“The only thing more important than an ever-expanding mind, is an eternally growing heart” – Ferryman Collective, Screaming Color (GUMBALL DREAMS)
The Ferryman Collective team is back! Presented at SXSW 2022, their new piece, Gumball Dreams, takes the audience on an intimate journey into a super colourful fantasy world inspired by the VRChat worlds Club Gumball and Gumball Lounge, created by Screaming Color. Let's take a look at this new production... spoiler-free.
The Severance Theory: Welcome to Respite was one of the most popular XR experiences of 2021 (x). Ferryman Collective, the group behind this production along with CoAct Productions, is made up of incredibly engaging and enthusiastic people. Their work is contributing to the XR “revolution” of live narrative performances in exciting ways, but I'll admit that one of the things I like most about their work is how connected it is to the psychological and emotional dynamics that characterize us all. Memories were an intrinsic element of Welcome to Respite, and yes, they were used as a narrative tool, but we also found in them a connection to ourselves and our past that many of us continued to reflect on even after the experience had ended.
Despite being busy with a special hybrid event of Welcome to Respite, that will take place in Los Angeles starting April 21 (more info here), Ferryman Collective have recently produced a new show, Gumball Dreams, which is having its world premiere at 2022 SXSW. It’s a piece I haven’t tried yet – we’ll talk more about it again on XRMust after we’ve experienced it – but that seems to have the kind of elements I've come to expect from this team’s productions: a journey that's not just into a story but into ourselves; a bright and colourful world that connects us to a slightly different dimension; and of course the chance to be characters within this world - alongside actors who are now so well known in the realm of live performances in VR that it's almost an honour to take part in a piece alongside them (and for me, a goat at acting and terrible at keeping my emotions at bay, a moment I have to prepare myself spiritually so as to avoid any uncontrolled fangirling).
I reached out to the team for a brief spoiler-free discussion of the piece. So, especially for those who haven't tried it yet - but will, because you have to, no discussion there - here are a few things to know about it.
On bringing to life magnificent sets
A. - Club Gumball and Gumball Lounge are two amazing worlds available in VRChat and created by Christopher Lane Davis, aka Screaming Color. Gumball Dreams is inspired by them and I can see why you loved them: they're beautiful, colorful and so very much alive! When did you realize those worlds could host a story and, in particular, this specific story?
DEIRDRE V. LYONS (Director of Gumball Dreams) - Putting on a VR headset for the first time is a magical experience, and for a while, you feel like a kid again discovering new and strange worlds. I felt this working in The Under Presents as well as going into VRChat for the first time and wondering around these thousands of worlds people had poured their heart and soul into, and some that were made just for fun, or even for the love of creating.
I would often go to the Community Meet-up there on Sundays, seeing all these incredibly talented world builders showing off their newest creation. In fact, this is where I met Christopher Lane Davis and saw Club Gumball for the first time and was blown away by its beauty and whimsical quality. I would wander, awestruck, by these beautiful environments, but perhaps it is the immersive theater performer in me, as I always saw them as magnificent sets, instinctively knowing that they only live and breathe when people inhabit them, congregate in them, laugh in them and grow relationships while surrounded by the fantastical visuals and embodying their chosen avatars.
Christopher Lane Davis’ worlds, both Club Gumball and Gumball Lounge, always hinted at a deeply hidden lore underneath, a rich story that teased at so much more. I wanted to allow a different way of experiencing this that would reveal some of that rich backstory, while keeping the integrity and heart of those worlds alive.
I also wanted it to be an emotionally centered journey because those worlds asked that of me. This is what became the first draft of Gumball Dreams, and since, at its core, it rang true with what Christopher had originally built, Christopher then made a pass at it, filling in and clarifying different moments that had been previously hinted at to flesh out the story.
The result is a manifestation of the spirit of these worlds that allows audiences to experience it in a way that can only be done in an exchange with others. A shared journey of connection between the actors and the audience that both is inspired by and inspires the world that is Gumball Dreams.
Let’s find out more about the story
A. - I'm fascinated by what I've read about the story. What can you tell us about the characters we will meet?
CHRISTOPHER LANE DAVIS A.K.A SCREAMING COLOR (Artistic Director, World & Animation Designer) - The world you will be visiting was created by a magnificent being named Onyx, an ancient alien from the planet Shallmar who is incomprehensibly wise and capable, and yet so approachable you’ll immediately feel as if you are visiting a long-lost friend.
The boundaries between where the tangible world ends and where Onyx’ mind begins are blurry, so it soon becomes clear that they can manipulate their environment in astounding ways, and do so to take their visitors (that’s you!) on a journey that will stretch their imaginations beyond where they have ever been before.
At times it may be unclear whether Onyx’ power comes from magic, or technology. However, is not technology magic? And what is magic but technology not yet understood? Onyx has always had a flair for the dramatic, and can hardly open a door without making a psychedelic spectacle of it. They hold back not a single rainbow or sparkle when it comes to showing their final visitors that which they did not know they needed to see.
When we meet Onyx, we learn they do not have much time left in this life, so each moment with them becomes a treasure, because throughout the course of their 1,339 year life, Onyx has learned that the only thing more important than an ever-expanding mind, is an eternally growing heart. They want nothing more than to remind you to be who you really are, to reach for everything you are capable of, and…well, to meditate, of course.
On the audience / actor interaction in Gumball Dreams
A - Your works really push the boundaries between acting and audiences. In Welcome to Respite we had actors, a main character played by an audience member and other audience members as invisible participants. What will we find this time?
WHITTON FRANK (Producer and cast member) - In every show we create, we try to fit the audience/actor interaction to the show. So every time we craft a performance we are working to build an audience and actor interaction dynamic that will best fit the world and the story we are trying to tell. We don’t work off one type of actor/audience model, which can definitely be more complicated, but I feel is one of our greatest assets, because each show we create is uniquely crafted to give our audience the best possible experience.
In live theater, I think it is important to remember that the audience is always a part of the show, whether they are onstage or not. Their mood and reactions become a part of your performance, but in VR we can offer them the opportunity to truly become a part of our world.
For Gumball Dreams all three audience members are directly participating in the action of the story. Without them the story cannot move forward, one might say they are the key to unlocking the true journey of the show. This journey is one where the audience will be encouraged to have a high level of interaction and conversation with the performers, to let down their boundaries and be vulnerable.
We have crafted the show to have one on one as well as group interactions, in order to give everyone multiple opportunities to engage with the actors and the story. We always try to give our audience space to explore and hopefully to be at ease, by taking what they give us and working with that. When writing a script we plan for multiple reactions and answers from the audience, so that our actors can quickly adapt to the audience’s level of comfort/desire to interact.
This is one of the reasons we work so hard on our onboarding. We want to bring the audience into the feeling of the show right from the beginning, so that right from the start they know they are in good hands and they can let themselves be immersed in the world.
A. - When you have the audience as a key part of a show, you have to be prepared for anything, especially technical problems. But one thing I loved about Welcome to Respite was the way your team dealt with all that without ever taking you away from the narrative. What lessons did you learn from Welcome to Respite in this regard?
BRIAN TULL (Producer, Game Design, Avatar Designer) - On one level, testing and refining a digital immersive is not unlike traditional game development. You go through the show many times to make sure everything is functioning properly and probing the bounds of what you expect they might do so that the illusion of the world and the functions allowing you to interact with it remain intact.
The difference is that a game is designed to communicate everything you should need to know through scripted menus and interactions and then allows the player to interact with the world freely within those confines. Immersive theatre, on the other hand, requires the use of actual people to convey this information and to maintain the reality of the world and must be crafted in such a way to encourage the other guests to maintain that reality with safeguards in place to limit their ability to deviate from it.
Thus, each issue requires a different level of communication and cooperation between the developers and performers. On the one side, if an object or an animation is malfunctioning, that is something that will usually be investigated by and resolved by our world builders but often it’s a situation where you have to balance the reliability of forcing the actor to interact with the systems via a button or menu, thus putting more burden on the actors and potentially jeopardizing the performance, or having something more automated that isn’t as flexible should things not play out as intended.
Finally, you have issues relating to personal problems the actor might be having with life or tech and the unpredictable nature of guest behavior. Figuring out how much leverage to give them in shaping the narrative without subverting what we’re trying to do and what the best response is to unexpected performance obstacles largely comes down to familiarity with a given issue and constant communication with the actor throughout the performance.
A full range of participation
A - When people come to a show like yours, they can either play their characters as themselves (e.g. they make jokes about things that happen in our real world, but that the characters in the narrative wouldn't know, so they don't really get into character) or they can really throw themselves into role play. How do you steer them in one direction rather than the other?
STEPHEN BUTCHKO (Producer and cast member) - Guests who participate in the genre of Immersive Theatre, are not only an observing member of the audience, but also serve as a member of the cast. Each unique production utilizes the audience in ways that serve its specific story line. Some productions allow the audience to participate in a more passive way and some require much interaction.
The tricky part for the audience is that they do not have the script that the performers have been working with during the development and rehearsal phase of the show, so they must rely on any prior knowledge they may glean about the show that they will be attending, as well as a feeling of trust that they will be guided with care throughout the journey.
It is not our goal to make the audience “get into character.” We develop our productions in a way that allows for a full range of participation, based on the audience member’s experience and comfort level. We strive to create an atmosphere of safety and mutual trust that will encourage audience members to allow their vulnerability to immerse them in the story as much as possible. Their interpretations, believable or not, are irrelevant to the actors who are performing and guiding the experience. It is our job to create an environment and develop a grounded and sincere performance which will make our interpretations more believable for the audience.
A - I know we can't spoil too much of the plot or the message of this work, what would you like the audience to take away from this experience?
Celebrating the human experience
BRADEN ROY (Producer, Game Design, Avatar Designer) - Gumball Dreams is an experience as much about introspection and connection as it is about acceptance and celebration of the “human” experience itself.
These disparate aspects manifest in ways both bombastic and poignant in such a way that the artifice of ego is stripped away from the audience and built anew, crescendoing as the inner threads they have laid bare are tied together in a moment of awe and splendor. Or, at the very least, that’s our goal!
Our hope is that audiences walk away with smiles on their faces and the sense that although our journey together has come to an end, the first steps on their own personal journey have only just begun.
In a word, catharsis.