Features Published 27 October 2020

Could virtual reality change the way we see theatre?

Neil Bettles, artistic director of Manchester-based company ThickSkin, writes on how experimenting with VR could bring touring theatre to new audiences

Neil Bettles

Ayesha Fazal and Dominic Coffey in PETRICHOR by Thickskin. Photo: Ray Chan

The word ‘experiment’ has been used a vast amount of times over the last few months. At least in my world as artistic director of ThickSkin, a theatre company based in Manchester. Usually, we create new productions that tour to venues around the country, but this all changed in March as theatres closed their doors and audiences stayed at home and socially distanced.

Way back before we knew the word Covid we had been developing a programme of work called MATCHBOX; smaller pieces of work geared towards engaging young people with their local theatres through innovative use of digital technology. Virtual reality had been talked about as an add-on to a physical production that would initially get people excited about the work and then bring them together to create and perform in the live show. With theatres closed, we decided to take a leap and experiment – by developing the piece into a longer experience in mobile 360° video that could be experienced by anyone, anywhere.

We have always been interested in performance that we can take into community settings; performance that might bridge a gap between people regularly attending their local theatre and people we might be able to entice through the doors to experience more. MATCHBOX is our way of doing just that, enabling us to reach new and younger audiences, and to advocate for widened digital access.

Still, the first thing we learnt is that the virtual world is no substitute for the real world. Sitting in a virtual theatre space is good if you can’t get to a real one but it misses the small details. The atmosphere and the smells are hard to recreate and the experience can feel like absorbing something second hand. We didn’t want to try and present the thing we miss the most: gathering together to watch live events. We had to create a different offer.

For us, that meant taking our experiments with VR one step further. VR has unique selling points that you don’t get with livestreams and, sometimes, live theatre. It puts an audience member in the centre of the action, free to look wherever they choose; not always at the performers. It means we can be clever with how the viewer settles into the world and starts to feel the freedom to follow the action in whatever way they wish. The sight lines are always good because you place the viewer in the best seat in the house. And VR also offers a huge amount of flexibility to both venues and viewers, allowing them to respond to local lockdown conditions and audience preferences.

Thickskin’s new performance PETRICHOR takes full advantage of this flexibility. Released to the world on the 26th October, it will tour online to venues around the UK, but some venues are also hosting an in-person experience where audiences can go to a theatre, put on a VR headset and watch the 30 minute show.

As our first dip into the world of VR we have learnt a huge amount. Our team had to be smaller than usual because of the Covid-19 health and safety restrictions in place. All of us took on more roles as a result, and worked to find ways to navigate problems together. It felt very DIY, in a brilliant way. What we’ve ended up making is a hybrid of theatre and film which is rehearsed very much like a theatre production but then hands itself over to film terminology, techniques and structures. It has a set; a 6m x 6m cube with projection screens on each wall, brought to life by Ben Walden’s brilliant animated world and an Insta360 camera right in the centre. It has theatre lighting and the room feels like a theatre when we are filming. The directors Jonnie Riordan and Jess Williams work closely with two dancers who create brilliant performances for us to capture. They have never worked in this way before and have fully embraced the challenge of creating movement for 360° film.

Still, however much the room might feel like a theatre, we are constantly aware that the final product is a film, no matter which way we make it. So we’re use filmic editing techniques to finesse the show. We jump cut and reverse and play with speed, all of which is carefully planned into the movement sequences beforehand. The actors work to a rough score of the music in the show, while some tracks are just clicks and counts to keep the performers in time. The full music is being added after the edit is put together. The use of a mic becomes essential when our performers are enclosed in the cube and cannot see the directors. They monitor the performers’ movements, using a second 360° camera and a monitor ipad calling counts, set up specific moments of action and to start and stop the scenes. It’s complex and brilliant to watch.

This two week making and filming process has been unlike any we have had before. Not just because of the health and safety restrictions that Covid-19 has landed on us, but because there was no running headfirst towards a public performance. The final shot was filmed and we made a few speeches and then we took the set down and went home. The work itself carried on, however. Jim Dawson, our film-maker, began stitching the 360° video together. I started mixing and mastering the final tracks that would be used on the film, and our company continued to find ways for as many people as possible to access the work.

Over the past few months we have watched the theatre sector sit up and take stock of what they have and look at ways to use their assets in a time of great uncertainty and change. I watched the NT live shows and felt the longing to visit a theatre again. I took part in Zoom performances which inspired me, most notably The House Never Wins by Kill The Cat Theatre and the online version of Rich Kids: A History Of Shopping Malls In Tehran, both of which presented an existing work in new and interactive ways. It proves how flexible we can be and how quickly we can adapt in certain situations. Still, although lockdown has primed audiences to be open to experiments, whether that means holding Zoom birthday parties or attending innovative online performances, I don’t think that VR will take over live theatre anytime soon – for now, it exists in the cool underbelly of alternative ways to access performance, grounded in gaming and role play. Some people will think it’s gimmicky while others will appreciate the evolution of theatre as an artform through new technologies. Still, given time, these things do bleed into the everyday. Like the internet and mobile phones, VR technology is developing at speed. Even a few years ago it would have been very hard to create anything like what we have made in PETRICHOR. The tech just wasn’t there. But now, just as we hit production for PETRICHOR, Oculus has announced the release of its Quest 2 headset – a cheaper, lighter, and higher-resolution successor to the original Quest – which is now what people will experience the show on if they head to a theatre for the in-person version.

Of course, it will not be the same as watching live performance happen right in front of you. There is no substitute for live theatre. It is just something different, and as long as we go into these things with an open mind and are aware of the possibilities that might come from this technology then I think there can be a way for the VR world to sit alongside the real world.

So we are using the word ‘experiment’ to allow ourselves the space to discover the good and bad things about making theatre for a VR format. It was equally challenging and rewarding and we won’t know if we got it right until the first audiences experience our new show PETRICHOR, but I’m delighted that we tried. In the face of all the doom and gloom we ventured into the unknown.

PETRICHOR is on tour until 13th December 2020, with venues including The Lowry Salford (26th October – 1st November), Tron Theatre, Glasgow (2nd – 8th November), The Gaiety Theatre, Ayr (9th – 15th November), Derby Theatre, Derby (16th – 22nd November), Oldham Coliseum Theatre, Oldham (20th – 21st November), Crewe Lyceum Theatre, Crewe (23rd – 29th November), The Core at Corby Cube, Corby (30th November – 6th December and Theatre Royal Stratford East, London (7th – 13th December). Book tickets via individual venues, or through Thickskin’s website

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Neil Bettles

Neil Bettles is co-founder and artistic director of Manchester-based company ThickSkin: follow their work at @ThickSkinTweets

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