Theatre goes digital in fabulous wonder.land

What if Lewis Carroll's Wonderland was a virtual world, and Alice an avatar?

Combining live theatre and digital technology, wonder.land is the London National Theatre’s latest musical created by Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris, based on Lewis Carroll’s iconic “Alice in Wonderland”. Touted as an Alice for the online generation, “wonder.land” is accompanied by an exhibition of digital experiences designed to immerse audiences in the story world using virtual and augmented reality, as well as a Kinect installation.

On the occasion of the screening at Sundance of fabulous wonder.land, the mobile VR animated musical video inspired by the show, we spoke with Toby Coffey, head of digital development for the National Theatre, about how digital immersive content can complement the experience of a stage play.

How did you come to VR? What drove you to experiment with this new medium?

As a genre, immersive storytelling is important to me and the work we do at the National Theatre. In terms of seeing what different technologies could do, I’d been looking at Oculus Rift, attending a couple of workshops, looking at what it meant for a theatre to be working in that space. When we found out that this was going to be a digital approach to Alice in Wonderland, I immediately started thinking about where we could take this. In the show Alice is an avatar of Ali, a teenage girl in high school having… teenage girl problems. The rabbit hole is the internet and wonder.land is the online world that she escapes to and can have control over.

The rabbit hole is the internet and wonder.land is the online world that she escapes toWhen we started envisioning the type of interactions we would build around the show, there were a lot of suggestions that we should develop a game, but I didn’t feel that option was immersive or innovative enough. I wanted to use digital to allow people to have an experience that they would not ordinarily be able to.

Alice in Wonderland is such a great story to create something digital for, because there are so many ways that you can take it. In the very early days, it just felt like the right thing to do would be to let people experience Wonderland and allow them to fall down the rabbit hole, be as small as a mouse, big as a house, that kind of thing.

VR installation

What was your role as a producer on the VR piece?

I look after digital development at the NT, looking at the creative and technical development of the interfaces between us and our audiences. My role here was conceiving an idea that then became a collaboration between the NT, 59 Productions and Play Nicely. In the show 59 Productions designed wonder.land which was projected onto the stage. We then worked with Play Nicely who built on those designs developing it into the VR piece. It was a really rewarding and collaborative process.

We also worked with the set designers for the show Rae Smith and Tom Paris to create a physical installation where the world of the production spills over into the front of house spaces. In the show Ali often goes into wonder.land on her phone in the school toilets so we recreated the toilets in our exhibition space. You sit on the toilet to use the Oculus Rifts and experience the VR, it’s a nice touch and audiences really enjoy it.

What challenges did you have to overcome when producing in VR?

To be honest, most of the challenges are technical and you get those with any new technology or progressive work. Like finding that sweet spot where you get to capture the optimal performance. There was a lot of testing, because it’s a very interactive space and there are thousands of elements that are all moving. The space reacts to you as well, reacts to the music. We had to find the optimal amount of detail we could put in there without degrading the performance.

We couldn’t achieve some of the things we wanted to achieve because of the processing power it requires – that was probably the biggest challenge. More than challenges these were learning experiences. What happens when the environment reacts to you? What happens when it doesn’t? How do you create a focal point so that people are looking in the right direction when you need them to?

How do you see immersive experiences evolve in the overall storytelling landscape?

I think it’s hugely significant, although obviously very embryonic at the moment. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to develop. The reason why we’ve invested in it as an organization is that we traditionally create immersive storytelling of a certain form. We’re talking to the writers and directors we’re working with. As soon as they experience VR, they completely understand the future relevance of it to theatre, but without yet knowing what the form of that will be.

That kind of immersive storytelling as a future paradigm is just perfect.It will take us a couple of years of experimentation to actually integrate VR into live theatre. In terms of the overall industry, it’s going to be huge. I’ve been watching the reactions of every single person trying it, you can just tell how they’ve been transported into something they’ve never experienced before. That kind of immersive storytelling as a future paradigm is just perfect.

The experience of VR is still an individual one. How do you see that factor play out against the social experience of theatre?

We don’t know the answers to that yet, but we will hopefully within the next 12 to 24 months. We’re definitely not suggesting that everyone will sit in the theatre isolated within their own headset for the whole performance. We’re not going to nail it straight away, there will be several stages of experimentation before we get it right. Thinking about the kind of equipment to set up in the auditorium, that might not be where virtual makes sense. It might be something more like augmented reality, and saving virtual reality for experiences outside the auditorium.

We’ve got to go through a process of testing those things out. We’re very lucky the National is very progressive as an organization. Directors are also very progressive and eager to experiment. So the answer would be « watch the space and we’ll find out». We know we’ll crack it at some point.

Are there any pieces of VR content you have been enthusiastic about recently?

I’ve seen a very good film called Simon by Surround Vision that was shown at the London Film Festival. That was a very moving piece. There’s lots of great stuff at Sundance. The ILMxLab piece is amazing. It’s a really short piece of content. When you walk into the room, it just looks like a projection, but as you put the glasses on, you really feel like you’re in the space. It’s amazing, and really encouraging.

Maybe that’s the kind of stuff where immersive theatre and VR come together because you can actually walk around characters in the space and also be in that space with your friends. There’s a lot of interesting things happening out there.

What comes next for you after fabulous wonder.land?

We’re looking into new forms of writing for 360° films as immersive storytelling experiences. We’ll be running a workshop for 360° films when I get back, there’s a lot of great work happening in the documentary space, and we want to see whether this can work properly for fiction as well.

wonder.land official website
wonder.land musical & exhibition @ The National Theatre, London until April 30, 2016
fabulous wonder.land App for iPhone & iPad
fabulous wonder.land App for Android

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