No trip to the Vatican in Rome is complete without a walking tour of the Sistine Chapel and its beautiful, frescoed ceiling. Inside the Cappella Sistina, visitors stop to gaze 66 feet overhead and marvel at the sheer size and artistry of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
The occasion is a multi-sensorial experience in and of itself, and often a cherished memory for those fortunate enough to see it in person.
Immersive experiences like the Van Gogh and Sistine Chapel global touring exhibitions use new technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality and lights and sound to reinterpret some of the world’s greatest artistic achievements in engaging ways, allowing visitors to interact with art and experience it up close.
Through short term activations and month-long installations at empty warehouses, retail spaces, abandoned churches and museums, immersive experiences are transforming the entertainment industry and further reimagining what the art-viewing experience can be.
Locally, the city of Palo Alto hosted its third annual interactive media art festival, Code:ART, last month downtown. Six installations—which included dynamic projections and immersive activations with responsive sound, light and game-based experiences—were installed by local and international artists along storefronts and blank walls, in alleys and parking lots.
In San Francisco, a team of musicians and artists have built a nonprofit aptly named Envelop, to fulfill their vision of creating immersive events centered around music and making the experiences accessible to all. The team has designed multiple intricate spaces for operating the sessions, and provides free, open source production resources online for budding music producers or anyone with an interest in experiential sound production.
A vast entertainment arena was unveiled earlier this year on the Las Vegas strip, the Sphere. Using seat haptics, visual effects and atmospheric simulations like fog and wind, the venue’s production has invited leading artists, creators and directors like filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and the band U2 to elevate their live entertainment performances using the venue’s experiential technology.
Powered by local artists, engineers and creatives, the immersive entertainment space in the Bay Area had already been around since at least the 60s, but saw a surge in popularity in the mid-2010s, says Epic Immersive founder Steve Boyle.
“In 2012, I was a theater director and producer in San Jose. I had made it my mission to make theatrical experiences more epic, more multicultural, more multidisciplinary. Coming from Silicon Valley and growing up with a lot of folks who went into tech, it was always really important to me to build bridges between the arts community and the tech community, and to get the folks in tech here in Silicon Valley to be passionate about live storytelling.”
Boyle’s immersive career jump-started in 2014 after the San Jose Repertory Theatre, the former tenant of downtown San Jose’s Hammer Theater Center and Boyle’s artistic home of two years, went bankrupt. “San Jose Rep had just started an emerging artists lab when I returned to town. I started meeting local artists, and they said, ‘you should do something here.’”
“San Jose Rep was the leading regional theater in the South Bay in terms of professional work, union actors, and high production values. And within that world, San Jose Rep’s Emerging Artists Lab became a sandbox for me to experiment with environmental and experiential shows.”
In San Jose Rep’s final days, Boyle was in the Santa Cruz mountains creating his first truly immersive production, “Burning Man meets Sleep No More meets Bohemian Grove but more bloody,” for a major VC firm. When he saw how people reacted to the experience, he was hooked. “For all of these tech founders, the fictional world seemed to give them permission to play in new ways, and the intimacy of a one-on-one personal interaction with an actor, combined with that freedom, gave them permission to investigate themselves and their lives in cathartic and therapeutic ways. That and the excitement around the interaction, the spectacle and the intimacy and personal revelation, made me think that maybe this immersive stuff could be more than just a gateway drug to ‘real theater.’ This is more power to reach people than I’ve ever had as a director, and, amazingly, it’s what people are craving.”
As Boyle processed this new experience and the fall of his theatrical home base, San Jose’s artists gathered together for an event that would change his life.
“There was a big city hall meeting after San Jose Rep shut down, where the artists of the South Bay were given the chance to share their perspectives and grieve together. At the meeting, person after person was saying, ‘Tech won’t support the arts. Theater is dying. Art is dying, and Tech hates us, so we hate them.’ And I thought, I might have an answer to this. I went up to the mic and I said, ‘I grew up with this theater. I loved this theater. I worked for this theater. I mourn the loss of this theater. But I believe we can make inroads with the tech community, and we don’t even need legacy theaters to do it. Let me tell you about a project I did.
“I told the story about creating the immersive theatrical experience in the woods and how it had broken through for these tech founders, which led to me being approached by an amazing woman by the name of Alida Bray.”
Bray was the director of History San Jose. She recruited Boyle to create an immersive experience in their 14-acre park of historic buildings. The 100-actor, Westworld-style allegory for Silicon Valley was set during a turn-of-the-century World’s Fair, the Roaring 20’s, and the Great Depression – all taking place in San Jose. “It was all about Silicon Valley and invention and ambition and the quest for immortality. It was huge and beautiful,” says Boyle.
Tapping into his network of friends and a community that wanted to be a part of a new kind of production, Boyle enlisted a Ballet Folklorico group, a classical Carnatic Indian musical group, stilt walkers, aerialists, musicians, Butoh dancers, installation artists, makers, and actors to bring an alternate history of San Jose to life.
“It had tons of spectacle. A strong, clear story. Narrative characters. And it gave a role to the audience: the ability to lose yourself almost as a tourist in these different eras and places in town.To be part of scenes, parties, and interactions… Ultimately, it was a story about pursuing immortality, being able to have it, market it, sell it for a bit, and then losing that ability to avoid death. And that was very personal to me, this sense of reckoning with mortality,” he says.
“The fact that if we are going to die, all together, all of us, what do we owe each other? What do we owe each other in this community? How do we come together as a community? It was really powerful and activating for a lot of people.”
Boyle established Epic Immersive to create this one-and-only experience in 2015. Immediately after, two prominent Silicon Valley tech juggernauts reached out, transforming Epic Immersive into a revenue generating business. “I got inquiries from Apple and Google, saying, ‘We had people who went to your event, and we’re planning holiday parties. Do you want to talk about what we could do together?’”
One of Epic’s early actors was Jacob Vorperian, who quickly transitioned into a role as both Epic’s Technical Director and an inventive technological wizard in his own right, creating in-world magic through programming and engineering. Today, Jacob straddles the worlds of immersive theater and nightlife, a scene he fell into by mistake.
“I accidentally overstayed my welcome at an Infected Mushroom concert, and was wearing all black, so I was mistaken for stage crew,” he says. “It led to me meeting the band and meeting the production manager of a local promoter and Burning Man camp called Opulent Temple.”
Vorperian’s work with Opulent Temple turned into a gig at San Francisco club venue DNA Lounge, apprenticing under their lighting designer. Now, he manages the lighting department at the club.
“I touch every aspect of a show that plugs into a power outlet or takes a battery. Whether we’re talking about concert-scale stage-based spectaculars or the 360-degree environments of immersive theater, it’s my responsibility to dream up the tech package, build it, and carefully tune it to deliver the experience and the story while seamlessly interweaving with the live elements of the show,” he says. “With Epic, I work very closely with Steve and Kim to devise the experiences and build out creative technology that enhances the story and makes the experience more magical. Then, for concerts and corporate events, I design and operate large-scale projection mapping, lighting, and laser installations.”
As a self-dubbed “Creative Technologist”, Jacob wears many hats and works at many different venues and on many different projects. As such, he notes the economic pressures that even accomplished artists and gig workers face. “We are undoubtedly passionate about our careers, but like how a psychiatrist can’t afford to truly shoulder the emotional burden of each of their patients, we can’t afford to live on a shoestring budget in an effort to support the passion projects of all of our friends in and outside of the industry,” he says. “The ethics of reconciling the sacrifices some artists choose to make and the pay other artists need to make in a collaboration or working relationship can be highly difficult to navigate. That’s become far worse amongst the lingering cost-cutting measures and restructuring prompted by the pandemic and its effects, like the mass exodus of white-collar tech workers from the area and the general hermitization of the affluent.”
Producer and Experiential Designer for Epic Immersive, Kim Flynn, says that across the board, artists in the immersive space are reassessing where they want to take the industry after pushing through several years of virtual art and performances. “We’ve done all these things, we’ve created a whole new genre throughout COVID, and now where do we go next? How do we make this industry more equitable and sustainable? What are the next big innovative leaps?”
When the immersive field took off around ten years ago, says Flynn, the work proliferated so quickly, the artists barely had time to catch their breaths. “But I think having the pause with COVID, people stopped to reflect. Is this sustainable? Is any of this working? What do we need to move forward equitably and how do we innovate? Can we top ourselves with new innovations, all while building models that promote sustainability and equity and reflect the vast diversity of our field? This is where we’re at now,” she says. “We’ve been in a reflective place. Now we’re primed for a massive explosion of creativity. Just in our own company, we have a 3-day, 10-act live narrative theatrical experience in Tulum coming up, where we’re partnering with local Mayan artists and welcoming in audiences from around the world.”
The immersive art form took off so fast, says Vorperian, growing with such a devoted niche that producers are still learning to do their market research. Unlike Los Angeles’ immersive scene, which is tied to the entertainment industry, San Francisco’s grew out of experimental theater, Burning Man, The Cacophony Society, and underground events. “There’s such a huge amount of activity in Los Angeles that it increases the level of innovation, collaboration, and competition, which has driven the pace of professionalization. In San Francisco, we’re still learning how to take our work mainstream, and that means doing our research. It’s important to center the audience in the experience, and to understand what the wider market would be interested in.
“Of course, there’s also a tension between art that is for commerce and art that is for self-expression, and it’s important to know what you’re optimizing for. If it’s for commerce, you better know your audience. If it’s for self-expression, you should secure a rock-solid funding source. The proper combination of the two can be truly transcendent.”
Experiential experiences like First Person Travel, an immersive narrative travel agency (like Westworld, but IRL), Disney’s short lived Galactic Star Cruiser experience and the immersive theatrical Speakeasy in San Francisco, for example, provide guests with more than just an elevated entertainment experience. Immersive experiences can be akin to entering into an alternate reality and gaining new life experience, says Boyle.
“It’s the difference between looking at a painting and admiring the craft versus living in the painting and getting to experience that beauty in three dimensions. Getting to interact with it, and getting to follow the story as though you’re a part of it, even adding your own personal story as you have a totally unique experience unlike anyone else’s and any other visits,” he says.
Some productions are created to appeal to a mass market. But there are many throughout the Bay Area, says Boyle, that were created exclusively for secret gatherings and societies. “For some, these experiences give people permission to be a self that is unassociated with their normal self or work persona.”
Some secret events, says Boyle, often receive big turnouts even though they tend to be very underground. These renegade events often have tremendous production values, featuring “a grand burst from the community like a Burning Man,” says Boyle. “But, you have to know people to be able to be vetted and attend…Some are doing really innovative work in and around San Francisco.”
Accessibility is an important topic among creatives and producers alike in the immersive space, according to Boyle, who runs an annual summit for the industry’s leaders. “We had a speaker who had done accessibility design for the Obama Library. He said, when you design with those accessibility parameters, you only end up enriching the experience. When you create for everyone, what you end up doing is firing on all cylinders, connecting with all of the senses, which is part of the power of this field. It’s an area where there’s been meaningful progress,” says Boyle.
The market for these kinds of engaging and innovative experiences is unique and as such, price points range from less than one crisp Franklin for a immersive themed bar activation to the thousands for an all-inclusive weekend getaway complete with an enthralling murder mystery storyline created by First Person Travel.
“Having the internet on our phones is addictive, and we can distract ourselves on it forever. So if we want people to leave their homes, go out to dinner, and pay money to see some art, what’s going to push them to get there is an experience that’s special. It has to be personal and memorable, and I’m excited that there’s a growing movement that has figured out how to up the ante on all of those attributes,” says Boyle.
Consuming art and the culture of what we expect from it has changed quite significantly, says Vorperian. “And I’ll be the first to admit: it takes me a lot more to get out of the house in terms of draw and spectacle than it did beforehand. And I think that’s just what a couple of years of sitting around will do to you.”
“I think San Jose values art as a society, and I think it values art as a city,” says Boyle. “When I think of city engagement, I think of San Jose’s incredible murals. When it comes to the theatrical scene, I’m really excited for City Lights, for example, which is leveling up and thriving. They’ve been on budget or run surplus forever and it’s a testament to their Artistic Director, Lisa Mallette. There’s a lot of excitement happening right now with the arts in San Jose, but I do think people want more involvement in their art than they’ve gotten in the past. It’s been exciting to be a part of a movement that is both innovative and popular. How to do that affordably and sustainably is the question.”
When it comes to state of the art immersive experiences, technology is one area where the costs begin stacking up. “It really is quite unfortunate, because one of my biggest passions is bringing together the big tech that we use in the concert industry and the highly intimate, passionate experiences in the small venues of local and immersive theater,” Vorperian says. “They can create exceedingly powerful experiences when used in conjunction; however, doing so is rarely the fiscally responsible decision to make. Barring sky-high budgets, it’s important to recognize that the special sauce of this field is the interactive live actor, and one must structure their show’s budget to reflect and amplify that element. When we consider that the purchase cost of relevantly-powerful video projectors, moving lights, lasers, and control equipment is often in the neighborhood of $20,000+ per unit, and that the rental costs certainly reflect that, it’s simply not realistic to field a package of dozens of them for the long life that so many immersive installations aim for. That being said, cheaper fixtures from overseas are beginning to impact that cost-benefit analysis, and some even have electrical certifications.”
As theatrical tech and equipment gets cheaper and more powerful, and as immersive experiences become more mainstream, producers will need to set aside an increasing budget for tech teams, says Vorperian. “We’re gonna start seeing these take off to an extremely spectacular level, with theme park style tech becoming integrated. I think we’re at a bit of a turning point now with tech integration across the board. Hopefully more so in the future.”
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