When the Canadian theatre artist Jordan Tannahill joined an invitation-only VR lab intended to introduce experimental creators to the new technology, he felt like the recalcitrant kid at the back of the class.
“I was completely a skeptic,” he said in a recent interview at the National Film Board of Canada, which organized the 2016 lab along with Britain’s National Theatre (NT). “My initial encounters, [VR] seemed predicated on the spectacle of the technology, the novelty of it. Like early cinema … it was only about the thrill of being there. … Few pieces were more than the 3-D glasses in a cereal box.”
But skepticism, it turned out, was exactly what the NFB and their British partners were looking for when they invited Tannahill, along with three other creators, to produce VR content.
“We didn’t want people who were distracted by the shiny new technology; we were looking for storytellers … wanting it to be a critical process, not a technological one,” said David Oppenheim, the NFB producer on the project.
In the end, Tannahill’s narrative approach paid off: His VR performance, titled Draw Me Close, was the project the NFB and NT chose to take from prototype to full production. After sections were shown at film festivals in New York and Venice, the complete version of Draw Me Close will be previewed at London’s Young Vic theatre this month, and will finally be unveiled for Canadian audiences later in 2019.
All four of the lab’s projects – two from Canada and two from Britain – impressed the co-producers, but Draw Me Close was the only one that incorporated live performance into the VR setting. And, a rare occurrence in Oppenheim’s experience, people found it deeply moving even in a raw, prototype form.
“There was something that was startling,” Oppenheim said.
The NFB specializes in creative non-fiction, and Draw Me Close is a memoir of sorts. Tannahill’s mother, a retired lawyer living in Ottawa, has been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, and the 20-minute VR piece invites the participant into the artist’s childhood memories as he now faces the prospect of her death. The theatre artist’s chief interest in VR initially was the possibility that it could reproduce the space of memory or dream with its magical physical transitions.
“You might be standing in your childhood bedroom at the age of 5 and you turn, and suddenly you realize you are in the kitchen and you are 10 years old,” Tannahill said.
And, Tannahill wondered, could these shifts, appearances and erasures not also stand in for the loss that is death?
Thinking perhaps of erasures, he enrolled illustrator Teva Harrison in the project from the start. Harrison is the author of the 2016 graphic memoir In-Between Days, about her own experience with cancer, and she designed the visual environment for Draw Me Close. It is located entirely inside the house of Tannahill’s memory and is notably linear, monochromatic and non-realist compared with any VR documentary or game. Although three-dimensional, the space is rendered using black and white line drawings; scene changes are effected by erasing lines and filling in others so that rooms and objects appear and disappear. To put on a head set and experience Draw Me Close is like stepping inside a graphic novel.
The other pioneering aspect is the presence of an actor, rendered as the animated figure of the mother through motion-capture technology and operating inside the space alongside the participant: As a theatre artist, Tannahill was determined that his VR work would include live performance. He wanted the work to exist in real time, the way theatre does. He wanted the participant to be more than a “floating head,” to have an acknowledged body that might interact with the actor. And he wanted the communal aspect that theatre brings – even if there are only two people present, the actor and the audience of one.
That intimate aspect makes the 20-minute piece tricky to stage: It is performed by actors working shifts, each one playing her role three times for three participants in a row and then letting a colleague take over. The sound includes both the actor’s voice and recorded voices; to increase the intimacy of the piece, it will be performed in Canadian accents here and English ones in Britain. At festivals, participants have found the emotional encounter with Tannahill’s themes powerful enough that organizers are discussing ways to let the audience decompress before returning to the real world. A second component would allow the participant to take off the VR headset and watch another person go through Draw Me Close to see the magician behind the curtain.
All this produces a bit of a scheduling nightmare for the producers – dates for the Canadian and British premieres later in 2019 have not been finalized – but the notion of mixing VR and performance is becoming less novel with each passing month. When Tannahill unveiled a first chapter of Draw Me Close at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, it was the first time that motion capture had been used to insert a live performance into VR at the festival; by the time a second chapter reached the Venice Film Festival in 2018, there were six other examples in that event.
“It is a nascent form that is hungry for narrative,” Tannahill said, as he reflects on his choice of a highly personal but universal story about a parent’s death. “It’s not like this content has not been broached a million times in other media … but VR is absolutely its own medium, its own form unto itself, searching for its auteurs, its [Andrei] Tarkovsky, its [Stanley] Kubrick. The early masters of the form will emerge. I don’t see myself as one of them; I see myself as contributing building blocks.”
Draw Me Close previews Jan. 21 to Feb. 2 at the Young Vic in London with a Canadian premiere to follow later this year.