We all have different reactions when an experience hits us. Some cry, some nod, and some like me go “OH S**T.” Rather than just make a list of what I think was “best,” it’s nice to a reflect on my year, and revisit the sensations, moments, and experiences that shaped me along the way. Of course, this year’s list looks a bit different than years past. The number of “in person” experiences has dropped with a rise of the “virtual,” from virtual reality, to sound, and interactive games. But let’s be clear, COVID-19 was an acceleraant towards our future that was already coming and these experiences are no less valuable. More than just “good pieces of art” this list offers cultural touchstones in 2020 that I believe paint a picture of the future of entertainment. This is how we will gather, tell stories, and interact for years to come.
In no particular order…
It’s not everyday when you experience something and go “oh this is going to be studied for decades,” but that is the case with TEMPEST. This virtual reality (VR) live thetatrical experience invites six audiences members to join together from their homes with an actor to collaboratively tell the story of Shakespeare’s final play. If you are new to VR, you may not realize the epic importance of a successful real time, interactive, well designed, narrative, but you might be able to imagine the possibilties. Upon experiencing TEMPEST, you instantly become a believer in what’s now being called “VR theatre” and understand how this is the launch of a new entertainment category. TEMPEST showed how “VR theatre” is ready for primetime with an eager paying audience (now the producers and artists have to jump in!). The team even released their script, sharing what will now be a seminal text for the next generation of immersive creators.
While I could expound on how TikTok is the future of the entertainment industry for much longer, this limited live stream experience offered a glimpse at the possibilities for where the music business is headed. Created in collaboration with extended reality company Wave, The Weeknd appeared as a motion captured avatar of himself amidst a saturated cyberpunk landscape, while performing a brief concert on TikTok live. While virtual concerts aren’t entirely new, this one felt like a leap forward by using the power of TikTok to create amazing interactivity, with fans choosing how the world would appear via real time vote, and accessibility by harnessing TikTok’s epic audience. 2 million people watched!
With everyone stuck at home, we saw a boom for alternate reality games and other online interactive streams. Former Big Brother cast member, Audrey Middleton crafted Sequester Mini, an online reality show style competition that uses Skype, Twitch, and YouTube to seamlessly create a fast paced “vote-em-out to be the last one standing” social strategy game. Supporters of Sequester’s Patreon audition to be in the show, making their TV fantasies come true, while the public watches live. But, more than just a game, Sequester is a is a shining example of the power and complexity of internet communities. It’s a place where players get to create the reality TV competitions and culture they want to see in the world: filled with richer diversity, outspokenness, and political awareness. If you’re looking for some drama, the show on which the Minis are based is in its fourth season on YouTube now.
A sports documentary event that transcended the sports world. A series that launched a thousand memes. A “water cooler” show for the post “water cooler” age. These are just a few ways to describe ESPN’s decades-in-the-making multi-part series following Michael Jordan and the 90s Bulls. By mixing never-before-seen footage, game tape, and contemporary interviews, The Last Dance wove a compelling and riveting tapestry to delight fans whether or not they lived through the Jordan era. The only thing it leaves you wanting is similar dives to great sports dynasties…were the cameras rolling on the 90s Yankees too???
Perhaps one of the brightest spots of the last nine months was experiencing Adventrure Lab’s playful narrative VR escape room. In a time when we couldn’t be physically together, this experience incorporated the spontaneous joy and competiveness that comes with collaborating with friends. What sets this experience apart from other VR games, is the inclusion of a live actor guiding your journey while playing multiple characters. Their direction is superb, as they brilliantly facilitation conversation and movement with the group. And, you get to be a cute animal for an hour…who doesn’t want to do that?
All you need to do is listen to the transition from “Chromatica II” to “911” to know this album is indeed an “experience.” Lady Gaga created a dance club extravaganza for her triumphant return to Pop and while 2020 had different plans (RIP her secret Coachella set and world tour), this album still offered a shot of serotonin during a very dark spring. 10/10 would recommend for a bedroom dance party.
Quite simply — one of the best VR narratives you will ever experience. With the same personal flavor of What the Constitution Means to Me, creator Randall Okita tells the of his grandfather’s emmigration to Canada from Japan right before WWII. By seamlessly employing theatrical language like moving sets and stage lighting, while integrating pointed interactivity, you find yourself in the shoes of his grandfather, making the challenging and gut wrenching decisions of a Japanese immigrant during the rise of internment camps. Rarely will you experience a VR project so well written and with a compelling understanding of the power of audience embodiment.
Unsettling, captivating, sense melting. This spatial audio experience for two people asks you to sit across the table from someone and close your eyes as binaural audioscapes have you questioning everything you thought was happening in your room. Darkfield adapted their success with live audio experiences in empty shipping containers to the home, showing the simple and evocaive power of personal audio experiences. Additionally, Darkfield uses appointment style bookings through their website and app, leaning into the ritualistic habit and specialness of attending a show, even though their work isn’t live. They now have a total of three shows broadcasting every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday.
Yes, it’s still on. For it’s 40th season (you heard that right) Survivor brought back 20 winners to compete for a special $2 million prize. In a class of “old school vs new school” gameplay, this season delivered on all the hopes and dreams of the fandom tenfold. There was nostalgia, blindsides, and even a new theme song. Beyond the drama, this season elevated the visual style of what a network reality show could be, incorporating stunning drone shots and steady cams, launching the next era of Survivor.
In the chaos leading up to the election, Spike Lee’s capturing of David Byrne’s life affirming Broadway concert offered a moment of peace. American Utopia elevates the game for musicians on Broadway, with it’s seamless storytelling and captivating staging by choreographer Anne-B Parson, and Spike Lee translates the kinetic energy brilliantly to film. While we’re all separated, witnessing talented artists create collective joy offers something to look forward to when we can finally gather again. Stream it now on HBO Max, you’ll be glad you did.
Afterwardness (Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company / Park Avenue Armory)
Sometimes the experience of attending is just as affecting as the experience itself, as became evident while attending a private taping of this dance piece at the Park Avenue Armory in November. The limited audience all had to take COVID tests before arriving and follow strict guidelines once in the theatre. This created a ritualistic environment, as we marched in lines, keeping our distance from each other the entire time. After 6 months of not seeing live in-person performance, I gasped when the lights went down. It was a stirring reminder that being there with sweating bodies and an attentive audience is just irreplaceable.