There’s a common perception that spending too much time in front of a screen will make you stupid. Stupid, passive, and unimaginative. It’s an idea that is defied by Alma Mater; a piece of performance art which uses technology to eloquent, vivid and immersive effect.
Alma Mater begins when you enter Arts House and arrive at the door of an immersive ‘pod’, an innocuous portable room. You stand outside the door and are handed an iPad and headphones, and asked to look directly at the screen and ‘follow’ the images in real life. On the screen is a picture of the door in front of you, shot from eye level so that the image you see in real life and that on the screen are almost identical. It’s a little disconcerting, a ‘this is not a pipe’ moment.
The strangeness wears off quickly however, and soon a hand appears on the screen and reaches out to open the door. Your own hand reaches out accordingly, and as a classical score builds in your ears you step through the door. Inside the room the iPad continues to act as the lens through which you view your surroundings. The images on the screen correspond exactly to the room around you, which is decked out as a white, sterile bedroom. Then the door to the room (on the screen) opens, and in slips a little red-haired girl. She bosses you around, telling you to sit on the bed, as she plays in the room.
Soon more characters enter – a little boy, a woman who seems to be their mother. Then objects begin appearing in the room unexpectedly. People disappear, or are transformed into strange substances. The room begins to change too – the furniture alters, the walls change colour, and gradually the action on the screen takes on the quality of a dream-like fairytale. The digital world is beautifully filmed and takes on an increasingly cinematic quality. Full of surreal and folkloric imagery, it builds to an oblique and strangely moving conclusion.
Watching Alma Mater feels something like entering into a child’s world of make-believe and experiencing their imaginative process first-hand. Being plunged into the world of a child at play via a screen is particularly charming and apt when children today spend more time in front of screens than ever – something that arouses anxiety about the creative development of children and which is often seen as negative. Here, used in conjunction with physical immersion and performative involvement on the part of the viewer, digital media is shown as a powerful tool to actively stimulate the imagination.
Perplexing and disarming, Alma Mater is a piece of theatre that lasts for only 20 minutes and could almost fit in your handbag, but has an uncanny and endearing ability to engage the viewer.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5