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Relative Motion: Virtual Reality Theatre’s New Release Of Edward II

By Michelle Sciarrotta

Relative Motion has been fusing theatre and VR since 2018 to create compelling narrative virtual reality experiences.  They’ve built an expertise in working with actors in VR spaces and a keen understanding of how to craft engaging, intimate and immersive stories for SAM – the Single Audience Member.  The Relative Motion team – Chris, Andy and Chloe – all theatre makers themselves – draw on multiple skill sets from across the theatre, music, technical and digital worlds to craft their unique brand of theatrically inspired VR. Chris Lane, Andy Purves and Chloe Miller Smith talk to us about Relative Motion and their newest show, Edward II, reimagined for VR. 

Chris Lane – In his life as a theatre-maker, Chris’s career spans more than thirty years.  His directing work includes musical theatre, opera, classical and contemporary drama, as well as new writing. Chris has worked across the London theatre landscape, from fringe venues through to the Royal Opera House. Chris’s pioneering work and research into the fusion of theatre and narrative virtual reality began in 2017 with support from Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund. Chris has also acted as a consultant on immersive tech and storytelling for the Royal Opera House’s Audience Labs and was part of the RSC/Magic Leap Cohort in 2019.  

Andy Purves – Andy is a theatre technical designer by trade and responsible for the production of Relative Motion’s sound and vision – from concept to capture, right through to audience experience. Alongside his work for Relative Motion, Andy is an award-winning international theatre-maker specialising in lighting for performance. As a lighting designer, Andy’s years of professional practice have encompassed theatre, opera, circus, dance, educational, site-responsive, found space and community-based projects. Andy has been a regular collaborator with world-renowned theatre company Frantic Assembly since 2006.

Chloe Miller Smith –  Chloe is a sought after immersive producer with a background in arts learning and engagement.  She was a founder member of the Royal Opera House’s Audience Labs – which explored the possibilities afforded by the combination of the performing arts and immersive technologies – and lead on the development of the ROH’s VR experiences. As a freelancer producer, she has worked for the National Theatre, in their Immersive Storytelling Studio and with world-leading content creators for 3D, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality: Vision3.

Hello Chris, Andy and Chloe, thanks for talking with us at TheatreArtLife! The launch of Edward II for VR is the latest success for you at Relative Motion – previous works have included Puccini’s Tosca and Shakespeare classical texts brought to life with VR. How do you start a project like that, and how have you made Edward II work during the pandemic?

In starting a project the first thing we ask is “will the story work well in a VR space?”. As we don’t restrict the audience’s field of view the piece has to be able to convincingly use the entirety of the 360 space. Keeping SAM (the single audience member) engaged and active is essential for us.  We also look for scenes that will challenge us to explore new terrain – our Shakespeare work allowed us to explore three unique character perspectives for SAM; Tosca gave us the opportunity to work with a larger cast, a longer piece and to put our spatial audio and music making skills to the test. 

Edward II gave us the chance to work with a trio of actors (which makes it trickier to stage) and an empty theatre which honed our skills with lighting VR in theatrical spaces and designing in a more natively theatrical way. We also used the Insta360 Pro2 camera on this shoot which meant embracing a more technically challenging capture process, 8K post-production processes and we got the chance to further explore ‘live-streamed’ VR as well.

The LGBTQ+ nature of Edward II also resonated with us – VR is often called an empathy machine and putting SAM at the centre of this story, we hope, will remind people that ‘love is love’ and that it is hard to hate people close up.  

As for building this work during the pandemic we were very fortunate to have captured the work immediately after lockdown was eased – we knew that the actors and creative team had been in strict quarantine for the three weeks leading up to the shoot and that The Barn’s team had all been isolating on site together since March so the theatre was as ‘virus free’ as one was likely to find. 

We navigated the shoot using a very, very small team (and copious amounts of hand sanitiser and social distancing) and the actors were intimately engaged in the staging process. The cast’s comfort levels were front and centre as we worked and this allowed us to rehearse and capture the piece in a truly collaborative and safe way. Additionally, the guidance offered by PACT, the British Film Commission and the UK Screen Alliance was comprehensive and profoundly instructive. Their Covid-19 documents shaped our approach to the entire project and gave all of us involved a sense of security in these uncertain times. 

Were there any challenges in bringing together a 16th Century scene with 21st Century technology?

It’s funny but classical theatre and VR actually make for good bedfellows. Shakespeare and Marlowe wrote their plays for a round space with the audience in the middle designing their work so that it made the most of the actor/audience dynamic at play in these spaces. In that we place our audience at the centre of the VR performance space, these texts mesh quite perfectly with our performance/space dynamic. 

What can be tricky is making sure the heightened language doesn’t end up distancing the audience from the story – but this is true in theatre spaces as well. Making sure the actors are incredibly clear about what their characters are saying – and why they are driven to say it – goes a long way to mitigate this. Some sensitively applied treatment and underscoring often sorts out any other niggling issues.

What is a challenge though is getting actors to understand that the scale of their performance in VR is different to that of theatre and film.  There is no time for ‘acting’ when your audience is no more than three metres away (at the most) and in the room with you.

Authenticity, vulnerability and truthfulness are essential to the process and ‘just being real’ is the order of the day when acting in VR. 

Minimal on-site rehearsals, coming to terms with a completely new actor/audience dynamic, working in single takes (you can’t edit out mistakes in a 360 scene) and a host of other factors can pose a challenge to master for actors new to VR performance spaces.  We’re developing an Acting for VR training course for this exact reason – watch this space.

Where Edward II was concerned, it was tricky working with a classical text in a traditional end-on theatre space when you’re not using the space as originally intended/designed – it took great effort not to accidentally play to towards the traditional ‘audience’. 

Coming up with a theatrically inspired language for the piece by way of set/costume/visual design and a unique and compelling score was also challenging – our aim was an elegant, stripped-back representative design that allowed the performances and music to drive the story. 

The ‘virtual stage’ could be here to stay in the post-covid world. What would you like to see produced in this medium next, or what would be your dream show to see or work on?

RM wants to be part of bedding virtual stages into our culture properly – finding its artists and craftspeople – writing, upskilling theatre people, upskilling film people, upskilling CG and games artists to help a new artform to flourish. 

We know that VR has potential to be as meaningful and affecting as performance in traditional live spaces as its place as a new art form grows, its artists are discovered, and their creativity amplified. Alongside this, we think VR can facilitate a new culture of access to the arts, not limited by geographic or socio-economic factors.

VR technology is still novel for most people. When we show our work, we’re often facilitating someone’s first experience of virtual reality. With quality, artful content presented comfortably in an environment where we have a duty of care for someone’s full experience, we hope that these first steps are positive and inspiring and stimulate a hunger for more.

We think that the ecology of performance in virtual reality can be significantly stimulated by the international reputation of UK arts organisations, along with the respect, trust and loyalty they inspire. There’s a new performance space waiting to welcome audiences within.

By way of dream shows/experiences we are eager to see work that really engages SAM and builds audience agency in a way that intensifies and amplifies the experience without being a distraction.  We’re also eager to see a real fusion between theatre, games and film practices and how this fusion will create brand new content that builds on the best practices from each of these storytelling genres. 

Our next projects are going to be constructed by cross-pollinating theatre, games and film and it’s exciting to see a growing number of people having these types of conversations – they are certain to be instrumental in shaping this new art form.

Edward II In Action Relative Motion

The Relative Motion Edward II Scene 4 is eight minutes in length, and took a great deal of work to make. What does the future look like in terms of extending more scenes in VR, and what is involved in creating the immersive experience?

Extended VR experiences become more possible everyday, now that the technology is getting better, cheaper and more ubiquitous. Clearly, funding plays a key role in the development of new work and this, we believe, is key to developing audience’s appetites for VR story experiences.

So, to this end, expanding the scale of our work, and VR projects more generally, means finding investors (public and private) who are excited by the medium and eager to see it thrive. We also believe that new writing is essential for this medium and that nurturing a writers to craft new stories specifically for SAM and VR spaces will drive audience interest in the genre/medium.

Combine this with longer rehearsal processes, exciting locations and creative casting and the authenticity of the experiences will increase exponentially. Curated audience agency will also be important for creating strong audience presence in new VR stories. 

Episodic content (something we’re currently exploring) and communal viewing events (once Covid-19 is less of a threat) will also contribute to longer, more comprehensive narrative VR experiences. 

Relative Motion is also involved with testing use-cases for the 5G network. Can you tell us more about that?

Relative Motion is a company preoccupied by liveness (presence, agency, empathy), authenticity and immediacy. 5G unlocks potential for extraordinarily truthful and moving storytelling in real time virtual space; low latency and high bandwidth provide an opportunity to connect with an audience in a meaningful, vibrant way through technology over great distances. 5G permits robust broadcast of 360 material at a resolution beyond 8K and high fidelity live reception in 5G enabled VR headsets, smartphones and tablets.

What does VR offer audiences that they can’t get from other mediums?

There are several things that VR offers that can’t be replicated by other mediums. The biggest advantage of VR is that of presence.  Because VR places you in an immersive 360° environment in which you have agency your brain is tricked into believing that you are actually there. The neurologic functions of your brain use various sensory streams to create your reality. 

Because VR can dynamically and holistically create sensory information (visual, aural, kinaesthetic, haptic etc.) that replicates real life, your brain will take this sensory input, interpret these streams and communicate the synthesis of this information to you as a real experience.

The more sensory streams available, the more real it will feel. 

This is where agency factors in. Agency in VR relates to the amount of control you have to engage with the virtual world.  There are two levels of agency, 3 degrees of freedom (3DoF) and 6 degrees of freedom (6DoF). 3DoF allows for you to look anywhere you choose and to spin around in the space provided you are standing or sitting in a swivel chair – the viewing perspective is fixed.  6DoF allows you to actually walk/move around the space. 

In these experiences the world responds to your body’s positioning (kneel down and the space reacts as if you are actually kneeling in it) – so, unlike 3DoF, you choose the viewing perspective.  The more sophisticated the technology gets the more advanced the agency options will become and the more real things will feel.

I should mention here that I don’t believe you have to have massive amounts of agency to have a truly impressive VR experience. I believe that curating agency is critical to a successful VR encounter and that 6DoF experiences are not inherently better than their 3DoF counterparts. Too much agency can overwhelm an audience participant, especially if they are new to VR. Where storytelling is concerned, the experience design and the way you move the story around the audience-participant matters immensely to the success of the experience in my opinion.

What the above offers audiences is that ‘being there’ means you will have a memory of the experience that rivals those of the real world. It also means that you both visually and physical experience the story. Your physiological responses and your proximity to the story and the actors/characters become storytelling tools in this space. 

You are not simply told or shown a story, you get to live the story, participate and in a proximate relationship that can’t be created by any other storytelling genre/platform. This immersion, this personalisation means that VR is a truly unique, interactive and unrivalled new world in which story experiences can be crafted and explored.

What can we look forward to next from Relative Motion?

RM is developing a new-writing hub investing in the medium’s new voices and creating compelling new VR story worlds. We are creating a workshop series for actors wanting to hone skills working in VR, and there are several projects on our slate that are thoroughly exploring the fusion of theatre, gaming and film. Finally, we’re also moving into using built environment/CGI spaces and motion-captured performances with a few of our new projects – watch this space.

Website: https://www.relativemotion.co.uk/ 

Facebook: @RelativeMotionUK 

Instagram: @relative_motion

Twitter: @Relative_Motion

YouTube Channel: here.

Also by Michelle Sciarrotta:

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