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National Theatre creates virtual reality studio for new projects

Anyone visiting the new National Theatre studio might experience the soul-destroying misery of the Calais jungle, take part in the 1916 Easter Rising or sit on a toilet while being serenaded by a giant psychedelic cat.

The theatre launched its immersive storytelling studio, a place where new work will be developed using the latest virtual reality technologies, on Tuesday. The studio is the next step in a journey that began in March last year, when the theatre’s then recently appointed director Rufus Norris, a VR enthusiast, commissioned “fabulous”, a virtual reality film based on the Damon Albarn-scored musical. review – occasionally dazzling, often garbled
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VR is one of the fastest growing and fastest changing industries with tech, games, film and TV companies falling over themselves to work out how best to use it. The National is one of the few theatre companies to join the club.

“On all sides it is like a gold rush,” said Toby Coffey, head of digital development at the NT. “We’re not trying to be the first or the biggest or the most, it is about creating the best. We’ll throw stuff away as readily as we will push it forward … it is about creating the right things.”

The theatre sees VR as part of its remit to be “a pioneer of dramatic storytelling”. On Tuesday, the storytelling studio, which is not open to the public, showcased examples of recent VR experiments, including showing an immersive film of the Easter Rising to the cast and crew of The Plough and the Stars, a revival of Sean O’Casey’s 1926 play which opened last month.

It also made a Calais camp film which premiered at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in June where viewers, wearing headsets, follow the story of Aamir, a Sudanese refugee. The film was made after Norris spent time volunteering with the Good Chance theatre company in Calais last Christmas. In January, crews arrived with 360 cameras to capture footage that was used to illustrate Aamir’s moving journey from Sudan, to Calais, to a hostel in Glasgow. Coffey said it was not a documentary but verbatim theatre and that was important.

Mahdi Yahya, founder of Room One, a company that helped produce fabulous and Home/Aamir, said no other theatre was experimenting in VR projects like the National. He said most companies were interested in making experiences which were “look how cool this is that I can step into this environment. Nobody is doing anything which has a story or message behind it, the whole point here is how can we tell stories through this new medium?”

Quite where the theatre goes with the new technology remains to be seen, said Coffey. “Are you going to have 1,100 people in the Lyttelton theatre with a headset on for two hours? No, because that’s a VR cinema not a theatre.” But those future theatregoers may have a headset on for a few minutes at a time, to augment a particular production. “This is all up for grabs, this is all to be learned.”

Coffey said theatre practitioners in particular got the storytelling possibilities which come with VR. “We’re all used to working in 360 and very spatial environments whereas film makers have been trained in a kind of locked perspective. Some film makers are dragged into this kicking and screaming because they have lost that control mechanism.”

The studio is part of the National’s new work department and is using what used to be production office space for its blockbuster musical War Horse. Coffey said it was important for the studio to be part of new work at the National Theatre, in the same south London building where, eight years ago, staff experimented with ladders and cardboard horse heads while coming up with War Horse. “This is the high tech equivalent of the cardboard horses’ heads,” he said

The NT said it hoped to make the Easter Rising film available to theatregoers from September while the film – seen in an installation at the theatre earlier this year by more than 90,000 people – was available to download on iTunes and Google Play. A further life for the Calais film is still to be confirmed.

Yahya said things moved particularly quickly in the world of VR. “What we have now, we won’t have next year, it’s going to be completely different, which is brilliant.” Coffey agreed and said there was little point in trying to predict what the VR experience for theatregoers might be like in the future.

Things move particularly quickly in the world of VR. “ I can’t keep up now, I can’t bookmark things fast enough. Everyone is trying to get on it [VR], to make content, but the truth is no one really knows the direction of travel. To say where it will be in five years … we’ve just got to keep working, working, working with it and it will be where it is in five years.”