The future of the post-pandemic virtual theatre

Brendan Andolsek Bradley is a multi-award winning actor, writer, director and producer known internationally as “America’s Scrappy Storyteller”. He is a leader in the virtual theater movement performing using groundbreaking XR/VR tools as he established The Integrative Technology Lab at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to foster the next generation of multi-disciplinary live storytellers and during the pandemic, he began releasing free tutorials and case-studies for adopting ubiquitous streaming tools for live performance, including a customizable virtual theater in your web browser that allows anyone in the world to get back “on” stage for free. Previously we met Brendan in the frame of the 5th Wall Forum, a unique theatre+tech hackathon, that he co-organised with other creatives from the US. We talked about his endeavour into new types of acting and about his views on the future of theatre.

When you studied at Royal Academy of Arts in London or at Tisch in NY did you imagine that you will be performing and creating theatrical performances in VR? What would your young self tell you about these new developments of the theatrical formats?

As an elder millennial, consumer-grade technology has been a constant and evolving toolkit in my personal, professional and creative life. I’ve been producing live storytelling in non-traditional spaces since I was a high schooler who didn’t have access to a traditional venue and most of my time at RADA and NYU, I was teaching myself HTML, media capture and hosting to scale my independent projects to reach audience and collaborators on the internet.

Why did you start to work and include in your performance practice new technological tools?

I think performance and art have always inherently leveraged and showcased technology. I first began using computers as a teenager to (badly) record music tracks in lieu of a traditional recording studio or software. Early Napster culture taught me there was a peer network of artists and consumers outside my own community who might listen to my songs. Early videos of play rehearsals or performances hosted on my own website showed I could get more video views than butts in the seats. So it was a natural fit when tools like YouTube, 360 video, livestreaming, and social VR came along.

When did you think the first time that VR could be a ‘stage’?

In 2017, I turned my one-bedroom apartment into a spaceship for an original sci-fi series called SONA. When Legendary Digital invited us to debut the series at Comic Con, I had the idea to turn our real-life spaceship into a VR escape room in Unity for the 6DoF Lenovo Mirage Solo. Thousands of convention-goers stepped into the POV of our lead character and explored the world of our story. Immediately, I saw the potential to film actors inside the virtual world instead of building/renting physical sets. My next project A Tale Told By An Idiot modernizes Shakespeare’s Macbeth inside a VR video game company, simultaneously filming the actors with a live-action cinema camera and a depth sensor camera to puppet their avatars.  I was in the middle of post-production on this film when COVID hit and I pivoted aggressively into how remote actors could puppet real-time systems to perform in virtual reality.

Do you think that acting in VR is differing from acting on the stage? If yes, how?

Performing is merely communicating human experience and imagination through a technical system in chorus with other operators. This is how storytelling flourishes in so many mediums and modalities and virtual reality is no different. Given the limitations of polygons and real-time rendering, we’re seeing a return to classical performance in mask work, pose, vocal inflection and tableau in early virtual live performance. I personally believe stage actors are advantaged in this medium given our practice is rooted in iterative workshopping to rehearse a pre-planned, long-format, uninterrupted narrative while balancing considerations that have nothing to do with the fictional storytelling and the adaptability to respond to variations that happen during the live show. When we look at the accelerating business of video games, there’s no reason that every training program should not be preparing stage actors for a field in which they can be paid to bring to life limitless worlds and circumstances in a motion capture volume. 

What do you miss from the theatrical VR experiences compared to the live ones? Do you think that the liveness and the improvisational skills of the actors will be more highly valued?

I hope so! The faster and more reliable the technology, the more important minimizing human error. Anyone can do it once, you need someone special to do it again, and again, and again. On-Demand content still leads the industry this last decade and it can be tempting to create VR experiences to be watched any time by anybody, anywhere. However, in an epidemic of content saturating the marketplace, creators must ask what converts awareness of their event into attendance of their event? This is the myth of passive follower-counts and social metrics often not seen to translate into active viewership. Appointment-driven, synchronous experiences create accountability and integrity in our entertainment. On the business side, the scarcity of a limited run or limited tickets can increase perceived value. We see this in record-breaking ticket prices when Hamilton became known as “the room where it happens.” On the human side, live content requires more thoughtfulness toward sustainability because you (and the audience) have to keep investing in the entire team running the live show. As the late Ed Asner said, “We could all just go home.” The idealist in me believes in a win-win where investors have an opportunity to take more risks in new voices on the path to profitability and those voices can participate in those profits.

Brendan A. Bradley

You are teaching, creating and performing on various VR platforms. How do you see if the Mozilla Hubs and the social VR platforms are suitable in their current state for theatrical performances? If not in your opinion what should be developed?

I chuckle that I’ve become known as “the Hubs theater guy.” It’s a solid codebase and I respect Mozilla’s culture of openness, but the real advantage is its accessibility. The shutdown saw platforms like Zoom become an intriguing format for some stories, but the real mass adoption came from its accessibility and price point. We saw a similar pattern in YouTube culture where the early creators laid the groundwork for what became mass adoption of streaming video. For extended reality to find a similar inflection point (where we can build the robust creator community necessary for any emerging industry), it has to first be accessible and democratic. Mozilla Hubs enables anyone to spin up their own customized instance to create their own features or use the default functions to put artists and audience “on stage” together with a single url. My own #FutureStages is a template theater space that anyone can use for free to avoid building their own 3D environment. Over the last year, we have seen similar desktop portals for many virtual systems, like VR Chat, Rec Room, Altspace, Adventure Lab, and I’m sure Horizons will have some integration with 2D Facebook. But there is danger in dictating who can and cannot tell or experience stories based on a specific piece of software or hardware. The storytelling economy requires openness, which has led me to focus more and more on WebXR. What we are missing now is diversity in VR browser options to ensure we are not building islands that can only be accessed by one boat.

Do you think that the COVID 19 was a big turning point in the theatre? Will it have long-term effects on the theatre?

Every community was affected by the pandemic and there is no question that the reverberations of that event will filter into every storytelling tradition for years to come. In American commercial entertainment, the shutdown challenged our traditional resistance to new formats and modalities in Broadway and Hollywood. I like to say there was no wrong way to meet the moment and my hope was to use open-source technology to reopen theaters. The long-term effects are that every playhouse has now discovered access to a global audience, collaborators and revenue streams. The integration of this discovery into our traditional processes will drive the culture of our theatrical intuitions forever.

How did you and your team start to work on the 5th Wall Forum (an event and project that could be named maybe the first global theatrical hackathon)? You created a great community and I think members are looking forward to the continuation. Do you have plans to continue? Do you think that theatre will have now the opportunity to fight against geographical distances and so various types of creators can collaborate?

In the summer of 2020, a Twitter thread went around tagging many creators and producers who worked in live theater and digital integration. We began a weekly virtual meetup and by December produced a free, informational event, culminating in the creation of Connector teams to build eleven prototypes for live virtual performance. We presented these projects in March at our Reveal event and have continued to quietly pursue funding and infrastructure to expand our efforts. Currently, I host our weekly podcast with leaders in the XR space and our Discord has become a resource for hundreds of artists and technologists to collaborate. I am not sure if we’ll ever overcome the confusion of time zones, but I agree that these technologies offer us an invitation to escape geographical limitations for collaboration and attendance. My co-founders and I see the 5th Wall Forum as a bridge for these communities to answer that invitation.

How do you see the role of the actors in the future? Will the actors be more like orchestrators of the theatrical processes?

Within the last year, I’ve been a part of dozens of virtual performances, many in VR systems. We’re quickly seeing the necessity of a hybrid Actor-Operator role who simultaneously guides the audience “in-world” through the intended narrative, “stage managing” cues or triggers in the show, and “house managing” the audiences’ behaviors and technical support needs. It’s tempting to invent new terms and protocols, but I think there’s a remarkably compelling comparison to legacy talk radio. Experienced performers are delivering a live, planned show structure, often while overseeing technical equipment to transmit the broadcast, while inviting audience interactions in the form of remote callers. Their “on-air character” is a host, operator, friend, technician, curator, guide and business professional maintaining reliable, quality entertainment that can be trusted by advertisers and listeners.

VR takes this a step further as in these early days, the performers are often creating, designing, or overseeing the world-building, user experience, avatars…everything. I started #OnBoardXR, a seasonal anthology that invites anyone in the world to prototype a short, live performance in WebXR so we might support and explore this evolving role for both artists and audiences transitioning to these new formats. 

Will this change affect our ‘expectation’ of being present? E.g. will we start to praise in a similar way the telepresence of the others?

Art is a tool for empathy and we cannot create empathy if we do not hold space for each other. We see the dangers of social media distancing and polarizing us into accounts, instead of people. Investing in co-presence invites us to share space and experience, which is a first step toward truly seeing and hearing lived experience that is different from our own. #FutureStages is still the only virtual environment where I have heard participants apologize when bumping into someone else’s avatar. This etiquette and consideration of others are absent from the majority of our online space, especially for women and people of color, and we should absolutely “expect” this consideration from our designers, developers and attendees.

You founded the Integrative Technology Lab at Tisch School. How did you build up the study program for the young artists? What is the main thing that you want them to find out with these tools?

In 2016, I approached NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts about a cross-departmental initiative to identify and fund student-driven work integrating new technologies into live performance. Ruben Polendo and Rachel Friedman championed this proposal into The Brendan Bradley Integrative Technology Lab a twelve-week course, led by three outside survey instructors from various emerging tech companies. The goal is to break out of the silos of traditional fine arts education and foster the interdisciplinary collaboration and curiosity students will be expected to navigate in their professional careers.

How do you see the future of performing arts? Will it merge with other genres? Or what will we call theatre in 70 years? How do you imagine our habits of experiencing theatre?

If we let it, the theater will continue to thrive and evolve as it has for thousands of years. Cinema didn’t replace theater, or books, or photography. I don’t think it’s constructive to pit the performing arts against each other. There will be Theater and there will be other things. I was making short-form video content online before the industry coined the word “webseries” and now streaming video is the primary exhibition model for every major studio and network. I personally believe Responsive, Appointment-Driven, Transmedia Narrative offers the most sustainable path to create and monetize content in a hybrid subscriber, advertiser, and ticket model. As we build this model, our storytelling habits and practice deserve a healthy reexamination to more authentically meet our audience and creators where they want to live, work and play.

You call your projects fiasco in order to emphasize their experimental characteristics – if I understand correctly. Do you think that this could be a good approach to work with new technologies in artistic practice in general too?

Yes, fiasco is a term borrowed from Italian glass blowing when a bottle with flaws is recycled as a flask. (It’s also how my childhood best friend referred to pretty much every creation I made growing up.) For creators like myself without access to larger budgets or opportunities, the work can often be defined by its limitations. By self-deprecatingly labeling my own work as a fiasco, I hope to celebrate imperfection and resourcefulness as a feature rather than a bug of what makes scrappy storytelling so exciting and unique. I find the Artistic and Computer Engineering communities share this love of utility and experimentation over polish, function over form. After all, we’re talking about an art form where a scarf can transform a character, or an MVP can ship with temporary graphics. John Lennon famously said, “I’m an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.” I think the evolution of practices like TikTok and virtual production suggest our audiences want to be a part of the artistic process and journey. They’re less interested in seeing the definitive Hamlet and more excited to see what their favorite creator does with Hamlet.

What do you think what will be the new change, step, technological development that will influence the current form of performing arts?

The “business of show” always drives the culture. Someone will find a compelling commercial model for monetization or microtransactions and that will influence larger industry trends to become “the norm.” My hope is that it comes from someone who believes in the abundance and openness these systems can offer so we lift up the next generation of multi-disciplinary storytellers and artists in a thriving creative economy that fosters better art and a better world.  

This interview was made in the frame of International Visegrad Grant‘s fund no. 22020523 for Zip-Scene Conference and Vektor VR.

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