For those that live in big cities like London or New York, heading out to a theatre to see the latest play might be second nature. But many of us aren’t as used to seeing actors live on stage, such is the dominance of TV and film. Which is why a new breed of virtual reality (VR) content where you can interact with a live actor by booking specific time slots opens up a whole new realm of possibilities, and challenges. Tender Claws’ The Under Presents is one of the more notable in this field after its arrival last year for Oculus Quest and Rift. Taking this idea another step further is The Under Presents: Tempest, embarking on a live, multiplayer performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Rather than a stage where an actor(s) can perform a play, monologue or expressive piece, what Tender Claws has achieved with The Under Presents: Tempest is more like a theatrical game. An actor takes the role of Prospero – in my case it was the very talented Terence Leclere – guiding proceedings by reciting the story, advancing the scenes and most importantly, guiding the group to enact various roles and bring the narrative to life.
If you’ve tried the core gameplay of The Under Presents then you’ll know everyone’s avatar is a faceless spirit of sorts, where you can remove a golden mask to unlock various magical features like making things disappear or change form. This continues in Tempest, so while everyone can hear Prospero, nobody can hear each other, thus everyone else has to essentially rely on mime – and clicking their fingers.
This makes The Under Presents: Tempest wonderfully abstract in its retelling of Shakespeare’s play, as no matter how the actor tries to direct proceedings that live nature opens new interpretation possibilities. Prospero gives everyone roles depending on the number of people attending. While groups can max out at eight people, for this demonstration there were four of us, so I got to play roles including a boson and the groom – the first time I’ve been married in VR.
We’d then act out each scene, wildly waving our arms at one point, looking for particular items which would set Prospero off on a little tale or delving into a banquet of food. There’s a nice ebb and flow to the experience where everyone gathers around to hear Prospero tell his tale – the first fireside scene suit this to a tea – before heading out to play their part. This fluidity means that the 40 minute run time is only approximate, although the actor will try to rein things in if time is short.
Obviously a crucial element is the actor themselves, how they portray Prospero and manage the entire experience. Tender Claws has put together a cast of 11 actors to help provide a mixture of performance times in four-hour windows – 4 pm to 8 pm PST weekdays and 11 am to 3 pm PST weekends – running from 9th July until the end of September. For my groups’ demonstration Leclere did an excellent job of bringing the Prospero character to life whilst also adapting to the ever-changing social environment. At one point I started summoning onions from my mask which he then interwove into the performance followed by trying to stop someone else wandering off too far and missing an important part of the scene.
So would I recommend The Under Presents: Tempest considering it costs $14.99 USD per show? Wholeheartedly yes, because its an experience unique to VR and certainly perfect for these current lockdown times. You’d be paying that if not more for a theatre ticket anyway and this way you get a far more engaging piece of entertainment. Hopefully, it will catch on so Tender Claws can further its experiments in this field bringing more plays to life.