by Lynn on November 6, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont. runs until Dec. 12, 2021

Live and in person.

Written, directed and narrated by Jordan Tannahill

Set design by Andy Berry, Tom Paris

Sound design by Gareth Fry

Illustrations by Teva Harrison

Additional illustrations by Ollie Kay

Senior developer, Motion capture, Lukasz Ruminsky

Cast: Caroline Gillis

Maggie Huculak

A fascinating piece of theatre by Jordan Tannahill, one of our most provocative playwrights.

The Story.  from the program note: Draw Me Close blurs the worlds of live performance, virtual reality, and animation to create a vivid memoir about the relationship between a mother and her son charting twenty-five years of love, learning, and loss. Weaving theatrical storytelling with cutting-edge technology, the performance allows the audience member to take the part of the protagonist, Jordan, inside a live, animated world.”

The Production.

This is really a one-on-one experience so will describe it from my point of view. I arrived at the theatre at the specific time indicated on my ticket. I was asked to leave my belongings and later my shoes in a container that would be kept safe for the show.

I entered a space where I met a stage manager who gave me an audio device I wear around my neck and virtual reality head gear that will allow me to see the virtual world that will be created once I entered the space. I am are told the experience will be in two parts: part one is the virtual reality world of the play/story. The second part is the actual world and I will observe other people experiencing the same story I did.

When I put on the audio neck device and the virtual reality head gear I carefully enter the space by turning a ‘virtual reality doorhandle”. This leads me into what looks like a brightly lit, white room.  What I see around me is a white room with animated lines that outline the area, space, window as I look around the area. The lines fill in the space as I look around it. The experience is very “live” and “active.”

I also hear the voice of Jordan Tannahill narrating the story. He talks about the house he lived in from the time he was very young to the time he moved out at 18. He talks about his mother and his relationship with her over the years.  At times the participant—I—will be a standing in for Jordan. Right on cue, an animated outline of a perky woman with eyes that twinkle enters the room. (Bravo to illustrator Teva Harrison) This is Jordan’s mother and at the time he is a young boy. Her voice is comforting, soothing, loving. The mother instructs me/Jordan to go to the window (that was animated in dark lines) and open it because Jordan’s socks smell so bad.  I reach out tentatively to the window and there is indeed something I could move up. I see the animated window rise. His mother has brought some brown paper and markers from work so we can draw. She lays the paper on the floor. We kneel.  She hands me a ‘virtual’ marker that I take and am now holding something in my hand that is a marker.  It’s weird and intriguing kneeling on the floor and drawing virtually.

It’s then bedtime and miraculously an animated outline of a bed appears to my side. I’m invited to get into the bed, ready for bedtime. I feel my way to the outline of a bed, and darned if there isn’t a bed right there, nice comforter etc. I’m invited to get into the bed and under the covers. As the mother is telling me a story, we hear a door open. The father/her husband has come home and she leaves to greet him. It’s clear the marriage is not happy. I hear a man yelling on the other side of the door. Later I see that the mother is crying in another animated room.

There is interaction between me and the virtual mother besides if she asks me to do something. She might ask me a question as if I’m Jordan and I answer. At one point she indicates that Jordan had gone to the window to look out and see her working in the garden, but I didn’t go to the window to check. There is a section where she tells Jordan some serious news and the dialogue suggests we/I put a hand on her shoulder. How one choses to do that is also part of the engagement. There are subtle ways to make this personal rather than awkward and tentative.

The ‘virtual’ world is so strange if one is used to the ‘real’ world. Great care is taken of the ‘participants.’ I was asked if I minded being gently touched during the performance—a stage manager might guide one around the set. At times I’m tentative in my movements but I felt safe. There is always someone there to help if you feel uncomfortable. I must trust that when I was asked to go to an animated window it would be there for me to open.

This is totally wheelchair accessible but they don’t recommend it for anyone with epilepsy, vertigo or are claustrophobic and have cochlear implants.

The second part was ‘wild’ considering I saw the same thing only with other people in the real world. I’m instructed to take off my head gear and audio device and give it to the stage manager who then disinfects it and the whole set for the next participant. I sit outside the simple set and watch the next participant be prepared.

Note: so as not to spoil any of the ‘reality’ I won’t describe it but the technological details needed to realize this virtual world seems like something from outer space, rather than the new technology. The set by Andy Berry and Tom Paris is spare and simple.

The actress playing the mother in my performance is Caroline Gillis (at other performances it might be Maggie Huculak). It was interesting seeing the choices the next participant made during the virtual reality section (I can hear Jordan Tannahill giving the same narration).

Comment. One wonders, is this theatre the new reality? I will say that for the time being, it’s an intriguing situation that melds reality, virtual reality and animation. It’s a fascinating experience. But without real engagement, in which you are sure of your responsibilities in the enterprise, it seems more awkward that involving. It’s still a new experience, but without connection it’s technodazzle.

One also wonders, does it work at theatre? I will say yes because of that second part, where we see how this technology works; what goes into the creation of the performance of the mother; the multiple technologies that are employed for the effects. Where we see how the virtual character is created is hugely theatrical. There are moments at the end where one does subtly engage with Caroline Gillis  I found that connection to the live actress when she looked at me at the end of her stint or when she guided me where to go to leave, that connection to a person and not a digital creation is very moving. I loved how writer/director Jordan Tannahill blurs the lines between virtual reality and reality.

Also interesting is wondering if we are actually engaging in Jordan Tannahill’s story and his mother’s–he has written about her before in Declarations and Liminal—or if we are hearing a story about fictional man named Jordan and his mother who told him some serious news about her health. Again, Tannahill blurs the lines. Not in question, is that Jordan Tannahill is a playwright who keeps deepening his work/craft. He writes elegantly and beautifully about weighty matters and he makes us question all sorts of things including our idea of reality.

I like that, and the ‘pun’ in the title of ‘draw me close’ as we live in that animated world.  Fascinating piece.

Presented by Soulpepper and the National Film Board of Canada. A National Film Board of Canada and National Theatre of Great Britain; original co-production with the National Arts Centre.

Plays until: December 12.

Running time: 60 minutes.

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1 maja ardal November 7, 2021 at 7:34 am

I think that this kind of offering is a direct result of theatres being closed because of the pandemic. Over the last almost 3 years we all had to find ways to keep creating without gathering. It’s terrific to break the bonds of convention, but it sounds so different from the kind of theatre we have been trained for and accustomed to. I would not want this to be the “new normal”. That would be sad and lonely. And for myself, I’m still so excited about gathering with others in live spaces witnessing the immediacy of actors performing, as well as performing for them. That being said, I would like to avoid being too much of a Luddite and should probably learn more about the kind of experience you had.