Immersive Theatre

Marco Gillies
Feb 26, 2018 · 11 min read
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The Great Gatsby

The other day, for our wedding anniversary, my wife and I went to see a play about marital infidelity. It was The Great Gatsby by the immersive ensemble. Because it uses the word immersive and because you’re reading this on my blog you might think that it was some kind of VR play but actually it had nothing to do with virtual reality at all. It was what is called immersive theatre.

Immersive Theatre is a theatre play that happens in the real world with real actors. Nothing virtual at all but rather than the audience simply sitting on their seats and watching a play on the stage the audience are immersed in the play. They are part of the play, they’re in the same space as the actors, and in most cases interact with the actors.

Immersive theatre is a very exciting medium that’s emerged over the last 10 or 20 years and there’s a lot of great work happening in it. I myself have done a little bit of work in immersive theatre with a company called Coney taking their kind of immersive show and adding an online networked element to it, in a show that was called Better Than Life.

Immersive Theatre and VR

Immersive theatre has actually been talked about a lot in virtual reality circles as a good model for how to do VR. A lot of people are talking about film and VR but film is is too static not interactive enough. A lot of people are talking about games but VR can be more about more than games it can be about rich narrative. Immersive theatre could actually be a really good model because it is has a lot of narrative, it’s great storytelling medium, but also very interactive and, as its name suggests, immersive.

Going to the Great Gatsby got me thinking about immersive theatre as a medium again and I’ll share some of my thoughts. In particular I want to talk about three different shows that I’ve seen each of which I think has a very different model of how the audience relates to the unfolding story of the show and each of which is interesting for Virtual Reality. I’m going to talk about is a show called the Drowned Man by Punchdrunk a show called Early Days (of a better nation) by Coney, who I’ve collaborated with, and the show I’ve just seen the Great Gatsby by the Immersive Ensemble.

The Drowned Man by Punchdrunk

The drowned man

Punchdrunk are one of the most respected and high profile immersive theatre ensembles and their shows have an incredible scale and production quality. The experiences can be truly amazing.

The Drowned Man was a large scale show happening in a big warehouse space. You enter into this show via as a lift that takes you into a recreation of 1950s Hollywood.

Punchdrunk creates a fairly traditional narrative in that there is a fixed story, but one which happens in lots of different places across this warehouse space. There are many things happening at the same time and rather than simply sitting in one place and watching the entire show you can walk freely around the environment and see the different things that are happening in different places. So by taking a different path around the experience you will get a different view of the show, though the story itself doesn’t change.

What you don’t do is interact with the actors. So as you walk in you’re given a mask and you’re told to walk freely but not to try to talk to or in any way interact with the actors as they are performing their work the same the same way they will every single night.

Though you can move around and choose which parts to look at, you don’t have any impact on the story and you don’t have any sense of interaction with the story. So while Punchdrunk creates what I think are fantastic experiences, I also feel it’s not a very exciting model for VR because it really does leave out the interaction. Unless it’s done very well that kind of experience can feel a bit strange because you’re just sitting in this environment and nobody is acknowledging you, as if you are a ghost.

Early Days (of a Better Nation) by Coney

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Early days (of a better nation)

I’ve worked with Coney in the past, in particular Annette Mees and Tom Bowtell. But I’m not going to talk about the show that I worked on with them, partially because I never actually saw the show. My part of the show that I was working on the online technological part, not the live theatrical part. So I was sitting behind the scenes during show panicking running around making sure that the online stuff was working and I only got a sketchy view of what was actually happening in the life space. But I also went to one of their other shows, Early Days (of a Better Nation) which is an entirely live show and I think this is another really interesting model for VR.

It was very different from Punchdrunk. Where in Punchdrunk there was a very defined story and you walk around it simply observing, in Coney’s piece the audience is an integral part of the action.

We were brought into a room and with an actor and a group of other audience members but the actor was wasn’t performing a story he was guiding us and giving us instructions of what to do. The story came from what we did.

The setting was that we there had just been a revolution in our country and people from different parts of the country were gathered together to decide how to run the country after the revolution, how to create the government of this new nation.

In our small group, when he first walked in, we were told to find out what was happening and to do research on papers that were scattered about the room. We had to figure out how to deal with problems like rioting and angry mobs. Law and Order was collapsing and we had to find some way of dealing with this. We looked at the democratic institutions that existed in other countries to help us guide us in what we were supposed to do.

So rather than being told the story or watching a story we were actually were searching we were looking stuff up we were given books we were reading newspaper articles we were talking amongst ourselves to try and figure out how to build this nation.

The interesting part happened when our group of audience members were led into a big room with other groups. It soon emerged that other groups had been prepared in very different ways so that they had very different views some of them much more autocratic and dictatorial and others much more democratic advocating direct democracy. Every decision had to be made by everybody and we got in there and we argued about it.

The real story of the play was the argument we had about trying to decide how to run this country. It wasn’t carried by actors; it was us as audience members who created that story.

So that’s a really interesting model because it’s not the actors, the characters or a predefined script that create the story but the interaction between audience members. I think that can work in a really interesting way in virtual reality. It’s a model that works by the fact that there can be many different people inside a virtual reality environment so it’s a very multiplayer model. You can imagine setting up a VR environment in such as way that an interesting story can emerge between the different players in the VR environment.

The Great Gatsby by the Immersive Ensemble

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The Great Gatsby

The show we saw last week was different from both of those examples.

Like Punchdrunk, it was a very different definite story. It was telling the story The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a classic novel, so there was no scope for the audience to make up the story as it went. The actors were primarily playing their part in the story and performing it in many ways like a traditional play.

But we, the audience members, unlike in Punchdrunk, were involved in various ways. There were some moments where there were actual freeform into action. So for example at one point we all dance the Charleston (or tried to) and at another point some of us were taken taken into a room and a couple of the characters lead us in a game of Truth or Dare.

But what I thought was most interesting was that moments where we, as individuals, were brought into the story. Very early on, one of the characters, playing Myrtle Wilson, took me aside and just asked me “can I ask you if my lipstick is okay?” And “it doesn’t look like I’ve been doing anything I shouldn’t have, done does it?”

Now that was very interesting. It felt like I was part of the story because she was talking to me directly. She wasn’t talking to the audience as a whole she was talking to me as an individual and that made me feel very much part of it. Her body language was the body language of somebody who’d just come up to a stranger and asked a question. It was a bit conspiratorial, I was helping her get away with something (at that point I didn’t know what). But it was also very interesting because I didn’t feel that I needed particularly to interact. At that point I think I said something like I said yes it’s fine, but I felt that she was carrying on the story whatever happens and I was you know I my interaction wouldn’t have really changed the unfolding of the story. Maybe if I’d said something funny, she would have made a some response but nothing major would have changed.

That sounds less exciting than the Coney example, but actually it made me feel quite safe. I think if I’d been put on the spot and had to make a decision that in fact the entire story I think I would have been quite nervous but I actually felt at ease because I knew that I didn’t really need to say much. I didn’t need to be funny. I didn’t need to produce a great line. I didn’t need to choose the right answer. I was just there and and I had to say something simple and the story would carry on.

It was her job as an actress to make the story interesting, not mine, and that somehow felt reassuring and felt a lot easier than having to take part in something. The thing that made it interactive was that not that I had to do anything that had a big effect on the play but that she was coming to me and talking to me directly as you would a normal person. So it was the details of the interaction but not what actually happened that made the change.

That struck me as a very interesting model for VR because it’s very difficult to have stories that can adapt in a freeform way to what the audience is doing when it is completely computer based. Even in a live action immersive show, it’s pretty difficult to improvise a story, even for a very good improvisational actor. But that bit in the Great Gatsby (and there were others) still created a real sense of immersion and being part of the story from the simple fact that you know she was there she was making eye contact with me she was talking to me.

Lessons for VR

These three immersive experiences give us three very different models for VR. People have talked about immersive theatre as a model of VR but actually it’s many different models of VR. And just to summarize I’d like to say what they are.

  • The Punchdrunk model is where the VR tells a story and create a fantastic immersive experience. You can walk around you can experience it you can in different ways as you move around the environment but you don’t affect the story. This model work if the production values are really high, but I this it would miss a lot of the potential of VR.
  • The Coney model is where the story is created by many different audience members in this day are at the same time. So it’s a multi-player environment and the story is created not by the characters or the authors of the VR, who only set up the story, it is created by the players interacting with each other. This is a really exciting model and one that has a lot of future.
  • In the Immersive Ensemble model players are drawn into the environment, they feel part of it, but not by having to do a lot. They don’t really affect the story but because the characters are paying attention to the audience and talking directly to them, it feels immersive.

The Coney model is a great way of creating a truly interactive narrative, which will adapt to the actions of the players, because it is them that create the narrative. It has to be a multi-player experience, which has some constraints (you have to make sure that there are enough players at any given time, which probably means only running it at set time). It isn’t a way of saving work for the creators though, the success of the story is really reliant on being able to set it up in such a way that the players can create interesting narratives, which means putting a lot of work into the story world and setup. (In many ways it is very like the more arty end of Live Action Roleplay).

If you do want a fixed story, you want to tell the story of the Great Gatsby, then I think that the Immersive Ensemble is a more intersting model than the Punchdrunk one. You can still have a narrative that doesn’t have to accommodate every single thing a player does but a player can feel really drawn into what’s actually happening.

I think that the interactions between actors and audience in The Great Gatsby worked, not because the actors responded to what audience members said (the actors mostly lead the interactions), but because their body language is responding to what the audience member does. And as I’ve said elsewhere, that can be one of the most compelling experiences in VR. It is compelling because the character’s body language works. Their body language treats them as if they’re a real person because their body language is responding to what the audience member does.

The technology that would be involved in implementing the Immersive Theatre model is still very complex but it’s a lot simpler than fully automated narrative generation. You don’t need full natural language understanding, or at least it doesn’t need to be as good as it would need to be if the story had to adapt to what the player had to say. It just involves some of the things that we’ve taught you in our virtual reality specialisation how to create characters with body language that respond to real people in VR.

So that’s my thoughts on immersive theatre. Not a single model for virtual reality but almost a playground that has developed lots of models that could work really well as the basis of great VR stories.

Virtual Reality MOOC

A blog about virtual reality tied to our Coursera…

Marco Gillies

Written by

Virtual Reality and AI researcher and educator at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-developer of the VR and ML for ALL MOOCs on Coursera.

Virtual Reality MOOC

A blog about virtual reality tied to our Coursera Specialisation on VR

Marco Gillies

Written by

Virtual Reality and AI researcher and educator at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-developer of the VR and ML for ALL MOOCs on Coursera.

Virtual Reality MOOC

A blog about virtual reality tied to our Coursera Specialisation on VR

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