Why Theater Has Embraced VR During the Pandemic

Curtains up for virtual dance and other genres

Key Takeaways

  • VR performances are getting a boost as the coronavirus forces people to stay away from live theater and dance.
  • VR performances are an escape from the grim realities of 2020, observers say.
  • Better and cheaper VR headsets are broadening the possibilities for VR performances.
Pacific Islander woman wearing virtual reality goggles
Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd / Getty Images

With Broadway shows shuttered and live performances curtailed across the nation due to the coronavirus pandemic, some directors are reimagining theater as a virtual reality experience. 

These shows are merging the boundaries between games, dance, and theater. With a VR headset and an internet connection, they allow anyone to participate in a live performance. At the same time, they’re providing much-needed income for an industry that is suffering economically from the COVID shutdowns.

"In our current moment of isolation, the act of gathering together, even if we are physically separated, is extremely powerful, human, and healing," Brandon Powers, the choreographer of Queerskins: Ark’s choreographer, a virtual reality performance, said in an email interview. "Artists, producers, and audiences all know that, and due to these circumstances, more people are willing to try out something new."

From Games to Theater to Dance

Virtual reality shows span the spectrum of theater genres. There’s The Under Presents, a gaming and theater experience that’s available on the Oculus Quest and Rift in which some of the game’s non-player characters were performed by live actors. There’s also the Peabody Award-winning virtual-reality art project, Queerskins: Ark, which features a dance performance about gay men in the 1980s.

Even more traditional theaters are going online, such as Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec, a live theater performance in New York City that was originally intended to be performed on a stage.

Empty seats in ornate movie theater
Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

"I think virtual reality tends to offer the chance to kind of immerse yourself more fully in a kind of digital experience," Tara Ahmadinejad, a co-founder of the Brooklyn-based theater Group Piehole, which worked on The Under Presents, said in a phone interview. "It’s not the same as being in a shared space with others. But I think, at this moment, where people are in their homes, this is a chance to escape the day-to-day surroundings that you see all the time and feel like you're going to this other realm."

"You have to think about who the audience is and how they are a part of the experience."

Virtual reality theater gives audience members more control over the experience, observers say. 

"The advantage is that it allows audiences to explore and make their own discoveries and connections not just with live actors, but with other players," Ahmadinejad said. "You find players and they're kind of working together to find things. Like, I went in there recently, and I encountered some players who had more experience with the spells, and they kind of taught me how to do it."

Better Than Reality

VR allows theater directors to create theatrical moments that are not physically possible, Powers pointed out. "Your audience or performers can fly, traverse worlds, and shapeshift," he said. "While live physical theater asks us to suspend our disbelief, VR theater can lean into the immersion to truly make you feel like you've been transported to a new world."

Woman enjoying VR while surrounded by colorful spirals
Koron / Getty Images

But designing theater for VR can be challenging, observers say. 

"You have to think about who the audience is and how they are a part of the experience," Powers explained. "Also, VR is an embodied medium, so as a choreographer, I believe it's extremely important to treat it as such. We must find ways to take care of our audience and be aware of how we're asking them to move either through gestures, walking, or sitting. I call this 'body experience design:' a process to think from the inside out to design more empathetic embodied experiences in VR."

"I think it's going to continue to evolve into its own art form."

There’s been strong interest from the public in virtual reality theater, Powers explained, saying there’s a hunger for live performance, as it "creates a much tighter connection between the audience and performer than something recorded."

VR theater is also attracting a younger audience than its live counterpart, to which Powers hopes leads them to supporting real live shows in the future.

However, VR headsets are still pricey, costing hundreds of dollars, and that limits who can participate. "We need to be very thoughtful about who has access to technology and what that means for what is being created and who is creating it," said Powers. 

Here to Stay

When and if theaters reopen, VR is likely to stick around in the theater world. For one thing, VR productions can be cheaper than those performed in reality.

"Because VR is scalable we're introducing a viable financial model in the theater world, which has not been sustainable for a very long time," Blair Russell, a virtual reality theater producer, said in a phone interview. "And that will allow theaters to thrive in different ways than they have before and not [solely rely] on donations from foundations and individuals, and, you know, [minimal] ticket sales... we can make Broadway accessible to people all over the world who can't get to Broadway, or can't afford Broadway."

"The act of gathering together, even if we are physically separated, is extremely powerful, human, and healing."

However, even VR’s biggest proponents don’t think virtual reality theater will fully replace live performances. 

"I think it's going to continue to evolve into its own art form," Alexandra Panzer, a Piehole member, said in a phone interview. "And I think that a lot of experimentation has happened and will continue to happen because of the pandemic, and the parameters that that has set. There will always be crossover with theater and the theater community. But it gives people from all over the world to participate in not just virtual reality experiences, but virtual theater experiences." 

There’s a lot of appeal to virtual theater. It’s convenient, safe and can offer scenarios impossible to replicate in real life. But it’s hard to imagine VR ever replacing the experience of being in an audience with hundreds of other people reacting to what’s happening onstage.