a long stay with their aunt Cathy and they have gaps in their memory. There are things that they don’t know, things that are unsure of anxieties about these things. Depression and other negative feelings and they don’t know why. They’re asked questions and they don’t necessarily always know the answer. And some of that anxiety is intentional. It’s by design in order to make the audience member kind of inhabit the role and ground them, which can sometimes be slightly unpleasant, but there’s oftentimes has the opposite effect where while they may be unsure at first they feel a very strong feeling of love and attachment and are able to project their own personal experiences onto the production. Be it something with alcoholism or things with their parents, but they project the positive things as well, or experience things vicariously they wish they had experienced as a child. There’s a scene in the attic where the dad kind of pours out his soul and shows his love to Alex. And we’ve had multiple people come up to us and talk to us afterwards and explain they were either brought to tears or nearly brought to tears because growing up they never had that level of connection where their dad was actively telling them that he cared about them. And that’s by design which is all stuff that we can ultimately project upon. Be it trauma, which is an unfortunate hallmark and universal feature of the human experience, be it dysfunctional family, be it a loving mom and dad it’s all there by design.

Lyons: In real life I had experienced this production and I got to go to it and there were things there that are magical and wonderful, like actually eating the cookies, but there are things that you can do in VR that you can’t do in real life, like taking and shrinking the audience member down to that perspective where they’re seven years old looking up at their parents. The body remembers what that’s like even though in your mind you’re an adult, being in the avatar that gives you that perspective just puts your body into a place that remembers those moments. In this particular production we leave a lot of stuff open and vague so that anybody can project their experiences onto that. The idea is that they are your parents either through natural childbirth or adopted, and we wanted to make sure that, when we dealt with the parents that there was only love going to Alex from them.

Roy: It’s very interesting how, through the affordances of VR, something as relatively straightforward as a change in scale of your viewpoint in relation to other people in the experience can cause something that’s like a shedding of the ego in a sense where you can revert to certain things as Deirdre said. I find that fascinating and it’s one of my favorite parts about making work in VR is how you can change a person’s perspective through how they interpret the world around them and how that affects their behavior and their mood.

People Can Participate In Very Different Ways

Hamilton: Do you have a range of Alex’s in the way that they’re brought out. I was a very timid character. There was a bit of fear tinging my experience. There are very scary moments in this production. Don’t want to spoil them too much for people who might still experience it. But there is one moment where something pretty mysterious and scary happened and it instantly put me into a flight type situation where I didn’t want to go over to that area and I sort of receded. You as performers prompted questions to me, drew out of me as much as I could. I participated in the performance as much as I could, but it was still a muted experience for me. Do you have people who play Alex and do the complete opposite?

Lyons: Oh, yes. Alex’s that are like, ‘are you okay, Alex?’ Like, ‘oh, fine. I’m fine.’ I’m like, ‘okay. All right, well, that’s good. I’m glad.’ But yes, we have chatty Alex’s. We have quiet Alex’s, they really do run the gamut.

Roy: We have the fun troublemaker Alex’s which choose their angle to be like, ‘well, I’m a seven year old, I’m going to be the naughty child’ and then going around and like putting crayons in the boiling water and trying to grab the liquor bottles. That’s the exciting part about this format, this medium of, instead of NPCs, having live actors and live participants acting in real time is that there’s an unpredictability of what can happen and how we as actors can react in the moment in a naturalistic way that makes sense for the reality of the world that we’re actively building with our audience in real time. We have a script obviously and we try to guide people along it and usually they go along that path. But just knowing that anything could potentially happen is fascinating and very exciting.

Lyons: There’s also the freedom to play a bit with the Alex’s to where you allow them to just sort of take the story and you go with them down that story for a while before you bring them back into your story and let them feel like they’re not just participating, but they’re actively leading the story and giving them the freedom to do that.

Is Simulated Theatre Or Physical Theatre Better?

Hamilton: Do you prefer real physical performances or do you prefer what you’re getting out of VR?

Lyons: I very much like VR. I very much like pioneering in this new field and being a part of the people who are letting the world know that this is a viable storytelling platform. There are things that are different than in real life, but there are things that are just as profound and so as we explore and discover it will become its own thing. Right now we’re just seeing where it goes.

What Is ‘Welcome To Respite?’

Hamilton: Could I have one or both of you explain the overall arc of the story so that we have that for the people who haven’t seen this?

Roy: The story starts off with Alex in his, her or their, inner space where they’re greeted by an alter, which is an alternate personality and one of the key elements of Dissociative Identity Disorder. And they’re told essentially that they need to be shown this memory to go back and remember to help them move forward in their present life. And then they’re brought to their childhood home when they were seven years old, where they are just returning from an extended stay and their aunts and they’re greeted by mom. And then they have a nice talk and greet and hug and start to go in and get comfortable with each other again, and reaffirm their love to each other. Or at least mom’s love to Alex and they go through something that’s it’s more or less what could be considered a mundane evening as a child, but due to the nature of Alex, both the actual audience member themselves and Alex the character that they’re inhabiting having these anxieties and things that they don’t understand it heightens things, both the highs and the lows as they are kind of reaffirmed how much that their parents love them despite how troubled their parents might be with one another, and how they’re working together to get through these things. Meanwhile, Alex themselves, is dealing with some of the consequences of trauma. Which it should be clear, no trauma is ever shown or touched upon. It’s only the after effects, the stress, anxiety, that’s kind of left in the wake of trauma. And just coming to terms with that general feeling before finally getting to the close of the chapter as they get ready to move on to what’s next in order to move forward as a person. And also it should be stressed this is only chapter one of four of a planned series.

Hamilton: Explain to me the original creation of the story.

Lyons: It was done in August of 2019 in Los Angeles as a in real life production. And had about a month’s run and the intention was to go on and do the rest, but then COVID hit.

What Can People Do To Get Started With Making VR Theatre?

Hamilton: For the people out there who are watching this, listening to this who, are maybe on the fence about getting a headset or haven’t gotten one for themselves or they’re artists, actors, directors, writers, what should they do to partake in this?

Lyons: Get a headset for $300 and get going because right now, there’s no gatekeepers. You could get involved and you can start creating stuff and you can move so much faster than in any other medium because it’s wide open, the wild west. I would encourage people just to get out there and get started because it’s so accessible and there’s so few people doing it that it just makes it so much easier to gain traction and visibility.

Roy: Every time that we have someone go through one of our productions or someone goes through a production similar to it seems to ignite a spark of creativity and a desire to be a part of it. Now is the best time to get in and start experimenting. If you don’t have VR, or you don’t have experience with VR, my first suggestion would be to speak with a family member or friend or coworker that happens to have VR. So you can actually try it and wrap your mind around that particular aspect of it first and foremost, or go to a place that has a kiosk or something of that nature. So you can understand that it’s not just a screen floating in front of your face , that it’s transportive. And then after that, in terms of people who want to get their hands dirty, everything that we did here with few exceptions, were free tools. VRChat itself is free. Places like Altspace and Rec Room and Facebook Horizon. Those are all free social spaces, Neos. And then of course, Unity and Unreal to an extent and Blender. These are all free tools with some caveats in some cases, but the barrier of entry is non-existent. The only thing that you need to do is to dive in really. It can be very intimidating looking at all of these different things and not know where to start, but the secret is to just pick someplace. It honestly doesn’t matter where you start. There’s no right or wrong place. If it’s something that you want to do there’s thriving communities of people who are in similar places to you in terms of wanting to create things and they will help you and guide you and help figure out these things along with you. And then limitless resources on YouTube and everything else where you basically can just pick the place you want to start and start running from there.

Hamilton: Deirdre, I want to ask you, do you have a guess as to how many hours you’ve spent in headset at this point?

Lyons: No, I don’t know a good, a good amount. I can tell you the longest I spent a headset at one time was five hours doing The Devouring, which was awesome. But also like an experience in and of itself. I’ve had back to back shows. I’ve had two different shows in a day. I’ve gone from a show in real life to a show in VR. It’s my life now.

Hamilton: You seem like you’re a rarity right now. How long until there’s a lot of other people who can do what you are doing and actually support themselves with it.

Lyons: It’s hard to say. It just depends on how fast this industry grows. Time will tell.

Managing The Audience To Performer Ratio

Hamilton: When the actual production is going live and you’ve got a person as Alex, how many people are manning the controls at that given moment? Two?

Roy: Just the actors themselves.

Lyons: Yeah. Once we get them into the world it’s just them. They play the on-boarding characters as well as the mom and dad, they’re triggering all the stuff that happens and making sure that the things that are supposed to happen at the right time happen. Yeah, it’s just us.

Roy: Yep. And that was by design. Making sure that the cast and crew ratio to audience ratio is in such a balance where audience members don’t need to pay a ludicrous amount of money for a ticket. And the cast and crew can reasonably expect to get a fair return for the time that they put in for a given showing. We have three actor teams that can work simultaneously, are also stage managers and do crowd control and everything all at once. That way we can maximize the cast crew to audience ratio.

Lyons: Right? Because you can’t fit that many people in an instance. So you can’t make huge audiences at this point. So you have to build these sort of small shows with that in mind. Otherwise you get a one-on-one of actor to audience ratio and that not sustainable.

Paying For A Unique Experience

Hamilton: When we wrote our stories about Supernatural and this subscription-based program for getting fit, there was a very large segment of this audience that’s already getting headsets who just rejected that idea out of hand, said ‘a subscription? I’m not going to pay for a subscription. I buy my games once and then I play them.’ But those gamers weren’t the ones Supernatural was targeting. Supernatural wanted to get to people who don’t want to go to a gym, who have been failed by other ways of getting fit. And those people are more than happy to spend that monthly subscription. What’s it going to take to get a critical mass of people to realize that virtual performances are really worth spending money on and spending time on in a substantial way. It really did affect me deeply but it’s very hard for me to sort out – how many of those feelings are going to be experienced by others out there, or whether they’re going to have a completely different experience?

Roy: There’s a few things to dive into there. The first one being the perception that gamers might have on subscriptions and things of that nature, where if, depending on their background and their experience and how much that they’re willing to spend on something they’re typically used to spending between $10 and $60, depending on the platform and the title and then just having this thing that belongs to them indefinitely that they can play over and over and over. And trying to communicate the value of going through something like this, where it’s you do it once and that’s your ticket? It’s inherently unique. That can make it something that’s somewhat unpredictable and makes reviewing potentially difficult in a traditional sense at least as it might compare to a movie or a game or something that’s relatively static and linear. Even if there’s branching paths. That’s part of the beauty of it is that when you go in you are getting an experience that happens once. No one else will have an experience exactly like you, that moment in time is yours and it belongs to you and you alone forever. Unless you go with friends. You see a lot of people they might not care about going to a theater. They like going as a social experience that they can go to an activity and make a new memory with their friends or an escape room or a play, or in real life immersive theater. And that’s very much the sort of thing that we’re also offering here. In terms of monetization it’s most similar to that in that it’s a unique experience that you have at a venue, which just so happens to exist on your face or online, depending on how you view it, that you can keep with you forever, but it’s internal and it’s something that can be very special and personal in a way that something that’s prerecorded simply cannot. In order to communicate better to our listeners or viewers, what exactly they can use as a frame of reference for the experience itself. How I tend to explain it to friends and family members who are like, ‘what are you doing? Are you making a movie?’ I tell them to imagine something like Gone Home or other narrative games that there isn’t combat or anything. You’re just exploring and interacting with characters and kind of building out the world, except for in this case, every single NPC is played by a live human being in real time with you. So that sometimes in those games you’ll get a branching dialogue and maybe the dialogue choices that you’re given, they don’t actually fit with what you, the player, view you as what your take on that character might ask. You don’t have the option of going beyond that, with what we’re doing- you do, you can choose that. You can find what character you want to be and make that who it is and the experience dynamically adapts to that on the fly due to its very nature.

Lyons: It’s very much theatre. How often do you get to get that close to the actor in a theater? It’s a very special thing, you can go to Broadway and spend easily the price that you would spend on a headset for seats at a theater and I don’t necessarily think that this is for gamers per se. Maybe it’s the parent who borrows little Johnny’s headset, that they got them for Christmas.

VRChat Vs. Gatekeepers

Hamilton: I was really blown away that you were able to pull this off in VRChat and it was rather eye opening to me to know that you could control the user perspective, take them from place to place, and mess with scale. Everything you said earlier in this interview, there are an incredible number of tools that are really free to use right now. And the thing that you mentioned that there are no gatekeepers at this point in time. People get very scared of Facebook. We see it in our comments almost every day. There are people that understandably refuse to buy a Facebook headset. I get the criticism and the concern, but they aren’t the end all be all gatekeeper, at least not yet, of what people can say and do in this space. I think people have already kind of given up to a certain extent. They think it’s going to be Facebook’s world and this is something that they’re not interested in because of that. VRChat is not owned by Facebook, at least not yet. And the fact that you’re able to do all of this in that kind of open world that’s available across all these devices is a pretty substantial moment in my view.

Roy: Yes, this medium and format is so much more – we’re barely scratching the surface of what this is capable of and what will be used in the future. One thing that we didn’t really touch on for people at home, If this seems something that’s intriguing to you, but you don’t want to be the center of attention to be put on the spot and be expected to perform. First off, if you come through as Alex, we have no expectation for you to act one way or the other. But there is a second track to the show that we can have up to nine audience members that go through who, while they’re invisible and inaudible throughout, they have a tangible role and they actually have things in there just for them. There’s fragments of memories that only they can find. And there’s a few key scenes where they’re able to step in where they still remain invisible and inaudible, and they don’t need to worry about having eyes on you, but they’re able to tangibly interact in and be a part of the story in a very real way. So don’t be afraid. It’s fun. And it’s approachable and that’s, that’s it. That’s all. I’ve got.

Hamilton: Thank you so much for the time, we’ll see you again in the next performance.

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