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.