2018 has been full of exciting new projects and challenges for Piehole as we’ve been called upon to bring our experience creating delightful, surprising and at times inadvisably strange theater to new contexts.
You may have heard about Tendar, the AR project we told you about back when it premiered at Sundance in January, or if you’ve seen any of us, you may have heard us talk about the VR project we’ve been working on, about a ship that gets stuck in a time loop.
These are both collaborations with Tender Claws, a small, LA-based company of artists led by our friends Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro (a Piehole member of olde!). Tender Claws uses hi-tech storytelling mediums that are mostly new to us (e-readers, video games, leaf blowers), but bring to them a doubtful, playful eye, a commitment to the compellingly weird, and a tendency to lovingly invent new hybrid forms for each project, that us Pieholes can really get down with.
For Tendar, the AR* project about a virtual pet fish that eats your emotions, Piehole became a little writer’s room. This meant writing for an interactive medium, focusing on fostering a sense of liveness, and giving the audience/user a sense of agency (in a totally artificial context), that their actions affect things, while still allowing them to be surprised by the experience. The game grapples with the way we use and are used by our technology, yet at its core…it’s about a cheeky fish that needs to eat your facial expressions and buy choice toys for its tank. And, we never thought we’d say this, but….
It’s now available at the Google Play Store (if you have an android).
And here’s the trailer:
What’s AR? It stands for augmented reality.
What’s the difference between that and VR? For AR, think Pokemon Go. You hold your phone up to reality, and your camera shows you what’s there in real life, but other virtual stuff is layered on top. In VR, you wear a headset and are transported to a completely virtual space.
- Writing for VR, figuring out what's similar to and different from writing for theater
- Curating artists we love into the piece! And understanding how to best translate their work to the medium of VR
- Casting for voice over and motion capture for the whole game (and directing the vocal and physical sides of acting separately)
- Considering levels of abstraction and realism when it comes to the physical acting and vocal acting styles, that somehow bridge with the animation style
In September and October, we were in our most intense phase of this project. In the Motion Capture work, the acting focus was often on physical specificity and efficiency in movement. At the same time, having recorded the voiceover first, actors also faced the challenge of syncing up physicality with speaking, keeping in mind that the animated avatars don’t have mouths. These types of puzzles brought up one of the most fundamental aspects of theater making - a consideration of the voice and body, which really hearkened back to Piehole’s early days, which focused so heavily on puppetry and mask work. It’s funny how working on this new technology instantly put us back in touch with working in some of the oldest theater traditions that exist! It’s that old and new tech combo we’ve always loved in Piehole! We’re dorks! Yes!
We would be remiss to not mention that all of these considerations and aspects of the game are all subject to the power of the Tech Gods. Working on this project required a great deal of flexibility and faith. The old “Hang on Tightly, Let Go Lightly” adage became a daily mantra. We’d plan to do this ambitious list of tasks one week, but like so many mythological gods, the technology gods (channeled by some truly divinely-inspired Tender Claws shamans) are fickle and don’t heed human plans, so we shift tracks, do something else.
“The 3 premises for what is possible tech-wise are X, Y, and Z. Now let’s make 100 decisions based on those premises.” The next time we convene, X has been outdated, Y is glitchy, and Z is...just not right for this project anymore. These changes also mean that what we need to do and when, is always in flux. It’s all VERY exciting and VERY scary!
But what luck! That we have an ensemble-based practice! We flex that ensemble muscle to pick up slack (while using Slack!), we communicate and check in to see what’s working and what isn’t, we figure out what we can’t do and ask someone else to do it, we take on new roles at random points in the process…and just as we do in the day to day “experimental theater company” lifestyle, we fight to make Creativity possible, to avoid letting Logistics win out and crush the spirit.
As we continue to work on the VR piece into 2019, we’re looking forward to seeing how this work will feedback into our theater. It’s already clear how the interactive writing has developed our approach to the newest project with playwright Celine Song, Tread on Me, Tread Softly (working title). This piece is an audio-guided experience. Audience members wear headphones and listen to a voice who tells them stories and occasionally incites them to partake in actions and collective decision-making. Our work on this piece is certainly informed by our experience on the AR and VR projects, while focusing more fully on the interplay between audience members in a shared space.
We’re so grateful to have the opportunity to explore the edges of what theater is, and what it means for something to be Live. It’s allowed us to stretch ourselves far away from what we have made in the past, while interrogating the very foundation of what we do.