The transition from physical to immersive theatre

Metro Boulot Dodo offers advice on working with immersive tech

Metro Boulot Dodo (MBD) is a touring company that specialises in digital immersive performances. They started out creating, devising, directing and performing in small-scale touring shows before transitioning to incorporating technology in their performances. Now, MBD works solely in immersive media. Here, founding member and Creative Director Paul Long offers his top tips for working with immersive technology on your creative or cultural project.

Know why you are going digital

Transitioning from traditional theatre to digital productions can be challenging. Understanding both the creative opportunities and the limitations of the digital technology available to you is key. Before embarking on a production, Paul recommends asking yourself: Why would this idea be better if we go digital? What is our end goal?

In MBD’s case, transitioning towards technology and digital aspects of theatre was for practical reasons. It was economically practical and efficient in its setup and its resources. He contrasts the experience of touring an outdoor show in the early days of MBD, and how digital productions work for the company now.

“The biggest of those outdoor shows that we made and directed travelled in two articulated trucks and took a day and a half to build. There were loads of projections that went in on that and aerial dancers and it was amazing but it’s also exhausting,” Long admits.

“There is a lot of travel with it. I have a family, and a home, and I wondered… how do I keep this job; how do I keep making work at a large scale and not have to be loading and unloading trucks and building stuff. It sounds really dull, but a part of the transition is my own journey as an artist: this is a way I can still make and enjoy large scale work while maintaining a work-life balance, and allowing for my own life to change and evolve.”

“Practically, in terms of touring and presentation, the distribution is totally different. Even if you do want to take it out to people, it consists of some headsets in a suitcase. You don’t have to build the skyscraper; you just do it all virtually. I think it’s this that attracts me to it – it’s the ability to think big but without the infrastructure getting bigger all the time.” Long explains.

Open communication

When embarking on a digital arts project, Paul stresses that it is important to have conversations with your technical partner or supplier up front.

“Be more open with your conversations earlier in the process. Rather than deciding what you want straight away, go and talk to people who can tell you what the options are, and then decide,” Paul says.

Regardless of your reasonings, being authentic and true to your intention can also guide your communications with technical teams or partners. Communication with your partners from different backgrounds can be tricky as Long reveals:

“One of the biggest challenges is shared language. We get around that partly because of my background is in theatre and the arts, so I do have a lot of shared language with other people. Merging the technical capabilities and creative capabilities and understanding what things can do is a big challenge. Usually, people think they know what the VR stuff does, and they want to skip the bit where they learn. And that can be a real challenge. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to require investment.”

For MBD, the benefits of having both the tech and creative team within the same company have been immense.

“When we started working with games engine technology, we brought the games engine people in-house. We’ve got a team of 5 people working on Unreal Engine in the company because otherwise you always have those awkward conversations of trying to understand each other. Whereas over a period of 6 months or a year, starting to work with those developers, we start to share a language. We can describe what we want, and we know. We can create a shorthand as well about how you describe things. ‘It’s like this project, or it’s like when we did that.’”

Don’t expect miracles overnight

Like any other production, digital productions can be lengthy. Development is going to take time, resources, and investment. For example, Heritage Storeys, a collaborative VR exhibition with the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, was established in three phases, with the fourth phase still in development. These phases have taken MBD three years, having started in 2019.

“Make sure what you are doing is sustainable. Appreciate that it’s going to take time,” Long advises.

Moreover, finding the digital technology that supports, enhances or transforms the creative ambition of your work may take time.

For Paul, Augmented Reality is something he is sceptical about after MBD’s experiments in this area.

He explains: “Personally, for me, [Augment Reality] doesn’t have the same immersion as Virtual Reality. I think the outcome was partly [because] AR is not necessarily the artform for us because our background is to have people completely immersed in a space. AR is effectively looking at the space through your mobile phones. It is different.”

For companies looking at a project using immersive technology, it might be worth trialling different formats of digital performances as not all styles will fit each project.

Maintenance takes effort and resources

Alongside time for development, digital projects need to be maintained, and can always grow, improve and iterate. Let’s take an app for an example, updates will be needed to improve the audience’s experience and to keep it up to date with phone updates. Due to its digital format, bugs will alway emerge, fixing and updates will be necessary to keep it going. Maintenance costs need to be considered. “Nothing is permanent unless you look after it,” says Long.

Think collaboratively

Especially for smaller theatre companies, collaboration with others can be immensely beneficial in figuring out where your digital journey may lead. Digital productions may be costly to start with, so collaborating with others may give you the opportunity to work on a bigger project by pooling your funding and resources into a bigger pot.

“At the moment, the level of investment that most people have is not big enough on their own to create a big vision, so be collaborative” Long recommends. “Try and work with other people, try and make a bigger project by grouping together.”

Be precise about an idea before executing it

Paul explains that approaching a digital production is different from a theatre production. There needs to be less trial and error midway through production due to time and budget implications so being specific about aims, requirements and timelines is key.

“Understand that your workflow is going to be different than what you may be used to,” Long advises. “You have to make some more concrete decisions upfront because it takes a long time to try them, rather than thinking that it is a process of trial and error. Errors are really time-consuming and expensive in games engine build.”

Leicester based MBD creates engagging storytelling experiences using virtual reality, augmented reality and large scale projection. The organisation uses a blend of traditional arts expertise and technological innovation to bring stories to life.

Take a look at MBD’s website and their YouTube channel.

How useful was this resource?