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Is virtual reality the future of theatre?

Interactive audience member watching My Name Is Peter Stillman – a new virtual reality experience created by 59 Productions. Photo: 59 Productions Interactive audience member watching My Name Is Peter Stillman – a new virtual reality experience created by 59 Productions. Photo: 59 Productions
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It looks like a weird experiment. In the foyer of Home in Manchester, four people sit at booths, virtual reality headsets covering their faces. Their heads gently sway for no apparent reason and strange, unannounced movements make for oddly compelling viewing for those in the box-office queue. And then, four minutes later, they unpeel the goggles from their eyes, smiling.

They’ve just experienced My Name Is Peter Stillman, a virtual-reality companion piece to 59 Productions’ adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, currently playing in the main theatre space. It’s a fascinating little work taking place in one room that participants can explore as the character moves in strange ways in front of your very eyes.

“When we started developing City of Glass, it became obvious that it was a perfect vehicle for VR, because it’s all about multiple realities and identity,” says My Name Is Peter Stillman’s director Lysander Ashton, also video director for the main show. “That’s what VR does – it places you in the shoes of someone else. It felt like a really good thing to explore.”

Its 3D animator Edd Stockton has a slightly more straightforward explanation: sitting in the foyer of Home, the four ‘user stations’ also act as a way to get people intrigued by the stage show. “It’s a very small snapshot of what City of Glass is trying to do,” he says. “But it’s in one room as opposed to the 10 or 15 I’ve worked on.”

Jenny Melville’s original set design for City of Glass, like much of her work, was modelled in 3D. It was “a natural progression that the apartment we’d started to design could then be adapted for VR”.

So Stockton wasn’t starting from scratch – a lot of the animation and assets from Melville’s design worked for both productions. He “textured the room up” to make it look real, got the body and face right, and set the framework for Joseph Pierce’s hand-animated facial monologue. “It’s that bit which is really beautiful,” says Stockton. “I’ve never really seen anyone do that before.”

The animated face is without doubt the crux of My Name Is Peter Stillman. Ashton laughs that some people don’t realise until the very end that their head movements mirror the protagonist they see in front of them and have sat still throughout the entire four minutes without exploring the room.

“I was sceptical,” says the director of City of Glass, Leo Warner, who also has a design-concept credit for Stillman. “With VR, for all its immersive qualities, you still feel you’re in a headset. So you have to be very specific about what you want to achieve. And the moment My Name Is Peter Stillman really got me was when we worked on the responsive mirroring of the head. It was at that point when I felt it had a human connection, when you were put into the position of the character and could empathise with him.”

Audience members don goggles to experience My Name Is Peter Stillman. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
Audience members don goggles to experience My Name Is Peter Stillman. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

It’s notable that Warner is honest about the pitfalls as well as the potential of VR for theatre. Ashton says that even this four-minute show has been a lot more work than they thought, taking six months of “tinkering” in different areas before script, design, tech and set were combined at the end in a post-production process more akin to a film.

“It’s a very different creative process, and it’s been a big learning curve. The tools to make a VR show are very good, but they’re not as honed or developed as a lot of editing software. It’s still clunky – making a small change can require a huge amount of development. It’s unexplored territory.

“You can’t just go out and buy props, for example. Each individual thing has to be hand-modelled in 3D, and on all sides, because you can look around it in VR. It has to be optimised to run in real time, too, which takes ages. So the artwork is a big job. And we only had one location.”

This is where Stockton comes in. He agrees that a lot of work has gone in for something so short, not least because VR creates huge challenges as far as lighting is concerned. Stockton rendered the props in separate 3D software, then exported them into this experience.

“If you enjoy 3D animation, then you love spending lots of time making 30 seconds look amazing, because most of your career is spent doing it,” he says. “But the beauty of 3D is that if you have enough time and money, you can create any world, any environment. You can light it and animate it in any way you want, on your own.”

Time and money: whether VR will genuinely become another medium to tell theatrical stories lays within these two crucial factors. My Name Is Peter Stillman was produced thanks to funding from the Space, which was keen to make sure digital innovation was used “in a way that enhances or extends the experience”. But it would take a team with Pixar-like backing and patience to consider a full-length show. The credits list for My Name Is Peter Stillman is eye-wateringly long for its four minutes – and then there are the Oculus Rift VR headsets and PCs required to run it.

“Quite expensive,” nods Ashton. “Once you’ve got the headsets, a lot of people will use them, so the cost per head is pretty good.”

City of Glass at Home, Manchester. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

My Name Is Peter Stillman is free for the public to experience, as he reflects: “Nobody really knows what the market would be for a paid VR theatrical experience. We’re trying to figure out how long it would have to be before you felt comfortable about charging people for it – and then how many people you could get through in a day.”

Warner is more realistic. “With the best will in the world, you couldn’t do a two-hour show,” he says. “Not least because I don’t think anyone has come up with a comfortable enough physical or optical user experience that you would be prepared to sit through for any length of time.

“I’m sure that will all develop. We’re not far off someone doing a short. But the key question is: why? Where are you putting people in relation to the story that makes VR an interesting tool? For me, that’s not fully been answered.”

Still, Ashton points to the possibility of a new medium that combines theatre, video games and film. He can picture immersive experiences taking place away from traditional theatre spaces that transport people directly into intriguing worlds. “Locations and environments is what VR does really well,” he says. “No one’s really cracked the really important part of storytelling yet, though – character.”

Grappling with VR’s potential has been as tricky for 59 Productions as the technology itself. It’s left to Stockton to point towards a useful VR application for theatre right now.

“In the actual act of producing shows it will be so useful,” he says. “Working in parallel with City of Glass, it’s been so interesting to create virtual sets, walk around them, and tweak the bits that didn’t work. One VR headset in a production office will allow everyone to look at a show – from directors, to actors, to investors. It’s a fantastic tool in that way, already.”

My Name Is Peter Stillman is at the Lyric Hammersmith in London from April 20 to May 13. Details: lyric.co.uk

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