Virtual Reality and the Future of Theatre

“I love when theatre defies expectations.”

It’s February 2016, and I’m on a conference call with Stratford’s Calvin Wood (marketing) and Jason Clarke (digital media). I’m pitching them the idea of shooting their first-ever 360º trailer for Graham Abbey’s Breath of Kings. “I’ve never done this before, but I think this technology could be a game changer.” From the other end of the line, I hear the magic words: “Screw it, let’s do it.” And we’re off to the races.

Fast forward to June, and we’re flying by the seat of our pants. Stratford buys two Kodak SP360 4K cameras. Jason, who’s been researching VR for a while, needs new stitching and editing software. We need to Photoshop our tripod out of the shot so that it doesn’t appear in the final video. We need to cut down and adapt Henry V’s famous “Once More Unto The Breach” into 360. We need to tweak the lighting to compensate for the cameras’ stretched-out resolution. Then, the actors need to orient their performances around the viewer. For example, as Henry V, Araya Mengesha has to find a way to implicate the camera in the scene, as opposed to disregard it, which is what he’s used to in his film and TV work. “So you want me to look into the camera?” he says. “Yup,” I say, knowing full well that it’s a no-no in almost any other shooting situation. As for Jason, who directed photography, he couldn’t even be on the stage while were shooting, as there’s no “out of the shot” in 360. Instead, he had to watch a live stream from a tablet backstage.

360 video adaptation notes

Despite the challenges, our 360 shoot was a blast. Randy Hughson, a Stratford veteran, said it best: “When we normally film a show here, it takes all day, and you have to do a number of pick ups. [With 360] we did a few takes and it was done. It just felt like doing theatre.” We launched the trailer on YouTube 360 and Facebook 360, where it’s racked up over 23,000 views and 120 shares.

I got to try my hand at 360 again this October, this time as director and creator. While working with my friends at Outside the March, we released a special 360 experience to promote TomorrowLove by Rosamund Small. Using an original scene developed for 360 (that doesn’t appear in the show, but fits into the TomorrowLove universe), the goal was to harness the 360 technology without compromising on the themes of OtM’s show: exploring the humanity found where love and tech intersect. We expanded our 360 basket of tricks with After Effects and the Skybox Plug-in, which let us add in the floating orbs and alert messages. These graphics helped us guide the viewer’s attention and made it easier to explain our conceit: that our hero was testing mind-reading technology. We also discovered a handy Facebook 360 feature that let us set up focus points to automatically shift our audience’s perspective without making them click and drag around the screen. With 5000+ views between Facebook and YouTube, our 360 trailer was both an experiment and an artistic marketing tool to help drive attention to what has been a daring and groundbreaking run for TomorrowLove.

Which brings me to my point. Every theatre company needs to get their hands on a 360 camera and start shooting theatre with it. Innovation starts with experimenting, screwing up, and taking risks. Let’s consider a few points together. 

What is 360 video?

It’s when you capture action using a series of fisheye lenses and stitch the footage together to create a digital 360 world. The optimal way to then watch the footage is with a viewer and headphones, which tracks your head movements to immerse you in the world you’re watching. There are high-end viewers (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive), mid-rangers (Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream), and the low-end, super-affordable Google Cardboard.

The Google Cardboard viewer

Theatre could benefit from experimentation with 360 video and virtual reality for three main reasons: truer capture, shareability, and distribution opportunities.

Truer Capture

Have you ever asked an artist for archival footage of their show? They usually say, “No, it’s terrible. Nothing like being there.” Traditional cameras smush our world down to two dimensions, and theatre often suffers during this transition. One time in rehearsal, actor Tom Rooney and I were chatting about filmed theatre, and he said, “Sometimes when I watch my stage work on film, I lose the architecture of the stage.” 360 video attempts to present life in three dimensions. So our stages and performances could have their physical depth captured. While a film editor dictates the pace of a scene on film, theatre actors and directors know how to set the timing and pace themselves. With 360 and virtual reality, our lighting, sound, and performances could be truthfully represented within a digital space.

Shareability

Theatre has the potential to be digitally shared with the world, opening up new opportunities to inspire, engage, and transform. Consider how, before 1877, nobody could listen to music unless they were in the same place as the musicians. Now Drake tweets The Weeknd’s first mixtape, and before he’s done his first concert, there are fans lined up around the block. What happened? Music became recordable, shareable, and went from being a live-only art form to an experience that starts on your news feed, the radio, and iTunes, and drives you to see the live show. Music remains social, but isn’t situated.

Consider what “shareable” theatre could do for the art form: it could permeate people’s lives more deeply, more often, and actually be accessible. Today, we rely on previews and reviews to tell the story of our shows after they’ve closed. Our conversations about specific theatre shows rely on whether we made it out to see them or not. With better archiving and simpler sharing, we could improve the conversations. We could improve the art form.

Distribution

In the current climate, making theatre sometimes feels inherently unsustainable. We lose promising artists to more stable career paths. Competing for grants, Theatre Creators’ Reserves, and sponsorships makes some creators feel like administrators. I hear this so often: “I spend 90 percent of my time writing applications and 10 percent being creative.” Consider that a theatre show, which can take years to write, develop, workshop, and produce, could live on in a virtual space, available to the world, at a cost comparable to renting a movie. Or perhaps it could be available through a subscription service that offers theatre at an accessible rate. Audience-driven demand in other parts of the world could necessitate more tours. New distribution models could allow playwrights, actors, directors, designers, producers, and anyone involved in a production the opportunity to be supported longer by the performances they worked so hard to stage.

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Realistically, no one is expecting 360 video to be as good as the live experience. We don’t expect Adele on our iPhone to be as alive and electric as Adele in concert. But just as recorded music started on a scratchy record player, and films in the 1890s ran for less than a minute (with no sound to boot), we might just pioneer something outstanding in the future that starts with the risks we take today. So let’s encourage our community to experiment with this new technology, share our findings, and push our medium forward, together.

Written By

Sébastien Heins is an actor and theatremaker based in Toronto. He likes travelling, walking his French Bulldog, and exploring what’s possible in theatre. He invites you to reach out at [email protected] and to join his VR/360 experiments at https://medium.com/@sebastienheins.


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