Winner of the XR financing market prize at this year’s NewImages Festival, the allegorical fairy tale “A City of Foxes” situates a live performance within a detailed, mythic landscape reminiscent of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

After developing the project at Venice’s Biennale College Lab in 2018, director Nihaarika Negi partnered with Paris-based Tamanoir Immersive Studio, a startup dedicated to mixing new technologies with performing arts, to further shape this hybrid work.

Designed for one to three users at a time, the 50-minute interactive experience thrusts participants into a fantasy world of epic ruins, casting them as anonymous, cloaked “flutterers,” sent to find a dying fox and retrieve its eventual remains. Played by a live performer in a motion capture suit, the fox engages the user in conversation, posing a series of pointed questions meant to foster deep connection.

“It’s the job of the performer to create this emotional bond,” said producer Rémi Large during the project’s pitch. “At the end of the experience you’re just sad that you have to leave the fox.”

While the performer playing the fox has free rein to improvise, changing the environment at will, their prompts stem from the 36 questions sociologist Arthur Aron devised to help individuals develop immediate understanding between one another.

“[The project] allows you to share a moment of deep intimacy,” said Negi in the pitch. “In a way that might not be possible in the everyday. Drawing upon our research from 36 questions, we create an emotional, fantastical encounter that places the audience and their engagement at the center of the live experience.”

“As an immersive theatre-maker and filmmaker, I’m most interested in being able to open up these shared spaces for conversation and contemplation between people coming from different backgrounds,” she added.

Within the context of the story, this dying fox is the last of its kind, the final, fading ember of a magical breed hunted and slaughtered in this dreamlike world.

“[The project creates] this framework of a fantastical story to lure you into a world that is magical and full of wonder, but slowly allows you to sit with things that are uncomfortable and difficult to speak about,” Negi said. “In many ways it is about us having a conversation with an oppressed other that is almost like a child of war.”

“As someone of a part-tribal identity from India, I’ve always appeared foreign in every land including my own,” she continued. “I’ve lived across the U.K. and the U.S. … and have become acutely aware of borders. I’ve often wondered of my own complicity in a world in which the loudest voices reign. These thoughts have enabled me to understand the power of silence and listening as a form of resistance in a world that values the din of divisive rhetoric.”