The Curtain #44: The Durability of the Immersive 🥽

Why we're all trying to escape into another world.
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# The Durability and Continued Promise of the Immersive

I’ve noticed a trend recently.

When Netflix or Disney+ play their logo animations, they end by zooming into the actual logo, as if we are falling into them, immersing ourselves in another world. Take a look:

# Netflix and Disney+ present the aesthetics of immersion.

Before we can watch Netflix we must first disappear into a dream-wave of colors, entering into another universe. It’s a universe where things aren’t quite so shitty, a universe in which we can curl up into, which can cradle us. It’s also a universe that has algorithimically been determined to quench our thirst—well, almost. There’s always the lingering promise of more, of one more bingeable episode finally satisfying our lingering needs. It’s something people have been desiring for a long, long time—to escape into another dimension—and has only been escalated by some of the despair of 2020 capitalism.

Everything we consume on Netflix happens in this Netflix universe, all within that giant “N”. We can see this with the company’s endless social media accounts that act like real people—treating all their “content” as one universe. It’s as much world-building and mythos-crafting as it is a corporate marketing strategy.

Of course, universes are becoming more popular than ever, as evidenced by entities like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney’s huge original catalog, or Game of Thrones. Marvel realized that instead of releasing a movie every year they could release multiple movies a year, creating a bottomless pit of content for fans to constantly immerse themselves in. In 2020, Mavel will also launch two live-action TV shows on Disney+ that are apart of its Cinematic Universe, continuing to build out its world and dominate the pop culture landscape.

Disney realized that Star Wars wasn’t moving fast enough, either. Instead of releasing a movie every few years, they upped it to a movie every year. And once that didn’t work, they pivoted to creating the buzzy Mandalorian, which was the focal point of Disney+. Most Star Wars fans just want the world to persist. Disney decided that, to succeed in entertainment capitalism, they had to create a never-ending well of content that would let fans constantly be talking about and “living in” their favorite alternate world.

# The politics of escapism

But why do we want to escape into alternate worlds at all?

It’s been a fairly consistent through line in human history: we try to create worlds that are beyond our own. We construct religions, tell stories around camp fires, and make art that tries to transport us, whether implicitly or explicitly. The technological advancements offered in the 20th century, though, led to a type of immersion not seen before. Cameras allowed us to capture fictional stories that were vividly real, and movie theaters allowed the mass consumption of these immersive stories. The rise of television and better special effects led to humans falling into these other worlds on a consistent basis. But with the development of the internet, that connection and immersion became constant.

With constant connection came the ability to easily dissociate from everyday life and get lost in online worlds. We could go down YouTube rabbit holes, watch Netflix, browse forums, get lost on Twitter or Reddit, or play online games with each other. But the rise in wanting to be immersed in other worlds is also clearly a reaction to something else: some of the general shittiness of being alive in the 21st century. Much of this shittiness, to be clear, has always been there, but has only become more pervasive and “seen” by the light speed connection that the internet provides with the rest of the world. Modern escapism, then, is political: it’s an attempt to escape a world which seems to be constantly on the brink of collapse. The great hypocrisy is that much of this escapism is commodified and monetized by some of the companies contributing to many of the problems in the world.


# Other Examples of Immersion

# Google Maps and Clunky Immersion

Here is the new Google Maps icon:

Here is the old one:

Google is a company who has always had pretty poor aesthetics. But I think it’s interesting how they’ve designed the new Google Maps icon, because it’s so static and clunky. It doesn’t have any sense of forward momentum or process, like the previous rendition. The previous one isn’t the most pleasing—but at least it felt like you were going somewhere. Now it’s just a pin—and pins aren’t very immersive. As a result, I find myself slightly hesitating whenever I need to open up Maps now.

# Museum Texting

Many museums now offer texting or app services that help you learn or engage more with the art. Despite at first feeling like a gimmick, I’ve now realized that these are a type of immersion that a museum can offer. “Connect with our team of art historians and educators in real time as you explore the Museum”, says the Brooklyn Museum. What this offers is a way for museums to try to make museum-going into an immersive experience of engagement, one that puts you in control.

# Theatre is Immersive

Theatre, almost by definition, is immersive.

The success of Cursed Child, for instance, is no surprise. What fans of Harry Potter have always wanted is to live in the stories, to go to Hogwarts and be immersed in its world. By offering a two-part, six-hour play that is complete with its own sense of magic, fans are able to live in this alternate world for a while. (It’s why I expect there to be a Harry Potter TV show some time soon—it seems like an extremely valuable piece of intellectual property that will be endlessly mined for profit.)

In order to experience Hamilton, the soundtrack wouldn’t do. One had to be at the production, because theatre is immersive—it offers another world.

Taken beyond that, we can look at the popularity of immersive theatre. Sleep No More, which opened in New York in 2011, has remained surprisingly durable. Occupying the McKittrick Hotel, they still sell out nine performances a week, at ticket prices usually above $100. (And that’s not to mention the bar and restaurant.) There is still something magical and exciting to the idea of putting on a mask and falling into another mysterious world for a night, not to mention profitable.


# Notes from the Week

# Antoinette Nwandu and Graham Schmidt talk about theatre

I absolutely loved this deeply introspective and thoughtful conversation between playwright Antoinette Nwandu (Pass Over) and director Graham Schmidt, who are married. As an interracial couple, they reflect on their experiences seeing FairviewWhat to Send Up, and Slave Play.

Nwandu: Yeah, because part of the “beauty” of white privilege is always being an individual. But watching these plays, you’re like, Oh, these Black people have my number and they’ve never even had a conversation with me, because I can be a type. There’s parts of me that fit that type.


# Futuristic Storytelling and the Metaverse

I enjoyed these two pieces by Matthew Ball, despite disagreeing with some portions

The first is about transmedia storytelling—that is, the idea that stories span across different mediums today. (Or, what is often called, in a derogatory way, “content”.)

The second is about Fortnite and the Metaverse. The Metaverse is an idea often seen as being a “sequel” to the internet. But it’s difficult to completely grasp, and maybe not really worth your while unless you’re really into futurism.

Recommended if you’re into technology, media, and the future of storytelling. (Ball’s answers are not reassuring to me.)


# The SF Chronicle Little Man

An interesting piece on a specific rating system for theatre and movies, that maybe speaks to a broader idea of quantifying art—especially theatre.

“I don’t use this term lightly, but I think it’s true in this case: It’s a white supremacist icon,” says MacKinnon.


# Tik Tok Dances and the Same Ol’ Shit (with a happier ending?)

Taylor Lorenz dropped an excellent piece about the original creator of the viral “Renegade” dance, a dance that has spread around pop culture like, well, viral dances do. (Rebecca Jennings in Vox originally reported it.) Tik Tok’s Charli D’Amelio, a young white woman, “popularized” the dance. But the person who created it was actually Jalaiah, a young black girl.

In a happy turn, Lorenz’s piece, among others, led to this:

This tweet by @TaylorLorenz has been deleted. Argh, sorry about that!

It’s nice to see Jalaiah finally get some credit as she deservedly did this weekend. But while Tik Tok and new internet culture is absolutely fascinating, it’s also telling that we keep repeating the same patterns of cultural appropriation, no matter the platform.

TikTok, one of the biggest video apps in the world, has become synonymous with dance culture. Yet many of its most popular dances, including the Renegade, Holy Moly Donut Shop, the Mmmxneil and Cookie Shop have come from young black creators on myriad smaller apps.

The whole issue has also brought light on the hiccups with crediting and “owning” dances.


# Arizona Theatre Company Does Away with Ten out of Twelves

From Artistic Director Sean Daniels:

Bit of news. Under the leadership of Production Manager Becky Merold and Assistant Production Manager Tajh Oates, starting with the final show of this season and the 20–21 season, Arizona Theatre Company will rearrange tech in order to do away with 10/12’s. A great step forward in how we make a sustainable theater for our staff.

10/12s are twelve hour rehearsal days (with a two hour break) done as a show approaches opening.

I’m interested in how we can continue to break out of the culture of overwork that theatre often cultivates.

Dear theatre training, can we talk about how a culture of 'work till u drop' is fostered & encouraged in programs of study? Which then leads to 'real world' arts sector 'work til you burn' 'ethics?'


# End Note

That’s all for this week—thanks so much for reading!

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See you next week!

-Gus

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