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Virtual Reality Transports Theater Audiences Into Iraq War

Courtesy of Elisabeth Lewis Corley

The U.S. military has been using a virtual reality program to augment therapy for combat veterans returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder. For the first time that software was made available for use in a theatrical production.

Closer Than They Appear” tells the story of an American soldier and his encounter with a teenage Iraqi blogger during the battle of Fallujah. The play uses the VR and video game technology of “Virtual Iraq” to bring audiences into the landscapes of that war and the mental states of its characters. It forces onlookers to question memory, reality and time while posing the question of who is victimized and who empowered in times of war. The play is on stage in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and runs until Sunday, Oct. 1.

Host Frank Stasio talks with playwright Christine Evans, multimedia designer Jared Mezzocchi, producer and actor Elisabeth Lewis Corley and actor Trevor Johnson about the production.


Christine on the questions behind the play:

I think, for me, one of the defining experiences of coming to America was being here at the start of the war in Iraq, and two things happened simultaneously for me. One is that I entered the American bubble and my own country Australia – and a sense of the rest of the world – kind of vanished. And then this war started. So one of my questions was: what is also happening to the Iraqis in this war? Why are we not hearing those stories too? So I wanted to find a way to talk about both sides. And then when I discovered this technology of virtual Iraq, which is a video-game based virtual reality program for helping soldiers rehabilitate from traumatic experience, it struck me that it was a landscape that could offer both sides of this story and that was very interesting to me.

Jared on how the technology is integrated into the production:

We first started out with using the paints of "Virtual Iraq" within our piece and trying to figure out what are the different assets that are used within the software. And then Christine would sit next to me while we were working through the composition – the look of the stage picture – while simultaneously figuring out the cadence and rhythm of the scene work and starting to find what overlaps together as opposed to write something and discover it later. And discovering, ‘Oh, a Black Hawk fly-over moves stage right to stage left, and that's actually kind of lovely for this character standing center stage and us needing to lead the eye over to Michael in the therapy room.’ So starting to look at compositions that way. 


As well as … Figuring out how this software can become truly a character in the play ... How do we give agency to the cell phone even though we don't see or hear the person on the other end? And technology has changed dramatically since we've last produced this. So just trying to figure out how it drives the story forward as opposed to just illustrating what the audience could also be imagining.


Elizabeth on staging this for an audience:
Sometimes we can have this young girl, this young Iraqi girl, speaking to us from Fallujah, and sometimes she's very, very present and with us. And sometimes she's ... (removed), and sometimes she's technologically mediated, and sometimes she's not. But the way this sort of begins to interact with the virtual reality begins to create a kind of alchemy that we hope helps people to bring together the notion of what these impacts of war are on the bodies of the returning veteran and the incredibly complex and personal lives of these Iraqi civilians. So whether we have successfully done that or not will be determined by our audience. But what we have attempted to do is create an envelope that will allow those things to encounter one another in a space with a live audience.


Trevor on his character:

Michael is a character that often goes unseen, I think. The play starts off with a line that he says: "You don't see us." And it seems like we have soldiers all over the world who come back from the war, and they disappear. We often don't see them. We don't experience what they go through. We have no empathy for them. And I think if we started to develop some empathy for these very real people, we'll pay more attention to what they need to be members of society, productive members of society. And I also think it will cause people to hesitate before they say, ‘I think it's okay to go to war.’ It will cause people to pause before even considering war as an option. Because it's not only killing people, it's killing people's spirits. Which is sometimes worse than death. 

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Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.