Roger Ebert once called films machines that generate empathy. And who can argue with the patron saint of cinema? A great movie can evoke joy, incite fear, or move us to tears because we are so invested in fictional characters.
A decent film transports its audience to new worlds. However, at best, cinema helps us see these worlds through someone else’s eyes. But what if writers and directors could push the magic of storytelling even further? What if we could literally experience life from someone else’s perspective?
The virtual reality (VR) experience of playwright and filmmaker Jordan Tannahill, Draw me close, answers this question. Taking place from November 2sd to December 12e at the Young Center for the Performing Arts, Draw me close offers a glimpse into the future of immersive storytelling.
Draw me close combines virtual reality, animation, audience participation and live theater for a one-of-a-kind dramatic experience. To start, the participant takes off their shoes and puts on a VR headset to travel inside Draw me close the spirit of designer Jordan Tannahill.
The viewer lives in younger versions of Tannahill and relives memories that take place in his childhood home. As Tannahill tells his story, the experimenter walks through a physical space – opening windows, coloring the floor, snuggling in his bed – while wearing a VR headset. So even if you navigate a widely open stage in the real world, you see an artist’s interpretation of where Tannahill grew up.
The predominantly black-and-white experience uses hand-drawn visuals (by illustrator Teva Harrison) in an all-white void, making it feel like inhabiting an artist’s sketchbook. The minimalist aesthetic only adds to the surreal feeling as you linger in a fading memory.
If this was the scope of the installation, Draw me close would be worth the price of admission. But there is another element in play that takes it to another level. Since this is an intimate story about Tannahill’s relationship with his mother, you spend most of the experience interacting with his virtual mother (played alternately by Caroline Gillis and Maggie Huculak).
Because an actress is physically sharing the stage with you, the voice you hear does not come from a speaker; it’s from a real person standing a few feet away.
I have tried most types of VR, and no matter how advanced the technology is, it just doesn’t seem believable. Even when I’m inside a living digital world, I still feel detached, like I’m inhabiting a pre-rendered video game cinematic.
The beauty of Draw me Closeness is how it roots you in the moment and forces you to be there. You are an essential part of the show and the performer reacts to what you say and do. You also can’t glance at your phone or be distracted by someone in the audience picking their nose up. You can’t even let your thoughts drift because you share an encounter with a real human being who gives them their full attention.
I intentionally withhold the details of the story because Draw me close works better if you know less. The interactive performance lasts less than 30 minutes, and when it ends you are invited to sit down and watch someone else have the same experience.
You don’t have to be a virtual reality expert to enjoy the show. Although the helmet is large and square, it is lightweight, fits comfortably over my giant head, and I forget I was wearing it when the show started. As you walk around, much of the experience is stationary, making motion sickness less of a problem. There’s also a joystick in the room, making sure you don’t trip over the headphone cable.
I first tried virtual reality in 1993, and have been a champion of this technology ever since. Sadly, I spent the next 30 years waiting for VR to spread to the rest of the world. Virtual reality finally began to find a market beyond early adopters in 2016. But even though the technology has finally made its way into consumer homes, it still hasn’t found a place in popular culture.
For virtual reality to become a mainstay of pop culture, we need more experiences like Draw me close because it transcends the novelties and technological demonstrations that people associate with the platform. Tannahill crafted a heart-wrenching love story that would work in any medium, but the immersive qualities of virtual reality heighten its impact.
Even though I have been defending virtual reality since the 90s, the medium continues to find new ways to get excited about me. I have nothing but praise for Tannahill’s unique immersive experience.
Presented by Soulpepper and the National Film Board of Canada, Jordan Tannahill’s Draw Me Close is taking place at the Young Center for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House) until December 12e, 2021.
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