Relative Motion's Christopher Lane writes for Stage Directors UK, August 2020.
As theatre makers, our reality was turned upside down in March. The questions we are now grappling with are overwhelming: what can we do to survive the pandemic, keep audiences engaged, artists working and an industry from dying? How can we connect with our audiences, tell stories and keep people entertained and, most importantly, safe? The answers to these questions (and many, many more) are varied and far-reaching. But, with hope being at the core of this article, I’d like to propose that virtual reality might be one of the solutions to the problems we face.
Since 2017, our company, Relative Motion, has been exploring the intersection of theatre and virtual reality. If you’re anything like I was, your first reaction to the idea that VR and theatre are a natural fit might be that these two things have as much in common as apples and chainsaws. However, what initially seems a strange pairing actually makes for well-suited companions.
At its most fundamental, VR is a space. Be it created by a 360° camera or a computer generated environment, virtual reality creates places we can inhabit and populate with stories, performers and audiences. The possibilities for VR, from a theatre perspective, are massive and virtually untapped.
With VR being a spatial medium, theatre makers have an advantage in working in it – we are spatial storytellers. Unlike filmmakers – who craft stories through frames and pictures – theatre makers inhabit spaces and tame the interaction between myriad forces that are set free to play there. Space is a cornerstone of our art form and we intrinsically know how to work with it. What may seem like a massive leap for us – moving into the digital realm – is really just a shift into a new kind of performance space.
Another key feature of VR is the connection with the audience, something essential for theatre as well. In VR you craft stories for a participant Single Audience Member (SAM) who sits at the very centre of the story experience (think the inverse of theatre-in-the-round). I use the word participant purposefully. SAM has presence and agency in VR and engages with the story kinesthetically. The amount of engagement depends on the ‘degrees of freedom’ offered by the experience. This has wide reaching implications for storytelling and is reminiscent of the way theatre audiences already engage with our work.
Additionally, SAM’s proximity to the story creates a connection, unique to VR, which builds audience empathy and has rightfully earned VR its reputation as an ‘empathy machine’. Furthermore, VR tricks your brain into believing that you have actually been to the locations and interacted with the characters from the virtual experience. In doing this, VR creates memories for you that are as authentic as those from real life, a theory well supported by neuroscience. Story-living is a more apt description of the VR audience experience and one that we, as theatre makers (traditional and immersive), are poised to harness and develop. SAM can also play various roles in the story. In fusing VR with the classics (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Puccini) we’ve discovered that these ‘legacy stories’ deftly mesh with VR audience/actor dynamics. In VR, like the classics, SAM can be a voyeur who sits outside and watches the story; the conscience of a character; or a character themselves. It’s clear that our theatrical heritage offers up a treasure trove of ideas and practices that can be explored and implemented to the benefit of this new narrative medium.
VR is in its infancy – as unexplored as film was in the early 1900’s. But it’s also at a point where the technology and infrastructure can support mass adoption. Having spent three and a half years exploring theatre and VR, we believe the time is now right for theatre makers to join the conversation and help shape the future of virtual reality. When we combine this moment in VR’s development with the impact of the current pandemic on our industry, our involvement seems all the more prescient.
Virtual reality also offers an exciting way for theatrical organisations to use their expertise and expand their digital remits to develop this new storytelling platform. It allows us to use our existing buildings and infrastructures in dynamic new ways. It lets us take audiences to places where we could never before stage a story, due to location issues or economic viability. It allows us to create vibrant, inspired content that will entice and build audiences for this new medium. The technology also allows us to live stream our work, simply and cost effectively (where 360 camera capture is concerned), to a global audience. While VR will never replace theatre, it can give us an opportunity to use our skills in new, but familiar, ways.
We believe this pandemic provides a catalyst for theatre makers and VR. Virtual reality has been waiting for us to step into the ring; to create content and shape distribution models that advance the medium. The technology is more ubiquitous, sophisticated and affordable than ever and distribution platforms, like YouTube, support 360° content and spatial audio. Whether you have a VR headset, a mobile device, or just your laptop anyone can now engage with immersive digital content – creating and sharing this work has never been easier. In taking up this mantle, we, as theatre makers and organisations can, to some degree, future proof ourselves from social disruptions like this pandemic. In doing so, we can foster a new storytelling genre, populate new performance spaces and create new revenue streams that will be advantageous in robust times, as well as lean.
We are witnessing the birth of a new way to tell stories – as we did with the printing press, radio, film and TV. At a time where Covid-19 has rendered our traditional spaces not just out of bounds, but dangerous, VR provides an answer to some of our unprecedented questions and a new, safe space for us to share stories with our audiences. We have an opportunity to be vanguards, to shape the future of VR, and it’s a baton we at Relative Motion believe we should take with both hands.