VR. Whats that all about then?

Raindance Film Festival began 25 years ago, bringing audiences fresh talent sitting outside the mainstream. 25 years later, and pioneering the VR awards as part of their 2017 Festival, Raindance continue to re-define new talent, mediums and trends. Having produced the VR Arcade for Raindance and Lexus, for 2 consecutive years at Hospital Club,  and seen a lot of top notch content, I am left wondering what VR (360, AR, and all the other R’s) mean to the live theatre, music and arts sectors -  and their audiences?

At the moment? Not much.

Commercial VR in medicine, gaming and even estate agency is out there and thriving, showing its core audiences what they can’t see any other way. Millions of doctors are being trained in complex operations, kids are going deeper into fighter games and the wealthy can acquire a new luxury property without having to leave the one they are currently in. Film and documentary is catching up, with cutting edge artists moving on from their handmade cameras to create quality work that is emotive, life changing and easy to watch if you have the right headset. The VR/AR community is a vibrant, collaborative and risk taking one.

And yet, the live arts are trailing behind, with a unique problem. How do we reinvent something that we already do pretty well? We have made surround arts experiences for centuries. With the acoustics in churches, all-consuming musical experiences are nothing new. Theatre in the round is as old as the Greeks and with the hunger for more interactive experiences, care of Punchdrunk and their ilk, interactive audience journeys are ‘done’. So how do the live arts embrace and create with this new art form?

I have seen five key pieces of work braving the transition.

Jane Gauntlett and In My Shoes is a series of work that places the audience at the heart of a personal experience, accompanied with set and sometimes an actor, to help you ‘immerse’. Doom, which opened at Sheffield Doc Fest, is at the live art end of the spectrum: there is blood, animal heads, spirituality, sex and for me, total confusion between a live and ‘real’ world. Cirque de Soleil’s VR work is an essential film, bringing to life the unique world of their shows. There are then the promos: ENB and others using VR and 360 to help audiences ‘experience’ their rehearsal rooms and productions (try before you buy).

For me, it’s the fourth that lands. Curious Directive’s Frogman is a theatre piece that uses VR to take audiences through two timelines, uniting the narratives and providing an experience you haven’t seen before. It makes sense and adds something unique to the experience of theatre.

So it is starting, it is happening. But three factors continue to hamper these creatives.

Cash – obviously. The quality of Curious Directive and Jane Gauntett’s filming is grainy, there is no other word for it. And it does matter. When you start to see other work in VR – Docs, animation and film – you are immersed into narrative and technical quality that has a serious impact. This places great strain on our theatre who might not have been filmmakers to begin with. The Arts Council have now started to fund VR experiences (where they don’t fund film) so maybe this will start to change opportunities for experimentation but no doubt this will be slow progress, based on individual artists and projects carving out the time to play.

Thirdly, there are no connected systems that allow audiences to interact with each other, during their audience-ship. Outside of some expensive kit and gaming systems, VR is a solo experience. And so, at present, whatever the setting, it still feels like watching a film rather than benefitting from that unique experience of an audience communally hearing, responding and seeing something at the same time.

But maybe none of this actually matters.

It is really quite hard to watch VR for more than about 20 minutes. And that’s when it’s really good. Our minds get too full from the total technical immersion in sound, light and story. I hope it stays this way, for fear of the damage we are already doing to our youth through the over-use of technology. AR – the stuff you do with your phone – seems to be the underdog that might lead the way and this is definitely an enhancement tool, rather than the show in itself. So however good AR and VR get, it still feels like something the Arts can incorporate into what they already do well, rather than replace it.

But I do think there are key things from this new wave we can be incorporating. This young sector thrives on innovation, sharing of kit and ‘bigging up’ peers. It feels a positive sector to be a part of. With dwindling resources and attempts to make the arts more accessible, more people than ever want to make work, with less resources to support it. And at times, well, it sort of makes us a bit competitive, dare I say mean? Not words anyone would associate with creativity. The VR industry also incorporates a range of nationalities and cultures, and some stellar women are leading the way. It’s a meritocracy – something else the arts knows it needs. And so whilst we might not need the art in VR, the wider arts sector might want to think about how it can adopt the crucial, forward thinking elements that are making it.

Top players in VR

Nexus – with their work with the Gruffallo & Obama, these guys do participation on a biiiig scale

Marsmellow Lazer Feast – need I say more?

Darren Emerson – VR City is making some beautiful work for brands and himself

Jennifer Brea and Unrest – using VR for what it should be used for, empathy and imagination combined.

Guardian VR team6 x 9 solitary confinement is some of the best documentary making I have ever seen in under 10mins

Chris Milk – check out his Ted Talk to find out more

Beginners Guide to the Kit

Google and Samsung headsets come in for around £100 and are compatible with most of the films you might want to see. Oculus, the main player in VR content distribution, have produced the Rift which goes further in terms of quality of experience - and cost at more like £400.  HTC Vive is the provider for more complex, interactive experiences and feels like its useful for those who know what they are doing, coming in at £600. Worth noting, Playstation is about the mid way point in terms of price – at £350 – and leading the way for Gamers.

BLOG EDITOR      Caroline White

3 Shows I Wish I Had Produced At Edinburgh 17

3 shows i wish i had produced at the Ed Festival

Our Carnal Hearts by Rachel Mars, supported by some of the most impressive women working across the Arts in London at the moment.
Its a journey through Rachel’s mind, and ours. set to beautiful and cynical music (yes, imran both) and i wanted to watch it all over the minute it finished. It played with form whilst ensuring i knew what was going on and it was strong and feminist without talking about feminism.

Woke by Aphhia Campbell
Longest standing ovation of a fringe show i have ever seen and totally deserved. Her voice alone is worth the ticket price and then she wacks on top a whole provocation of what it means to be a black female protestor within the black movement, now and then.

The Shape of Pain, written by Chris Thorpe and directed (shall we say made?) by Rachel Bagshaw
I saw early drafts of this and the journey the piece, and Rachel, have been on to achieve the show is a real reminder that good work takes time, support and in this case, some really accurate self reflection as an artist. The story felt both personal and informative to me, and i don't live with permanent pain. And there in lay its power, i guess at times we all have our struggles and we don't talk about it, unless your leg is in a cast. Again, such strong theatre made by women who should be making work everywhere.


Blog Post 1 - August 17: Diversity does not maketh a play....

17th July 2017 was sort of like A-Level results day for the Arts Community in the UK. Our Arts Council released it's latest batch of longer term funding for arts companies and venues and for the first time I can remember, people seemed, well, alright about it. There wasn’t the usual soap box responses and hushed conversations at the back of over priced conferences. Most people I know generally seeming pretty happy about the shift towards regional funding and support for more diverse companies at the (fairly tiny) expense of the bigger London based venues.

Done. We shall have a more diverse inclusve arts landscape from this day onwards.

Well, not quite.

Last month, I saw two very different plays – Barbershop Chronicles by Inua Ellams at the NT and Persuasion by James Jeff at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Each featured diversity on stage and contemporary techniques in playmaking. One ended in a standing ovation, the other with an audience shuffling silently towards the exits like a huddle of bemused penguins. It left me wondering – why does one piece work and another, not?

This is the bread and butter question of the arts sector, and the one which keeps theatre makers making theatre against high levels of competition and low levels of income. In this instance, the answer felt clear; the audience. Well, more specifically, who the playmakers were making their play for. Persuasion featured a multicultural cast, contemporary music and a new translation, offering something that should have been warmly applauded. The setup gave the opportunity to shine fresh light on our society through the prism of a well-known fable. And hey, isn’t that just the fashion these days – Simon Stone’s Wild Duck, Rob Icke’s Oresteia and Yael Farber’s Crucible all did it pretty damn well. Yet, up in Manchester at Jeff James’ production, this multicultural cast and a commission for a new script were channeled through a white, male director, playing to a largely white audience. So in truth, no change. No new diet for this reliable theatre crowd.

Rather than compare the artists or venues, it could be a matter of taste. Plays and stories are subjective; I like, you don’t….and so on. But this audience didn’t even seem to like it. Which then makes the whole thing feel like a bit of a waste, for a production which likely cost more than most projects I work on, in staging alone. A formula of ‘classic text + multicultural actors doesn’t always = good. What could have been a smart social commentary became a sort of Eastenders does Jane Austen. With the likes of Austentatious (improvised Austen-themed comedy by a largely, all white gang) already nailing that work really well, this retelling seemed to have nothing new to say. That, coupled with no significant or intrinsic relevance to the multicultural cast, meant most of us itched to get to the exits and un-mute our iPhones.

Barbershop Chronicles seemed fully connected to its audience. In fact, it’s two audiences – firstly, it spoke to those born of African heritage with ties to the UK, and secondly, to those of us who have never been on that journey, and who may just want to know a bit more. Inua Ellams took in-jokes, daily observations and ‘familiar faces’ to tell a story which leveled the playing field on complex conversations around slavery, what it means to be African, British and everything in between. No one in the play, or audience, owned his story. It was bigger than Inua, any central character and any of us.

Why am I interested in exploring this distinction? It’s genuinely not to punish theatres – all commissioning theatres have hits and flops. Just like football teams (so im told…). In co-running MUJU, a Muslim Jewish Theatre company, for more than 6 years, we made work which brought Muslims and Jews together. And most of the time, it worked. Audiences who would never normally share a space (or maybe even go to the theatre) laughed side by side. Participants embarked on devised theatre processes which involved creating a shared narrative of ideas. Yet, the work wasn’t always able to bridge the gap and engage audiences outside of those two cultural groups. For a host of possible reasons; maybe the marketing wasn’t right, maybe the quality of work wasn’t there. Figuring out how to do this well remains a challenge for work focused on identity or cultural narrative, and commissioners need to find the space for mistakes to happen, before pieces hit the main stages. From the MUJU gang, Josh Azouz and Alia Bano best achieved it with Mikvah Project at The Yard and Shades at the Royal Court. Well-crafted stories of faith in urban settings were made for audiences reflected both on the stage, and those beyond it. And that is what we need to see more of.

If theatre is to move beyond a constant homage to the white, well-spoken upper echelons, we can (and must) continue to cast colour blind. However, we can’t use casting to hide what is still colourlessly white thinking, under a pretense of offering something new. Persuasion is trying to update a classic work by injecting a ‘modern’ twist. And y’know, its intention may well have been to genuinely say something. But if so, I couldn’t hear it. Updating our cherished old works isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it just feels, sometimes, a little bit lazy. Barbershop Chronicles had purpose, it had style. It knew what it was trying to say and who it wanted in the room to say it to. If the Arts are to flourish and future generations are to buy their tickets, dynamic venues now have the mandate to commission work which is modern, diverse, relevant and of quality. With many central London theatres showing unwavering dedication to supporting white male auteurs, there will always be Austin’s.

What many of us want is more Inua’s.