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What if virtual reality was accepted in theatre?

Image: Filming in Indonesia for the making of FROGMAN

Jack Lowe asks: what if virtual reality was accepted in theatre, as a tool for theatre? Surely our art form would continue to be the 21st century art form we all want it to be?

Jack, artistic director of curious directive, a theatre company exploring stories inspired by science, has made a show across 3 continents - called FROGMAN. He explains the lengths you need to go to, to make great live theatre working with VR.

FROGMAN began in 2014. Like many restless people who go on long-haul holidays in the tropics, I found myself bobbing in the shallows near Bali, ready to descend 18 metres towards a coral reef. I was about to have my first scuba-dive. Scuba-diving novices are asked to focus on their lungs (for controlling buoyancy), their depth (to remain safe) and the position of their body in space (to dive efficiently). Hang on, hang on, you might be thinking – this is an article about making a theatre show? Well, this show began with a scuba-dive, and what followed has been a three year journey involving learning to film underwater, developing VR software, building a film set in Australia and questioning – in detail – the role of digital tech in theatre. Stay with me.

Image: On location for the making of FROGMAN

FROGMAN, as a story, was led by the invention of a fictional town in Queensland, Australia. A place close to the barrier reef, the site of the main event in our story. The fabric of our story came from coastal crime dramas closer to home – stuff we’d see on ITV. But we wanted to make a crime story where the detective wasn’t the main focus. Wouldn’t it be great if you could see the person being interrogated and their associated memories of an event 23 years ago? So that’s what we set out to do with VR.

It’s important to acknowledge that between 2014 and 2017 I invested hundreds of hours applying for, and missing out on, funding to make FROGMAN happen. I don’t think I quite knew how to express what the show would be and how it would look. The prospect of making a piece of theatre using VR for a large audience just didn’t seem to capture the imagination of decision makers. Thankfully, Hull UK City of Culture 2017 and The Deep aquarium in Hull were interested.

Our making process was really unusual, especially for a small theatre company from Norwich. It went something like this.

Part I: January 2017 - Filming underwater in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.
Raja Ampat is right on the Western edge of the Pacific Ocean in the heart of the coral triangle. This isolated, pristine marine park was the site for the underwater sequences in FROGMAN. The diversity of life in Raja Ampat is what the Great Barrier Reef used to look like, before the extinction-level bleaching events currently overwhelming it. We filmed underwater with a dive master in full Australian Police Diver uniform. He plays a character in the play, which is overlaid with radio recordings by actors here in the UK. In the show, you go on search and rescue missions in VR.

Image: 'Meera’s bedroom', VR scene, FROGMAN

Part II: June 2017 Filming in Brisbane, Australia.
I went to Brisbane with an awesome team: Pete Malkin (Sound), Camilla Clarke (Design) and Rhys Thomas (Production Manager). We worked with Backbone Youth Arts to recruit four young people, all of whom came from local schools, to play our four young people. We developed their scenes collaboratively via discussion and improvisation. Developing the story with our young Australian collaborators (with the help of the brilliant team at Backbone) inside our specially-built 360o film set was a highlight of the project. It was great to make work with young people in this way.

Part III: July 2017 Piecing together the show in the UK.
We returned to England and began the process of weaving the fragments of FROGMAN together in Hull, London and Norwich. FROGMAN currently has an audience capacity of 50, up from 30 at its opening with The Traverse in Edinburgh. This audience capacity is a huge step towards a collective VR-theatre experience. We are very proud to have taken steps towards VR becoming part of the mainstream of theatre storytelling. When the right concept comes along, we hope to explore many more stories working with the infinite potential of digital technology. Is the show theatre? Definitely. Is it a hybrid? Definitely. We’re constantly trying to evolve it. We’ve added a cast member to the show, Aysha Kala. She’s playing the detective live, whereas before it was a voice over. It gives the show a totally different atmosphere. In the autumn (2018) we’re taking it on an international tour to Australia for the first time. The subtleties of the show will connect. So if you’re interested in having an opinion on the augmentation of live theatre with tech, this is for you. If you’re interested in the future of storytelling, this is for you.

Image: Audience member, FROGMAN

There are many VR headsets used as gags or something characters experience in theatre/film at the moment. I suppose like mobile phones were in the 80s and 90s. This show gives you the chance to wear a VR headset as part of the narrative. Nothing exists without the actors. But they also need the VR to tell the story. It’s interdependent. Like the symbiosis which keeps our coral reefs alive (and relevant).


FROGMAN by curious directive can be seen at:
Shoreditch Town Hall, Wednesday 4 – Saturday 14 April
artsdepot, Tuesday 17 – Saturday 21 April