Arts & Design

3 ways live theater is finding new life in the virtual world

With theaters and traditional performance venues shuttered, actors and audiences are turning to the virtual stage.

By Stephanie Walden — December 17, 2020

COVID-19 has been a real showstopper for the theater industry, and not in the standing-ovation sense of the phrase. Since March, there have been no long lines wrapped around Broadway or West End street corners, no ushers corralling chaotic crowds to their seats. The stages of theaters, opera houses, and concert halls have gone dark around the world. 

According to a study by the Brookings Institution, the fine and performing arts industry in the United States saw a 50% loss in jobs and a drop of more than $42 billion in sales from April to July 2020 alone. Globally, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) lists the cultural and creative sector (CCS) among one of the most affected by the crisis — right up there with tourism.

But as much as the pandemic has turned the theater world upside down, it has also created opportunities to experiment with virtual venues, creating new forms of live, immersive shows via Zoom, virtual reality (VR), and even mobile apps

Not only do these avenues allow creators to connect with homebound audiences and find an outlet during a stressful time, but they also empower artists to learn technical skills that will be relevant to a digitally enabled world long after the pandemic ends. There’s appetite for virtual performances, too; one show that was live streamed by National Theatre at Home back in April racked up 2.6 million views in just one week.

“People are really blown away by the agility of the storytelling, the interactivity, and their own sense of being part of a community,” says Joanna Popper, HP’s global head of virtual reality for location-based entertainment. “Virtual shows are something hopeful and groundbreaking that people can participate in.”

In our new world, directors, producers, writers, and performers are using technology to prove that all the internet’s a stage.

Reimagining immersive theater in VR

Finding Pandora X, by VR director Kiira Benzing, illustrates how VR can be an ideal venue for immersive theater. The show, inspired by the Greek myth of Pandora’s box, won Best VR Immersive User Experience at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival — which was also 100% virtual.

At the start of the performance, the audience, who plays the role of the Greek Chorus, arrives in avatar form on a cloud. Virtual usher avatars help audience members — or “players” — get acclimated to the experience, answering questions and directing them if they get lost. 

Live theater turns virtual to survive lockdowns.

Cathal Duane

Live theater has been deeply affected by the lockdowns, but VR technology has created an opportunity to widen the industry's audience accessibility.

As the show goes on, players and actors collaborate to solve challenges in the search for Pandora and to move the plot forward. At the end of the show, the audience learns to “fly” in the virtual world, as a reward for their participation.

Behind the scenes, actors don HP Reverb headsets and stage managers command via HP workstations instead of the standard mic and clipboard set-up. 

Popper says that it is “thrilling” to see HP technology bring such a creative vision to life. “VR really enables an experience where audiences have the joy, hopefulness, and community of theater — even in a pandemic — from wherever we are around the world,” she says.

For Benzing, experimenting with technology is an exciting way to make theater more inclusive, accessible, and ultimately, meaningful in a rapidly changing world. 

“As creators, we will continue to make stories and evolve,” she says. “We will build more worlds and more stages — they just might not look like they did before.”

Encouraging audiences to choose their own adventure

It’s not just artists that benefit from navigating this new landscape. Audiences also get a great deal out of the interactive nature of the virtual stage, says David Carpenter, CEO of Gamiotics and an on- and Off-Broadway producer for more than 20 years.

“I remember playing video games as a kid and making decisions that affect the story and its outcome,” he says. “This idea that you as an audience member can have agency that changes the narrative — I love that.”

When the pandemic hit, Carpenter launched Seize the Show, a live performance series powered by Gamiotics, a proprietary and interactive mobile technology, and viewable on Zoom. 

“It becomes a game,” Carpenter says. “The audience is participating in what’s happening every step of the way.”

Each Seize the Show performance is unique and open to multiple possible endings. In one iteration that ran during Halloween week — Camp Stabbawei, an ’80s-style slasher horror show — the audience members’ goal was to stay “alive” as players got picked off one by one. Viewers could gather “weapons” from a digital menu as they might in a video game, and make decisions about where to go as the story progressed; all choices affected the narrative and gameplay. Actors tuned in and performed live on screen via Zoom.

Live theater turns to technology for artists to still perform during COVID-19.

Cathal Duane

Audiences are immersed into a new performing arts experience where every show is unique according to their decisions.

Seize the Show’s hour-long shows, which to date have averaged about 400 audience members, typically hit engagement rates north of 95%. Shows often adhere to seasonal themes — for example, A Christmas Karen is running from now until Christmas.  

Carpenter sees potential for this kind of interactive, collaborative experience beyond plays. A band might let audiences vote in real time about the songs they want to hear next, for example.

“It adds another level of connection that I think that we all want to have,” he says.

Amplifying and centering Black voices in XR

In addition to making theater more accessible to widely dispersed audiences, Lauren Ruffin, co-CEO of the arts advocacy organization Fractured Atlas, believes VR can be a tool that helps underrepresented creators tell stories — and make a living doing so.

In-person shows only allow for a finite number of seats, which makes it difficult for small- and mid-sized theaters to keep the lights on. The virtual world, on the other hand, represents an opportunity to scale exponentially. But Ruffin says there wasn’t a clear, financially viable avenue for Black creators and other people of color to break into XR — an umbrella term that encompasses VR, augmented reality (AR), and other new and emerging forms of mixed reality technology. 

“Black creators who were submitting immersive content to [mainstream festivals] were raising significantly less money than White creators, even though they were doing really high-quality content,” she says.

In 2017, Ruffin and Dafina McMillan, an arts management, technology, and communications professional, started Crux, an organization that centers Black voices via XR storytelling. After McMillan left the organization to focus on her consulting business, Ruffin brought Nick Leavens, a director, writer, and producer, into the fold. Earlier this year, the duo launched the Black Imagination Series, short VR plays directed and produced by Black creatives.

“VR really enables an experience where audiences have the joy, hopefulness, and community of theater — even in a pandemic — from wherever we are around the world.”

—Joanna Popper, global head of location-based entertainment, HP

The stories cover a range of topics, including current events, pop culture, and meta themes like the awkwardness of being in VR for the first time. For example, in It’s Homecoming, Y’all!, by Breane C. Venablé, a group of HBCU alumni try to navigate a VR gathering that has replaced the traditional parade.

Blair Russell, an XR producer with Crux, notes that one of the barriers to entry for creators and performers is the sheer expansiveness of the virtual world. “One of the biggest challenges is that it is limitless,” he says. “How can you exist in this space? And what are the possibilities?” 

The first iterations of the series have been experimental, so Crux has offered tickets at no cost — although the actors and creatives involved were paid a fair wage, comparable to or more than New York theater’s Off-Broadway rates. Crux is currently accepting donations, and as the series progresses, it plans to begin charging for tickets. 

“As the model develops, we see it as not dissimilar to [traditional] theater — we’ll have similar revenue streams, i.e., ticket sales, foundations/donors, sponsors, etc., but exponentially scaleable and more accessible.”

The Black Imagination Series shows, which debuted in October in a custom-built, immersive environment hosted on AltspaceVR, a VR platform that enabled up to 30 people to congregate in user-generated spaces, and sold out quickly. The platform has since expanded that cap. Going forward, the series will offer two types of programming: Crux-produced events, and partnered events with organizations like the Actors Theatre of Louisville and New York Live Arts, which is working with Crux on a virtual version of its annual Live Artery event, beginning January 9, 2021. Crux is also toying with ideas like interactive livestreaming; exploring improv in XR; and creating 360-capture, stereoscopic shows.

“[The Black Imagination Series] showed us that not only is there an audience eager for this type of content, but it’s national, it’s global,” says Leavens. 


RELATED: Meet eight women at the forefront of VR filmmaking.