ARC Stockton Arts Centre

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On-Demand Digital Theatre – The Future of Theatre?

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In an age of on-demand TV, music and movies, where does theatre fit? Innovative theatre company Metro-Boulot-Dodo may have the answer with HACT, a digital theatre experiment taking place at ARC until 24 June. Working on the fact that most theatre shows take place in the evening, HACT offers on-demand bitesize theatre experiences that can be accessed by anyone in the venue at any time. These experiences take the form of an audio play that traverses all levels of ARC, and a virtual reality auditorium.

First up, virtual reality theatre. This has to be seen to be believed and is a great opportunity to try something so new it’s practically sci-fi. It can be a little daunting at first, putting on a visor and headphones and wondering what people watching you are thinking; but when the show starts you are fully immersed. Transported to a small performance space, you find yourself at your own private viewing of a five-minute show. The performance is filmed with a 360 degree camera and presented in 3D, meaning you can turn your head and look around the space you are in, and focus on the aspects of the performance that you choose to. You may even forget that you’re sitting in ARC’s foyer!

HACT’s second trick is an immersive audio play taking place across several purpose-built sets placed around the building. After downloading the HACT app (which is small, unobtrusive, and will not interfere with your phone at all) onto your smartphone, you simply pop in your headphones, hit ‘start’ and put your phone away. As you explore ARC and approach a set, a Bluetooth beacon hidden in the scene is picked up by the app, triggering the appropriate audio to play through your phone. The beauty of this is that you can explore the venue and the play at your own pace, through your phone and headphones, in a way that feels comfortable and familiar and less likely to stand out.

So what does this mean for audiences, artists and venues in the future? We debated this at a discussion led by Metro-Boulot-Dodo, along with local artists, companies and representatives from nearby venues. For audiences, it means there can be shows to experience, whenever you want one. For venues, it means visitors become audiences; it means engaging new audiences and artists; it means promoting the venue and the work programmed (or potentially programmed) there. Perhaps most excitingly for artists and companies, it means your work can be showcased at many different venues simultaneously. With the VR theatre in particular, five minute pieces by a number of artists can be programmed, giving audiences a range of work to experience each time they visit. These pieces can be rated by viewers, and this feedback passed on to inform artists of which venues it would be best to tour a full show too; and inform venues which shows are proving popular amongst visitors that could be programmed in the future.

HACT’s experiments are providing practical, exciting and engaging ways in which new technology can be incorporated into theatre in ways that can enhance audience and artist experiences and make theatre more accessible. But don’t take my word for it, come along and try it for yourself; and give us your feedback. You could just help influence the future of theatre.

by Nicola Cameron, Box Office Assistant