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What virtual reality owes to the stage

What virtual reality owes to the stage

The National Theatre is experimenting with VR. Their early projects show how much the new technology has in common with stagecraft

The National Theatre is experimenting with VR. Their early projects show how much the new technology has in common with stagecraft

Fred Maynard | August 31st 2016

Everywhere you look there is mess. Plastic bags blow across the campsite, getting stuck on fences or in puddles of sludge. As you walk, you catch people watching your progress – not hostile, just curious and impassive. The sky is slate grey and the temporary structures of canvas and plywood that pass for houses squat shapelessly in the mud, their forlorn ranks only just approximating streets. Welcome to the Jungle, Calais.

I haven’t actually been to this refugee camp – at least not in person. The National Theatre in London has given me a virtual-reality headset, which allows users to enter the world of a project called “Home”. The first piece from the theatre’s VR Storytelling Studio, it tells the story of a refugee named Aamir. He never appears himself – we hear his words about his long flight from Sudan through an actor’s voice – but everything we can see of the camp is from his point of view. Sometimes we are walking through the dirt, sometimes sitting inside one of the tents as the wind whips at the canvas, and all the while the voice tells a story of violence and fear. As you follow the narrative you are free to look wherever you like, exploring the camp’s grim atmosphere.

“Home” premiered at a film festival, the Sheffield Doc/Fest, earlier this summer. But it has more in common with a piece of theatre. VR is still in its early days, but what is already clear is that many of the traditional skills that a film-maker uses become irrelevant when the viewer is able to turn their head 360 degrees. Lighting, focus, framing, cutting: all the tools that allow a director to point the audience toward something or to suggest something are drastically reduced. The auteur, the artist who knows exactly what they want the audience to see, has no place in a VR world.

Theatre, on the other hand, is a medium already comfortable with an audience that is free to look where it wants. “The completely open spaces of a VR world,” says Toby Coffey, the National’s head of digital development who co-directed the project alongside Rufus Norris and Erfan Saadati, “are more akin to the open space of a stage than they are the 21:9 frame of a film”.

Long gone are the days when a theatre was just a proscenium arch and stalls of punters: companies like Punchdrunk let audiences wander around vast multi-storey buildings, figuring out the story for themselves. They might discover a letter in a drawer that reveals some part of the backstory, or come across a murder scene unnoticed by other audience members, or simply drink in the strange atmosphere from the sets. As in a VR world, their path is entirely up to them. Meanwhile Simon McBurney’s one-man piece “The Encounter”, which opens in New York in September, uses audience headsets and three-dimensional sound to take people directly into the 360-degree soundscape of the Amazon rainforest, creating an experience at once individual and shared. He even wanders “across your brain” by slowly transferring his voice from one of your ears to the other.

Later this year a VR experience called “Easter Rising” will be available to visitors in the foyer of the National’s Lyttleton theatre. Produced by the BBC and two VR companies, Crossover Labs and VRTOV, it allows you to explore Dublin in 1916 from the point of view of a participant, and is a companion piece to a play called “The Plough and the Stars” which tackles the same subject. Coffey and Norris, artistic director of the National, are not the only ones to see the link between the stage and this new technology. A British VR company called Breaking Fourth employed theatre makers to create “Ctrl”, a virtual-reality project shown at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art earlier this year. It used theatrical tricks, like plays within plays and situating the audience within the action.

As well as the narrative techniques offered by the new technology, VR can help to solve one of theatre’s main limitations: having to be in a particular place to watch performances. While a limited number of productions have been streamed live to cinemas around Britain in recent years, VR promises to bring an even greater audience explosion. With a VR headset, everyone from a teenager in Bogotá to a pensioner in Lagos will be able to watch as Tom Hiddleston delivers a Hamlet soliloquy in the West End, or roam around an immersive world where the story unfolds at your own pace as you explore buildings, soak up atmosphere, and happen upon crucial plot points. VR as a medium is in its infancy, but it may turn out that many of its innovations have already been tried out on the boards.

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