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What's New on the Rialto

An immersive musical theatre experience, 2020 style
by Kate Hill

Bnext VR Headset
That 2020 has been a tough year is an understatement. The end of 2020 is proving to be particularly challenging for many mentally and emotionally, with cities going back into lockdown at the exact time of year when many friends and families traditionally get together, often booking trips to see Broadway shows. Many of those employed on Broadway, in the West End, and in other theatre communities around the world have been out of work for months, with Broadway set to remain closed for business until at least May 2021.

Social distancing is an important part of keeping our communities safe and protecting our local hospitals and essential workers. However, in practice it also means that many of our usual escapist or immersive entertainment experiences like theatre and cinema are off-limits. Things like watching Netflix or being on endless Zoom calls at home do not provide the same sense of escape and possibility—and connectedness—that going to the theatre did in the "before" times.

With these thoughts in mind and a holiday season away from loved ones on the horizon, I decided that something had to change. I came across an article in my local paper about virtual reality and decided to take the leap. I had always assumed virtual reality equipment would be prohibitively expensive, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that some headsets like Google Cardboard start in the $15 range, with plenty of quality options in the $30 range on major retail websites. I also didn't realize that many of these headsets are tailored to watch VR entertainment through a smartphone which is held in a specific container.

When my $35 Bnext headset arrived, in addition to exploring new immersive 360 degree VR environments, I discovered that watching any 2D video on Youtube came with a handy "VR" option which was the closest I had felt to being in an IMAX theater in a long time. My next thought was to try watching musicals with this set-up, even though musicals on a small screen have never had the same emotional resonance for me as being in the theatre; even sitting a million miles away in the rear balcony, there is still a sense of being part of a collective unique experience that will never happen exactly the same way again.

I tested out the technology while watching a recording of a musical I had fond memories of seeing years ago, and was awestruck and rendered emotionally speechless by the experience. I couldn't initially explain why I felt like I was physically present in the theatre and the performance was unfolding right in front of me, but later decided that this came down to a few things. House lights are dark for nearly all shows in a theater, so there is not a "rectangular screen" perception that would come across with a film or TV clip which has a defined border. In a theater, typically the audience can't see fellow audience members very well but senses and hears them. Also, many people see shows from seats in the rear orchestra, mezzanine or balcony, and seeing a performance from that distance is profoundly different from having a conversation with someone across a table in a restaurant or taking a walk in a park. Watching theatre in VR is surprisingly similar to being in the room a bit further away, just like a mezzanine or balcony seat.

Wearing VR glasses removes visual and spatial awareness of real surroundings and replaces them with virtual surroundings. With YouTube VR, as in a real-life theater, your surroundings outside of the screen area are black, and what is happening on stage/screen is the only lit part of your field of vision. If you move your head, the stage stays in the same place in your field of vision. And as long as the original recording has captured multiple performers on screen, you can visually focus on one or some of the performers and move your eyes or head to focus on the others as if you were actually in the theater. As explained in an article on VR during the pandemic in the Scientific American this November, watching VR provides a sense of psychological presence, which can be quite a trip if you are watching a production that happened a long time ago in the real world. Forget Back to the Future: The Musical, VR musical theatre on Youtube is actual time travel.

You can find clips from recent Broadway shows on their official Youtube channels, along with other promotional clips, morning and award show performances, benefit performance clips, etc. Throughout the year, organizations such as the National Theatre and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group have been posting full shows for limited periods which, if available on Youtube, are possible to watch on your smart mobile device in VR mode.

Of course it's not really the same as being there, but it's the closest thing we'll have for a while. If you are looking for some escapist theatrical entertainment this holiday season, invest in a VR headset and be prepared to be transported. If you enjoy the experience, buy headsets for your friends and family and convert them to the VR Broadway experience, too.

Before and after enjoying your 2020 Broadway experience, make sure you donate to the Actor's Fund, BC/EFA, or other worthy organizations, or use services engaging Broadway talent during the shutdown like Broadway Plus or Tomorrow Tix Classes, to support the industry and performances you are watching so we can get back to the real thing in 2021.