Theater’s Next Act? A Show That’s All in Your Head

Theater’s Next Act? A Show That’s All in Your Head

In place of human actors, most developers will instead try to make AI characters more lifelike. “Tech wants a tech solution,” said Noah J. Nelson, who founded a website dedicated to immersive performance. “They don’t want an actor. Like, ‘Look, can we get a bot to do it?’”

Getting an actor to do what a bot can do isn’t easy. Schiller jokes that when she first put on a VR rig she forgot how to act. “Every tool that I had — filling up the space, checking the emotional temperature of the room — was completely useless,” she said.

Tara Ahmadinejad, a founder of Piehole who consulted on “Tempest,” described acting in VR as closer to puppetry or commedia dell’arte. “You have to figure out how your movements correspond to your avatar’s movements, because they’re related, but they’re not the same,” she said.

In VR, an actor can’t see a spectator’s facial expression. And in “Tempest,” audience avatars can’t speak. But Schiller has to make her performance feel responsive. So she riffs off physicality — what an avatar’s head and hands do, how they move through the space — and goes from there. While she’s riffing, she also cues sound, lighting, set and costume effects. “It’s super challenging,” she said. “But I love it.”

Besides, there are things, a bot can’t do — at least not convincingly, not yet — like make you feel seen, like tease you about your lame dance moves (that was in “Dr. Crumb’s”) or char-heavy marshmallow toasting (“Tempest”). Bots can track movement, but they tend to respond generally, not specifically, and they’re lousy at improv.

And sharing space with a live actor — even virtual, pixelated space — demands presence and attention, which many of us have found difficult to summon lately. “That responsiveness of a real person who’s with you and honoring your choices and welcoming you into their world, there’s a lot of special power and magic that live in that kind of experience,” said Jennine Willett, a theater maker who consulted on “Dr. Crumb’s.”

When I went through “Dr. Crumb’s,” I had total focus — and not only because there was a freeze ray coming at me. That magic works on the actors, too. “It feels live,” Schiller said. “It feels present. Even though we’re virtual, I feel you in there.”

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