Theatrical Realities

What does virtual reality mean for live theatre?

Stills from Freedom Studios’ North Country
Imran: I’d learn a lot by seeing your process. Taz and I were talking last night about how we might take some of that learning into VR and what a great fit it’d be to have you help craft some experiences with us. BTW, I’m pinching a 360º camera soon to have a play around with if you fancy trying anything out!
Alex: 360 Camera sounds like fun!
Imran: Gonna be borrowing a Ricoh Theta 360º cam from the University next week if you fancy a play about with some ideas and experiments?
Zsolt: Definitely! Have a few things I’d love to try out, to see if they’re possible/useful/weird

And so began a micro-collaboration between Freedom Studios, Mothership and ourselves, Carbon Imagineering, to collide theatre, film and synthetic digital realities.


Last last year, we developed some concept VR and AR experiences with Tribe Arts, to see if we could use immersive technologies to help Tribe realise their goal of making theatre more “cinematic”. These concepts ranged from enhancing theatregoers’ experience with augmented reality narrative layers, to a series of virtual reality vignettes on the experiences of Indian troops in WW2.

Though our work with Tribe didn’t move forward, we couldn’t stop imagining the possibilities for what we started to think of as Theatrical Reality.

This summer, I was fortunate enough to strike up a deep nerdcrush with Freedom’s Alex Chisholm and we convinced each other that I should join her company as a technologist-in-residence to explore those possibilities.

Alex invited me to observe rehearsals for her production of Tajinder Singh Hayer’s North Country, a decades-spanning post-apocalypic tale set in a future Bradford recovering from a plague that has wiped out most of humanity.

North Country was to be staged in the basement floor of a recently vacated M&S food hall, taken over by the Wild Woods project. Designed by Uzma Kazi, the set was already immersive, with audience seating arranged in a square around the performers.


A 360º still of Uzma’s Kazi’s North Country set, in Bradford’s Wild Woods.

Alex and I first thought about capturing Uzma’s set as a set of linked 360º stills and videos, then toyed with capturing a scene from the point-of-view of one of the actors. How would we stage that? Would the performer need to exaggerate their gestures, physicality and vocalisation? Could we stream live to an audience?

Our filmmaker friend Zsolt Sandor was keen to experiment with 360º video too, so we borrowed a Ricoh Theta S from the University of Leeds’ Pararchive project and started to goof around with the camera, figuring out how we’d direct the scene and understanding the physics of the set.

Alex cleverly picked a scene towards the end of the play, where the three principle characters are passing judgement over an unseen character, “Railton”, being tried for murder.

We’d been thinking about the possibilities of world-building and how it enables you to take a story and reframe it from any point-of-view. So we shifted the story to put Railton at the centre, to make his point-of-view our point-of-view.

Railton would now be a played by a chair with the camera fixed at eye level. Our three performers, would circle Railton keeping eye-contact with the camera whilst performing their dialogue, providing the audience with the perspective of a key character.

360º stills of the cast and crew, preparing the “Railton” scene.

We managed to shoot the final three minute scene, representing two pages of dialogue, within a couple of takes. The actors (Natalie Davies, Philip Duguid-McQuillan and Kamal Kaan) adapted their physicality quickly to the presence of the camera, treating it as just another actor.

Frustratingly, the Ricoh camera could only transfer footage wirelessly onto a phone or tablet and kept crashing at each attempt. We couldn’t review the footage and with the show opening in just a few hours, we wouldn’t have time to reshoot anyway.

Fortunately, the footage was as we’d hoped, capturing the intensity of the scene as well the unspoken perspective of a key character. We wondered whether to release the scene as a promotional extra, but decided a technological gimmick might distract from the intrinsic quality of the work.

We also realised shooting with a 360º camera in an immersive set meant the crew had nowhere to hide! Without a fourth wall, we all had to disappear while the scene was playing out. We also discovered editing 360º video with our usual tools stripped the metadata that identifies it as 360º content, requiring it to be inelegantly reinjected with another tool.


Our earlier work with Tribe Arts allowed us to explore how augmented reality might be employed to enhance live performances, though we always worried that headsets and phones might be isolating and distracting.

Conversley, our work with Freedom helped us think about virtual realities that might not be experienced during a performance, but open new persectives on that performance before or after the event.

Ultimately, the scene was a lo-fi prototype we produced for ourselves, to provoke questions and conversations amongst designers, directors, performers, and technologists about the possibilities of virtual reality in theatre.

Freedom, Carbon and Mothership are not the first to be thinking about Theatrical Reality. Indeed, the National Theatre has recently launched its Immersive Storytelling Studio.

National Theatre’s Wonder.land from its Immersive Storytelling Studio

For Freedom Studios, it is vital that any journeys into immersive storytelling are grounded in its mission to “connect different people and communities through making theatre and telling stories”.

With VR often pitched as an empathy machine, the choice of Railton’s trial as our first foray into the medium, seems entirely appropriate. What kind of virtual worlds could we weave from the universe of North Country, that could help us interrogate our present and find new ways to see each other?

We are used to our empathy being engaged with the protagonist of the story, but characters further away from the protagonist are ‘off stage’ and expendable. Shifting that perspective, enables any character to become the centre — as in life we are all the protagonists of our story. Both as means of storytelling and as an approach to life and problem solving. There is enormous potential in that notion.

There’s an interesting parallel between the improvisational tools of theatre and the malleability of prototyping software. Is that Theatrical Software? Prototype Performances? This Theatrical Reality is perhaps all about playful, experimental values that let us elicit new perspectives from old stories that might connect people and communities in profound ways.