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Royal Shakespeare Company to Stage a Virtual Reality Show

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) announced in February that it will stage an innovative online performance for socially distanced audience members by adopting live streaming virtual reality (VR) technology. The RSC said that the new productions will be entitled ‘Dream’ and be based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. Dream is expected to begin its run in the spring of 2021 as a part of a collaboration with the Manchester International Festival.

According to the RSC, the production will only be possible thanks to funding from some of the biggest names in UK technology. Innovate UK is involved in the technology behind the play as is Epic Games, the video game production house that is perhaps best-known for Fortnite. Dream will be a genuinely live performance involving real actors taking on the roles of some familiar characters. The big difference with a conventional stage production will be that their performances will be translated to the digital realm via motion capture technology, however.

Theatrical Technology

The move from the RSC is just one of the latest efforts from the theatrical community in the UK to offer people the chance to enjoy live performances once more. All British theatres have suffered greatly in the last twelve months since the global health emergency forced many theatres and other venues to close. Although some re-emergence of the sector was hoped for in the summer of 2020, there has been very little for theatre-goers to experience since then. Technology, it seems, is a way forward until sufficient community immunity to the virus can be achieved.

However, it should be said that the RSC is no stranger to technology in its productions. For example, the theatre company made use of augmented reality (AR) techniques to mix VR with on-stage live performances during a production of the Tempest it staged back in 2016. In that play, live audiences sitting in a real auditorium were able to see the ephemeral character of Ariel brought to life through AR, this time as an animated avatar. The technology meant that Ariel could be seen as though she were dancing through the rafters of the RSC Theatre in Stratford.

The new play will make use of some of what the RSC learned at that time and build upon the sort of experiences theatre-goers were able to enjoy then in new ways. Although animation will still be a part of the mix, it is expected that the mischievous character of Puck will be performed in a more live and interactive way for a fuller and more immersive experience among virtual audience members. To begin with, audiences will need to don VR headsets in order to view the action taking place all around them. The scenes for Dream will be set in a virtual forest, echoing much of the action from the original play. Motion sensors fitted to the actors will allow their performances to alter depending on their virtual surroundings, providing greater opportunities for interactivity with audience members who could be just a few miles down the road or on the other side of the planet.

Audiovisual Entertainment For Everyone

The RSC said the show would make use of the latest gaming technology to bring the show to life. However, this would also include some of the theatrical technology it developed during its Tempest experiments, too. One of the key aspects of the production is that it will not always be about movement and visual effects. An interactive score is expected to be a key part of the innovation in virtual audio, too. This will respond to the actors during the show in a similar way that their avatars will be represented in VR form from their physical movements.

Importantly, the RSC has decided to make its VR production available to people without VR equipment. Given that VR tends to be used only by dedicated video gamers at the moment, the theatrical company elected to make its show available in two-dimensional formats, as well. As such, it will be viewable through tablets and computers via a website as well as headsets. Necessarily, this will limit the immersive nature of the production but it should not mean that audience won’t be able to directly influence the live performance, it is hoped.

“An audience member sitting at home will be able to affect the live production from wherever they are and that is exciting,” said Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director. “It opens up new opportunities… [for us but] it is not a replacement to being in the same space as the performers.” Doran went on to add that he thought Shakespeare was the greatest storyteller to integrate with the creative possibilities of VR technology. The director said that he thought it was great that the company now have the chance to adapt his play so they can discover what might be possible in future live performances.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. He writes extensively for Culture Geek and MuseumNext. Manuel has a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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