Follow us down the virtual rabbit hole
A.L.I.C.E. by Kevin Brown, Elmer Guardado, Hayley Rushing and Blake Willoughby
directed by Dr. Kevin Brown
Theatre meets virtual reality in this adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass.” This production explores Alice’s journey as an allegory of “going down the rabbit hole” of technology, all the while staying true to the original story as a metaphor for growing up and finding one’s true self. Prepare for a unique theatre experience!
7:30 pm: Apr 18 – 20 and 25 – 27 • 2:00 pm: Apr 28
Rhynsburger Theatre 505 Hitt St. Columbia, MO 65211
MU Theatre information:
Tickets are $16 and can be purchased online or at the box office.
BOX OFFICE: MU Theatre box office in the Rhynsburger Theatre lobby from 2-5 pm, Mon. – Fri and one hour before show times. Or by calling 573-882-PLAY (7529) and online at theatre.missouri.edu EARLY BIRD DISCOUNTS: $2 discount on tickets purchased one week or more ahead of show at box office. Early Bird discount is not available online or by phone. Group discounts available only at the Rhynsburger box office, please call (573) 882-PLAY (7529).
Q and A with Director Kevin Brown
1. What should people expect going into this production?
People should expect to have a unique theatre experience. We are doing something at MU that has never been done before in this particular way. Essentially, we are putting the entire audience into VR, without the clunky goggles. We are using the magic of theatre, which is the original virtual reality, to create a virtual wonderland that the audience enters as a group. Unlike other shows at the Rhynsburger Theatre (in the MU Fine Arts Building), the audience is seated on the stage, surrounded by 16 foot high projection screens that project a virtual wonderland, while live actors on stage in front of the audience, and with a live chamber orchestra playing music in the back of the audience. Because of this arrangement there are only a limited number of tickets and so people should get them before they sell out.
2. Where did the idea for this sort of interactive experience come from?
A.L.I.C.E. is part of a wider project (The A.L.I.C.E. Project), that involves research I’m doing at Mizzou exploring connections between virtual reality and theatre. This is the topic of my next book, which is a theoretical and historical exploration of virtuality and performance (beyond just VR). About two years ago I began working with professors from the Department of Architecture and Digital Storytelling at MU to try to find interdisciplinary ways that theatre can inform and be inspired by other academic fields. So this production is both art and research (part of the emerging Performance As Research trend). This play has been a really fun process, not only because of the cool way we’re using technology, but also because I got to lead a team of students in adapting a new, original script we’re using for the show.
3. What collaborative elements are included in the production?
Theatre is a collaborative art by nature, and makes it a great home where we host a lot of interdisciplinary projects. As a director, I get to collaborate with a wide range of theatre designers, actors, and technicians, which is always amazing. Besides early consultations with Bimal Balakrishnan from Architecture and Joseph Erb from Digital Storytelling, one very exciting collaboration for this production of A.L.I.C.E. was with the Department of Music. Carolina Heredia composed original music for and performs on violin and electronics, Yoshiaki Onishi on clarinet, and Bret Bohman on guitar. The acronym A.L.I.C.E. stands for Art, Literature, Information, Communication, and Engineering. Our hope is that, when we get more funding to take A.L.I.C.E. to the next level, we can involve professors from other departments on campus and do more with the story, the characters we've developed, and the technology behind the magic. We hope that The A.L.I.C.E. Project can take the next step down the rabbit hole, which is to put our live theatre production into traditional VR by creating 3D models of the characters with their costumes and using motion capture data from the actor's performances. In the long run, my dream would be to build a new Virtual Reality studio and theatre here on campus modeled on the work that we are doing with A.L.I.C.E. Hopefully we can do that.
A.L.I.C.E. is a new theatrical adaptation of stories from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, inspired by the emerging trends of immersive theatre and virtual reality. We wanted to explore Alice’s journey of “going down the rabbit hole” of technology, while staying true to the original story as a metaphor for growing up and finding one’s true self. The story invites a multiplicity of avenues for creative and interdisciplinary exploration, uniting Art, Literature, Information, Communication, and Engineering (thus the acronym, “A.L.I.C.E.”). Mark Reany, a theatre professor at the University of Kansas, describes theatre as “the original virtual reality machine.” The idea of the “virtual,” at least in a philosophical sense, can be traced all the way back to antiquity and the allegory of Plato’s Cave, or perhaps even earlier. The stage has always been virtual because it is a place of a representation already inhabited by what Sergei Eisenstein called “distortion.” In a similar way, Wonderland is a place of distortion, a perfect metaphor for thinking about virtual reality. Last summer, I assembled a team of excellent writers who are students at MU to help me create this adaptation. Over the course of more than a year of meetings and revisions, what was produced is a (mostly) faithful adaptation of the stories that could fit on any stage, regardless of the concept. For this show, the designers and I were especially inspired by the idea of the stage becoming a sort of “paper theatre,” as the book unfolds into four dimensions with colorful illustrations from a well-loved children’s book. In fact, my greatest sources of inspiration have been the copies of these same books my mom gave to me months before her passing. These books still display a patina of doodles, scratches, and tiny fingerprints of my late mother and her Aunt Marcy (my mom’s namesake who also passed the books along to her). In the same spirit of joy that my mom passed to me, I pass this story along to you, dear spectator. With love, this production is dedicated to my Mom, Marcy McNeil.
The prevalence and cultural significance of the Alice books cannot be overstated, due in part to the adaptations they’ve inspired in almost every conceivable artform. Since the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There in 1871, the stories have been retold in countless and ever-increasing numbers of novels, films (like Disney’s 1951 animated feature), television, video games, comic books, manga, anime, theme park attractions, virtual reality experiments as far back as 1990, and especially theatre, from children’s theatre, operas, and ballet, to postmodern experimental pieces like Andre Gregory’s in 1970. One could say that Alice began as live performative art when the Oxford mathematics don, Charles Dodgson (more commonly known as Lewis Carroll) improvised the original story on a boating trip to amuse 10-year-old Alice Liddell and her sisters in 1862. Much of the tales’ endurance comes from the ease of recognition of their whimsical iconography: a rabbit with a watch, a caterpillar with a hookah, a grinning cat, and so on. It’s good branding. The structure of the stories, contrariwise, poses a real challenge to adapters. The plot of Wonderland (and, to a lesser degree, Looking-Glass) is episodic in nature, which doesn’t always translate well to narrative-centric media. Despite how often Alice is adapted to film, results are rarely “successful,” but still the world feels this undeniable draw to adapting the tales. Our own adaptation was a collaboration between theatre faculty member Dr. Kevin Brown, theatre PhD student Blake Willoughby, digital storytelling undergraduate Elmer Guardado, and myself, a PhD student specializing in Alice and theatre. Our adaptation is a (mostly) faithful one; little of Carroll’s dialogue is altered, and parts of his descriptive prose are given to the Cheshire Cat, who serves as narrator. We tried to include the most iconic characters, as well as a few who don’t often make the cut, like the Duchess. We delighted in the poems and songs, and how existential philosophy can mix with childlike playfulness and the absurdity of “adults.” We see Alice grow up, and we grow with her.
What is Virtual Reality?
In The Theatre and Its Double (1938) theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud writes, “All true alchemists know that the alchemical symbol is a mirage as the theater is a mirage [...] in a general way all that constitutes the virtual reality of the theater.” Fifty years after Artaud coined the term, computer scientist Jaron Lanier used the phrase to describe a technological mirage based on special goggles and gloves that allow a user experience an interactive environment simulated by a computer. This configuration typically consists of a Head Mounted Display (HMD) and audio headphones. The display is a stereoscopic computer screen connected to powerful hardware that drives visual and auditory input in order to convince the user that they are in a “real” world. In the late 80s and 90s, fashion turned to Cyberpunk, inspired by VR, William Gibson’s novels, and wearable technology. This period became what techno-theorist Howard Rheingold called the “Kitty Hawk stage of cyberspace.” Early attempts ultimately faced problems with latency, low quality graphics, and burdensome equipment. One of the more promising prototypes was the CAVE virtual environment developed at the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois, which consisted of a single user surrounded by projections, providing an experience of a virtual environment without bulky equipment. Our production of A.L.I.C.E. uses a similar approach, with the entire audience experiencing a virtual reality as a group. This approach preserves what anthropologist Victor Turner calls “communitas,” the sense of social togetherness and belonging that is a core element of theatre. Now in the early 2000s, powerful supercomputers have solved some of the problems that plagued early experiments. Enthusiasts believe we are now entering a Golden Age of Virtual Reality. The question will be: can experiences in virtual environments become as satisfying as experiences in Real Life (RL)? What role in the Virtual Revolution will the theatre – along with its sisters, presence and embodiment – play? Solving these problems may help us figure out if VR is once again a passing fad or if it is a significant step in the future of entertainment technology.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) have captivated readers, especially younger audiences, since being published. Carroll’s work has been adapted, reproduced, and recreated in various media forms since the work entered the public domain. Most adaptations hold true to these elements of Carroll’s Wonderland: (1) the rules of the world don’t make sense; (2) those living in the world aren’t always what they seem to be; and, (3) there’s always a pesky woman doing something she is “not supposed” to do. As one of the script adaptors and dramaturg, I was inspired by the concept of women being the main forces creating new worlds and introducing us to them.
If Alice had not followed the White Rabbit, we would never have known about Wonderland. Like Alice, two creation stories follow similar paradigms of a world at peace (Alice’s world before going down the rabbit hole), but then that world being placed into unrest due to the “audacity” of a woman. Pandora from Greek myth and Eve from the Bible are two women that hold similarity to Alice. All three women introduce new worlds due to their actions of “Open Me”, “Eat Me”, and “Drink Me”. Women introducing new worlds are not only found in these women’s narratives.
The U.S. is currently seeing women push against the status quo to bring about a new, more equitable world, especially women of color. From the Black Lives Matter Movement to the #MeToo Movement, we are seeing modern everyday Pandora’s, Eve’s, and Alice’s. They are highlighting the absurdity of specific status quos by making us more aware of the inequalities operating in society.
Though Carroll’s texts are not always associated with the movements currently being led in the U.S., his stories parallel the strength of women in the U.S. to boldly work towards bettering our world. As you watch MU’s adaptation of Carroll’s famous texts, my hope is that you can see past the fantasy for a moment, be inspired by Alice’s tenacity and energy, and use that inspiration to make our local community, Columbia, a more equitable place.