Immersive Theatre Maker James Dillon on Crafting Captivating Sci-Fi Horror for Lockdown Audiences

The past year has presented any creator used to working in a physical space with a series of unique and unprecedented challenges. Few have not only risen to meet those limitations but turn them to their advantage quite like immersive theatre maker James Dillon.

Following on from the success of Viper Squad (a show he describes as an ‘online immersive Die Hard‘), his new show Siren launches on Friday 7th May. It invites the audience to join a crew on a mission into darkest space to examine the wreckage of another craft.

We caught up with James ahead of the show’s launch to find out more.

Kirstie: Tell us about your show, Siren.

James: Siren is an online, immersive sci-fi horror show where the audience are a crew sent to investigate a derelict spaceship, uncover what happened and see if anyone or anything survived.

I’ve been developing the idea since last summer since working on the first online show I created, Viper Squad, which was an online ’80s action adventure where the audience had to help stop an ongoing heist. When it was proven that such a high-concept, interactive show was not only achievable but popular, I wanted to push the limits of what was possible in this medium that so many of us have been exploring during lockdown.

Kirstie: What drew you to sci-fi horror as a genre for your show?

James: I have always enjoyed science fiction since a young age. However, I think my appetite for sci-fi horror was delayed due to watching certain films too young. One of which was Alien 3, which terrified an 11-year-old me! But over time I got hooked, mostly through my love of sci-fi horror video games. 

Kirstie: What do you think makes space a good setting for horror?

James: Space is dark, cold, vast, and unknown. Space travel on small ships is a horrid combination of fear of flying, the dark, asphyxiation, and claustrophobia. There’s plenty to be afraid of.

Alien (1979)

Kirstie: How do you think horror stories like yours, which centre on isolation, will resonate with 2021 audiences?

James: Feeling isolated is an all too universal experience in 2021, but since interactive and immersive shows are about escapism, I’m hoping to avoid recreating the isolation we’ve all been feeling! Luckily Siren has a character that acts as an audience surrogate who is in an isolated situation. That way our audiences can relate to the character’s fear and anxieties without thinking too much about difficult personal experiences.  

Kirstie: What is your trick to creating effective immersive horror?

James: Good sound design, withholding information for the audience to let their imaginations fill in details, and focusing on an intimate and personal experience. Also, immersive horror gives the audience the opportunity to actually make choices during the experience. Applying pressure and forcing them to make choices is a great source of tension, fear and drama.

Kirstie: How did you go about applying that sense of immersion to a virtual show?

James: It has been a struggle for performers creating online work since last year, and there have been some truly impressive and imaginative shows that have worked in this medium. The work of The Show Must Go OnlineJury GamesParabolic Theatre’s We Have a Situation and the work of CtrlAlt_Repeat, just to name a few.

For me, it’s important not to ignore the fact we are online, but to integrate that into the show. Using all the available technology to get audiences to interact with the world of the show and the cast directly. Whether this is through chat functions, websites, or simply by communicating.

After that, it’s about using the technology we have to create engaging visuals, sound and storytelling. 

Event Horizon (1997)

Kirstie: What are your biggest horror influences?

James: Some classic horror films like Alien and Event Horizon. However, I love the use of sci-fi horror in video games, specifically the Dead Space series, and even some other horror games that focus on simple mechanics and voice performance such as Do You Copy and Five Nights at Freddy’s. These are vital in showing how horror can be created with simple visuals, good audio and voice performance, which is what we’re doing, except live.

Kirstie: What do you hope people take away from the show?

James: A feeling that their choices had consequences during their mission, and hopefully a slight shiver up the spine.

We’d like to give a big thank you to James Dillon for catching up with us!

Siren is running online from Friday 7th May 2021. You can book tickets here and follow the show on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.


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