by Louis Train
The LIVR offices at Westbourne Green look like the headquarters of any startup: the decoration is sparse, the staff is small, there’s a dog bed by the wall and, one assumes, sometimes there is a dog. At one end of the room there is a sofa, where I was invited to sit and try on a virtual reality headset. I pulled the set over my eyes and plugged in the headphones. I chose a play, Stephen Laughton’s One Jewish Boy, and pressed start.
The room went dark. In front of me, a stage was set, beside me and behind me and all around me, spectators chatted excitedly. I turned my head and took in the room: couples, friends, the usual theatre-goers. I glanced at the wristwatch of the man sat next to me and noticed it was evening. A light came on the stage, the actors entered and spoke their first words, and the performance began.
LIVR offer a monthly subscription service of live-streaming virtual reality theatre. If you have a VR headset, or even one of those £5 kits from Google, you can immerse yourself in some of the best of contemporary theatre. As someone who watches two or three plays a week, I am skeptical at first. But an hour at the LIVR office trying out a handful of plays from their repertory convinced me that VR theatre is damn convincing.
Of course, it’s not an exact substitute for the real thing – being sat surrounded by virtual people is actually quite lonely – but that’s not the point. VR theatre gives you access to something you might have missed: because the show sold out, because you don’t live in London, because ticket prices are too steep. VR theatre will also be a tremendous resource for researchers going forward – unlike a script, which provides a record of only the words in a play, but not the lighting, sound, or acting, a VR recording gives you a sense of every detail of the production. More than anything, it makes theatre radically more accessible than any ticket discount scheme.
LIVR are on track to add eight new plays per month. Their repertory of 120 shows is already impressive (I especially enjoyed Songlines, which premiered at the Queen’s Theatre, and Woke, from Edinburgh Fringe 2018.) Artists receive royalties each time a show is watched, potentially providing a new stream of revenue for hard-working folks whose employment can be precarious.
‘Innovation’ is a buzzword around the West End these days. But more often than not, it means dyeing an actor’s hair purple or adding pop-rock to Shakespeare. Virtual reality might be the largest innovation the theatre has seen in a long time, and it’s happening on your sofa.
The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.