The “Year” in Review: Online Immersive

Like all of us, the first weeks of the 2020 pandemic saw my scheduled entertainment plans to grind to a halt. My predictions for the lockdown’s length careened from “a couple months” to “a year at most.” So when my awareness of the severity finally settled in, I began to realize that even if I refused to change, the world of entertainment was going to drastically change all on its own. It was then that I decided to dip my toes into the world of online interactive content. From virtual escape rooms to immersive VR theatre and then onward into every nook and cranny I could find.

Here is a rundown – and belated review – of several of the immersive and interactive pieces I tried out in the last twelve months…

Chaos Theory: Digital Edition

When the pandemic hit, nearly every theatre had an incomplete production left in the lurch. Many were halted mid-run, some were still in rehearsals, and others, like one I had just built a set for, had a single performance that was both opening and closing night. When they weren’t worrying about Covid, the theatre world sat idle, wondering when they could get back to something… anything! Then, as cooler heads prevailed, many companies realized they could mount virtual versions of their works-in-progress.

One of the first artists to right themself was Jessica Creane whose “Chaos Theory: Digital Edition” found new life via the dreaded Zoom window. Jessica, founder of her own I Kant Koan game and theatre company, ran Chaos Theory for over a year at Caveat in New York before COVID struck. Her ability to pivot shines as a beacon that many others quickly emulated.

For her “Digital Edition” Jessica took her live, one-woman show about an awkward technologist giving a TED-style talk and successfully brought it into our living rooms by capitalizing on what we were all feeling in the early days of the lockdown: social awkwardness. Combine that with our newfound unease with video conferencing tools and you have a heady mix: an awkward narrator using confusing technology to reach out to an uneasy audience. The chaos was bound to follow no matter what.

Her tagline of “What happens when a TED talk about chaos theory goes wildly off the rails?” didn’t need to change at all for the virtual remounting. During the session, she put her Zoom attendees through a series of exercises designed to fail, and the audience gets the joke from the first moment. Jessica’s fictitious Dr. Genevieve Saoch pirouettes from scene to scene like a vaudevillian plate spinner.

The games themselves are things you’ve probably seen at corporate retreats, and the conceit of doing it with complete digital strangers is delightful. You begin to think that this production was almost meant for the video format.

But the climax of the show, as preposterous as it is, doesn’t hold a candle to the wonderful after party. After all the plates have come crashing down, Jessica drops her scientist façade and has a meet & greet. The switch is seamless and instantaneous. The tables are turned as you now become the showrunners, asking her about all the intricacies of the beautiful little immersive gem you’ve just experienced. You won’t even notice the change, though, as you realize she is one and the same person.

Chaos Theory has completed its online runs at both Caveat (NYC) and Curious Theatre Company (Denver), but is available through special arrangement through her website:

The Telelibrary

The Telelibrary won No Proscenium’s “Audience Award” as well as its overall top award in 2020 for “Outstanding Achievement in Immersive & Experiential Production” and it’s easy to see why. Or “hear” why, rather. The entire experience is basically a simple audio phone call with telelibrarian and artist Yannick Trapman-O’Brien. After registering for a time slot (which is considerably hard to come by due to the popularity of this show) you simply wait by your phone until the day arrives.

Well that’s what I did: I waited. But you might prefer to go about the rest of your life for the roughly 2 weeks between RSVP and call time. From what I was hearing, this was an experience so singular and so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the immersive world that it was singlehandedly inventing a new genre.

So when my call time finally did arrive, I was there at the allotted time with bells on and headphones in place. I made extra sure, per recommendations I’d gotten, that I had no idea what was in store for me. What followed was a 55-minute audio tour of the imagination.

What is the Telelibrary? In Yannick’s words, it’s “part theater, part game, part self-care.” A virtual audio library that is “constantly changing and evolving… to adapt to your needs and preferences.” You get the feeling it’s going to be a robo-voice guided concierge service that will result in perfectly-tailored selection for your reading pleasure. AKA, a computer is going to listen to you for a bit and spit out a book it recommends you read. But in reality it’s way, way more than what you can possibly expect.

Without spoiling much of anything, the performance built around YOU!. No matter what the telelibrarian may have in mind for any particular call, you, the listener, are fully in charge. It might be as simple as 45 minutes of call-and-response, or as deep as a 59 minutes and 59 second test of the limits of Yannick’s improvisational abilities. But you won’t break him.

One thing is for sure, no two people will have the same experience. This is due partly to the fact that each person is unique, with differing literary likes and dislikes. But also to the fact that Yannick likes to play with the meta-experience of a librarian AI built to cater to humans.

For my call, I expected nothing more than a line on a good book I might like. An hourlong call resulting in a good book recommendation would be, for the price of FREE, a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

What I got was a trip down a rabbit hole; a lesson in how to be clear and concise; and a reflection on my innate flaw of never asking for what I want in life. I miss the Telelibrarian dearly and I truly wish that one hour had lasted much, much longer. Did I find a good book? Doesn’t matter. I made a friend.

The Telelibrary is free and is ongoing, albeit sparingly doled out, at

Pursuit of the Assassin Artist

“Pursuit of the Assassin Artist” is an online-only escape room put on by Omescape. This San Jose entertainment  powerhouse is responsible for some of the most well reviewed escape rooms in the California Bay Area and this is their first foray into the virtual room market. Since the game’s premiere in early 2020, there have been many other offerings in the play-by-computer escape field, but Assassin Artist is the one getting by far the highest marks from reviewers… and rightfully so.

Deftly pivoting early in the Covid lockdown from in-person games to online, Omescape co-founder Sarah Zhang took a look at what was popular out there and set her team’s sights on delivering a best-in-show online experience. The result is an avatar-based, time-looping actor’s delight that has been running and selling out for over a year now.

Avatar-based games are a subgenre of escape rooms that lend themselves exceedingly well to the virtual arena. In them, an actor in the room’s real-world location gets commands from players using a video interface (eg. Zoom). Meanwhile, players watch through the “eyes” of the actor, in this case via a mobile phone which the actor is holding.

Delightfully complicating this setup is the time-loop idea. Every time the actor fails at a task given them by players, the result is invariably death. In fact, your avatar agent will come across numerous ways to get killed by the most innocuous of scenarios. Have no fear, however, for the dauntless actor is blessed with infinite lives, and thus so are you. Each time they meet their demise, either by being told to touch something they shouldn’t or undertake some other an ill-advised action, they are restarted at the beginning of the game, with no knowledge of what has transpired. Brilliantly performed, as our show was, your avatar will make a meal out of not remembering a single shred of your team’s accomplishments each time they are reincarnated. They will convincingly scratch their head and question why you aren’t letting them touch the dangerous items a second time (for them, the first time) or when you know a password that they are pretending to forget. The responses from your avatar are half of the fun in this escape room-slash-performance piece. The other half comes from the delicious flood of one-liners and puns your avatar will mutter while you think of your next command. I can only imagine the delightful hours spend comparing notes on which puns elicit the most groans and which get shared amongst cast members.

Time-loop games have become one of the hottest items in the escape room scene. And when executed well, as they are here, they are a thing of beauty. “Escape the Assassin Artist” may not have invented a new genre, but it has combined several elements of tried-and-true entertainment into an altogether new and exciting beast.

“Pursuit of the Assassin Artist” continues its run indefinitely. Tickets available at


The Collider is an example of how to do immersive VR theatre right. The brainchild of Canada’s Single Thread Theatre Company, it ran for a scant 4 performances in late May/early June of this year as part of a crossover between the Festival of Live Digital Art (FOLDA), and the rEvolver Festival, put on by Up in the Air Theatre, also of Canada. Their short run was free and basically served as a preview or proof of concept more than anything else.

The production took place in Altspace within a bespoke world created by Single Thread ‘s Alex Dault. Right off the bat, the most impressive thing about Collider was the world’s size. It was larger by maybe two orders of magnitude than any other world I had visited in Altspace, due predominantly to Alex’s artful use of the “basic shapes” kit, which allows worlds to hold more visitors and take up more volume.

Participants in Collider, were given only the vaguest set up story: we were helping to track down a group of scientists that had gone missing in the Arizona desert near a top-secret research facility. Further instructions would be given upon arrival. Arriving in the private world at the arranged time, I was immediately struck by the scope of the environment. There were about 30 of us in the staging area and after several minutes I was able to ascertain that about 20 of us were “audience” members, with the remaining 10 or so being staff/actors. Even with this large group size, the comparatively enormous world size made us feel like a drop in the bucket.

We arrived via choplifter, as we pieced together from the large, futuristic Apache helicopter prop and the huge chain link fence-enclosed landing strip we were constrained within. After the cargo off-loading was completed (ie. waiting for everyone to arrive in Altspace), we were deftly corralled into the plotline. A crack team of actors took over with amazing skill and in no time we felt like we were in the middle of a story. The Collider team’s world construction, in-game objects, avatar costumes and background music seamlessly combined to coerce all twenty attendees hush up and fall in line.

The first fifteen minutes of the show were spent descending into an underground, alien world. Deep under the Arizona desert, we were introduced to our guide, a representative of the alien race that was populating this underworld. Speaking gibberish, the alien scientist beckoned us along labyrinthine corridors and subterranean vaults, along the way rescuing several teammates, all with no spoken words. The wordless communication became one of the production’s most endearing qualities in that it made us care deeply for the protagonists. Through elaborate avatar gestures and grunts, the actors goaded us deep into the alien world, eventually cluing us in to the fact that we were actually inside an abandoned starship.

To prevent the audience from wandering off – and to keep hooligans from sneaking into set pieces that we weren’t ready for – there was always a staff member leading up the rear, reminding stragglers via elaborate charades that there was a show going on… please move along. The result was a well-behaved audience that played along nicely but never was made to feel like they were in a “show.”

Along the way, we were treated to avatar fight choreography, puzzles to solve, quite a few staggering vistas, and at least one scene in which our guides were incapacitated, forcing the audience to work as a group, make a quick group decision, and run for our lives! Future immersive VR producers could learn a lot from this scene. The audience should always be treated like they are the smartest people in the room… and reminded occasionally of how much agency the storyteller is allowing them.

By the end of our journey, we had rescued our new friends, defeated an ancient villain, discovered new life and run ourselves ragged… whether virtually or not. Finally, as we were out of (virtual) breath, we were given perhaps the most imaginative curtain call I’ve ever seen in: the entire cast performing a dance number using every trick in the Altspace hand controller repertoire. And for the first time since pandemic had shut down theatre, I was able to do one of my favorite things: rush up to a show’s cast as they come out from backstage, heaping them with praise and asking them “How’d you do it!?”

Although Single Thread is unofficially reserving the right to bring it back in its original form, we are more likely to see something built on Collider’s technical backbone than any remounting. At the very least, we will be seeing more theatres pushing the limits of VR as we get more content creators into the growing metaverse.

Keep up to date on Single Thread Theatre’s happenings here:

Finding Pandora X

Despite its rave reviews, “Finding Pandora X “ is a good parable of how and how not to run a play in VR. With “Best VR Immersive User Experience” and “Best Interactive XP” awards in tow, Pandora seemed like a sure bet for me to further dip my toes into the immersive theatre scene.

Billed as “professional actors and Broadway talent,” Double Eye Studios certainly led with their pedigree. Their debut at the Venice International Film Festival clearly turned heads and ticket sales were reflective of a not-to-be-missed experience, but from the moment I bought my ticket the cracks were beginning to show.

There was one and only confirmation email: the one that came at the time of purchase. Leading up to the event, there were no other communications. Going back to my original invite, I saw in the fine print that I was not mistaken… other emails were supposed to arrive, up to and including the day before the show. Since I had waited almost until that day to start worrying, I decided to await the day-before emails. There was none.

The morning of the performance, I sat and watched my inbox and the hour before the event I even went into VR Chat and patiently sat in my home space, decked out in a spiffy new Rick Sanchez avatar skin. No messages came to warn me that anything was amiss, so I assumed that the show was still on and that I was just not getting the emails. Lest you wonder, I’m an email automation professional by day, so I had already done my due diligence in checking spam folders!

At ten minutes before curtain, I began searching for VR Chat worlds with “Pandora” in the name. After some digging, I found several people online with oddly spelled Roman god names that sounded like possible cast members. Plus, they all ended in a capital “X” just like the show’s title, so I pounced on them.

I friended everyone with an “X” in their name and started clicking the “Join World” button. Eventually, four minutes after the top of the hour, one of them finally let me join them. I found myself whisked into a gargantuan VR Chat world with gray-cloaked figures and a sign telling me all the things I needed to do before the show started. Lucky for me I had only missed that window by nineteen minutes!

One of the few non-gray cloaked avatars (a cast member at last) noticed me in my drunken scientist lab coat. “Hey, are you here to help us fix Apollo? Why are you still dressed like that? We can’t have a mad scientist in Olympus. It’ll surely confuse the gods.” But I think the gods were already a little confused.

On the plus side, they were in character from moment one. I truly appreciate that dedication in an immersive show, so things were starting to look up. I also appreciate the concept of making the audience all look the same. Like The Under Presents,” having an anonymous chorus lets the actors know who they are performing for. It also gives audience members a chance to feel less vulnerable.

The staff quickly set me up with a gray cloak and were very sweet about it, with only a few references to how late I was and that the show would be delayed slightly. Then they launched into an improvised scene that was clearly halfway between “setting the tone” and “communicating in code with the backstage crew to see if the show could begin”. Unfortunately it also came across somewhere between “Improv 101“ and “two good actors stuck vamping slightly longer than expected.”

Once the performance started, however, I was delighted to see actors who know how to project, how to manage crowds while staying in character, and who know how to deliver somewhat stiff material with a whimsicality that lets you know that they know that we all know it’s a little schlocky.

The rest of the show was a relatively straight forward retelling of the Pandora’s Box fable. There was nothing to write home about as far as the story: Apollo has a problem, Apollo needs the audience and later the audience would come through and we would all go home as heroes.

What really shone through the many rough spots in this tale was Double Eye’s use of VR elements in their theatrical experience. Their use of world gravity to make statues too heavy for us but light as a feather for Apollo. The ability to “fly” around us mere mortals who were stuck on the ground. Plus their use of world portals to move from act to act. In each case, the cast demonstrated these in-game elements and used them to heighten the dramatic tension. They even allowed the audience to play with them as a foreshadowing to later events. In-game items and props were freely strewn about and the cast was patient and even encouraging in their use. At times, these free-for-alls led to a bit of chaos, which inevitably caused the show to go overtime, but generally these moments were a source of entertainment and allowed the frustrated audience to let off some steam.

However the production’s live elements, like the pre-show logistics, were not without glitches. Upon joining we were assured that falling off the edge of the world was not to be feared. At one point, while we were being put through our paces on some light puzzle elements at the top of a precipice, we were reminded several times that the worst that could happen if we fell was we would respawn into the same scene. When I fell, however, I was stuck in a freefall that could not be exited. I eventually had to restart VR Chat. Pulling up the cast member list, I tried re-entering our guide’s world to no avail.

I tried all the other performers and eventually resorted to entering the world via their host bot. In what turned out to be my favorite, unintentional part of the experience, I found myself in the empty lobby with free rein of the entire worldspace. No Apollo, no guides, no actors (they had all moved on to the next world). With nobody guarding the henhouse and no way to rejoin the show, I entertained myself by playing with the gravity and numerous items laying about, as well as flying around the world. After discovering the final scene’s set, the green room and the after-show bar, the cast finally returned from their Act 2 worlds. I may never know what happened there, but Act 3 was a private joy for me as I (barely) contained my fly ability and only messed with the gravity controls a little bit. Sadly, the finale was as predictable as picking up a key in front of a locked door and using it on the lock in the door. To the company’s credit, the audience loved the show and stuck around to chat with the cast and crew and any production team willing to do that is aces in my book.

“Finding Pandora X” recently played at SXSW 2021. News on future productions available at

A Thousand Ways

The La Jolla Playhouse has long been a bastion for new works and events that make you think outside the box, including their WOW Festival (Without Walls) which seeks to take the public “outside the confines of a traditional theatre.” Add to the mix longstanding guerilla performance troupe “600 Highwaymen” and you have a match made in immersive heaven.

“A Thousand Ways” is a three-part theatrical experience involving progressively deeper connections between two parties. Part One was a telephone call between two strangers. Part Two was an in-person meeting between two strangers. And Part Three is imagined as an in-person freeform meetup between strangers, this time with nothing separating the participants. In each stage of the show, the strangers could be, but are very much unlikely to be the same participants from previous performances.

When I first became aware of the show, Part One had finished, so I eagerly jumped in and got tickets for Part Two. Since then, additional performances for the telephone call have opened up and I was able to experience Part Two as well. Part Three has yet to be ticketed or even scheduled, but more on that later! First, let me explain the first two… in the order they were intended to be seen.


For the phone experience, two strangers enjoy an awkward phone call, neither one with any preparation beforehand. The awkwardness comes from the fact that you are guided by a disembodied voice which serves as both telephone operator and go-between for the duration of the show.

Starting with a simple prompt, each caller is asked to introduce themselves, but only in vague terms. No personal information. Then, through a series of disjointed and somewhat contrived prompts, each participant gets to reveal more and more about who they are. “Person A, Please tell Person B something you see in front of you.” Pause for answer. “Person B, please tell Person A about an item on the wall to your left.”

The disembodied voice, for its part, waits until the answer is received and then moves on to the next prompt. The effect is a lot like your stereotypical therapist trope: “Tell me what’s bothering you. Hmm. Tell me more about that. Hmm.” But there’s significantly more thought put into the prompts than that, with each section of the dialog deepening the conversation.

During my call there were several times when the instructions were garbled or too quiet or were just plain covered up by line noise. In most cases the voice simply waited a split second and then asked the question a second time. But I wanted to determine whether it was a computer talking or an actual person with a computer voice, so I took several of these opportunities to push back a little and see if I could figure out if it was a human. My investigations told me this was a computer — it pretty much ignored my jokes and accepted any answer I gave, even my firmly worded “I’m not answering this one” answers.

Nonetheless, the voice pushed us forward. During the experience I learned that my mystery partner cant sew, likes to read, has very little family, does not play any musical instruments, loves cats and does not cook. I, on the other hand, went into depth about everything I do and took every chance I got to crack wisely, which caused my co-caller to laugh (sure, I was also making sure the other caller wasn’t a computer too… you can never be to certain!).

In the end I also learned that I like to guide conversations and that I bristle at random prompts. I guess it’s fair to say I bristle at computer AIs in general. After our hourlong conversation was ended, I didn’t feel changed by the encounter except perhaps in my willingness to open up to a stranger.

Whether the 600 Highwaymen were hoping for this result or for something more tangible and life-changing, I may not know until Part Three. As for Part Two…


The in-person version of the performance was altogether different from the phone call. Moving from a phone call to a sit down encounter presents a chance to heighten the experience. The two ticket holders arriving at the La Jolla playhouse could either be repeat attendees who had already done the phone call, or brand new participants. They may or may not even have any knowledge what Part One was at all.

The only requirement is tat you do NOT know the other person attending. You can randomly hook up participants for a phone call, so it was clear that this was added for Part Two. My wife and I both chose the same performance. We dutifully clicked the “we understand we will not be in the same show” disclaimer. And we drove down to La Jolla and we waited for the unknown.

When I was led into my room I was the second person to arrive. Already seated was a girl perhaps 10 years younger than me. Between us was a plexiglass wall mounted on a desk. Since she was in a chair it followed that I was to sit in the chair opposite her. On the desk were two stacks of seemingly identical white index cards.

I managed to start the proceedings off with unintentional drama. I misread the first card which said that my desk mate would read their top card first. Specifically, it was wo begin as soon as I placed my hand down on the table. Since I read it too fast, I didn’t see that last part. To her credit, my partner waited for me to put my hand down. I, however, waited for her to read her card. And I waited. And she waited. And I reread my card. And I missed the last instruction a second time. And then I sighed. And I waited and she waited. Then I read it a third time and (realizing my mistake) slammed my hand down on the table.

When ensued was an hour of back and forth questions and answers prompted by the cards. Much like the phone interchange, our questions were personal, but not too deep. There were queries into our childhood memories, our ability to drive a stick shift, our cooking skills… and every so often a doozy like “Can you remember the last time you were truly happy?”

It seemed like the questions had stepped up a notch into the personal, character-revealing category. Perhaps the playwright’s intent this time around, given the face-to-face nature of Part Two, was to push us into leaving our safety zones.

My answer of “NO!” regarding whether I could remember the last time I was happy threw my partner off. She visually blanched at my answer. To me, the beauty of Part Two lie in the fact that we had all the time in the world to give our answers. For my part I choose succinct ones as often as possible, but then launched into longer answers when it felt appropriate. I’ll admit that as an actor my ulterior motive was always to entertain while being entertained. My costar in this performance, clearly not an actor, was choosing instead to give curt answers. When asked if she could cook or sew (there were lots of repeats from the phone call) she was almost reluctant to give her “no” answer, while I practically jumped up and said “Yes I can drive a stick shift like no one’s business!”

The experiment worked. By the end of the hour, when we were told (by the final cards) to go our separate ways, I made a meal of my departure. I adhered to the strictest possible meaning of the instructions on my last card as I left. From what I could see as I watched my cohort getting into her car across the parking lot, she was affected by the performance and by my abrupt, silent departure.

Contrast this with my wife’s experience in the room next door to us. She had been paired up with someone who like she was also an actor. The two of them blew the experiment up from card one. By her recount, they debated the mysterious nature of the cards’ instructions and interpreted them together as a group, chewing the scenery with their answers and really getting to know each other in the process. In the end, however, they departed as they had arrived… strangers…deeply affected by the experience.

Who’s to say which of us had the “intended” theatrical experience?

A Thousand Ways Parts 1 and 2 are in and out or production as of this writing. Part 3 has yet to be announced. Watch their website for information:

Box One by Neil Patrick Harris

The play-at-home market benefitted from a renaissance in the past year and a half, thanks of course to a lockdown-induced captive audience. While quite a few new players (Vampire Pizza) and some experienced ones (Hunt-A-Killer) entered the market, it was also refreshing to see celebrities putting their mark on this overlooked industry. Magician Helder Guimarães and renowned Japanese game developers SCRAP both came out with popular offerings as well. Then Neil Patrick Harris, no stranger himself to the escape-room field, announced “Box One” in cooperation with theory11.

The box itself is a joy to behold (and hold). It’s surface is a glimmering delight from its gold embossing to its precision 3-D carvings. This comes as no surprise given theory11’s long history of putting out stunning magic tricks and card decks, all constricted with high quality die cutting and dazzling faux-gold overlay printing. In this case, you are getting your money’s for a coffee table conversation piece if nothing else.

But the proof is in the content, and from moment one, you will be impressed with Box One. As you unbox, you are met with a meticulous instruction sheet. Neil’s writing shines from the moment you start in on the step-by-step guide. “Open this”… “set that aside”… “pay attention now.” You get the feeling you are being guided by not just a dedicated performer, but a real person.

Eventually, you are instructed to open a mysterious pack of cards and read the first one. What follows is a puzzle experience on rails, but with exceptions. You will be given cryptic instructions, asked to answer trivia questions, solve light geography riddles, do wordplay and cryptograms (not hard ones) and eventually start piecing together a larger set of codes, clues and rules that will open up more content and more hidden stuff and…

Not giving anything away, what you initially see inside the box is very much the illusion that Neil wants you to see. I have not solved Box One (I’m slowly savoring it), but so far I am honestly gob smacked by the amount of content that is hidden at first blush.

A lot of hoopla is made in the game’s marketing about this being a game BY ONE person and FOR ONE person. Whether this is a sneaky ploy to discourage sharing among friends or an honest plea to keep the integrity of the game’s design from being watered down, I won’t know until I’ve finished. I do know that we tried it as a group and found it very engaging and even beneficial to have a few hands working various angles on each puzzle. At a certain point there are multiple directions the solving can go which leaves plenty for a group of two or three to do. Maybe it’s best to start it alone and then bring in some friends!

Box One Presented By Neil Patrick Harris is available at Target and from Theory11’s website:

The Under Presents, 2-years-later

When Tender Claws debuted “The Under Presents” in 2019, it was like nothing else in VR. Their immersive, theatrical experience grew it’s audience, eventually adding “live” shows and a rendition of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. This is not a review of either the game or the performance, however. This is a synopsis of the world as it stands now, empty except for the audience that came to play… and stay.

TUP, as its referred to by fans, is still a playable game. You still get the original experience, minus the live shows and the play. There’s a twisty-timey mini-game called “Time Boat” which showcases the team’s wonderful user interface, plus main stage, where a dozen recorded acts play in a loop. And then there’s the other players themselves.

The magic of TUP is truly inside the world created by YOU and your fellow players. With no instruction beyond the basic maneuvers, newcomers are forced to learn the finger snap  magic system on their own, perfect it with the help of strangers, and then teach it to the next newbie that arrives. I refused help for the longest time, having convinced myself that these were AI bots and NOT other human beings.

I was so, so wrong! Once I accepted their help, I was swept into an underground world of mysterious passages, workshops, upgraded gear and an entire hierarchy of competing guilds, all communicating via hand gestures. So if you want to experience the heady feeling of power growing slowly in your hands, snap your fingers and head on down into The Under Presents.

Tender Claws’ The Under Presents

Good Social Distancing

If there’s one thing we can all agree on it’s the value of Social Distancing. Whether you are in a hard-hit area or a region that has thankfully been spared the worst, we must continue to lead by example.

Since you may be getting your guidance from a mish-mash of sources, we have collected several of the important ones here to help you remember the basics:

When outdoors, remember to stay at least 6 feet apart from others.

Adhere to proper etiquette when lining up in queues.

Maintain even spacing whenever possible.

Respect others when purchasing essential supplies.

Patronize local businesses if at all possible.

Observe spacing indicators on floor while shopping.

Wear face coverings and do not overcrowd aisles.

Keep away from areas where distancing is being ignored.

Try not to mix family groups.

Avoid locations with large gatherings of people.

Stay away from Florida.

Mask Making 101

You’ve pulled out all the fabrics from the closet and you’ve done a few curbside deliveries from Jo-Anns and Michaels. Your spools are at the ready and the bobbins are loaded. It’s time to make your first mask.

And time to make a few decisions! Will it be an Olson style mask or a standard surgical? Cotton or poly? Tie straps or elastic bands? And what should your backing material be? Plus, you’ve heard a lot about pocket masks and coffee filters… and who will be the benefactor of your first batch? Family and friends? Or perhaps the local assisted living facility?

Here’s your first piece of advice: Just relax and breathe.


Before you settle in for an eight- or ten-hour stretch in front of your sewing machine, just take a moment to center yourself and breathe. So much can come from that simple act. Remind yourself what your reasons for starting this project are. Perhaps you have a loved one who asked for a mask and you don’t just want to make one, you want to make as many as you can!

Or perhaps you have seen all the other volunteers posting about taking their sewing supplies out of mothballs and you want to lend your own hand. You might be a crafty person who just happened to be looking for the next big project to keep those artistic juices flowing. In the end, your reasons are your own to savor and simply wanting to help out during this time of need is enough.

Rest assured, we are going to talk about styles and materials and outreach organizations in just a moment, but for now you won’t be any good to anyone if you don’t take a moment for yourself! All good?


There are a plethora of options for mask types: surgical, Olson, neckerchief, bandana, biker, and an assortment of undergament-turned-face-covering masks. Which is to say nothing of the much-ballyhooed N95 masks — which wouldn’t be a home project anyway. 

Nevertheless, we will focus on two styles: Olson and Surgical. These two styles are very common, easy to make and most everybody knows them when they see them. Other styles such as neckerchief and bandana are easy enough for people to DIY themselves and bikers already have their own supplies of higher quality masks, so it’s best to focus on the area you can make a difference in.

Also, these two main styles complement each other nicely. Many people who have problems with one are often much more comfortable with the other and vice-versa.


These are the form fitting masks which go over the nose, mouth and chin and snugly follow the contours of the face. Typically they come with a bendable nose piece and heavier elastic straps on the sides. A larger Olson mask will cover the upper bridge of the nose and go well over the chin. Smaller ones might only cover the tip of the nose. And if you are wearing one that is slightly large for your face shape, you might think it’s covering too much, but if it is comfortable, allows breathing and does not have gaps around the edges, it is just fine. 

By that same token, if you are wearing an Olson mask that feels too small, it might simply be that it’s intended to only cover the minimum area of your breathing surfaces. Some people prefer a mask which goes further in either direction while others prefer something that only covers as much as is needed. For your soon-to-be-growing mask supply, feel free to have a variety of sizes in case your recipients express a desire for one over the other, but keep in mind the fact that if a mask is doing its job, it’s doing its job. 

There are more details about Olson masks later, but for now, let’s look at the other style:


Also known as “pleated” masks, these are the ones that you may see TV doctors wearing. These are rectangular in shape, with pleats that go lengthwise (left to right) and typically are fitted with tie straps as opposed to elastic bands, although both are seen quite often. 

Surgical masks have the advantage of being able to fit the contour of one’s face due to the pleats which open up upon fitting. Another advantage is the fact that they pull down from the bridge of the nose and allow for “natural” form fitting of the face. 

Whether you have tie straps or elastic really is an independent decision from the style of mask. Tie straps allow for more of a variety of head shapes and sizes, but they also tend to get stuck in hair. Elastic bands don’t impinge upon hair, but they can arguably pull on one’s ears and irritate. Some people alternate between the two styles when choosing what to wear while others stick to one style or the other.

Again, it will be useful to have a variety of tie methods for each style of mask in your collection.


Picking the material for your masks is perhaps the biggest sticking point for DIY makers. In the early weeks of mask making, much was said about various fabrics. At one point, very specific blends were being bandied about as the optimal mask material, but in the end you cannot go wrong with something we all have lying around: cotton.

Cotton t-shirts, cotton bed sheets and fitted sheets, cotton pillow cases… just make sure it is well-laundered and not threadbare. One measure of a fabric’s suitability for masks has been the “hold it up to the light” test. This test still holds water! If you hold a material up to a light and you can easily see through it, perhaps you should choose a denser cotton. This is a very subjective test, however. You are not striving for zero translucence. Be fair in your assessment of the fabric. And consider the fact that you will have two layers (the outer fabric and the backing fabric), so the combined 2-ply is what you essentially want to be testing.

As an alternative to cotton, you can use cotton-poly blend, denim or chiffon, but an exhaustive list would be pointless since you probably have plenty of cotton at hand. Additionally, the outer layer and the backing layer can be of either material, so feel free to experiment with combinations that are pleasing to you and (most likely) your recipients.


Just like cooking and computing, let’s leave this to the experts! A quick search of the internet will yield any number of well-reviewed mask patterns, instructions and how-tos. Here are just a couple to get you started. I recommend you follow them to a T before you start down your own road of variety and exploration.

Olson style:

Surgical style:


Pocketed masks add an even greater level of protection to the apparatus, but they extend the construction time as much as three-fold. Basically, they allow for the user to insert a filter material in between the outer and inner layers of the mask’s fabric. This filtering material is typically a finer mesh than the cotton and the idea is that this layer will collect the brunt of the particles coming in or out. These are not necessarily disease or infectious particles, but simply those airborne particles we all exhale and inhale which cause masks to build up and soil. With the introduction of a removable filtering layer, your mask has a longer life between washings because you can just dispose of the filter.

Common filter materials include:  Hepa filters, vacuum bag and furnace lining, carbon filters, paper towels, coffee filters and shop towels. However, since the whole point is to make the filter bear the brunt, it would make sense to focus on easily replaceable materials. In tests, coffee filters and paper towels were just as effective as vacuum liners and expensive Hepas, so there’s no reason to go ripping your appliances apart!


Finally, where do you want to offer your generously hand-made masks? Just like we started at the beginning, focus on yourself first. Make a mask that you enjoy looking at, are happy to wear and will proudly don in public. The most important thing is to get the word out that it is ok and, in fact, important to wear face coverings while the spread of Covid-19 is still in full effect. If you are the last one at your grocery store wearing one (apart from the workers, let’s hope!), then I’d say “mission accomplished!”

After you have one or two for yourself, make sure loved ones are well-stocked. Look into your local service groups or churches, if you have connections there, and also assisted living facilities in the area. Additionally, there are many medical facilities which are still looking for donations. Please be aware, however, that there are guidelines that need to be followed for any masks you donate to these facilities. And finally, make a point to look into areas of the community which are hard hit and who do not have an infrastructure that readily lends itself to sewing and outreach. There are numerous regions, many perhaps not local to you, that are in need of masks even if your immediate area is not.

Below are a number of websites currently asking for mask donations, but you can also do your own homework and search Google for reputable organizations accepting mask donations. 

Whatever you do, do it with love, and do it from a place of generosity. If you feel that you are not of a mind to accept payment, then don’t. But if you get repeated requests to donate supplies or give to a fund, consider doing that on occasion. It is entirely possible to get so focussed on a selfless act that you don’t even realize you have worked yourself to the bone and are, in fact, losing money you didn’t realize. It would be a shame to find yourself regretting all your hard work when an offer of a few dollars for supplies is exactly the way in which your mask-recipient wants to say “thanks.”

Happy mask making!

Move along; there are no games here.

This whole week of civil unrest is weighing on me. It was a powder keg waiting to go off and I sincerely hope we see substantive change as a result. As an American in 2020, I’m trying to do my part to slow the spread of Covid-19 out there while also trying to quell the spread of horrible misinformation on the internet when I find it.

Of course what I’d rather be doing is designing games and puzzles! But there’s no puzzle to be made from all this unrest. And any game ideas I have can easily be held until things settle down.

Yet my puzzle constructor brain won’t shut down. I see the game inside so many of these events in the news. I feel like Ed Harris in Westworld methodically scalping robots amid the insanity, looking for some higher meta-puzzle. Except that he was clearly evil (I’m not spoiling anything there… it’s Ed Harris, people!).

So I wont make a game from what I see in the news, but I nonetheless see a lot of games playing out. After all, it takes a gamer to know a gamer… or a player to know a player.

    Talking crap about an area of the Scrabble board so that your opponent focusses there and plays right into your hands.

    In the real world, I saw it play out in the news and on Twitter the other day. The real troublemakers post “ideas” for general areas of the city in which to protest. This gets protesters together on a similar page. The instigators throw out names of streets and parks in the area. Unsuspecting protesters indicate a few preferences. Those controlling the game then nudge the fired-up parties toward nearby areas with upscale stores. Internet-savvy looters send out an updated rendezvous location and time. They get their cars together while many other opportunist looters simply show up with no coordinated planning. If and when protesters show up, the two schools of looters blend into the crowd, they guide them toward the intended stores if they can, loot and escape under the cover of civil demonstration.

    From my estimation, the above happened almost verbatim yesterday (June 1, 2020) in Van Nuys.

    This is no indictment of the protestors. In a time of unrest and grassroots energy, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. It’s easy to forget to check sources. Unfortunately, in this media dominated arena, the message that somehow comes across all too often is that there are some bad people out there you should be afraid of… and then unscrupulous propaganda machines use that to their own ends.
  2. Diplomacy
    Setting up a skirmish with an opponent on one of your fronts on the map board and then running to other players complaining of oppression to get their sympathy.

    Perhaps you saw scenes of the homeless man in Austin whose mattress was supposedly set on fire the other day by protesters. There was an online war sparked by alt-righters saying it was an indictment of the protest, and then a response from the other side insisting it was the right wingers who staged the whole incident.

    I have my doubts that it was legit. And at any rate it was used as a tool to sow division. This happens way more than we think. And in the end I’m willing to bet that the people who always seem willing to bandy about the “crisis actors” claim are in fact using that term because A) they devised that term, and B) they use that tactic themselves.
  3. Stratego
    Pulling a trusty high-strength attack piece back, hoping your opponent forgets which one is which so you can spring it on them later.

    There’s no doubt that the police department takes care of its own. When an officer gets too much heat on them, they seldom remove them or retire them. Instead, they pull them back from the public eye and they let people forget. It has also come to light that there are somewhat arbitrary and premature end dates on their databases of complaints alleged against their ranks.

    The system clearly needs more oversight, but do you know the name of the oversight board for law enforcement? Or how many there are? I looked it up. There are purportedly a lot of them, but none of them are on the tip of our tongues to be sure. Wouldn’t it be nice if you heard from them once in a while, as opposed to the old “Rest assured it’s being reviewed by Internal Affairs” chestnut.

    One the other hand I applaud the fact that we see body cam footage much more these days than we used to. I’m honestly impressed by how quickly that was adopted and (often times) how quickly the footage is made public. We need more of that.

  4. One Night Werewolf
    Creating a problem (dead villagers, usually), waiting until the townspeople are in a frenzy and then swooping in to be the voice of reason when in fact you are one of the werewolves.

    Let’s see if I can think of some examples:
    – Letting a pandemic get worse so that you can try to be the governmental savior?
    – Creating and/or allowing unfounded information to flourish so that you can come in and “clear things up once and for all”?
    – Letting someone do your dirty work and then firing them?
    – Blaming others from something you did and then finding a scapegoat?
    – Dropping hints and speculation just to see which way the wind blows so you can side with your voting constituents?

    Okay. This one I’m just gonna call out straight away. We have an orange werewolf in the White House.

Post-Pandemic Theatre

Sample Night of Fun
A sample reopening night of fun.

This has been quite a year for theatre people… and it’s not even half way over.

I’m a Scenic Designer and when the coronavirus hit I had three shows in their first or second week of performances. Plus, I was working on the next one in the scene shop. I don’t even know if any of the sets are still there, honestly. I know only a handful of performances happened.

Undaunted, I started mulling over how the eventual reopening would play out. The possibilities seemed to be changing almost every day for that first month (March?). But I got together with other creatives in those first weeks and we brainstormed.

The result is the PowerPoint/Google Slides document below (or click here).

I have put together some ideas regarding how theaters can open up with content when the Coronavirus lockdown eases up. The file represents the opinions and thoughts of the author only, and not those of any person or any theatre implied either explicitly or implicitly within.

Online Theatre Is Available Now!

Escape Rooms, Shakespeare and Zoom

Don’t lose hope, my theatre brethren… there are shows and they are going on now!

If you, like me, wallowed — even briefly — in the fear that creative output would be put on hold for an unknown but sizable number months, it simply has turned out to not be true. There are many actors, writers, producers and theater owners out there battling the Zoom learning curves and Google Hangout intricacies in order to bring drama, comedy and excitement to your living room computers.

In the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed several plays, improvs, escape rooms, multi-screen media works, classic National Theatre performances, read throughs, and fake read-throughs. An amazing variety of experiences– and yes quite a variety of success levels and technical abilities — but they are out there.

Who among you hasn’t sat through a few clunkers just to find that gem or to learn something from the bravery of others that you can leverage in your own dramatic growth.

So keeping in mind that this is be no means an exhaustive list, here are some links (current as of May 17, 2020) to theatrical events. There are some national events that I felt were of interest to local theater people here as well several local (Southern California) events which are marked with ‘ * ‘.

YouTube channel
Actor’s Theatre
National Theatre
No Proscenium
Second City
The Barclay
Broadway on Demand
Theatre Development Fund
Stars In The House
Play per View
24-Hour Plays
Social Distancing Festival
Kennedy Center
Time Out NY
The Met
NY Opera
Fisher Center
PBS 13
American Theatre Magazine links
Filmed On Stage
* Goldstar OC
* Laguna Playhouse
* La Jolla
* The Main
* The Pack

Gonna Happen
* OC Improv
* Finger Guns
* ImrovCity
* Ophelia’s Jump

Puzzle Break
Trapped in the Web
* No Proscenium

American Theatre Magazine
* OC Theatre Group