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Mixed reality theatre: New ways to play with reality

Theatre has been playing with reality for centuries. From fantasy to stark realness, its ability to bring together a group of people who have never met before in a shared live experience is profound. With the emergence of new representations and manipulations of our reality - whether that is virtual, augmented or mixed - we are able to explore the potential of 3D images and sound to develop the art form into new territory. This raises exciting questions about where theatre can be, what it can say and who it talks to.

In exploring these opportunities, we continue to stand on the shoulders of the giants that precede us, whether those are great playwrights, directors, artists, entrepreneurs, explorers, engineers or scientists. We have seen our universe of possibilities change through their imagination, skills, expertise and visual, as well as their ambition to drive society forward. This week, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Magic Leap and university partners including the University of Birmingham, i2 media research Limited at Goldsmiths, University of London and University of Portsmouth are announcing a series of fellowship placements which will collectively explore the future of theatre, seeking to build on the work of those interdisciplinary pioneers that have gone before us. These fellowships are part of a wider ambition at the RSC to give artists, directors, and producers a whole new set of tools for making theatre in 2018 and beyond.

These fellowships give the RSC and Magic Leap an opportunity to welcome new ideas, new talents, and new people who haven’t worked with us before; to share our skills and expertise, as well as learn from each other, so that we can shape the future of theatrical experiences for audiences using the latest digital technology.

We want to explore how theatre is connecting, and can connect to audiences experiencing content today in myriad ways. Our aim is to build a community of new practitioners and a wealth of research, which will combine to take the best of theatre and the best of these new technologies forward. As significant as these new tools are, we are also inspired by the people who are leading this change – whether that’s Magic Leap’s team of creatives and technologists, from NASA engineers to graphic novelists, or the RSC staff who innovate with theatre every day.

Shakespeare

Image by: Andy Lanning, Executive Creative Director, Magic Leap

The opportunities of spatial computing

Spatial computing – where computers break out of their machines into the world around us - allows us to think differently about our form as a theatre company. It also brings in new ingredients to continue to make theatre the magical artform we know it to be. Its key characteristics are that it understands you, the world around you and has presence in a physical space. It incorporates a true sound field experience. Its pixels behave with programmable physics. It provides a genuinely intelligent interface.

Spatial computing offers a communal experience that everyone can share. This is because we are combining the physical with the virtual, which means sharing shared projections in conjunction with each other. This marks a new frontier for collective immersive experience, and theatre is the perfect medium to weave a binding narrative through this new interactive space. The innovations and distinction of Magic Leap's technology come from the interaction between the audience in their specific location, and the live digital performance content that is created around them.

It means you can experience a performance at home or in other venues around the world and know that you are part of it as an audience member as well as a participant. You can break out of the constraints of 2D representation and dive into a 3D performance. What does that live performance look like? How do we explore liveness, presence and participation in this context? How will audiences respond to these new forms of experience? These questions are currently unknown, but through our fellowships we hope to begin looking for some answers.

Through the collaboration we will run a series of talks that will inspire and provoke on technology development in theatre. Often innovation is measured by the return it gives us immediately – whether that’s a play, a project or research outlining a specific set of findings. However, we know that innovation has a longer benefit horizon than that. Sometimes what is put out in the world today is not understood or realised until a new generation picks it up and owns it. Yet we don’t often get a chance to think about building the foundations for this future generation and how we can make this opportunity most effective as well as inspiring. Working with Nesta and a diverse set of university partners to explore the research opportunities around this will allow us both to explore the creative opportunities and to produce new insights applicable to theatre making and the arts more broadly.

Theatre and technology have always had a close relationship. With the emergence of spatial computing, there is an opportunity for theatre to expand on its well-versed principles in theatre-craft and making. It’s this convergence of skills that we think will form a kind of alchemy for directors, producers, designers, programmers and coders to create a truly unique set of experiences.

Fellows will be selected through an interview process in late November/December 2018. Please contact [email protected] to express interest in applying and further details on how to apply will be available on the RSC website in the coming weeks.

Author

Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is an award winning producer currently working as Head of Digital Development for the Royal Shakespeare Company to explore new artistic initiatives and partnerships.