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Live theatre no more exciting than cinema screenings, heart-rate study finds

Cast of Titus Andronicus at the RSC. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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Seeing a play live does not evoke a significantly stronger emotional response than watching it in the cinema, according to a project that monitored theatregoers’ heart rates.

Reactions to live theatre, a cinema screening and a filmed, 360-degree virtual reality experience were found to be roughly comparable in a new study of Shakespeare performance.

The heart rates of 107 audience members watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Titus Andronicus raised above average roughly the same amount across all three media, and increased to the level of a cardio workout for an average of five minutes across each performance.

Audience members were wired up to heart-rate monitors for a performance of the famously gory tragedy, in what was billed as the first time direct comparisons have been made between the emotional response to live theatre and cinema screenings.

While the study showed little difference in audience members’ heart rates across different media while watching the performances, this was not mirrored in their responses gathered from a series of post-show feedback sessions.

The project, conducted by the RSC with Ipsos Mori, found that, overall, live theatre audiences were most positive about their experience. They also indicated they felt more empathy and shock.

Lower levels of shock were reported in the cinema, suggesting that audiences felt further removed from the violence and gore, the study said.

However, cinema was perceived to be significantly more moving than either theatre or VR, possibly due to the cinematic-style directing that is not present when watching a live performance.

It also found that men showed a greater emotional reaction to the production, with their heart rates increasing slightly more than women’s.

Of those watching the VR experience, 91% said they felt as if they were physically present in the theatre at points in the performance, compared with 63% of those watching in the cinema.

The RSC’s director of digital development, Sarah Ellis, said: “This presented a unique opportunity for us to compare the emotional reaction to one of Shakespeare’s plays on three different platforms. The results have shown us that, even after more than 400 years, Shakespeare’s work still packs an emotional punch to today’s audiences wherever and however it is experienced.”

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