Let’s Dive Into The Under Presents: Tempest | Pt. 1

Or: The Under Presents: Tempest VR Theatre Tempts Us with a New Over-Under on Presenting Theatre in VR. Tempestuously. Part 1.

Alex Coulombe
Jul 12, 2020 · 10 min read

There are already many excellent, mostly spoiler-free reviews of Tempest out there, so I’m not going to tip-toe around anything. See the show for yourself then come back. Here in Part 1, I’ll go over why this show is so important. Part 2 tackles my biased hang-ups. Part 3 is a detailed breakdown of what I experienced.

tl;dr: I liked Tempest. It’s well worth the 15 freakin’ dollars. Go check it out.

Setting the stage (screencap from my first show)

(note: I’ll often refer to The Tempest in reference to Shakespeare’s text as well as Tempest as shorthand for The Under Presents: Tempest)

Initial Thoughts

I am so glad this show exists and I want to praise the hell out of it. What an accomplishment! To put this together over a month of rehearsals on a platform that was, until very recently, perhaps only halfway set-up for everything this needed to do? All the congrats in the world to the Tender Claws team and their collaborators.

Here’s the three most important things this models:

  1. How to provide theatre actors with paying jobs (at least thru September!) at a time when there’s very little of that going around.
  2. How to establish a baseline template for what a VR theatre show might look and feel like.
  3. How to charge on a per-show basis.

Tempest is helping to normalize the idea of live VR theatre in a way that I thought, in the before-times, could still be a year or more away. This will be the first meaningful, paid, live VR performance of so many people’s lives. For most of those people it will be a good to great one.

Very cool having this one shipwreck play out in four variations. Reminded me of the time I saw back to back productions of Miss Julie in a proscenium theater then a studio theater. Or the opening of Toy Story 1 vs Toy Story 3.

Narrative

The Tempest is a tough play. I’ve seen several productions of it and I’ve walked away from every single one with varying levels of confusion and enjoyment. While I wouldn’t say this take clarified any part of the core story or themes for me, I can say that The Under Presents: Tempest was by far the most approachable. In fact, this might be one of the most approachable pieces of theatre for the masses I’ve ever encountered. Your enjoyment of this show likely has little to no correlation to The Tempest, or even Shakespeare. And considering this is designed for one of the newest pieces of consumer tech available (the Oculus Quest), the mass appeal I believe this has is extremely high praise.

Part of that accessibility is thanks to its unreliance on the text: this show doesn’t actually need to be based on The Tempest and could work just as well with any story involving magic and a handful of characters. You could even call the Tempest’s usage of The Tempest a big ol’ MacGuffin. For one, the host doesn’t embody any of the actual traits of Prospero and more than anything, serves as “friendly guide to your first live VR theatre workshop.” The core of this is the experience of doing it together as a group, but if all of the sudden you were in a volcano or an iceberg instead of on Propsero’s island, it could still work just as well.

‘Tempest’ doesn’t really need ‘The Tempest.’ A volcano or iceberg or just about any other provocative VR setting could enable the core of what makes this work. (that’s actually Prospero’s cell and a scene from Timeboat, but it occurred to me after writing “volcano” and “iceberg” that I may as well show these images :) )

Performance

There’s so much playfulness in the telling of the story here. I love all of the room the actors are given to make this their own and even evolve what they do from show to show. The engagement with the audience is much more successful than I would have expected, assuming you have the right crowd. Both my wife and I in our separate shows were lucky enough to be with six other audience members who were advanced users of The Under and game for anything.

But that “help me tell the story” participation element can backfire. A friend of mine had a not-great experience because he just happened to be with a bunch of audience members who didn’t want to participate or were actively trolling (even running off with a key prop: the jug for the swirly pool). The host struggled with this uncooperative group, and the final result suffered in kind. Could there be contingencies for this? Sure. In the same manner The Under has recorded performances, Tempest could have recorded performances for Ferdinand and Miranda and the Dukes ready to be conjured up at a moment’s notice. This almost certainly wouldn’t be ideal, but it’s one way to take advantage of the affordances of VR to ensure one good audience member in a sea of bad ones still receives a minimum guaranteed experience.

Ariel in two forms. The effect-laden voicework, sounds, music, scale, and visuals all worked in perfect harmony here to deliver Shakespearean text with a punch.

Visuals and Audio

There’s been an assumption by many social VR platforms that avatar mouths should move. Our Alive in Plasticland studies in High Fidelity led to us favoring static faces (check out these larval masks) and I like that here as well. Especially when you account for the sparse facial detail, it feels like mask work and it draws more attention to the way performers use their body.

The two designs of Ariel are amazing. Fish tail wrists! Everything there from the voice modulation to the sound fx to the music all work together pitch perfectly. Definitely among my favorite moments, capturing the sense of simultaneous excitement and dread that I’ve enjoyed in other productions based on The Tempest.

The sets are lovely, though a little too samey in color, style, and all feeling similarly outdoors (even Prospero’s cell with the oculus up top). The storm at sea, being underwater, and the the storm at the end were my favorite spectacles. Also loved the pleasant day at the feast turning into a storm during that second scene with Ariel.

I wish there was more distinction in colors and style between the ‘real world’ (the campfire) and the other settings. Also I’m not sure what was up with the crazy psychedelics at the very end, though they were undoubtedly fun.

The dressing room for an actor in The Under Presents. Grabbed from this video. In Tempest I was often curious what I looked like with my various costumes and would have enjoyed mirrors somewhere… maybe via water?

Technical

This category of achievement impressed me the most. Comparing this to my firsthand development of live theatre events in High Fidelity as well as the many events I’ve attended in Altspace and VR Chat (if you want instant stress hives check out TonyVT Skarred Ghost’s post about a recent VR Chat concert), Tempest was remarkably seamless. The in-app ticket buying process? Great. The way you’re instantly warped to the lobby with your fellow attendees then each subsequent scene and there’s almost no way you can mess it up? Such a relief. All you need to do is be present and make sure you maintain both an internet connection and a battery charge. It’s a revelation!

The usher who tried to come to my lobby rescue!

Tender Claws is now in the astounding position to put on upwards of 40 of these live shows per night (11 actors *4 times) with one paid performer who also takes care of the tech for each show. Who else is needed now that the production design is done? Support staff. I had a glitchy experience of being stuck in the lobby alone at first and an usher magically appeared to try and help. I couldn’t hear them so it didn’t work, but this is still an impressive moment of customer service. They saw that I was alone in a lobby instance, tried to come help me, then instantly gave me a credit to buy a ticket to the very next show. Nothing else like that exists right now, especially as part of a paid virtual experience model.

The only other tech issues I’ve spotted are the host not being heard by one or all of the players or the host disappearing for a moment. Oh, and what happens if you leave the experience for a bit? While my wife was in the show at one point the Quest floor level got confused and went up to her neck. I popped in briefly to reset the guardian, and by the time she was back in Tempest, the scene had changed, costumes had changed, and everyone had moved around but she was back in it without missing a beat! Try keeping that synchronicity in any other virtual world with this much going on.

One minute you’re carrying old artifacts and looking off into the sunset, the next you’re roasting marshmallows in the middle of the night.

Speaking of which, the manner by which the host can move you from location to location, scale to scale, costume to costume, was excellent. I do wish instead of instantly teleporting between locations there was something that felt a little more of a piece with the magic of the world, maybe something in the style of scrunching or going inside jugs or water or even flying you to different areas of the island (as is, a casual audience would be forgiven for not even knowing this whole story takes place on a single island). But the most important thing is it worked, and flawlessly. Also loved eating at the feast and the swords becoming too heavy to threaten Ariel with, both mechanics already baked into The Under and very well suited for that scene.

I’m also grateful I was able to capture this entire experience. When at a live event that allows recording (theatre almost always = no), I’m always torn between just enjoying the moment and creating some kind of record of it for, I dunno, me on a lonely day? My grandkids? In any case, the ability to just hit record at the beginning of the experience via the standard Quest sharing feature and not give it another thought is having my cake and eating it too at its finest. And it’s not like I just set up a tripod in the back of a theater. This is personal… this is my experience.

This should cost way more than $15. But it’s a wonderful entry price. Remember when Amazon Prime was $79? (by the way, cancel Amazon Prime)

Price

It is so so so important for regular people to see value in paying for performances, even if they’re at home. Between the National Theatre in London posting full theatre productions on YouTube every Thursday, to all of the free concert experiences in Fortnite and Wave, to everything going on with Zoom, no one really knows what something should cost. Many people feel like it should all be free, because that’s what it’s cost them so far.

That’s a tough revenue model.

Adventure Lab was first to the punch charging $100 to have up to 4 people in a single-host show for their VR escape-the-room-esque puzzle/narrative game. That’s $25 per person, it’s a ton of fun, and totally worth grabbing your friends for.

Also worth mentioning is Supernatural, a Quest-based subscription workout which caught a lot of flack for being “like Beat Saber, but $20 per month.” That’s the other competitor here: apps. People are used to buying something once and owning it forever. The Under Presents started as a single $20 purchase that gave you unlimited access to sporadic live performers and the Timeboat experience, and now has shifted to a free ‘demo’ app with paid add-ons.

You can read my Twitter deep dive on Supernatural pros and cons over here, but the reason I bring this up is there’s no way the $45-$105 being pulled in per Tempest show isn’t subsidized, so I’d like to start thinking about how a non-Facebook backed company could find a way to bring in enough revenue on its own to survive. Like Supernatural (or how some theaters are run), I’d like to imagine we could see a live VR performance subscription model pop up in the next few years. Imagine a world where The Under Presents (or a similar platform) allow for both a per-show price, but also a monthly or annual subscription cost to see any of their 5 running shows on the regular.

Heck, let’s go wild for a second imagining revenue opportunities and consider premium VIP extras:

  1. Special access to the existing VIP lounges and special masks/spells/props
  2. Q&A with host after a show
  3. Backstage/dressing room/control panel tours
  4. Copy of the script

$100 for a show or $1,000 and above for season passes. Oh and your name on a virtual donor wall! 🙃

A wedding, followed by fireworks by an enterprising audience member

Next up:

In Part 2, I go into how I admire the appeal this show will have for general audiences, but that it wasn’t my cup of tea. And why that’s okay.

Part 3 is a more of an appendix; it’s a super detailed breakdown of what happened during my show and some of the variations I’ve heard about.

Alive in Plasticland

Explorations of Live Performance in Virtual Reality