The pandemic revolutionized theater and the performing arts. Get used to seeing plays with a VR headset on.

January 24, 2022, 9:16 PM UTC

A night out at the theater used to mean a human audience, watching human actors onstage. But the pandemic largely interrupted that, and as it lingers on, the theater of the future is arriving.

It looks very metaverse. In other words, get used to wearing a headset, whether you’re leaving your home or not.

Theater companies in the U.K., home to one of the world’s oldest and grandest performing traditions, are increasingly integrating digital technology into interactive theater performances. They’re even getting help from the government to do it, The New York Times reported. 

In March of last year, for instance, the famous Royal Shakespeare Company co-produced Dream, an immersive theater experience inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that featured actors using motion capture technology. They were transformed into digital avatars, and their performance was streamed to an audience watching on smartphones or computers. 

It’s one of several shows, along with “Wallace and Gromit: The Big Fix Up,” “Robots and Dinosaurs/Lost Origin” and “Weavr,” which received funding from a £16 million British government initiative called The Future Demonstrators Programme, dedicated to “funding major projects exploring the future of large-scale immersive experiences.” That itself is part of a larger £39.3 million governmental fund, Audience of the Future, which began before the pandemic, and invested in new immersive technologies such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality from 2018 to 2021.

But theater is just one example of how the pandemic transforming the performing arts.

How does virtual reality theater actually work?

For last year’s production of Dream, the performers wore equipment that reflected their real-time movements. Those movements were then reflected in the performance of their digital avatars. 

The production used Vicon motion tracking to perfectly synchronize the movements of the actors and their avatars according to Alex Counsell, the Dream motion production supervisor.  

The website for Dream says that the performance “used the latest gaming and theater technology together with an interactive symphonic score that responds to the actors’ movement during the show.”

Audience members had the option to guide a character, Puck, through the forest. Embodied as fireflies, at-home viewers could serve as forest guides in the virtual space by using their mouse, trackpad, or finger to move around. In this way, the performance relied upon audience participation and became interactive.  

“I think every show you work on there’s some element of specialness to it,” said Matt Peel, the lighting designer for the Dream production. “This one is moving the technology on, and has the potential to do something that people have never seen before.”

Other art forms are pivoting to virtual

Theater isn’t the only performing arts industry that has pivoted towards augmented reality during the pandemic. 

Fortnite, an online video game, offered a virtual performance within the game featuring rapper Travis Scott that attracted a record-breaking 12 million viewers in 2020. The rapper reportedly grossed $20 million in revenue, according to The Gamer, an online publication. And in August of last year, Fortnite offered Ariana Grande $20 million in exchange for doing a virtual concert on their platform.  

More virtual reality shows to come

Dream is one of several productions that are leaping off the stage and into virtual reality. 

For example, Odeon Theatrical unveiled an augmented reality theatrical venue platform in September, which claims to “quickly and seamlessly integrate XR technology with existing production creative, allowing producers to generate visually thrilling, digitally enhanced live performances.” And, Hexagram, which has previously created immersive experiences with companies like Disney, Netflix, and Microsoft, is in the process of creating a “cloud-based platform for interactive storytelling.” 

Not all of these new theater experiments are augmented reality, and not all of them are in the U.K.

Tony-nominated director Robert O’Hara is bringing the classic “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” to New York City’s Off-Broadway circuit, and he told The New York Times that he struck a deal with Audible to secure the rights. The catch? He’s directing an audio presentation of the production at an undisclosed post-February date this year.  

“What’s amazing about this turn to streaming and digital is the democratization of theater, so more people will be able to access it,” actor Ato Blankson-Wood told the Times.

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