BWW Interview: MWM's Ethan Stearns Immersing You in A CHAINED Virtual Reality
Experiencing a preview of MWM Immersive's latest virtual reality project CHAINED - A VICTORIAN NIGHTMARE left me in an amazed daze. I was WOWed with the vivid visuals and imagery of creator/director Justin Denton's interpretation of the three ghosts of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. A one-on-one experience, you -as the singular audience - enter a door and encounter a human actor conversing with you on the virtual journey you are able to embark. You don a virtual headset, making sure it's a comfy fit and your vision through the lens is clear. Then, suddenly you're face-to-face with the three ghosts of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, as well as other inhabitants of your very own CHAINED NIGHTMARE.
After about twenty minutes of an ingenious mix of VR, actual physical objects you hold and sit on, and human actors who physically guide you through your virtual travels; you're transported back to the room you were originally with the human actor once again greeting you.
After I regained my bearings, I then got the chance to sit down (in a real couch), with MWM Immersive's executive producer Ethan Stearns in GreatCo's outer gallery to discuss what I had just witnessed.
Ethan explained that GreatCo (the experiential studio located at 1655 Beverly Boulevard) is the initial locale for Los Angeles. "What's nice about the digital format of this is that we can put it anywhere where we have the footprint for. We have the first room that you walked into. A physical set built that's really quite small. The rest of it is just the virtual experience you just went through. With this exhibit, we have a second rotation of actors. We're looking into other venues we look to open up later next year. We would very much like to put CHAINED in cities around the world."
I believe I interacted with two actors - Haylee Nichele and Michael Bates. Haylee, for sure, all decked out in Victorian garb, I initially met behind the first door. Michael must have been who I interacted with during my VR experience, as I never "saw" him, but could hear his voice emitting from the three gorgeously distinctive, frightening VR ghosts.
CHAINED's writer/director Justin Denton had brought his A CHRISTMAS CAROL adaptation to Ethan after a year of developing the concept on his own. "The Dickens novel is actually quite dark, and Justin's esthetic is on the more dark and gothic side. At MWM, we're always looking for ways to bring stories into a medium in a really organic way. The fact that you're visiting these different ghosts, and the dreamy state of how you're transformed between these different locations, was perfect for what this is. In a very small footprint, we can take you to many locations. With your ability to walk around, there's enough interactivity that you feel like you're traversing the space. But we're still able to give you a controlled experience. The length of it, twenty minutes; there's a lot we packed into that twenty minutes. A lot!"
Carne y Arena, the VR project that Ethan previously produced (winning the first ever Academy Award for a VR project) took over a year of physical production. With CHAINED, "We took a period of two months, three month to initially design a concept of how this would work. Then from there, another six months for us to bring it together. Probably almost a year. There's a lot of different components to the development of this. There were three different paths we were operating on. There's the physical set - different set pieces come in and out. Very similar to how a theatre play operates. We have a lot of moving parts to the physical set, so there's one component. There's the software component, which is more akin to video game development. That took its time. Most important for us was working with actors to develop the story in a way that we were able to put you at the center of the narrative."
Ethan noted that CHAINED's target audience includes not only gamers and millennials, but "really anyone interested in the vanguard of live entertainment. I think our target audience will mostly going to be immersive theatre and VR enthusiasts. One of the things that both immersive theatre and VR does well, it gives people a way to go into a very complex digital environment, without needing to know a lot of complex interactivity in order to experience the story." Unlike video gamers who need finger dexterity and sharp strategizing skills to enjoy their competitive gaming experience, all that is required of a CHAINED audience is the willingness to interact and follow directions the human actor (wherever or whatever form the actor is or takes) gives you, and be open to being physically prodded along in this ghostly tale.
Note that if you usually attend a theatre event with a companion, one of you will have to wait in the gallery while the other journeys in his or her singular experience. "The experience is really meant for an individual journey that they're taking thematically and narratively. It's important for a single person. From a technical perspective, you could put lots of people in there. They could all live that same environment and interact the same way you did. But crafting this particular story was having this particular singular experience.
"For myself, seeing it so many times over a year of production on it, I've been able to compartmentalize different parts of the story. Definitely something that we hope people take with them and think more about the experience as more of a memory that they had, and less of a play they've seen. Don't look at it as horror. There's no jump scares in it. There's intent to put human into the characters, both physically and philosophical. The hope is, even though you're confronting especially Marley (the first ghost that you meet), that initially, there's a bit of horror and fear. But by having a conversation and having some physical interactivity with him, you're able to develop a humanistic quality that you can relate to in them. We get a lot of that in traditional immersive theatre. So being able to emulate that with a digital character was one of the core components of what we're doing. To tell a controlled story where you felt you had a connection with actors in that space that were helping amplify your own concepts of your life - if we can do that, we would have been successful."
For CHAINED - A VICTORIAN NIGHTMARE ticket availability, dates and time through January 6, 2019; log onto BecomeChained.com