By Shirley Craig

Tanna Frederick is a multi-talented artist, actress and producer. We know her from her many stage performances here in Los Angeles and particularly, the award-winning play, Train to Zakopane, that sold out to record crowds last year. This year has been very busy for her so far as well. The 2016 Iowa Independent Film Festival, of which she is a founder, took place on the weekend of Sept. 16-18 at the Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, she starred in Henry Jaglom's new film Ovation and is opening tonight as both the lead actor and director in A.R. Gurney's hit comedy, Slyvia, at the Odyssey Theater in LA.

Recently, we were lucky enough to talk to Tanna about her groundbreaking virtual reality film “Defrost,” which was shown at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals earlier this year. 

Did you choose to be a producer on this series, or did the production choose you?

Production chose me. I’m not a ‘waiter’, I’m a ‘doer’. If I get swept up in the passion of a role in a project I set my mind to making it and I’m fully immersed and do whatever I have to do to get it done. So finally I just gave up at denying the fact that I like to spin a lot of plates in the projects I do and just took on more and more responsibilities.

In your experience, what does it take to be successful in this field? 

Gosh. I think I’m the last person that has a healthy answer to that. I think I always am dabbling in the feeling of discontent and the feeling of not having accomplished enough that results in needing to do more, be more, discover more, learn more, and perfect more. The hunger to be better keeps me going. The active free-fall of taking more risks and trying out things to feed my soul as an artist and changing and being willing to admit that essentially, after acting for almost 30 years,I  feel sometimes I know less than I did when I was nine, is just where I’m at. So it’s not a choice to be ‘successful’, it’s just a life or death question of survival and needing to create the illusion for a search of meaning in my life. Though I do feel, having pursued ‘the road less traveled’, I’d like to think maybe buried in all this esoteric babble is a sign either I’ve lost it or am getting somewhere cool!

As a multi-genre actor, I imagine you have worked hard to multi-task in your career, balancing a hectic life and work schedules. How difficult is it to both produce and act in a virtual reality series like Defrost? 

It’s much, much easier. Or at least I trick myself into thinking that for now until I get on a set in which I can just sit back put my feet up and indulge in the amenities in my trailer.

Look, it’s exciting. We were, at that time to our knowledge, and still to our knowledge the first VR episodic narrative. Who wants to sit on the bench? When exciting stuff is happening it’s all about being in the game and breaking every metaphorical artistic bone in your body to stay in from the first quarter through the finish. There’s no better rush, no matter how stressful, frightening, impossible it is. No matter how many teeth you lose, as a producer you’re right out there managing and activating every play on the field. That’s living life to it’s fullest for me. If I go home at night and I’m mad as hell and want to spit, I still wake up the next morning and get in the shower and wonder how I’m going to get through the next day, who’s may be mad at me, who I need to make feel good on the ‘team’ and how I can do it, and most importantly how do I make the director feel safe and comfortable and give him all the tools he needs to get his job done, that’s a never ending equation that keeps me going.


Let's talk about working on a VR set - Is working with the Garrison character any different than working on a live stage with an actual person?

Considering humans have two eyes and a VR camera has eight to fifteen ‘eyes’, it’s a little like talking to an alien. But if you substitute that alien feeling for a thawed mother then the acting actually is a bit more convincing hopefully. Randal Kleiser was a brilliant director on this set, and had us do most of the rehearsals with Kelly Desarla, playing Joan Garrison, sitting in the wheelchair so we could all develop a human connection with her. By the time we were shooting, we had that established.

Why is VR the best medium for this story?

Because conceptually even though this was Randal’s story meant to be turned into a film that he originated in film school in 1968, this is a prime example of “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations” as Orson Welles used to say…The equipment wasn’t available at that time or even conceived of so it was put up on a shelf. There are many, many gorgeous stories out there. The artist’s job is to figure out the most conducive and effective way to tell them. The 1968 script which was our pilot made it into Sundance. From there Randal branched off into 11 more episodes. Not every story should be told through VR, but not every short or script we write should be discarded because you never know where the gold is going to be mined from.

Do you consider the machine sit-in kit for Joan as a whole person when delivering lines or are you considering the personhood of the pending audience that will embody her?

I have had a very good rapport  working and friendship-wise, with the woman who played Joan - Kelly DeSarla - for a number of years. I have done two stage productions and two films with her. So I didn’t play the camera as the audience, I played it to her with my attachment to her emotionally. That’s what I’m paid to do - fall in love with a toaster if I have to. And I really, really love toasters. See what I did there? You believed me, didn’t you. Bam. That’s what an Oscar looks folks.


How do you train for a role like this?

Randal and I went down to 3ality, where Steve Schklair and his amazing team Bettina and Matt gave us a 20 minute run down on the Ozo camera I think a day or two days before shooting. I got a couple chances to futz around with the camera, figure out depth of field as an actor which was better for viewer visibility and which was better for emotional effect, and then after the eight or whatever takes we did, I watched the monitor and just learned from my own observation. So it was really fascinating, learning on the spot. There wasn’t much material to take and ‘train’ from because ours was one of the first narrative series of VR that contained ‘episodes’ and had experienced actors in it.

In the study of acting, many methods of extracting performance are used to hone the craft - working with an entirely new phenomenon called "Empathetic Immersion" changes everything! Is it fun working with the prop?

Our VR series is definitely one of the empathetic pieces out there. That’s why I wanted to be a part of it. No one knows how kids’ brains will be affected in fifty to two hundred and fifty years of evolution with the technology of today. Minecraft, gaming, ‘Call of Duty’…It’s a bit frightening personally how a sort of Cartesian ‘Brain in the Vat’ possibility could emerge where we utilize our bodies and emotions less and less and instead just have all of our sensory items fed to us through pieces of technology, it is alarming. So when I saw a chance to assimilate the potential VR or new tech into something which can be used to draw upon human emotion I thought, “Maybe I’m contributing to something good coming out of this tech”. And it became a way to be a part of the solution of presenting other options - other than the countering the minds of young people than alienation and isolation - created by technology through empathy (‘Are you Joan?’) and good first person POV storytelling.

What is it like to leave to chance the line of sight and direction of the main character's feelings and observations when shooting in VR because the audience is in more control of what they are going to watch than with a traditional film? 

We never left it to chance. We had complete control and need to keep complete control over the process in this new medium. It’s very, very calculated - the acting, the blocking, lighting, when we were out of range (of course we were never out of range for the most part because it’s 360 with a slight ever so tiny sliver of a blind spot right behind either side of the eight eyes), factor in on which of us the audio was on (in other words what information needed to be relayed and character was administering that information.

After working with modern technology as intimately as you have producing this VR film, what do you expect producing a series like Defrost will take your career in the future?

I am now creating VR narrative episodic content in the midst of my theatre and film work, but have to admit seeing ‘outside the box’ through VR/AR is giving me a whole new outlook on ideas and storytelling.

In the movie business, a producer's input during the actual movie depends on a relationship with the director. It is sometimes very hands on, sometimes, a sit back and watch the magic happen experience...how does it differ working in VR?

In such a new setting, being one of the first narrative VR’s and new actors, scripts, camera, etc., I was proverbially and literally screwed if I dropped the ball at any step of the way. I kept myself in the game the best I could, asked a lot of questions, worked hard to figure out the answers to problems with our top notch cast and crew, and just kept going and made sure our engine powered and running.

In film, a producers job may be more entrenched or locked down to in an idiom of the studio system or a particular player’s adherence to a particular filmic diatribe, but so far in narrative VR, filmic VR so to speak, is being exceptional, new, and unexplored.

New creatives coming onto the scene have little ego and are eager to show product they’re stoked about, so there’s not a lot of hubris attached to VR. Everyone feels that on set, the actors even vibe it. So the result is this really cool almost advanced media class or master acting class where everyone knows they’re experimenting and creating something really bad-ass for future historians; a group that doesn’t want to muck around because they’re doing it for the cool part of the project which is being lucky enough to be a pioneer of VR and sucking up the glorious unsatiated nature of an artist to reinvent themselves.



Slyvia opens tonight at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles. The play is performed Thursday thru Saturday at 8pm with a matinee on Sunday.  For tickets click here.

For more information about the VR series DeFrost visit their website here.


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