Although virtual reality (VR) is nothing new – it has been around since the 1970s in the field of flight simulation – it has yet to become an everyday household technology. True, this is changing as more and more video gamers have embraced the technology to enhance the immersive aspects of their gameplay. Moreover, VR is being given a new lease of life in the theatrical world. Let’s face it – theatrical productions have always sought to make use of new technologies to make their shows more thrilling or novel. Anything from digital stage lighting the inventive use of mirrors has been leveraged in numerous ways to delight audiences.
Today, it is VR’s turn to provide the stage with new and exciting ways of entertaining people. Such experiences are not necessarily being utilised as a gimmick, either. Some of the ways theatres have put VR to use have been very inventive indeed. With that in mind, it should be said that other technologies – such as mixed reality, which blends on-stage performances with graphics, and augmented reality, which makes perceivable differences to real-world objects – are also in use in contemporary theatre. Technically speaking, VR is not the same as either mixed reality or augmented reality but with some showmanship, theatrical directors have nevertheless blended the three types of technology to mean just one thing to theatre-goers.
Simply put, this is a sense of reality that goes beyond historic theatrical norms. Its use requires audiences to suspend their disbelief even less than they already might have, for example. Indeed, given the way that some theatres are going about leveraging this technology, it can even add to the sense of imagination that audience members already possess. How is VR being put to use theatrically given that for the last twelve months or so, audiences have been locked out of theatres but craving new productions?
The National Theatre
Although VR technology gives theatres the chance to provide audiences with a virtual experience that is much like an in-person one, the technology was being deployed by the National Theatre in London long before the coronavirus pandemic struck. In fact, it was as far back as 2016 when the National Theatre set up its experimental Immersive Storytelling Studio. The studio was charged with pushing the boundaries of both VR and conventional theatre to come up with imaginative ways that technology could enhance the experiences of audiences and, in some cases, to tell stories in entirely new ways.
What these experiments led to was a novel production that ran in the summer of 2019, in what was billed as a response to the National Theatre’s smash-hit adaptation of Small Island. Using the latest in VR technology to handle the production’s staging, audiences were able to step into the performance space in a virtual sense and wander around the musicians who featured in the performance for an immersive theatrical and musical experience. Featuring reggae, grime, classical and calypso music, the production, which was called All Kinds of Limbo, was a musical journey through the Caribbean culture. The show ran for twenty minutes and was run in parallel with a hologram experience that audience members could marvel at the same time.
Essentially, All Kinds of Limbo was an extended music video that was shot in 360 degrees through which audience members equipped with a VR headset could enter. At the time, the head of digital development at the National Theatre, Toby Coffey said that the new wave of technologies available brings with them the potential for storytelling in new genres of theatre. “One of the most exciting things,” he said, “is to see writers, directors and designers work in collaboration with creative technicians and to observe them exploring their craft with new ways of storytelling.”
The Royal Shakespeare Company
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is another forward-thinking theatrical company when it comes to VR. It is already part of a venture to work out how VR will impact more widely on culture, not just the theatrical performances of the future, but video production, music and gaming. The so-called Audience of the Future programme, of which the RSC is a key player, was formed by the UK government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, a branch of UK Research and Innovation.
Sarah Ellis, the RSC’s director of digital development said that digital innovation in theatre is at what she saw as a pivotal moment. “With an increasing number of methods by which audiences can experience live performances,” she said, “culture will develop as the technology that supports it advances.”According to Ellis, the Audience of the Future scheme has given the world-famous theatre company the time, space and resources it needed to explore the possibilities that VF affords. “Some of the best minds in both the creative and research sectors are working collaboratively in this unique endeavour,” she said.
The RSC wants to get to grips with the future potential of VR in live performances and what that might mean for companies that produce much-loved and well-known plays. Although plans to introduce VR into some of its offerings in the 2020 season were scuppered by the public healthcare crisis, the RSC is no stranger to showcasing the theatrical merits of technology. Famously, an RSC production of the Tempest in 2016 used a digital avatar for the first time. Mark Quartley wore a motion capture suit to act out the role of Aerial in real-time with other actors even though he was not physically present on stage. Given that track record, it is hardly surprising that the RSC is championing VR, nor that it is sharing its research with the rest of the theatrical sector in the UK.
Cosmos Within Us
In a unique technological story-telling experiment, Cosmos Within Us was able to blur the lines between VR and theatrical performances successfully. With a combination of state-of-the-art tech, highly polished audio-scapes as well as using scent and touch, this production explored the often subtle connections between memory and senses in 2019. Cosmos Within Us was directed by Tupac Martir.
What was noteworthy about this production is that it could be viewed as a piece of cinema just as much as a stage production. It used voiceover actors, for example, and was delivered to audience members entirely through their VR headsets. However, what they were viewing was realised in real-time so it managed to transcend many boundaries in its exploration of technology in performance art.
Located in Tel Aviv, ARShow is a social streaming platform that makes use of augmented realities to allow audiences to experience both mixed and virtual states with one another. By making use of a single operating system, the Israeli technology company can make augmented reality content that will entertain lots of people at the same time. Because ARShow can be synchronised to an unlimited number of devices, a group experience is possible, something that many people have been missing since social distancing measures came into being in 2020.
“ARShow’s greatest advantage in the entertainment arena is the interactive side of the technology,” said Sasha Kreindlin, the company’s founder. According to Kreindlin, artists are currently further down the line with the technology than the public but he envisages a world when people will stream VR shows in much the same way as they do TV programmes nowadays. On the stage, ARShow has enabled the Gesher Theatre in Tel Aviv to bring VR elements to one of its productions. In an adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels, the theatre used headsets with ARShow’s systems loaded into them to provide audience members with several virtual experiences.
Although Tender Claws is not a theatrical company, it has been pushing at the boundaries of what theatre can be over the last few years. An independent game developer based in Los Angeles, Tender Claws broke new ground with a 2017 release called Virtual Virtual Reality. This interactive game, presentation or theatrical production – depending on what you take from it – was set in the future and imagined a virtual labour system to keep people occupied in a world where automation had taken everyone’s jobs away. The title was made available on Oculus, a big VR gaming platform, as well as on Sony’s PlayStation VR system.
In 2020, Tender Claws came up with the Under Presents. Again, strictly speaking, the Under Presents is a video game that makes clever use of VR technology. Developed with a New York theatrical team called Piehole, what made the Under Presents different from any game that had come before it was the use of actors working in real-time. Their performances were scripted and delivered to players in a direct fashion. As such, the game is also a show in a much more traditional sense of the word, albeit a theatrical one that uses modern tech to reach its audience.
Tara Ahmadinejad, the collaborating director from Piehole who worked on the Under Presents said that her team’s performances meant that cabaret, drag and commedia dell’arte all intersected with one another. According to her, mask type performances and puppetry were also given the VR treatment to enhance the entertainment of gamers still further. Currently, Tender Claws is developing the sort of technical approaches it utilised in the Under Presents for a new version of the Tempest. This is billed as much more of an immersive theatrical performance than a game although it is expected that the game developer is likely to defy any attempts to pigeon-hole it once more.
Somnai was a groundbreaking theatrical production that used VR or, more accurately, mixed reality to create a dream sequence in the middle of the show. Somnai was a genre-defying production in many ways with a set that was split over two storeys of a warehouse in London. Audience members, or users as they were referred to when Somnai ran in 2018, were supposedly attending a sleep clinic with freedom to roam and explore the production as it unfolded.
In order to make theatregoers get the sense that they had, indeed, fallen into an altered state of slumber, dotdotdot – the production company that staged Somnai – made use of VR technology, three dimensional sound and old-fashioned physical interactions with actors to create something entirely new. Dotdotdot is working on a new production which will use similar levels of technology in an adaptation of the War of the Worlds.
Like ARShow, LIVR is a platform for delivering VR theatre to people wherever they are. Essentially, it is a VR version of Netflix which provides content on demand. However, the big difference with this platform is that it only shows as-live recordings of theatrical productions. This is a key factor during lockdowns when theatregoers have been longing to see something on the stage but unable to. LIVR has a flexible commercial model that allows subscribers to cancel at any time. It also adds new content every month so there should always be something available to keep fans of theatre entertained.
Compatible with some of the main VR delivery platforms, such as Samsung’s Gear VR and Oculus, LIVR offers a wide range of shows. One of its biggest hits in recent times was a production of Hamlet starring the former MP Gyles Brandreth. It also has productions of Orpheus and an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, ready to stream. There are plenty of others, too.
LIVR uses a 360-degree camera to shoot a stage production from the front row. This means that subscribers to the service won’t necessarily get a fully interactive experience but it will make them feel more like they are watching real theatre without any cuts or changes of camera angle that you see in many filmed versions of stage plays. Of course, by sporting a VR headset, it is possible to look at the action wherever you want to and to focus on what you want to pay most attention to, just like you would as a real audience member. As such, LIVR may be using VR in the most straightforward way possible but this does not mean that it hasn’t found a unique commercial model for brining virtual theatre into people’s homes in a way that could catch on.
About the author – Jim Richardson
Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with the museum sector on digital and innovation projects for more than twenty years and now splits his time between delivering consultancy, innovation workshops and keynote presentations.