#2: A new reality for theatre [13/12/20]

Iz Potter

In the second edition of our blog, Technical Director Iz Potter discusses the exciting theatrical potential of virtual reality.

At the start of 2020, Only Lucky Dogs had exciting things on the horizon. We’d become a proper limited company, we’d secured a venue for the Edinburgh Fringe 2020 for A Few Short Studies On Cannibalism, and we were excitedly developing our partnership with Portland Works. However, as we are all too well aware, most of our plans, along with many others across the country, were cut short. Instead, we were faced with a year of uncertainty, and saddening lack of live theatre. The performing arts and those who pursue them are nothing if not creative and quickly adapted to this new way of life and creating live events. It’s been incredible to watch artists around the country create Zoom performances and live streams from their houses, or perform outdoor concerts for neighbours.

This new face of the performing arts has created interesting ideas, which I’ve found particularly inspiring with limited access to our own theatre space. Some of the artists programmed at Portland Works are located internationally, but with the introduction of the second lockdown even those who live locally can’t visit the space. I’ve started researching how we can still make the space useful, specifically how audiences can engage with and create theatre remotely through the use of simulated virtual reality. Virtual reality, often seen in futuristic films and known for its popularity in gaming, has been slowly making its way into other industries. Its applications within theatre are wider than they might first appear, benefiting the performance industry in a variety of ways, saving time and money, and pushing innovation and efficiency.

VR in pre-production

Since VR’s first mainstream uses in 2016, it has rapidly gained widespread appeal. Its uses can be split into two categories with very different appeals and advantages; pre-production and performance. As anyone with experience in the industry will know, before a show can come alive on the stage, an incredibly dedicated team of technicians ensure the creative vision of the production team is brought to life. This requires weeks of designing followed by long hours building, focusing, and programming and, as anyone who has performed at the Fringe can attest to, theatre turnarounds are often very short. VR can help designers to create and present ideas accurately before quickly reproducing them in a theatre. This reduces the time needed between shows, and reduce time and resources wasted in creating designs that don’t fit the production teams’ liking.

VR in performances

Perhaps even more exciting is VR’s use in performance itself, and shows that have utilised it so far have only begun to scratch the surface of what might be possible. The most obvious use of VR is for live streaming events, which provides so many opportunities to widen the audience reached, well beyond those who can attend a live performance. In terms of accessibility this is really exciting, because theatre can be expensive, and often takes place in spaces with limited physical access. With VR the cost of watching live theatre can be lowered considerably. LIVR, for example, charge a small monthly fee in exchange for a headset and a selection of shows to stream. Imagine NT Live - but in 360 degrees! This is also an incredible development in access for those who cannot physically attend a performance, due to distance or the inaccessibility of older and ill-adapted theatre venues.

Immersive theatre

Immersive theatre directly engages with audiences give them greater involvement in a production, plunging them into a totally absorbing reality. Of course, this can be greatly aided by the introduction of VR to create an even more realistic environment. In 2016 the ever-innovative Punchdrunk collaborated with Samsung to create one of the first successful immersive VR theatre pieces, Believe Your Eyes. The piece was awarded a Silver Lion in the Entertainment category at Cannes 2017 and was lauded as an exciting future for performance. Punchdrunk continues to collaborate on high-profile VR projects such as StoryFutures and Audience of the Future. VR can also be used in interactive performance. Excitingly, this has been explored by AΦE, whose production WHIST "merges Physical Theatre, interactive Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies and an art installation". Placing audience members in an art gallery with VR headsets on, it allows them to move around the space and feel real objects whilst experiencing a production through their headset.

The future of VR

Virtual reality in theatre has a really exciting future, especially in the world we currently live in, as it allows access to spaces that are temporarily closed. At Portland Works, while we develop our first season of live work, I will be looking to create a virtual Makerspace that can be accessed online by designers and production teams while the space is inaccessible. VR can save designers time and companies money in pre-production. It allows for greater accessibility for people who can’t see live theatre, through financial and physical challenges to experience it from their own home. While we, as an industry, fix those barriers, it provides a fantastic alternative. And in a world where technology is evolving rapidly and becoming ever more integrated into our lives, it gives theatre a direct relationship with a technologically-innovative industry.

If you’re interested in learning more about VR, here’s a great website created by students at Brown University with a wide span of knowledge.

In the next few months I’ll be posting more about how we are going to use VR to showcase our lovely Makerspace while we are restricted in our access to it. Follow us on social media @onlyluckydogs and signup to our mailing list here.