Roger Ebert once referred to movies as machines that generate empathy. And who can argue with the patron saint of cinema? A great film can evoke joy, incite fear, or move us to tears because we’re so invested in fictional characters.
A decent movie transports its audience to new worlds. However, at its best, cinema helps us see those worlds through someone else’s eyes. But what if writers and directors could take that storytelling magic one step further? What if we could literally experience life from someone else’s perspective?
Playwright and filmmaker Jordan Tannahill’s virtual reality (VR) experience, Draw Me Close, answers that question. Taking place from November 2nd to December 12th at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Draw Me Close offers a glimpse at the future of immersive storytelling.
Draw Me Close combines VR, animation, audience participation, and live theatre for a dramatic experience unlike any other. To begin, the participant takes off their shoes and slips on a VR headset to journey inside Draw Me Close creator Jordan Tannahill’s mind.
The viewer inhabits younger versions of Tannahill and relive memories taking place inside his childhood home. As Tannahill narrates his story, the experiencer walks around a physical space – opening windows, colouring on the ground, getting tucked into bed – while wearing a VR headset. So even though you’re navigating a wide-open stage in the real world, you’re seeing an artist’s rendition of where Tannahill grew up.
The mostly black and white experience uses hand-drawn visuals (by illustrator Teva Harrison) set inside an all-white void, making it feel like you’re inhabiting an artist’s sketchbook. The minimalist aesthetic only adds to the surreal sense you’re lingering within a fading memory.
If this was the extent of the installation, Draw Me Close would be worth the price of admission. But there’s another element at play taking it to another level. Since this is an intimate story about Tannahill’s relationship with his mother, you spend most of the experience interacting with his virtual mom (alternately performed by Caroline Gillis and Maggie Huculak).
Because an actress physically shares the stage with you, the voice you hear isn’t emitting from a speaker; it’s coming from a flesh and blood person standing a couple of feet away.
I’ve tried most types of VR, and no matter how advanced the technology gets, it doesn’t feel believable. Even when I’m inside of a vivid digital world, I still feel detached, like I’m inhabiting a pre-rendered video game cutscene.
The beauty of Draw Me Close is how it grounds you in the moment and forces you to be present. You’re an essential component of the show, and the performer reacts to what you say and do. You can’t glance at your phone or be distracted by someone in the audience picking their nose, either. You can’t even let your thoughts drift because you’re sharing an encounter with an actual human being who is providing their undivided attention.
I’m intentionally withholding story details because Draw Me Close works best the less you know going in. The interactive performance clocks in at less than 30 minutes, and when it ends, you’re invited to sit down and watch someone else go through the same experience.
You don’t have to be a VR expert to enjoy the show. Although the headset is large and boxy, it’s light, fit over my giant head comfortably, and I forget I was wearing it the moment the show began. While you do walk around, much of the experience is stationary, making motion sickness less of an issue. There’s also a handler in the room, ensuring you don’t trip over the headset’s cable.
I first tried VR back in 1993, and I’ve advocated for the technology ever since. Sadly, I spent the next 30 years waiting for VR to catch on with the rest of the world. VR finally started finding a market beyond early adopters in 2016. But even though the tech finally made it into consumers’ homes, it still hasn’t found a foothold in popular culture.
For VR to become a pop culture mainstay, we need more experiences like Draw Me Close because it transcends the novelties and tech demos people associate with the platform. Tannahill has crafted a heart-achingly tender tale that would be effective in any medium, but VR’s immersive qualities enhance its impact.
Even though I’ve championed VR since the ’90s, the medium keeps finding new ways to thrill me. I have nothing but praise for Tannahill’s one-of-a-kind immersive experience.
Presented By Soulpepper And The National Film Board Of Canada, Jordan Tannahill’s Draw Me Close is running at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House) until December 12th, 2021.