The last year has been one of agony and heartache for many theatre-makers, but I wonder whether we may look back on this year and see how the pause it brought to theatre production also allowed for the space to dream and try new things. The test will be how we take what we have learned this year into the future. That will be particularly true of online experiments. How – and in what way – can and will they be incorporated into future practice? What will they mean for access and inclusivity.
The RSC was thinking along this way with Dream. It's a collaboration with Manchester International Festival and Marshmallow Laser Feast, funded by Audiences of the Future, that uses real-time motion-capture technology to create a strange, slightly sinister midsummer forest, where you are led a merry dance by Puck and where Cobweb is a giant eye in a spider's web. Dream can be accessed for free via the RSC website until Saturday, or you can pay more for a ticket that allows you to be more interactive. To be honest, the interactivity is pretty minimal.
But listen, this is not a show, it’s an experiment and it’s always interesting to get a glimpse of experiments, particularly one exploring the boundaries between theatre and gaming, between the on and offline worlds. The audience interaction will surely take time to grow. In the longer term, the idea is that the Dream experiment will have applications that are not just about audiences accessing the work through screens but also being physically present.
Moth and Puck. Image by Paul Mumford.
As the RSC’s Sarah Ellis says, it’s “a yes and model, not an either or model.” That’s something that's true of all the online experiments currently being undertaken by theatre-makers, and I’m all in favour of it, just as I am in seeing theatres working with different partners and collaborators including universities and the tech sector.
The aim has been to explore how technology can be used to make experiences that will have appeal to both digital natives and those with less digital literacy (like me). When I joined a performance there were more than 6,000 people watching, and of the 20,000 who attended the first three public performances, apparently 25% were first time RSC attendees.
As theatres start to open up, they are going to need new audiences and non-traditional audiences. After all, as the success of shows such as Riptide’s The Lucky Ones proves, there is a huge untapped audience of people who aren’t generally theatregoers but who may be intrigued by theatre offerings as long as they don’t expect them to sit in a building in the dark.
Dream uses the technology that supports games such as Fortnite, and while it may have a strangeness for those of us more familiar with actors than avatars, its possibilities are obvious. It’s well worth logging onto the RSC website to catch a glimpse of the future. Or rather, one of theatre’s many, many different futures.
Cover image by Stuart Martin.