Fundamentals of Immersion

Contextual AnalysisArchive

May 21

Contextual Analysis – DR. SILVER: A Celebration of Life


DR. SILVER: A Celebration of Life

DR SILVER: A Celebration of Life is a joint production of Outside the March and The Musical Stage Co. Billed as an “immersive musical”, it is the brainchild of librettist siblings Anika and Britta Johnson who, partnered with director Mitchell Cushman, developed an ambitious musical presented in a unique way, with many feints toward total immersion. However, due perhaps to the creators’ comfort with traditional musical theatre conventions, the production falls short of achieving the kind of immersion striven for by Machon and her contributing artists.

Held at Heliconian Hall in Toronto, a small gothic building that looks and feels uncannily like the kind of hall in a small town that a small cult might rent for a gathering, DR SILVER is a musical about a family who is at the centre of a cult whose messianic patriarch figure, the titular Dr Silver, has recently passed away. It explores the grief of each of the family members and their desires for the future. Much of the drama comes from each of the family’s feelings about the absent Gordon, who forsake the cult some time ago and may or may not be dead in the present. Aside from the family, who represent the entirety of the speaking cast, a chorus of young cult members fill out the space and serve as ushers, dancers, and singers.

The space is decorated and lit in a clever fashion, allowing the production to pivot from the feel of a mundane meeting hall to the rapturous wonder of a church congregation. A projection of the late Dr Silver rendered as stained class changes subtly as the production goes on. Audience-participants, who are treated as welcomed visitors and (it is presumed) are cultists as well, are seated on pews along four walls of the space and invited to paw through a gorgeously printed chapbook that serves as the holy book of the cult.

The chapbook, like a bible, also contains hymns, and early in the production audience-participants are invited to sing along with a number.

The first fifteen minutes or so of the production are deeply immersive. From the moment the audience-participant arrives on the site (which, as mentioned, is an imposing but out-of-the-way building) are are greeted by signs advertising the funeral of the late Doctor, they are treated as guests of the cult. Ushers/chorus members are dressed in identical unsettling blue scrubs and welcome participants with euphoric words and wide smiles while led to places on the pews. The performance takes place in full light, so every audience-participant is equally present as the performers. After they are invited to sing, the audience-participants are offered a drink of what looks like blue Kool-Aid that, it is suggested, contains a hallucinogen. This is perhaps meant as an explanation for why the remainder of the play is staged as it is, but sadly it is the last feint toward immersion that the play makes.

Shortly after the Kool-Aid sequence the show pivots from immersivity into traditional musical theatre-in-the-round. The remainder of the show is rendered as a series of flashbacks featuring the family, catching us up to how and why they find themselves relating to one another as they do in the present. These flashbacks are staged under spotlights, removing them from the present/presence of the immersive space, and the audience-participants are darkened, endistancing/alienating (as Brecht would say) them from the moment being staged. All pretenses of immersivity are gone – from this point on, the audience-participants are participants no more.

It is particularly disappointing because DR SILVER had, until this point, been an exemplar of Machon’s total immersion. The greeting and setting, as well as the opportunity to chat with other audience-participants, establish a firm external form through which to experience immersion as absorption, and the book of hymns, performers, and especially the drink of Kool-Aid engage all five senses, succeeding at immersion as transportation.  Not totally realized is the social communitas discussed by Machon, though it is arguably attempted through the invitation to sing with the rest of the group.

The first act of DR SILVER delivers an embodied praesence (defined by Machon as being “at hand”) for audience-participants. The remainder is a familiar piece of musical theatre. Immersive elements remain as the chorus of cult members stalk the pews and the projections on the walls metamorphize as the plot continues, but there are no further invitations to engage – in other words, to realize one’s own praesence – and no further sense that the event possesses live(d)ness – that is, a uniqueness, and the knowledge that it will never be repeated as experienced.

May 13

Pre-Cinema Immersion Contextual Analysis: The Pseudoscope

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As a contextual analysis for a series of artefacts that are no longer being produced and experienced at scale, I thought it would be interesting to build one from scratch. I have encountered most of the artefacts discussed at some point in some form or another, but never a pseudoscope. I thought it would be interesting to build and experiment with one.

A pseudoscope is a device that uses a series of mirrors to swap the inputs of each eye.

pseudoscopeImage from pseudoscope.blogspot.com

Looking through the pseudoscope makes the viewer confront and consider the minute differences between what is glimpsed through each eye. It is said to cause fascinating optical illusions. For example, looking through a pseudoscope at a spinning sphere with a stick in it is said to appear as if if the stick and sphere are spinning in opposite direction.

I found several sources online for building a pseudoscope quickly and for cheap. After gathering materials and overcoming some logistical problems with the maker lab, I was able to assemble a working pseudoscope in about half an hour.

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The experience of looking through a pseudoscope without an illusion ready is lackluster. It takes some time to adjust it for the spacing of your eyes, and it takes time for your eyes to adjust. The minute imperfections of my pseudoscope are pronounced – the base is not perfectly flat so it must be held a certain way, or else the images do not line up and result in double vision. It also does not “auto-focus” for distance in the way our eyes do, requiring manual adjustment of the reflectors if you move from viewing something close up to something far away.

Once these issues are settled, though, the pseudoscope proves fascinating. It feels like it requires focus and alertness to view images through it, and although the images are familiar it feels like it is more work, physically, to view them.

The next steps would be to research and create a series of illusions for the pseudoscope, as well as tweak the current design for user-friendliness.

Works Consulted:

Make: “Weekend Project: $10 Pseudoscope.” YouTube, YouTube, 7 May 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=107&v=_Y9rmizlrg8.

Make a Pseudoscope, pseudoscope.blogspot.com/.

May 12

Contextual Analysis

Speculative Design in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

The 2018 TV show She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (created by Noelle Stevenson and produced by DreamWorks Animation, a re-imagining of and not to be confused with 1985’s She-Ra: Princess of Power) demonstrates strong understanding of the speculative design tradition. Originating from a series of tight constraints – that is, being required to keep the same core characters, setting, naming conventions and basic plot from a quarter-century old show that famously was not very concerned with logic or narrative consistency – She-Ra and the Princesses of Power proves itself a work of speculative futurism masquerading as space fantasy.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is about Adora, a soldier from the army of the fascist Horde that has invaded and has been terrorizing the planet Etherea, who defects when she is chosen by the Sword of Protection. Using the sword she can transform into She-Ra, a powerful being dedicated to protecting Etherea. She makes friends with Glimmer, one of several Princesses of Power who are granted supernatural powers by ancient Runestones, and Bow, a talented archer. Together they travel Etherera with the goal of to reuniting the Princesses and defeating the Horde.

While the show has the trappings of a fantasy (and indeed the various powers of the Princesses are referred to as “magic”) the show contains details that suggest the show may be a science fiction instead.

Presumably the show’s creators were mandated to keep details from the original show – for example, the lead character and her iconic transformation into the titular She-Ra. These details would serve as entry points into the world.

The Sword of Protection, arguably the defining artifact carried over from the 1985 show, is described at one point in the 2018 version as a “portable Runestone”. The Runestone, then, is the source of She-Ra’s power. When Adora is removed from the sword she is unable to transform and access the various powers of the sword. Another clear requirement is the presence of the various Princesses of Power, who are holdovers in name and power from the original show. It is explained that each of the Princesses gain their powers from a Runestone as well, and that if their Runestones are destroyed or tampered with their powers can suffer.

So now we have the Runestones as artefacts of the world, and requisites for the existence of the princesses. This is further extrapolated by the existence of the First Ones, a highly advanced but mysteriously vanished progenitor species that left their technology (usually referred to in short hand as “First Ones’ Tech”) scattered around the planet. It is eventually revealed that the First Ones created the Runestones and that they are all connected through First Ones Tech that runs throughout the planet. The Runestones are technology, not magic, and dictate the nature of the communities that they belong to (the Runestone that affects nature is surrounded by a great forest and is tended by a community of survivalists, while the Runestone that affects cold is suspended inside a mountain of ice and is tended by Inuk-inspired arctic-dwelling people). They can even be hacked by computer, which happens several times in the show, at one point causing She-Ra’s behavior to change (suggesting that She-Ra’s transformation is technological in nature).

This further lends context to the question of why only Princesses can access the power of the Runestones (perhaps they are descended from First Ones?) and the question of why the world of Eternia is in such a bizarre state  —  why it seems to be divided by ecological biomes (the elemental influence of the Runestones, which aside from Adora’s are immobile) and lacks stars in its sky. None of these questions are the focus of the show, which tends to focus its plots on brief adventures and the interpersonal relationships of the protagonists and antagonists.

They serve as worldmaking details that belie the absurdity of the show’s presentation. Stevenson and the team behind She-Ra and the Princesses of Power used details from a defunct and little-cared for story world as entry points (or “core samples” if considering McDowell’s Mandala framework) to extrapolate an internally consistent story world that holds up against scrutiny – that is, stand up to suspension of disbelief – and ask the question “how would the world be if an ancient progenitor race distributed supernatural runestones on the planet?” with a straight face.