TCG Talks Tech: Virtual and Augmented Reality and its Role at #TCG19

By Hannah Fenlon posted 02-14-2019 14:19


Last week in the TCG office, I haunted my son, the Prince of Denmark, as he put on what seemed like a pretty mediocre play for my wife and brother (who are now married, which is a little troubling). Every now and again, while watching this scene unfold, I heard giggles that seemed slightly out of place for the somber note the play attempted to strike. Turns out, my TCG colleagues were seated next to me, and they were
also busy haunting Hamlet as we simultaneously watched Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s new virtual reality theatre experience, produced in partnership with Google and released publicly (and free!) via Boston public media producer WBGH.

The piece is 61 minutes in length, and can be experienced on any device (see the American Theatre writeup on the piece here). Don’t have a fancy VR headset? You can use your cell phone, snapped in to Google Cardboard or the company’s $49 Daydream Viewer, or a $7 pair of goggles from Amazon. It was shot in an abandoned burlesque theatre on Staten Island, with an impeccably designed set by Clint Ramos, and actors who at moments are performing 7-8 minute scenes with no break (this durational process is unlike traditional film, but necessary to sustain the VR experience).

Commonwealth’s experiment has gained instant traction and interest from the theatre, education, and tech sectors, and serves as one of the projects opening the door to future partnerships that serve theatre “goers.” As Commonwealth’s Founding Artistic Director Steven Maler put it in the New York Times: “This allows us to scale that mission to the world and truly democratize Shakespeare and theater.”

IMG_5949.jpgDays later, we headed down to Fisher Dachs Associates (our dedicated Board Member, Josh Dachs, is a principal) which houses Agile Lens, a creative studio led by Alex Coulombe that specializes in immersive design. Once there, our first task was to put on another bulky (though admittedly sleek) headset  and come nose to nose with a giant blue whale swimming through the FDA office. This whale (and the dinosaurs and floating candles that accompanied it - Alex has a good sense of humor) were our introduction to augmented reality (AR), an experience that, instead of putting you in a fully virtual world, adds three-dimensional elements to the world you’re already in. FDA has been using virtual reality as a tool to support its theatre design processes, helping leaders envision what their new spaces might look like from every possible sightline. But Agile Lens’ explorations into AR result in a lot of exciting possibilities for theatre producing and design - from enhancing the capacity for visual effects to offering the possibility for a virtual “audience” to attend a production all at once, going so far as to be able to hear and see those seated around them. A gorgeous example of the former is in the work of the South Florida-based company Magic Leap (who refers to their work as “spacial computing”) in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company on a version of the Seven Ages of Man speech, in which a tree grows, flourishes, and dies over the course of the performance.

IMG_5945.jpgUnsurprisingly, we had many, many questions for the CSC team and for Alex. How do actors adjust to performing in VR or AR productions? How might this impact our current challenges in audience development? How could these technologies improve our field’s approach to access and inclusion, especially when it comes to disability? What is the value of using VR and AR in educational theatre settings? And just how much does this all cost??

Luckily, this won’t be the end of our experience with either team. We’re in the early stages of readying this content for the 2019 National Conference in Miami, where you’ll be able to both experience AR and VR for  yourself, and spend time with the experts, hearing about their processes and their take on these and countless other questions, including your own!


at top, Devon Berkshire and Hannah Fenlon, TCG [photo by Abigail Rollins, Managing Director, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company]
left, Hannah Fenlon [photo by Devon Berkshire]
right, Kevin Bitterman, director of institutional advancement and partnerships, TCG [photo by Hannah Fenlon]