Over nearly twenty years, my work has spanned several mediums and a wide-variety of genres. I’ve worked with playwrights and game designers, with large corporations rolling out multimillion dollar products and with individual artists creating deeply personal projects. What has unified my work is a commitment to helping tell the most impactful story possible, and a rigorous attention both to the tools and structures at our disposal and the best ways we may use them. The following examples show both the range of projects I’ve worked on and the impact I have had on their success.
Defying The Nazis - 360° video
In 2016, the documentary Defying The Nazis was set to premiere on PBS. Co-directed by Ken Burns, Defying The Nazis tells the story of social workers, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who traveled to Europe during WWII to provide aid and arrange for the rescue of hundreds of endangered refugees. In order to help market the film and communicate its powerful message, the producers commissioned VR Playhouse to create a 360° immersive experience based on the Sharps’ story and designed to be viewed on a headset.
Due to technological and budgetary constraints, the experience would need to be short. And as this was early in the evolution of VR, when watching a virtual reality experience could often feel physically disorienting, it would also need to move slowly.
As a producer and the experience’s lead writer, I helped guide the group to focus on a single event: In 1940, the Sharps rescued 29 Jewish boys and girls from their Nazi-occupied homes, arranging for them to travel by boat to America.
The VR companion piece we created puts users on the deck of this boat. Over the course of just a few minutes, they travel from Portugal to New York City and experience the breathtaking moment when the Statue of Liberty first comes into view.
In order to maximize the power of sound in VR, we also added audio clips from interviews with the survivors more than seventy years later, describing the Sharps’ lifesaving impact. As they listen, viewers also see photographic images of the survivors as children, materializing in the clouds above the boat and serving as a visual reminder of the lives that were saved.
The experience premiered as part of the launch of Time Life's LIFE VR app and was exhibited at the Holocaust Museum as well as the Newseum in Washington, D.C.. It won "Best VR Animated Educational Film or Documentary," at VR Fest 2017, and was nominated for Lumiere and Cine Golden Eagle awards.
Watch Defying The Nazis VR here
Mr. Mercedes: Lair Escape - virtual reality game
When getting set to promote the upcoming second season of their hit TV series Mr. Mercedes for AT&T’s Audience network, producers were hoping to make a splash by creating an accompanying game for virtual reality. It would need to be a short and easily playable at industry events and activations, while capturing the dark tone and cat-and-mouse plot of both the television show and the original series of books, written by Stephen King.
Capitalizing on the popularity not only of VR but of escape rooms as well, we chose to create a virtual escape room set inside the basement hideout of the series’ main villain, Brady Hartsfield. In the game, players have five minutes to search the room for objects and clues. They’ll then use those clues to solve word puzzles in order to escape.
As a writer on the project, I crafted the puzzles and wrote dialogue for the character of Mr. Mercedes, Brady’s alter-ego and the game’s menacing narrator.
The game, entitled Mr. Mercedes: Lair Escape, premiered at Comic-Con 2018 as part of the larger “Mr. Mercedes Immersive Experience” and was simultaneously rolled out on HTC’s Viveport app store. The “Mr. Mercedes Immersive Experience’ was subsequently named a finalist in Adweek’s “Experiential Award for Best Experiential Activation: $1 Million to $2 Million” category.
Native Son - theatrical adaptation
In 2018, Los Angeles’ Antaeus Theatre went into rehearsals for their production of Native Son, a theatrical adaptation of the classic novel by Richard Wright, written by Nambi E. Kelley. The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a Black man in 1930s Chicago who kills the daughter of his white employer in a moment of rage. As the production team began their work of bringing the world of the story to life, the director, Andi Chapman, sought ways to highlight the historical and social conditions that inspired both Wright's novel as well as the actions of his characters.
As the production’s dramaturg, I created a research packet for the director, cast and crew that provided historical information relevant to this story. This material could then be used to deepen and further inform the work of my fellow artists. The packet covered information that ranged from a biography of Wright to the rise of Communism in America at the time to the Great Migration that had brought thousands of families like Bigger’s to the Northeast. In addition, I wrote a short essay for the production’s program on the role that the play’s setting, Chicago, has on the events and themes of the story.
The production was a Los Angeles Times Critic’s Choice and received seven nominations at the 2019 Stage Raw Awards, including Best Production and Best Adaptation. It was subsequently remounted in 2019 as part of Center Theater Group’s Block Party initiative and was nominated for “Production of the Decade” by BroadwayWorld Los Angeles.
Breathe - multimedia solo performance piece
A one-woman show written and performed by Philicia Saunders, Breathe is based on Philicia’s own experiences growing up privileged as a black woman in Los Angeles. The idea for the show had begun with a graduate school assignment on biographies during which Philicia interviewed community activist, “Sweet” Alice Harris and then performed as her. In the fall of 2019, I was brought in to help expand this simple exercise into a full-length script. In the spring of 2020, our work faced a new challenge as we were forced to adapt the story for a virtual presentation.
In order to move the story past a simple re-telling of Mrs. Harris’ life, Philicia and I focused on her own life, specifically on a work trip she took to tour civil-rights landmarks in Alabama. By tying her moments of awakening in Alabama together with the moments from history that were commemorated there and then back to the work that Harris had done in the Watts area of Los Angeles, we were able to create a rich text examining both our country’s long history of racism and the hope for a better future.
When the pandemic hit, our focus shifted from live theatre to streaming video. We filmed Philicia performing, not just in an (empty) theater but out on the streets of Watts and in fictitious Zoom calls too, where she would play multiple characters interacting with one another. The piece became a multimedia experience whose message could now resonate in an even more present and contemporary way.
Breathe premiered online on December 11, 2020. As part of the premiere, it was streamed on the Twitch channel Outpost_13, during which audience members were encouraged to use the chat feature to interact with the experience and to learn more about the ideas and history the show presents.