Theatre has had to adapt swiftly and intelligently now that people are confined to their homes for the foreseeable future. Here, Sam Nicholls considers where the future may lie. Is it virtual reality?

As one viewer remarked in the comments of the National Theatre: At Home’s online production of One Man, Two Guvnors, “even at the best of times, my family rarely gets to go to the theatre: to be able to watch this at home is a real treat!” Indeed, online productions like these have been universally praised for filling the void created by the COVID-19 lockdown, presenting families and fans a much-needed escape in these trying times.

However, for some, these digital offerings don’t fully scratch that theatrical itch.

Indeed, whilst these online recordings may have originally been theatrical productions or share the same sensibilities as theatre (such as being originally written for the stage), they differ in some intrinsic ways. One defining difference is that in these recordings, unlike theatre, the audience isn’t given complete viewing freedom, and is instead in the hands of the directors and editors who choose which shots and close-ups to use. As producer Ian Garrett comments, “[in theatre], you can’t control what your audience is looking at.” In these online productions, the audience doesn’t have much choice at all.

Moreover, part of theatre’s medium specificity is that it does offer audiences a range of possibilities: each person can emerge from a performance with a unique experience, having had utter control over what part of the productions they visually engage with. In this regard, these online productions are more akin to film or live television than they are to theatre, offering only a fixed experience.

So how do we bridge this gap between the internet and the theatre? How do we bring the defining aspects of the form into online spaces? The answer may have been in our hands the entire time: virtual reality.

Most widely associated with video games, virtual reality (VR) is a process in which a user wears a headset and observes a simulated reality through it, with said headset giving the user freedom to observe the ‘reality’ from different perspectives, directions and angles. Furthermore, with advances in technology, this ‘headset’ can be as simple as a smartphone in a cardboard cut-out: as far as most pieces of modern tech go, this is on the more accessible side of things.

With VR, then, audiences are no longer at the mercy of the editor and director: they can watch an online production as though it were live theatre, choosing where to look and when. And, already, VR is finding some use within the industry. Theatre company Electrick Village produced a wildly popular VR production, RawTransport, for this year’s VAULT festival, and TV channels like MTV are testing VR as a way for online viewers to experience concerts from the comfort of their own homes; it would seem, even before the lockdown, the industry saw the value of VR in delivering theatre virtually.

However, now we’re experiencing an unprecedented disruption in how theatre usually operates, the potential of VR has explored: a piece of accessible technology that simulates the theatrical experience whilst allowing for self-isolation? It sounds ideal. Indeed, for many theatre companies, it is seemingly the obvious route to go down. As producer Chris Foxon of Papatango will comment in a future AYT in Isolation video, it seems “inevitable” that companies venture into the VR world, as it’s the best way to engage online users whilst providing an “unmistakably theatrical experience”.

In a post-Coronavirus world, no one is completely sure what the new ‘normal’ will be for theatre. As Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham discussed with us, the societal memory of social distancing may mean no one will want to sit in a cramped room with strangers ever again and quite understandably. However, despite this, demand for theatre hasn’t gone down at all. The aforementioned National Theatre At Home production of Richard Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors achieved over 1.5 million views during its week of availability; in the original run, including stints at the Lyttelton Theatre, on tour, on the West End, and finally on Broadway, the production was only seen by 504,417 people. There are people out there who want theatre, now more than ever, and VR may be the best way to give them a real theatrical experience whilst maintaining their safety.