Welcome to Respite, which premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, is an immersive VR experience. The production puts the audience in the shoes of Alex, a child with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
Originally a live action performance by CoAct Productions, the presentation was adapted into VR with The Ferryman Collective. Deirdre Lyons, founding member of The Ferryman Collective, had been performing in VR for about a year when she realized she wanted to further explore the medium’s ability to emotionally connect with patrons. “There would be these fleeting beautiful moments when I would be performing with audience members and have a connection,” she shared. “It was really lovely, but it would go by so quickly. I wanted a story that would allow for that to develop.” As one of the actors in the original live action production of Welcome to Respite, Lyons was well acquainted with the show’s depth of emotional possibilities. Thus, she and her partner, Stephen Butchko, approached Lyndsie Scoggin, the show’s creator, director, screenwriter, and producer, about creating a VR adaptation.
The experience, which takes place in VRChat, is accessible to ten audience members at a time. Throughout, one individual performs the role of Alex, while the rest are unseen “Alters” who are free to explore and interact with their surroundings. Despite the graphic and processing limitations of VRChat, Welcome to Respite has created an environment vastly different from the video game-esque worlds one typically encounters on the platform. Instead, the show’s world feels truly cinematic – itself a character that shapes and progresses the story.
Much has been said about VR’s ability to tell immersive stories. This is all the more magnified when coupled with the improvisational nature of immersive theatre. During my time as Alex, I hugged my “mother” tight upon returning home, stared up at my “father” as he carefully articulated his love and worry for me, and turned away in genuine terror as the manifestation of my fears confronted me. Pop culture has a peculiar fascination with DID (or as it was once referred to, multiple personality disorder), with those who have it often depicted as villain or troublemaker. Rarely do we delve into it on a less sensationalized, more human level. Though showrunner Lyndsie Scoggin does not herself have DID, she did extensive research throughout the process of creating the show. As this is the world premiere of the production, it’s still too early to gauge the professional opinion of DID’s characterization in Welcome to Respite. However, the live action production did receive acknowledgement for providing an accurate depiction of the dissociative state.
Though Welcome to Respite is a scripted performance, the immersive nature of the piece calls for the actors to lean heavily on their improvisational abilities. As Whitton Frank, who played the “mother” during my experience puts it, “as with any live immersive performance, the participants run the gambit.” However, unlike traditional immersive theatre, the participant here adopts not only the mindset of a certain character, but also their physical stature as well. The act of having to physically look up at the world allows the audience to further immerse themselves in the role, and also makes it easier for the actors, as parents, to scold the participant back into the designated storyline. In addition, the VR headset creates a sense of anonymity and separation from self that allows one to further delve into the character’s psyche. As Deirdre Lyons puts it, “they feel seen, but also a bit anonymous. They can allow themselves to relax, suspend their disbelief, and play along.”
Through its combination of cinematic world building, excellent performance, and a meaningful, yet whimsical, exploration of a profound subject matter, Welcome to Respite powerfully showcases VR’s aptitude as a storytelling medium. The production is the first act in the four-part Severance Theory series. Chapter Two, entitled Cognizance, will continue the story of Alex. “In my research, one of the most fascinating elements was how the personality system works together to come to a place of healing,” shares Lyndsie Scoggin, “and that’s what we wanted our story to be about.”