The Performing Arts

Picture Credit to Tom Robbins, Spring Awakening, Sheffield University Theatre Company, The Drama Studio, 2018

A Review of VR in the Performing Arts

by Isabel Potter

Virtual Reality (VR) has been rapidly researched and improved in the last few decades, and its uses have widened across many industries. A key example of this is in the performing arts, with historically limited expendable funds, it takes most developments from other industries. For example, developments originally designed for educational or gaming purposes have consequently been used in different areas of the performing arts, specifically live performance.


Although not initially thought of as one of the most technically involved industries, there are many applications of technology in the performing arts. Some are obvious, for any basic theatre performance you need lighting, a sound system and a basic stage/set. However, there are more uses for technology in the industry, a recent production of Dear Evan Hansen at the Noel Coward Theatre relied heavily on projection (Greif, 2019) to convey a large amount of the setting, scenery, and even storytelling elements. The world renowned Hamilton has a set that transforms seamlessly using pulleys, motors, and hydraulic systems all remotely operated (Kail, 2018). Virtual reality has its place among these other technologies, not only in the production itself but also in the creating on non VR performances.


Pre-production is a very important aspect of live performance for a few reasons. The high speed turn over of shows in venues, often in a matter of weeks. The lack of access to venues while other productions are under way. To save costs and waste by representing design ideas that can be perfected before creation. Virtual Reality can play a key role in allowing designers and production team members to view and edit designs without requiring access to the space.


WYSIWYG advertises itself as an "all-in-one lighting design software". This undersells its capabilities in some regards as it has integrated 3D design function for creation of specific venues, set, rig plans and speaker placement. WYSIWYG has recently developed its R42 Virtual Reality function that is compatible with VIVE and Oculus Headsets. The Virtual Reality function is for viewing only as it currently exists. The user can create fixed "scenes" and virtually move to different spots in the venue to experience what the design may look like once introduced into the real world. WYSIWYG was originally created for simulation on displays and is a relatively cheap option for download compared to other software for performance applications. One limitation of WYSIWYG is the need to import your venue from another 3D design software such as AutoCAD Revit, or Google Sketchup.

Image Courtesy of 2020 CAST Group of Companies Inc .


Image Courtsey of disguise 2020

Disguise Designer is another Virtual Reality software used widely in the performing arts. They boast collaborations in a variety of live performance fields, from The Rolling Stones to Frozen the stage production. It offers more advanced technology than WYSIWYG with inbuilt ability to create your venue in Designer. It allows the possibility of moving sets, performers and running projection within the virtual venue created. It easily combines the design of, lighting, set, staging etc. into one design package at a very high quality render. It is however limited in its compatibility only with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive specifically. It has a multi edit function allowing multiple designers to work on it simultaneously.


Virtual reality in Performance itself rather than in design has only been developed and used more recently and its applications have only touched the surface of what could be possible. One application could be to allow those to watch a live stream of real time performance in a headset while at home. However there are more interesting applications when you allow for interactive or immersive performance.


As mentioned the application of a 360 degree camera in a seat within any live performance could be engineered to live stream directly to a headset. This would be relatively simple as YouTube already supports the live streaming of 360 degree videos. This would allow anyone with a headset, even one as simple as the google cardboard to view a production from their front room. LIVR are a company who already provide a subscription service to watch theatre in 360 degrees however it is pre recorded.


Immersive productions are already a well known form of performance. In a way blurring the lines of a virtual reality without technology. Actors and set are created to allow individuals or small groups to be engaged directly in story by actors. This can be greatly aided by the introduction of actual Virtual Reality. Punchdrunk one of the leading theatre companies in the world collaborated with Samsung in 2016 to create an immersive VR theatre piece. The piece won and award and was highly rated as the future of performance. Another example is DUST an immersive dance performance where audience members can get up close and personal in a VR headset to dance recordings.

Punchdrunk International’s Believe Your Eyes, Cannes. Photography by Johanna Siring


The final way that VR can be used in performance is interactive performance. It started to lend itself more to mixed or augmented reality, however can be utilised in very interesting ways with interaction. A really interesting way this has been explored is by a company called AΦE their production WHIST states it "merges Physical Theatre, interactive Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies and an art installation". It places audience members in an art gallery with VR headsets on and allows them to move around the space and feel real objects whilst experiencing a production through the headset.

Image Courtesy of AΦE

Concluding Remarks

Virtual reality in theatre has a host of very exciting applications that are not only novel but practical. This industry will only go on expanding further as Virtual Reality technology improves. Live performance can be costly but the dropping price of VR headsets it can be made accessible to those who could not previously afford the luxury of a trip to the theatre or a gig. It also allows those who are physically unable to attend a live performance possibly due to accessibility issue they can now experience it form the comfort of their own home. Virtual Reality expands the creative ability of designers and performers making way for a new direction for live performance.