I’m in, suspended in an empty space that seems to stretch for miles. A stern-looking Victorian woman is standing nearby, scowling at me. I try not to judge her. After all, she’s on the run from a 300-foot Martian fighting machine. I’d look a bit grumpy too.
I’m behind the scenes in London at The War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience, created by theater company Dotdotdot. The interactive show, which opens Friday, brings Jeff Wayne’s 1978 musical to life with the help of holograms, motion simulators and audio you can physically feel.
Audience members leave 21st-century London behind as they step into a steampunk speakeasy, watched over by the looming statue of an insect-like Martian fighting machine with a shiny metal body and three spindly legs. All the power ballads and tense original orchestrations from the album are still at the center of the show, but the immersive format allows the actors and creators to guide the audience through a maze of intricately designed sets and tell the story in a whole new way.
H.G. Wells’ sci-fi novel War of the Worlds, first serialized in 1897, has been remade and revived countless times. Perhaps the most famous adaptation is Orson Welles’ much mythologized radio drama, but there’s also Steven Spielberg’s post-9/11 take on the story and a BBC miniseries coming later this year. Then there’s Jeff Wayne’s musical version. Released as a concept album over 40 years ago, it’s a bombastic prog-rock epic with a full cast of distraught survivors and an ominous narration from Richard Burton to add gravitas.
The musical has made its way to the stage before, originally touring the UK and Ireland in 2006. The show’s 40th anniversary UK arena tour in 2018 promised spectacular CGI, groundbreaking visual effects and the “incineration of a cast member in full view of the audience.” But personally, I never fancied it. It just seemed too… big.
War of the Worlds is the story of an unfathomably huge event: the arrival of aliens who all but wipe out the human population. The novel is a critique of imperialism, asking why the then-dominant British empire should expect to be treated any better by bloodthirsty Martians than it treated the population of its colonies. But releasing the musical as an album shrinks those big themes to a smaller scale, giving them a more personal, terrifying resonance. My family used to listen to the album in my aunt’s car on summer holidays in the north of England. The unearthly sound of the growing red weed and Martians’ ominous call would seem out of place in a big concert venue. For me, the alien invasion is forever associated with endless traffic jams and the sun beating down on dusty tarmac.
That’s why this version caught my attention. Immersive theater can tell big stories while keeping them intimate. The show doesn’t want to let you forget you’re a tiny human at the center of an interplanetary conflict. From the towering war machines to the vast scale of the destruction, which reaches beyond the boundaries of London, the world is engineered to play on your fear of large objects. The word “megalophobia” keeps coming up in my discussions with the show’s creative team.
Somewhere in the labyrinth of set pieces is a 20-square-foot room fitted with 52 high-speed motion-capture cameras. Twelve backpack PCs and VR headsets hang in a corner. Strap one on and the social VR platform will allow you to see other audience members, represented as characters from the 19th century. And that’s how they’ll see you.
In the almost empty VR environment, I look down at my hands. They’re attached to me, all right — the fingers wiggle when I move them — but they seem rough and veiny. My fingernails are deathly pale, making me wonder what the rest of my virtual avatar must look like. Traumatized, I suspect.
The scowling Victorian woman reaches out and our virtual hands touch. She’s speaking, though her lips aren’t moving, in the voice of Carl Guyenette, the creative director of the show. Outside of VR he’s got red dreadlocks and wears a pair of steampunk goggles that resemble a magic leap headset. He’s previously worked on Somnai, Dotdotdot’s immersive VR experience that promised a dreamlike or nightmarish experience for Londoners in 2018, and his background is in visual effects. His IMDB credits include work as a rotoscope artist on Captain America: The First Avenger and as a visual effects artist on films includingand .
Guyenette has a hand in every part of the show’s development, right down to the visual effects projected onto the bulbous eyes of the Martian fighting machine that looms over the entrance bar. He even has an idea for a cocktail involving Prosecco and scotch bonnet chillies, though they never make it onto the bar’s menu.
Guyenette tells me about the scene his international team of developers is working to create. It’s a shared sensory experience that’ll see live actors interacting with the audience in VR alongside real heat, the smell of smoke and the sound of cannon fire. VR can extend the boundaries of reality, making the audience feel like distances are longer and more time has passed. “It’s like a time machine and a teleporter all in one room,” he says.
In addition to the actors whose prerecorded performances appear in VR and holograms, there are live actors in every room who interact with individual audience members and guide groups between the rooms where the action happens. The nature of immersive theatre means everyone will have a unique experience of the show, according to Guyenette, who says the actors’ performances will also vary depending on the audience’s reactions.
Despite the show’s reliance on new technology, Guyenette describes it as a celebration of holograms from the past century. The volumetric-captured holograms are an evolution of early effects such as the 19th-century, which uses a reflected surface to make the transparent image of a “ghost” appear on stage. He names illusionist and film director George Méliès as a personal hero and inspiration for this production.
Referencing Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, he says, “It’s the same kind of era and the same time [as H.G. Wells was writing]. And that was the time of the cinemascope and we’re referencing that all the way through this. Except you’re going into the cinemascope now.”
The show also combines VR with a motion simulator as we witness the battle between the Thunder Child steamer and a Martian fighting machine at the climax of the first act. The audience is seated in a wooden boat that moves and pivots based on the movement of a physics-based water simulation. Because the sea is created by an algorithm instead of manually animated, Guyenette says it’s easier to change the variables of its programming to change the look and feel of the scene.
“So you can go through it and be like, ‘We need more sea here!’ and you literally just change the variable and you get more sea,” he says.
Other parts of the show do away with VR entirely, relying on physical effects, haptic sound and the actors’ performances to terrify the audience. Guyenette says he wants to arouse in audience members the fear of trying to escape something they have no control over. He’s hoping the audience will form a bond and consider the realities of losing friends and family on their journey through war-torn London. He also says the story gives “a stark warning of the loss of biodiversity” as we see the Martian’s invasive red weed creep across London, choking off other vegetation.
“It’s about entertaining all layers of the psyche,” he says “It has to be physically fun, but it also has to be absorbing and introspective.”
As we’re packing up in the steampunk bar, the production team is testing a flashing light that shoots out of the giant Martian’s eyes. It’s a disco heat ray, someone says. It’s also a reminder that the show owes a debt to the ’70s as well as the 19th century. The Victorians may’ve had holograms, but they didn’t have synths.