“The Key” – Tribeca Immersive 2019

The Key (World Premiere) – USA, Iraq
Project creator: Celine Tricart
Key collaborator: Gloria Bradbury
Plot: “An interactive VR experience taking the viewer on a journey through memories. Will they be able to unlock the mystery behind the mysterious Key without sacrificing too much?”
Duration: 15 minutes

After The Key won the Storyscapes award at 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, it was nearly impossible to make it onto the timed entry reservation list. But even before this announcement, scheduling proved to be a challenge because the viewing experience is designed for only one person – even with two identical sets built at the Virtual Arcade to accommodate two visitors simultaneously.

So what made The Key so popular amongst both the audience and the jury? Some might say it is the pressing political topic it covers. Some might like it for the successful combination of interactive virtual reality and live performance. To me, it was an unexpected and somewhat controversial blend of fiction and documentary narratives. It took me by surprise and deeply affected me, as I was in tears after the 15-minute session. I realize that I owe much of the effect to the fact that I managed to stay away from any knowledge of what this experience is actually about. Honoring the future viewer’s right to keep the suspense I advise you to not read any further if you want to retain the mystery of The Key. Otherwise, here is my account of the experience.


There are two types of “booths” at Virtual Arcade, open and enclosed. In the first type, the participants are visible to passersby.  Booths are brightly decorated, serving as advertisements of the experience and sometimes as works of art by themselves, similar to the giant jellyfish featured in Drop in the Ocean. The fully enclosed booths, however, often involve actors, sets and plot twists that the creators don’t want to reveal to spectators outside. In addition, physical walls provide a safe space for the viewer, allowing for honest, unmasked emotion and interaction.

As I approach the façade of the booth, I can’t help but stop for a minute to study the dozens of whimsically designed skeleton keys decorating the wall. When I enter the small room, I face an actor wearing a simple white dress, her hair braided, her gaze calmly focusing upon me. She doesn’t speak but I hear her voice through the speaker resting on my clavicle bones like a necklace. Her name is Anna.  She has trouble remembering her past but she hopes to reconnect with it through her vivid dreams, images of which appear on several screens along the walls, each no bigger than a desktop monitor. Anna asks me if I can help to unlock her memories, then puts the VR set on me once I agree.


I am inside Anna’s animated dreams now. I am in her house playing with her three companions, colorful and perky living “spheres” with which I am prompted to interact using a controller.  Then the playtime is abruptly interrupted and I am thrown into a series of gloomy, nightmarish scenes. In a flat and mostly monochrome reality, I face alien-like creatures and various monsters. There is not much that I can do in order to defeat them; the feeling is devastating. But the nightmare ends eventually and I experience a short moment of bliss…only to fall deeper into the despair the next minute.

I learn that my little VR journey was all but a cover-up fantasy of refugee girl’s post-traumatic stress disorder. When I emerge from the VR dream, I meet the actress again. I burst into tears as her eyes represent those of everyone forced away from their destroyed houses and countries shaken by war and violence. I sob as I swipe through pictures on the screens. The images from the dreams are now replaced by documentary-like black and white photos, and short paragraphs of statistics.


This is not the first time that I encounter this sort of information. But the way it is framed is certainly new and very impactful. As I “unlock the mystery of the key,” I am handed my own skeleton key with the word “love.” Giving away a physical token at the end is a great way to remind the viewer of the experience and a successful immersive theatre tool. However, the presentation of the piece can use some reframing. The Key starts out as a beautiful fairytale but then crushes you with real-life trauma, resulting in a discrepancy between its design and its content. I admit that this had a cathartic effect on me largely because the reveal of the secret was a surprise. But is it fair to assume that anybody is up to this kind of surprise?