"Westworld" Open Worlds & The Future of Theater

The Lemon


By Dylan Southard

Is it commonplace, a fact of human existence, to look to the future with absolutely equal parts terror and exhilaration? Like, does it always exist at polar opposites? Like, was there ever a time when people looked to the future with only half-hearted interest and lukewarm emotional investment? Because if there ever was such a time, it ain't now. When it comes to the collective journey we're all on, people have strong opinions about where we're headed.
Don't worry. This sentence right here will be the first and last time the word "politics" is written. Not getting into it. Because also, remember, it swings both ways. For the last two years, I've been fortunate enough to work at a virtual reality company which means I'm rubbing up against some bonkers technology. Every so often I get to peek behind the curtain to see the brain-meltingly cool machines that will make us stronger and drive our cars and heal our brains and open up worlds of pure imagination. All of which is true. These things can and will do that. They just might be doing it against the backdrop of a full-scale apocalyptic hellscape. Like I said, terror and exhilaration.
Stunningly, shockingly, against all odds, theater has found itself a part of this conversation. I firmly believe that we have already seen the two most important theatrical productions of the early 21st century in Hamilton and Sleep No More and the latter, in particular, speaks to the way theatre fits into the current zeitgeist. Because nowadays, no one wants to sit back. We're too scared, too excited. We all want to play the game to game the system; script our own journey and control our own future. Everyone is the storyteller now. Everybody wants to rule the world.
This is more or less why virtual reality sits at the crux of this whole terror/exhilaration tennis match. Because virtual reality offers a super fulfillment of that wish. We build these realities. We make the rules. We rule the world. Each of us do, actually, individually. But as we all go about the business of building our own individual worlds, at what point do we lose sight of each other's worlds, and then of each other?
This is also how we arrived at Westworld, a television show that offers its own take on terror/exhilaration by being fascinating/fucking obnoxious. As a former dramaturg, I can tell you this: there has never been a story that more perfectly describes dramaturgy. This is a show obsessed with its own structure, about a bunch of people whose job is story structure (and period detail), set in a place that exists solely to generate stories for the people who visit it. Good God. It's like it was born with its head up its own ass.
Westworld splits its time between a sci-fi, epic look behind the scenes of a Wild West Sleep No More and a sci-fi, epic adaptation of Six Characters In Search of an Author. And the thing all three have in common is that they make story itself the antagonist. The more we become the storytellers and the storytellers become the heroes, the more the narrative becomes our foe, an obstacle to overcome. It's the force against which we define ourselves, the system we strive to outwit and topple.
Stories need to be intelligent now. And I don't mean "intelligent" like smart (stories definitely do not need to be smart). I mean "intelligent," like conscious. They need to be able to adapt and evolve. They need to be alive. Virtual reality is alive, running through game engines hand-in-hand with artificial intelligence, and so bending and twisting and changing all the time. A play is alive too. It changes in a million ways, evolving every time it is performed, totally at the whim of the very intelligent people who have chosen, at this moment and in this place and in their way, to bring it to life.
If you're a theatre person, I don't have to tell you how gratifying it is to find our form suddenly so relevant, our experience so in demand - the complete immersion necessary when you only ever get one take and you can't restart, the live-wire dynamic between an audience and performers in a shared space, virtual or otherwise; and the stage itself as a totally self-contained, twisted version of reality. Our future suddenly looks strangely bright.
We'll see. If the present-day is teaching us anything, it's to expect the unexpected. And if the past has taught us anything, it's that it's all cyclical. Time is a flat circle. Ashes to ashes. Order to chaos and back to order. We've come back around and stories are right there in front of us once again. No frame to keep us out and keep them in. Open and wandering. Free to be whatever you'd like them to be. So close you can touch them.