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Theatres and music festivals: Where VR works, and where it fails

VR theatres and festivals

Glastonbury Festival is a staple of the UK’s music culture. What was a massive festival where people partied and shared drugs, evolved into a massive festival where people partied and shared drugs secretly. The Glastonbury experience can be summarised by rain, mud, alcohol, and hearing problems that last long afterwards. Watching the event via a TV from home never matches the raw experience on the muddy lands of England.  

The same goes for theatre productions as well. Since lockdown productions squirreled direct-to-TV solutions, so that fans can watch productions on hand. Some even replicated the interval in real-time, to bring in all the realism (without the long queue for the bathroom). But a part of its identity is lost as well; no hushed silence among watchers, or the comforting cloak of darkness as viewers watch the drama.

Can the experience be replicated in VR? Perhaps, but a piece of fun is lost along the way.

Can festivals work in VR?

Lost Horizon’s Music Festival attempted to answer in early July 2020, where performers from past Glastonbury’s came together to party the night (and day) away. Seventy-plus people performed, including Fatboy Slim, Carl Cox, Peggy Gou, and Jamie Jones. To date, this is one of the highest-profile events in VR with some massive names backing the production. If mainstream attention was what is needed for adoption, then it provides a good kick.  

The feedback from attendees was that the audience was great fun. Attending a virtual festival meant jostling between raving avatars, as they bustled towards the main stage of singers ripping their tunes. Participants said the music quality was decent and the festivities were fun, as friends socialised among one another. Perhaps some dipped into a corner to smoke some weed, with security none the wiser, but who knows.

The benefits are clear. Not everyone can travel across the country to watch, nor afford to pay the expensive tickets. It is why so many people watch Glastonbury from TV, organising a social event among friends and family while cracking open a beer. Not everyone can be fussed to come. VR does bring a fun element to it as well. Ravers and dancers can hang with strangers, who are in turn invested in the music and bonding over a shared passion.

But so, so many positive parts are lost as well. No waves of heat as bodies press between each other. No scurrying to the darkness to chat with friends or shivering in a tent. No mud or water to spoil clothes or food. A part of festivals is the barrage of senses that overwhelm people, around temperature, sound, and taste. The elements add character. Dispel them, and you are left with a sterile festival.

VR festivals help more people experience music, but come with their own caveats. Photo credit: Virtual Perceptions.
VR festivals help more people experience music, but come with their own caveats. Photo credit: Virtual Perceptions.

Can theatrical productions work in VR?

Same principles apply to theatre productions. Yes, it provides a great alternative to attending on-site locations. Having watched Hamilton on Disney+, and the National Theatre broadcasts over YouTube, I am convinced that there is a bright future for productions that have the finances to deliver their content on platforms. Art should be democratised, accessible by as many people as possible to help enrich their lives. When corporate life brings the lifeline, art adds colour and fun to living. Art must be supported.

Let us not forget how the technology adds new layers of power to productions. The Under Presents by Tender Claws is a production that draws the viewer into the immersive world. It questions many parts of traditional theatre; why have an audience to begin with? Why watch a performance at a set time? Viewers should question the assumptions.

Theatres will struggle to adopt VR. Photo credit: Virtual Perceptions.
Theatres will struggle to adopt VR. Photo credit: Virtual Perceptions.

Barriers of adoption

My fears are twofold. One is related to festivals; something is lost when watching from the comfort of a home, or in bed. No quiet whispering, intensity of actors on-stage, or the heavy silence that rests after a significant plot twist. Authenticity is lost.

The other is accessibility. Yes, the biggest names would be able to afford broadcasting their productions or making immersive equivalents for a small percentage of their fans. But the cost to access is so cripplingly high that the option does not exist for most companies. Hamilton was produced over three days, brought forward one year by Disney due to the pandemic – what other production could even match that speed? Recently the National Geographic showed a production in VR live, with an audience of 400 people. While cool, it is a ludicrously expensive option which very few people can access.  

A local production cannot deliver alternatives. The biggest losers in the arts during a pandemic are not the big names; it is the small community productions that run in local communities, with razor-thin finances and no support. Over time, the cost of VR will decrease. Capture cameras will reduce in cost, and more productions can access the equipment needed to bring their creations online. But until then, only the significant players can deliver their content to their audience.

So why make immersive productions to begin with? I would argue accessibility. While a worse experience, it means anyone can see a play or attend a festival. Nothing beats the real thing, but VR comes closer that TV or a six-inch phone screen. Distance prohibits many from attending events; technology cannot resolve the issue, but it can help. But even then, not everyone owns a VR headset.

The future of theatre and festivals in VR

Theatres and music festivals have a future in VR. The experience is a step beyond TV, bringing people into the mighty throng of virtual crowds as they listen and dance to their favourite tunes. The heat and sweat from gigs will never be present in VR, but it is a nice alternative for those who cannot attend events. Companies who specialise in it can find success as well, as MelodyVR has shown.

For theatres, the biggest benefit is attendance. Not everyone can come to London, the heart of massive productions, and watch a high-production musical. Immersive alternatives bring more productions into living rooms, and the more support the better. But for local theatres with the smallest budgets, the option is not present.

In mid-2020 Apple bought NextVR, a company specialising in delivering sports events via VR. The technology has its eyes on delivering more events to people in easier and accessible ways; both theatres and festivals should keep the future in mind as well.