“If it’s not live and unique, you can’t call it theatre!” came the challenge from a veteran director to a prediction I shared during a 2019 workshop (remember those?) I ran on the future of performance and immersive technologies.
I had just explained how Virtual Reality (VR) and video game engines, such as Unreal and Unity, were transforming movie production and how they would eventually do the same for theatre.
A lively discussion followed about what made a "piece of theatre" and whether VR could ever replicate it. The conclusion reached was that for a VR experience to be called a “piece of theatre” it must:
Be a unique experience with no two identical performances
Deliver a shared experience
Form connections between performers and audience members based on a reciprocal exchange of energy
I had clearly stumbled into a sensitive area, but our discussion also revealed how, for some artists, the classical principles of theatrical performance are still sacred. While they were open to learning about immersive technologies, the idea that VR could replicate the nuances of a theatrical experience was a step too far.
Understanding this view is important because it may explain why performing arts disciplines continue to be taught without any digital skills or technology elements, despite the many benefits.
That was mid 2019 and back then I didn't have a practical example to counter their point.
But last Saturday evening, as I stood in my living room – VR headset on,
controllers in hand, with my bemused cat circling my feet – preparing for The Under Presents: Tempest to start, I thought: “Could I finally be about to experience a genuine piece of theatre for VR?”
The Tempest experience
Blending live performance with interactive social gaming, Tempest is a stylised dreamlike re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s play for VR. It's the product of a collaboration between developer Tender Claws, specialist in surreal VR, and Pie Hole, an immersive and experiential theatre company, who pioneered the use of live actors in VR with their game The Under.
Players, or rather participants, embody muted mask-wearing spirits, while a live actor (the only character that can speak) guides them through the plot of the Bard’s tragi-comedy, encouraging them to re-enact key moments along the way.
The live actor has a hybrid role: part traditional Shakespearean actor; part workshop facilitator, encouraging collaboration; part drama teacher, summarising the plot and delivering the iambic pentameter for muted Spirits to mime to.
In my group, I was cast as Ferdinand and as our live host spoke my dialogue, I set about “wooing” the Spirit playing Miranda, while simultaneously (in the real-world) avoiding knocking photos off the mantlepiece.
But is Tempest "a piece of theatre"?
For me, Tempest was a clever, thoroughly enjoyable and novel live VR experience, but how did it stack up against my workshop participants' criteria?
A unique experience, with no two identical performances - YES! The live actor’s banter and interactions with the others made my experience unique. The exclusivity became especially clear during an early moment around a campfire when, for reasons unknown, one of my fellow Spirits revealed their inclination for mischief by throwing everything not digitally bolted down into the fire. While this was completely off-script, the comedic responses from the actor and the exchange of puzzled looks from fellow participants, made my experience feel unique.
A shared experience – YES! Just like sitting in a real-world auditorium, for the 40-minutes I was in Tempest, I was part of a group of strangers united by a common purpose, namely, to suspend disbelief, be entertained and have fun. The experience was punctuated by several moments that were clearly designed to reinforce the notion of a collective experience, such as when we all stood in a circle and virtually held hands to create magic.
Form connections between performers and audience members based on a reciprocal exchange of energy - YES! Connections between everyone in the virtual experience are crucial to shaping the overall experience The Tempest delivers, but they’re also subjective. Our live actor displayed great energy and connected well with all participants, who in turn reciprocated by listening, following instructions, getting into character and generally just going with the flow. This helped to make a magical virtual experience, with several particularly memorable and even touching moments.
A blueprint for the future of VR performance
The Under Presents: Tempest demonstrates the potent recipe of immersive technologies and the performing arts, especially in this era of lockdown.
I hope it will inspire others – especially those teaching performing arts today – to see the increasing value, potential and importance of digital skills and immersive technologies to the future of their art, especially given VR’s increasing popularity and the growing appetite among the public for virtual experiences.
'The Under Presents: Tempest' is available exclusively on the Oculus Platform and timed tickets cost £10.99 ($15). To book, download the app via Oculus.