How theatre is embracing the virtual reality age

Does the future of theatre lie in virtual reality? New productions at London’s National Theatre suggest the most ancient of art forms might be on the cusp of a new era in technology-supported live performance

The theatre is an artistic medium that has endured in popularity despite the development of many other apparently revolutionary technologies. Its death has been prophesied many times, but yet it still thrives in its raw, live form.

That said, few other creatives understand how to orientate and visualise bodies moving in an enclosed space like the best theatre practitioners. Virtual reality is a technology that has existed in the public consciousness for decades without ever really taking off. But as the technology finally starts to catch up and become accessible and consistent, theatre may be the creative medium most suited to exploit its potential in potent ways for a mainstream audience. 

At the genesis of the technology we now know as virtual reality, futurologists painted images of magical portals. Film-like, high-high-definition and 3D graphics, character animation and integrated sounds and voices would allow us to be transported from the humdrum physical to a fantastical other world –  a live action role play game where we could kill huge creatures, fly through the clouds or race underground. Or it would enable us to visit places on planet earth that we would never, in reality, be able to go to – a wheelchair user could visit the peaks of Everest, or a small child could be dropped in the midst of the Amazon. We could swim with whales or fly with eagles or experience the world from the perspective of an ant.

The resulting limitations of the technology has been rather less exciting. 3D graphics are still many miles behind their 2D counterparts, and virtual reality is still very much a mostly theoretical thing, still stuck in beta stage. But recent usages of that most ancient thing – the theatre – are pushing the tech forward.