Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Teva Harrison provided the art for Soulpepper's Draw Me Close VR/theatre hybrid.Ludwing Duarte/Soulpepper

Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

  • Title: Draw Me Close
  • Written and directed by: Jordan Tannahill
  • Actors: Maggie Huculak or Caroline Gillis
  • Company: National Film Board of Canada and the National Theatre of Great Britain presented by Soulpepper
  • Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto, ON
  • Year: To December 12, 2021

Draw Me Close, a cutting-edge and yet nostalgic theatre-VR hybrid now having its Canadian premiere at Soulpepper, is like being sucked into a classic National Film Board of Canada animated short.

You, the ticket-buyer, arrive at the theatre at your chosen time slot, hang a speaker around your neck like a ruff, strap on virtual-reality goggles – and then are suddenly in front of a hand-drawn black-and-white environment inspired by the house Jordan Tannahill, the show’s writer and director, grew up in.

You are seeing a version of Tannahill’s memories, as drawn by the late artist Teva Harrison, but you also have a certain amount of agency to look around and indeed move around in them. (The style of the illustrations married with the herky-jerky motion brought back memories of NFB cartoons of my own 1980s youth – the likes of Sheldon Cohen’s The Sweater or Richard Condie’s The Big Snit.)

There’s a real set and real props in the theatre that you interact with though virtual counterparts. You can, for instance, open doors and windows, draw on a piece of paper and lie down in Tannahill’s childhood bed and gaze at the Batman (Tim Burton’s) and then, later, Backstreet Boys posters on his walls.

The subject of Draw Me Close, which is a co-production of the NFB with the National Theatre of Great Britain, is the playwright and novelist Tannahill’s relationship with his mother, who is played by a live actor in a motion-capture suit and appears in cartoon form in the virtual world.

You can talk to this mother at times – and even physically interact with her now and then. (In case you’re worried: Though the avatar you are seeing and interacting with is not wearing a mask, the performer is wearing one in reality.)

Open this photo in gallery:

The pandemic, having made audience participation feel foreign, gave reviewer J. Kelly Nestruck the sense of being out of his comfort zone.Teva Harrison/Soulpepper

Tannahill, in voiceover, recalls moments from three decades of life with her – and you relive them. They include the time he made a piece of art with her as a child, a happy collaboration undercut by the threat of domestic violence; the time she comforted him when he was home sick from school; the time he comforted her when she first became sick.

In the so-called real world, Tannahill’s mother has cancer and was given two years to live about five years ago – a diagnosis that has spurred on a number of the artist’s creative endeavors about mortality in recent years, from the dance piece Declarations to the novel Liminal. Happily, she has defied the odds and will, in fact, be attending the show and inhabiting her son’s memories of her and his imagining of her eventual death. (I can’t imagine what that will be like!)

There’s a second section to Draw Me Close: After you have been through Tannahill’s virtual-reality memoir, you get to take the goggles off and observe another “user” go through it after you. You can see what the theatre space, the actor (it turned out to be perennial Dora nominee Maggie Huculak the night I was there) and all the technology actually looks like – and watch all the hard work three technicians have to do in real time to make the magic happen.

Looking at computer screens positioned around the space I realized that, in the language of the show’s coding, I was a user and not an audience member. I also discovered how sensors hanging from the lighting grid broke down the actor’s body into 100 or so points of data to make a virtual mother. This a sobering coda, of sorts, about the value of human life.

Draw Me Close first premiered in full form in London in early 2019 – and both its user experience and script have been updated to reflect the events that delayed its Canadian premiere.

The pandemic has accelerated theatre creators’ interest in what is now being dubbed XR – a catch-all term that covers virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. Indeed, later this month, the second annual Performance and XR Conference is being convened by Kingston’s Single Thread Theatre Company and Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre.

Draw Me Close shows that XR does not mean pandemic-proof at all; it’s actually quite an intimate and participatory experience.

While I found it fascinating, I didn’t actually find it immersive in the sense that I let myself go and lived in its alternative reality. I always had one foot in the real and kept exploring the limits of the virtual – sticking my head out a window to see where the drawings actually ended, for instance.

This inhibited me from emotionally connecting with the content of the show; I kept aloof from Draw Me Close. Perhaps this was in part because of the pandemic having made audience participation, which I was never allergic to before, feel foreign. But then again, I do recall feeling at a distance from most “immersive” theatre that invited me to navigate three-dimensional environments even in the before-times.

My gaming brain takes over from my spectator/audience brain in spaces like that. I do feel like a user, for better or worse.

Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe