TAITMAIL OK, give me VR Shakespeare, but leave me the sniff factor

A research programme has just been announced that sends the imagination into paroxysms and at the same time makes you despair for theatre as we love it. It’s called Audience of the Future.

The government and the digital industry has got together to fund a two year programme in which a panel of experts from across the entertainment spectrum will use their knowledge, experience, imagination and the very latest technology to divine what immersive performance might mean in, say, 2021.

This panel is to be led by the RSC but includes a gaming software company, Manchester International Festival, a video company called Marshmallow Laser Feast, ACE/BBC’s digital development agency Space, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Punchdrunk and the University of Portsmouth. The writ, you can see, is pretty wide, taking in virtual reality, augmented reality (in which real objects are “enhanced” by computer-generated images), and - most alarming of all - mixed reality in which real and imaginary worlds merge.

The programme is part of the pledge Greg Clark, the business secretary, made last year at the Creative Industries Federation bash to support the sector in the government’s industrial strategy, acknowledging that the industry currently earns us £101bn a year.

What the panel’s precise brief is has not been vouchsafed, but it is clearly an exploration of how our traditional entertainments, playhouse theatre, classical music, street entertainment, can be melded with the digital geekery that envelopes artificial intelligence among other things, and excites us beyond reason. Well, some of us.

The digital and creative industries minister Margot James wants us to envision wandering among the cast of Romeo and Juliet, sitting in the second strings and sharing Sean Gandini’s juggling clubs. Add Punchrunk’s brand of comic horror and you’ll need to have the paramedics standing by.

Twenty-five years ago I was part of an informal group that wanted to create a museum of the British, a non-nationalistic central public institute that told the story of British creativity with all its permutations, styles and cultural additions over the centuries. We were academics, curators, the editor of a history magazine, a BBC producer; we were deadly serious and even got the notional support of the then Chancellor (though he’d got the wrong end of the stick, thinking we were proposing some sort of National Portrait Gallery of objects) and it would be built on the Greenwich Peninsula where the O2 Arena is now in its place. The thinking went along to the point where we would have virtual inputs from museums around the country so that we could show the very best of the public collections in one place to tell our various stories, and then we stopped. One of us said: “You do realise, don’t you, that we're talking about a museum that no-one will ever have to go to?” Enthusiasm quickly drained away.

We suddenly realised we could be giving birth to a monster we wouldn’t be able to control, and that is the point of despair we might be at now.

When asked why audiences chose to go to live performances a former festival director, now principal of a major drama school, said: “Simple. The sniff factor – people want to enjoy live performance within the aroma of a crowd as enthusiastic as they are”. The magic of live theatre or music isn’t just what is happening on stage, it’s also the contagion of enjoyment, shared with many or few but together. The coughs, programme rattling, toffee paper rustling, are all part of it too, and making the effort to go out, buy a ticket, organise a meal etc makes it all the more worthwhile.

Fascinating as it will be to carouse with Jack Falstaff or deliver the fatal blow to Richard III, let’s not forget the sheer joy of great performance received with the sniff factor. Or will they be able to virtualise that too?

 

 

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