I am welcomed by looming tentacles and a crashed UFO at the top of the stairs of The Phi Centre in Montréal. Looking around at the walls, I see a number of the works of Ed Wood- the infamous director of Plan 9 From Outer Space, often hailed as the worst movie in history- being honoured with large decals of his movies’ stars. Their presence in such a clean and crisp modern arts centre gives a bit of cognitive dissonance, but it feels special, these works that were so derided currently holding an honoured position in this venue. I check in at the box office and take a seat as I wait for the show to start. Beyond its format as an immersive virtual reality-theatre hybrid and some form of connection to the late director, I know very little of what to expect. Little except for the telling title: The Horrifically Real Virtuality.
Our small group of 10 are ushered into the play space and given an introductory speech by the show’s alleged stage manager, reading her notes beneath a single lantern and apologizing for some issues that were going to occur over the course of the show. It was a good ruse, but I quickly realize the fourth wall of this performance disappeared the moment we walked in. As I see others slowly catching on, there was that inevitable air of dread from some: “Oh god, it’s one of those plays”. But it doesn’t take long for everyone to happily accept the boat that we’re in. We’re thrust into the thick of the scenario at the entrance of a tuxedoed man announcing himself as Ed Wood Jr., who welcomes us not only to the illustrious premiere of his not-quite-finished new film, but also welcomes us to the production crew.
Over the short course of the night, we find ourselves facilitating the filming of the final scene of the titular Horrifically Real Virtuality for Mr. Wood, then donning VR headsets and having the physical room around us transform into the world of the movie we just helped create. It’s an interesting meta, but somehow it never breaks the reality of the performance. Every interaction between us and the actors, every moment of exploration we’re given with the virtual world mapped painstakingly to the physical environment our bodies are in; every aspect of it lends itself to the atmosphere created by this dismal sound stage and the purposefully low-tier movie we are helping create. All at once the show screams “science fiction double feature” and “welcome to the future”, truly a brilliant homage to the technologies at its core and the b-movies that inspired it. The performance ends, and still buzzing from the whirlwind of an hour, my mind is racing with how they pulled off some of their tricks and what the actual set up looked like while we were tuned into the VR helmets. However, observing the camera around my neck, they politely un-invite me from the behind the scenes tour. Fair.
To say that this was fun is a gross understatement. This was the most uniformly joyous I’ve seen an audience for any kind of performance art in quite a while (or as much as I could see with a VR headset on half the time). It’s not merely the entertainment and humour of the content and situation, but the curiosity it invokes. These technologies that are finding their way into the hands of artists more and more every day are a powerful tool for audience investment. And just as most artists are still experimenting with what can be done with these in the context of a show, the majority of the audience is still experimenting with what these technologies even are. You’re driven not only to play with and discover what is being presented to you, but to understand how it is being presented to you. World building through strong storytelling, stagecraft, and writing are in no way overshadowed by these innovations; but when you invite your spectators to slip on a headset and find themselves within the world you’ve built, it’s hard to not react with giddy intrigue. It’s imagination come to life.
I hope the reviews for Mr. Ed Wood Jr. (and Marie Jourden and DVgroup, kindly credited after the prodigy) fair infinitely better than in his father’s day.