Virtual reality is nothing new. The term was, in fact, coined in 1938 by legendary theatre director Antonin Artaud. He used it to describe the illusory nature of characters and objects in the theatre – simultaneously real and imagined.
Technology has become more sophisticated since the clunky headsets and even clunkier graphics of early experiments. It’s only in the last couple of months that virtual reality headsets have hit the market, but VR is already being used in filmmaking, gaming, even open-heart surgery. Now it’s starting to invade theatre too.
In a shrewd attempt both to pre-empt and shape this new format, the National Theatre is experimenting with VR as a way of connecting with new audiences. A rehearsal room in the National Theatre Studio is full of tech: there’s a huge TV screen, cables everywhere, trestle tables covered in headsets and laptops.
Oscar Raby, a Chilean visual artist based in Australia, has been invited for a two-week residency to experiment with VR and theatre. The NT’s head of digital development, Toby Coffey, is keen to stress that there’s no endpoint in mind here: “People say, ‘Are you going to sit 1,000 people down in the Lyttelton with headsets for two hours?’ That’s not what we’re doing.”