As the theatre industry comes to terms with the idea that Broadway will not return until winter 2021 (at the earliest) and entertainment unions call on Congress to make stays for health insurance and financial assistance for entertainment workers—particularly in the theatre—there’s been a grim acceptance about how long it will be before performers can perform together again and audiences can fill houses and commune in the singular experience of live theatre. Until now.
Brendan Bradley has built a theatre in which it is entirely safe for actors to perform onstage together and audiences to attend with friends (even those with whom you’re not quarantined) sans masks or temperature checks; and it exists in virtual reality. Before you dismiss this as just another screen, click here to check out the space in a virtual walkthrough.
The innovation is called Future Stages, a 3D virtual theatre-going experience imagined and designed by Bradley with rendering and optimization from Aleena Sohail. Bradley is essentially an architect, but instead of bricks and mortar, he uses computer code. The space—like any traditional theatre space—comes fully equipped for a producer to “rent” and mount their show.
Attendees can enter the space with a VR headset or via your average computer web browser (that’s how this writer did it). After choosing or designing an avatar, you’ll walk through the front doors into the lobby. You can visit the box office or the merchandise booth, pick up a program, and walk into the theatre to your seat. Visitors will even notice a familiar Red Bucket for donations.
Because this is VR, you can walk up to anyone in these spaces and say hello, as you would in the lobby of a theatre complex such as New York City’s Public Theatre or Signature Center or Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., or Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. Bradley designed Future Stages with spatial audio capabilities. So, just like you can’t hear the conversation between people on the other side of the lobby in the real world, you can’t hear people 20 feet away in VR world.
This is especially exciting inside the theatre space. While the host of an event has the option to mute the audience, the idea is not to. Again, the spatial audio allows audiences to react without disrupting the performance. “If you sat in the back row next to somebody you knew, who chatted with you, you wouldn't necessarily—unless you were truly loud and rowdy—you wouldn't interrupt the person [onstage or in the front row],” says Bradley. Live applause, whispering to your neighbor about something amazing onstage, it’s all possible.
In addition to life-like audio, the visual experience improves from our current diet of screen presentations. Digital specials and Zoom readings and the rare truly live broadcast (such as Michael Urie’s triumph in Buyer & Cellar) have kept theatre alive, but this is the next step in recovery.
With Zoom, the frame is limited and what audiences see is the director’s choice. In Future Stages, users find their seats, the performance begins and users navigate their own view.
“For me, Zoom starts to beg a lot of comparisons to film and television,” says Bradley. “Like basically we're just watching a bad TV show because it's usually a cheaper camera. It's usually a cheaper set up. The technology is really meant to just compress, compress, compress, versus this environment, which gives physicality of space, physicality of audience, and true engagement.”
Bradley’s program also revives the stage door and backstage visits. At the stage door, users and performers alike can turn on their cameras and stream from their homes. A video screen replaces the VR avatar for more intimate and personal interaction.
In addition to an elevated audience experience, Future Stages enables performers to work with each other. Using a dual-camera system (one that streams to the audience and the Baby Monitor App in the app store), actors can interact and “touch” in real time. Watch:
“Ashley and I are on our laptops, just doing a normal Zoom conversation,” Bradley explains of the filming process. “And then we have a second camera with the Baby Monitor app and that way Ashley and I can see each other and react to each other and talk to each other. We're able to like high five and see each other.”
With his expertise, Bradley designed Future Stages with VR amateurs in mind. “I want to make this as comprehensive as possible so that people don't dismiss it,” he says. “If you have any technical know-how, my video should get you at least 90 percent of the way there. And I'm more than happy to talk.”
Bradley feels especially concerned with independent theatres, those clawing to survive a shutdown unlike the industry has experience before. “There are a lot of other theatre companies that I think are, we're really [at risk] because of all of this and they're losing their commissionable work and stuff like that,” says Bradley. His hope is that Future Stages can help the little theatres sustain until it is safe to open.
“It's still not going to be theatre, but it's going to be a lot closer,” Bradley says, “and we're going to get to see actual engagement, actual interaction, actual performance, which is just really magical.”