Imagine a show that has no audience, only characters and an invisible thread that guides them through the story in real-time. This is the premise that drove the storytellers behind The Raven, a first of its kind tech-empowered immersive theater experience.
The narrative chronicles the epic life of famed Gothic author Edgar Allan Poe, and weaves his fantastical works into an interactive plotline that all participants play a part in. Director Lance Weiler, actor Ava Lee Scott, writer Nick Childs, and technologist Nick Fortugno collaborated to create, as Scott puts it, “something that is beyond an immersive show, it’s an intimate human experience.”
Actor Ava Lee Scott performs the role of Edgar Allan Poe in “The Raven” for an enraptured audience.
Audience members don masks and become a part of “The Raven’s” immersive universe.
Audience members wear Bose AR glasses and carry Azure enabled IoT lanterns for a seamless interactive experience within the performance.
Here, an audience member uses her AR glasses to examine her surroundings with the help of her IoT lantern.
A custom Beacon field integrated within the experience allows each audience member to explore the set of “The Raven” and receive a completely unique multi-branching narrative that responds to their own location in the environment.
The project started with an ambitious premise. The four creators sought to bring audiences more deeply into theater. As Weiler puts it, “When I go and I see a play, I’m removed, right? I’m in the seats, I’m back, I’m not interacting with it. What we’re doing with The Raven, there’s a level of it being of tech-driven. You’re putting some of the most sensitive and emotional moments in the whole piece in the hands of a guest. That, to me, is whole new terrain of what immersive can be.” He wanted the audience, or “those formerly known as the audience,” to move beyond viewing and truly become part of the experience.
Scott, who stars as Poe, and is The Raven’s sole permanent cast member, enthusiastically adopted technology as her invisible collaborator. She’s built her career working in immersive theater and saw the potential for technology to empower her to push the emerging medium even further.
It happens like this: as participants enter The Raven, they select a symbolic object that decides their identity within the show’s universe. They’re also given a smart device disguised as a lantern—and this is the key to customizing each person’s unique and fantastical journey.
Fortugno, an award-winning game designer, was compelled by the technical challenge of turning audience members into actors. He brought the invisible link to the table: the Internet of Things, or IoT as it’s known in the industry. “It’s the stitching that holds the entire performance together,” he says. The idea behind the tech was simple: to power the individual’s experience and guide visitors through the set—a historic four-story building in New York City, rather than a traditional Broadway theater—while simultaneously creating a unique storyline for each of the show’s 24 attendees and driving The Raven’s narrative forward.
Smart objects were the key to unlocking the branching narrative. Unbeknownst to attendees, the IoT helps Poe’s world takes shape, and brings the fully immersive universe to life. As participants walk around, the IoT devices pick up the places each person has been. This determines the audio and light signals sent to each attendee and at what time. But there’s no real indication that the triggers are coming from anything in the space. “It’s seamless, you just carry the lantern and everything happens as if by magic,” Fortugno explains.
The experience feels like a revelation for storytelling. “We find ourselves in a moment where we’re craving deeper levels of connection, true connection,” says Weiler. “You’re finding this shift where people want to be more involved in experiences, or they want to be able to discover things, or they want to be able to move beyond just a screen.”
And the future of immersive theater looks bright. Scott adds, “What we’re doing in The Raven is a new frontier and it is the beginning of how we as artists, as creators, as storytellers embrace technology. We are engaged with our imagination, and our imagination is endless.”