Nov. 20, 2020

Class of 2020: Emerging technologies extend possibilities for live theatre during pandemic

Beth Kates immerses herself in virtual reality theatre

While most of the performing arts community came to a halt with the COVID-19 pandemic, graduating student Beth Kates has been able to use her research skills in an extended reality theatre landscape.

Kates, an established and award-winning theatre designer, enrolled in the MFA in drama program at UCalgary because it offered her the ability to work in an interdisciplinary way, researching the intersections between computer science and live performance.

For her thesis research, Kates explored the intersection of live theatrical performance, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). VR is the experience of complete 360-degree immersion via a headset in a digitally created visual environment where no element of the physical (carbon) world is visible. AR is when digitally created images are layered over the visible physical (carbon) world. Some social media filters, for example, are considered AR.

  • Photo above: Beth Kates does lighting direction for Finding Pandora X. Photo courtesy Beth Kates

Together with Neil Christensen, a graduate student in computational media design, Kates created Bury The Wren, an immersive one-on-one performance, combining VR, AR and what Kates calls “carbon reality”.

“Applying VR and AR to live performance can happen in many ways,” says Kates. “It can be a way to create an interactive layer over the performance space, or it can augment the performer with effects or digital costumes. VR has the ability to immerse the performer in a space from where they can improvise, and that expression can be shared through projection or shared 3D virtual space with the audience.”

Fast-forward to present day, when a worldwide pandemic shuts down physical theatre spaces and opens up a world of opportunities for VR theatre. 

Bury The Wren 2019 Performance

2019 performance of Bury The Wren 2019.

Courtesy Beth Kates

“The magic of VR is that we are able to gather together in a real 3D space with physical representations of ourselves as avatars and have real, embodied, experiences together,” says Kates. “VR brings people together across time and space.”

Kates recalls how early on in the pandemic, she and an international XR working group went for a "walk" in a VR version of a square in Dublin, exploring together, though they were each in far-flung corners of the globe, in their living rooms or home offices, trying not to step on their cats or kids.

“For theatre in this realm, this moment has helped to amplify and reveal the possibilities of live creation, collaboration and performance in VR,” says Kates.

In the past few months, Kates did some experimental work, collaborating and devising for the purposes of creating VR theatre. One of these collaborations was with Kiira Benzig who runs DoubleEye Studios in New York City — a groundbreaking company that has been exploring the blending of VR and live theatre for years.

“I was the VR world lighting designer and live VR lighting designer for her VR Theatre production of Finding Pandora X which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the VR Extended programme and won Best Immersive VR User Experience,” says Kates.

And this is only the beginning. Kates is currently working on multiple VR projects She has also begun to lay the groundwork toward building a national VR theatre company.

Despite this being an incredibly difficult and challenging time for the performing arts, Kates is hopeful.

“My work in these technologies have shown me unquestionably that performing artists are needed in these new realms," says Kates. "Our skills as storytellers, whether it’s through space making, design, text, dance, music, acting, are needed. This new form of live VR theatre/VR performance cannot be shaped without all the performing artists. I'm excited by the potential this new form of performance and storytelling offers us — the liberation from time and space opens up the potential to explore the unknown and other worldviews.”

Kates encourages all performing arts students to explore fearlessly. “Theatre does not stop evolving. Theatre has never died. Wars, plagues, oppression… theatre remains,” says Kates.

“We need the visionaries that are just stepping into the (virtual) hallways of our institutions to be brave and take us boldly onward.”