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Anagram Creators May Abdalla and Amy Rose on Door into the Dark

Amy Rose and May Abdalla (left to right) of Anagram

The best work I saw at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival wasn’t a film at all. It was, instead, a lovely piece of conceptual counterprogramming in Tribeca’s Storyscapes section, Door into the Dark. An immersive theater piece by May Abdalla and Amy Rose of the U.K.-based company Anagram, Door into the Dark wasn’t positioned by curator Ingrid Kopp against the films in the festival. Rather, by including Door into the Dark within a program largely dominated by Oculus Rift VR work, Kopp used Door in the Dark‘s simply generated yet expansive mindscapes as a way of setting a high bar for future generations of interactive art.

Only running for a few days at Tribeca, Door into the Dark probably generated as much ire as delight. That’s because it was a word-of-mouth hit that relatively few people could see. A “viewing” took 40 minutes, and the piece was limited to spectators entering one at a time. I won’t write too much here about the experience of Door in the Dark because I’d spoil it for you in case you’re able to catch a future staging. Suffice to say that it involves you venturing into a dark room, blindfolded, without your shoes and guided by a series of ropes. You’re wearing headphones, over which you hear a female narrator discuss the piece’s guiding metaphor: being lost. You then “meet” (again, through audio), three characters: a man who has lost his sight, a psychoanalyst who has become a mountain climber, and a man who descended into mental illness. The rope is your physical guide — you need it to get through the piece — but it becomes a metaphor too, as do other things you encounter, like a bed.

Before traveling to Tribeca, Door into the Dark was staged last year at Sheffield Doc Fest, and some people, apparently, felt anxiety during the piece. (You’re actually offered the chance to exit early if you need to). I found the experience of being in this piece incredibly soothing. It was like therapy, actually. (Well, I’m not in therapy, but it’s how I think it must feel like.) In what is a cunning piece of conceptual sleight of hand, leaving the piece through the door at the end becomes a symbolic act as you are repositioned from audience member to guide: it becomes your job to give a set of instructions to the next person, to strap the blindfold on him or her, position the earphones, and guide his hand to the rope.

As with any piece which involves darkness and approaching the light, Door into the Dark is ultimately about death, and its theme of being lost resonates on multiple levels, including the spiritual. What initially is a discussion about the inability to get lost in our geo-mapped world turns into a deeper exploration — one that was striking to have in a section of Tribeca that was otherwise about VR. (Indeed, others shared my enthusiasm; Door into the Dark won the festival’s Storyscapes Award.) Just a few minutes after exiting the piece, I chatted with Anagram’s May Abdalla and Amy Rose about their inspirations, their brand of interactivity and why more men cry during the piece than women.

Filmmaker: I was struck that you guys came out of documentary film and not theater or installation art.

Rose: Well, I mean, our careers were documentary film, but obviously, people are much more than their careers. We’ve also done all sorts of other things, and we live in a world surrounded by all sorts of other culture. So, the making of [Door into the Dark] felt very much like pulling together all these different threads of our lives, taking the best things from those experiences and putting them into one thing. May has made interactive stuff online, and I’ve put children in forests for years and made them do things.

Filmmaker: In what context?

Rose: Like, taking kids into wild camps and making them do things in the mountains.

Abdalla: Which is what Amy has done every summer, since she was about seven. She says it quite casually, but it’s quite a big informer in terms of realizing what people’s experiences are when you put them out of their comfort zone.

Rose: I also come from designing Wide Games for people to play. There’s a sort of sensuality to those games.

Filmmaker: Wide Games?

Rose: Big games that you might play in the forest, for example. So, for example, the rope bit [in Door into the Dark] comes from a game that I’ve played. But then, in terms of situating it in an interactive circumstance, like it is here, we’re very keen on the idea that interactive means, like, truly interactive — that you are giving of yourself in the process of doing the thing. Lots of pieces don’t go far enough for us. We want people to have to do something, to have to sacrifice or embrace something. Only then is it really interactive.

Abdalla: It’s about your level of investment. If something is giving you a choice but you know it doesn’t matter whether you do something or not, you don’t engage. When you’re making a film, you set the stakes as high as possible. You want it to be critical that this [plot point] happens. And so, in this piece, we’re putting you in that position. It’s got to feel like it matters, what you do, and it’s got to also feel that what you do is integral to the subject. It’s about being lost — about your experience of disorientation, or finding your way — as opposed to it being about you being lost and then you swiping the screen. If you were going to swipe the screen, maybe then it would really be about your fingertips making things change.

Filmmaker: How did you move from these ideas about being lost, about being in the dark, about Wide Games, to including these very specific audio interviews, or portraits, in the piece?

Abdalla: The documentary part of us is intensely interested in people’s stories. These stories are all quite intimate and personal. When John Martin Hull, the blind guy, is talking about the fact that he can’t see the walls, and therefore, he feels like he’s in an infinite space, and you, in that moment, [can’t see the walls] — I mean, I always get a little bit of a tremor on the edge of my skin. There’s a sense of feeling closer to another person’s experience and, in that transformation, learning something about yourself.

Rose: We first came up with the idea for [Door into the Dark] when we were doing a little residency with Blast Theory. We were talking about the idea, and we were kind of lost. It was a mess of an idea, and we didn’t know what it was. Then [Blast Theory’s] Ju [Row Farr] was like, “Always think about where the space is for the memories of the participant, for the internal state of the participant to be part of the experience. If you leave enough space, or you give enough opportunities for association, then it brings people in in a more intimate way.” That was the big journey for us in the making of [Door into the Dark]. How could we build something that creates that space for people?

Filmmaker: Could you discuss the piece’s pacing and your approach to structure?

Abdalla: There are moments when you’re doing, and there are also moments when you’re still. It’s like in a film where there’s the action, and then there’s the shot where the birds are flying. At that moment you feel the weight of what’s just happened. You have a little moment to reflect and feel.

Rose: It was hilarious at the beginning. We had to make it bit by bit because it’s about doing. For the first couple of months of development, we’d be trying to [have the viewer] do [an activity] while hearing a complicated bit of a story. It’d be completely overwhelming and not work. So, [our development] was kind of a process of stripping back and being like, “Okay, this part is about the rope. And this bit is about [something else].” It was about not asking too much of people and therefore, for example, getting them to focus very specifically on the feel of the rope and then [to think about] blindness and lying on the bed. It was an interesting process. How do you create something that allows people to go between passivity and activity? That’s so hard in interactive work. You can’t ask too much of people, yet you still have to ask things of them.

Filmmaker: How did you come across the three stories, and, once you found them, did you plug them into a design that you had already created? Or did you allow the design to come out of the stories themselves?

Rose: Kind of a combination of the two. We knew that we wanted [the piece] to be about getting lost. We knew that that could mean lots of things, that you could be lost in all sorts of different ways. So we had a big list of [ideas]. I knew the climber personally. He’s a psychoanalyst, and he’d written a paper about the experience. He is a great example of somebody able to think about the death instinct, if you like. The third one was somebody I’d made a piece of theater about in the past, and I just loved his turn of phrase. And then, the first one [John Martin Hull] was the last one we found because we were hunting for somebody who could bring people into the experience in a perfect way. There were a few options for that, and he had written a really beautiful book called Touching the Rock. We read it and were like, “This guy is amazing,” and went to meet him and interviewed him. Actually, there’s a feature film being made about him now, which Sundance is involved in.

Filmmaker: Do you know the film Black Sun? Have you ever seen that film? It’s one of my favorite documentaries of the last few years.

Rose: Yeah, yeah, Gary Tarn. Amazing. That was an influence, actually, when we were thinking about how you could build something around [blindness].

Filmmaker: It’s interesting you mentioned the second subject is a psychoanalyst. I’m not in any kind of therapy, but I felt there was a therapy aspect to this piece.

Rose: What do you mean?

Filmmaker: Well, just in terms of it forcing you to think about yourself. The metaphors are very simple so they can easily adapt to things in your life. There’s getting lost, or being suddenly in this dangerous position, and obviously there’s the ending of finding yourself and finding a path back. And while your stories are about three specific people, their stories each touch on very common experiences. What kind of reactions have you had from people who have experienced this piece as a personal journey?

Rose: We’ve had some pretty overwhelming responses from people. We did it in Sheffield last summer, and there were a few hundred people, and we had a lot of crying. More men cried than women. Some people [experienced] floods of tears.

Filmmaker: Why do you think more men cry than women?

Rose: Everyone in the crew has come up with different theories. I think it’s got something to do with the fact that the characters are all men and the narrator is a woman, and she’s got this lovely, soft voice, so you’re sort of held by her but then you’re, like, close to them. But I think it has something to do with control.

Filmmaker: Yes. Experiencing the loss of control.

Rose: There’s something in that, and men just find that a bit more of a touch point.

Filmmaker: Have there been people who couldn’t finish the piece?

Rose: We’ve only had a very small number of people be overwhelmed and need to be helped out. Like, three. One of them was the climber’s wife. So, that’s fair enough. But, I mean, people get very emotional, and we wanted that. I guess we’re in the game of trying to help people be empathic. [We’re saying], “We think these stories are really important, and we think that the experience of surrender, of losing control, is really important.” So, I guess, people being moved is the number one priority.

Abdalla: I was thinking about [Door in the Dark] in the context of what’s going on in the other room, the VR [work]. It’s more immersive. It’s HD or super HD or a billion HD, and this is kind of zero D, but you are paying more attention to everything, and therefore, it feels heightened. But it’s actually just rope. Or some grass from the grass store.

Rose: Actually, that lawn was extremely hard to get a hold of in New York. In England, it’s everywhere. You just go and dig some up. Here, it was like, oh my god!

Abdalla: Finding a bit of tree — before, we just took it off a tree. Now we’ve got to order it. But that sense of doing more with less — it’s kind of like “you are the greatest technology” instead of [us] building a better technology. Can’t we just polish you a bit so you can see and feel more?

Rose: And not harm your greeting of the experience with a phone or a tablet or Oculus. We’re not like, “Here’s a black shiny thing. Oh, but you hate black, shiny things?” We’re never going to know that.

Abdalla: Every time someone gives me an Oculus Rift, I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m really going to do with this.” “But it’s going to be super real.” So you put it on and you’re like, “Okay, it’s not that real.” So that becomes the story of the object. But here, we give you a nice bit of rope, and there are associations with that — hoisting, sailors, journeys. It’s sturdy.

Rose: And we give you a helmet.

Abdalla: And this helmet says to you, “Okay, well, this is a weird protective helmet. That means I don’t know what’s on the other side of this door, but I feel a bit safe because this is going to look after me.” That’s the narrative, as opposed to, “Here’s a phone”.

Filmmaker: You’re here in Storyscapes where there’s all this Oculus Rift stuff. So do you see yourselves as creators who are oppositional to that work?

Rose: We get put in that box. I’m not sure I’m particularly happy about that. We spoke at South By because Casper Sonnen, who runs the IDFA Doc Lab, invited us to be on a panel called “What Can VR Learn from Immersive Theater?” We talked about interrupting technology — using it for your own ends and not allowing the big names of technology to highjack what you’re trying to communicate to your audience.

Abdalla: Because stories are about humans and it’s about relating to stuff. We’re all about finding things you connect to that bring you closer. And the quicker and the easier it is for you to start being in that internal space, the more likely you can find those connections.

(Note: portions of the above intro previously appeared in Filmmaker‘s free weekly newsletter, which most often includes material not published elsewhere. To subscribe, click here.)

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