Could Virtual Reality and Live Theater Combine for a New Kind of Entertainment Experience?

Courtesy National Film Board

Virtual immersion: theater’s new frontier.

At first glance, it might seem contradictory to bring virtual reality into a live theatrical performance. But with the theater world’s embrace of immersive, participatory experiences, and VR’s unique power to simulate immersion and offer agency, the merger makes sense. For the past several years, shorter projects like filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Carne Y Arena have been blending mixed-reality and performance, nurtured by an array of forward-thinking arts institutions in the U.S. and abroad. At the National Theatre’s Immersive Storytelling Studio in London, a “creative technologist” is an integral part of the development team, helping writers voice fresh narrative possibilities, sometimes before the infrastructure exists. So far, this new hybrid genre can be most readily experienced at events like the Future of Storytelling Summit, the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier and Raindance Film Festival’s Immersive Stories. But with the increasing ubiquity of VR technology, more venues are opening up to this new work, connecting it with larger and ever-wider audiences. And on the horizon, artists are imagining more communal virtual-theatrical experiences and more meaningful ways for the audiences to shape the show themselves. This year, a handful of these new creations, each in their own odd voices, immerse us into the process of forming and losing identity, remembering and connecting.


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Draw Me Close, Jordan Tannahill’s new memoir-play (a co-production of the National Theatre and the National Film Board of Canada) has its North American premiere at Toronto’s SoulPepper Theatre in April. For each performance, there is only one audience member. Wearing a VR headset, they enter a black-and-white drawing of the playwright’s childhood home and encounter an illustrated version of Tannahill’s mother, played by actor Tamzin Griffin in a motion capture suit.  For an hour, she guides audiences through a profoundly personal experience of a 25 year-long relationship between mother and son, laughing and conversing, coloring on the floor together, embracing and tucking them into bed. During work-in-progress performances, audience members were overcome with emotion, a reminder to the creative team of the responsibility that comes with introducing this new technology. “We are blocking out the real world, then we’re placing them in a completely different environment,” explains Toby Coffey, the National Theater’s Head of Digital Development. “And if we give them agency in that environment, you’ve got a very live wire of intimacy.”

In his stirring mixed-reality work Cosmos Within Us, multimedia artist Tupac Martir ups the ante on genre hybridity. Using live performers—musicians, dancers, conductor, narrator, and a single “interactor” wearing a VR headset—the piece pulls audiences into the mind of a 60-year0-old man grappling with Alzheimer’s. His fragmenting memories of childhood summer vacations with his sister (what the interactor sees in their headset) unfold all around the audience to a lush, layered score, with scent and touch adding to the experience, as well. In the end, Martir aims to transcend the powerlessness of memory loss, to bring clarity and even a kind of hope.

In Denver this summer, musical legend David Byrne and writer Mala Goankar premiere Theater of the Mind, which uses VR and other technologies to explore a long-standing shared fascination: the malleability of human perception. In a vast warehouse filled with fully-designed 360-degree environments, audiences lose themselves in a series of brain-bending neuroscientific experiments, led by a Guide, who gives the trip narrative and emotional life. Incubated through the groundbreaking Denver Center of the Performing Arts’ Off-Center, the production is under tight wraps, but according to director Andrew Scoville, it does what VR and live theater both do best: “transport an audience to a completely different kind of existence, while still placing a huge amount of value in the power of a real-life shared experience.”