Categories 21st Century Media Practice, Final Project : Immersive Telepresence in Theatre

Stepping into the rabbit hole of Immersive Telepresence in Theatre.

 “In jest, there is truth.”
William Shakespeare, King Lear

You remember when Dorothy went to the ‘Land of OZ’, or when Alice fell down that rabbit hole?……

Yeah. Well that has just happened to me.

Lears Lapse 2 from Beck Stewart on Vimeo.

I have been exploring the world of Immersive Telepresence in Theatre, using visual immersive anthropology techniques and this is just a summary of what I encountered and felt this week….

While lost in the madness of Lear.

King Lear:Online

I find myself meeting two groups of Theatre students, that are rehearsing Shakespeare’s: King Lear. Rehearsals take place over a telepresence screen  and a window of communication is opened between two countries that are 1554.6KM apart.

This happened between students from the University of Tampere, Finland & Coventry University, UK.

But it is so much more than this…..


The technology is only a single layer of this onion of this project.

This week has included holistic & wellbeing teachings; Finnish Vocal choir singing Soila that resinated through the floor and the internet.

Yoga with Tiina Syrjä, where she taught us to be the ‘centre of our storms’ and yoga was also about mindfulness and calm. An embodiment martial art class with Mikko Kanninen where we centered ourselves through movement and feeling.  I will be writing a separate blog post on these methodologies, as this is something that interests me in in developing in my own practice.

This type of teaching always ran at the start of the day and would give the students a focus, that was centered. This would then be followed by an intense 7 hour long rehearsal of King Lear.The boundaries are being pushed and challenged, to create something truly innovative.

I am following the students & project coordinations experiences of working with 21st century technologies. My approach is simple… I am fluid, I am immersing myself, by participating in the warm up classes. My filming approaches and methods, consists of Verite & direct cinema along with creating immersive media in my methods of filming, such as using GoPros for the concept of time with lapses and wearing the gopro’s to create a point of view and empathy. I plane to use drone footage for perception of space, along with creating Media artifacts of analogue and digital photography & sound. This will all be collated together with an interactive Klynt i-doc to share a layered story of the students and co-ordinators experience of learning and connection.

And finally I will be creating a documentary upon completing my Masters.

My inner voice throughout all of this has been what my lectures, Ken & Nick have said….’ People need to be comfortable with you to open up, be invisible, be your true-self, listen and practice empathy’

For the first week I only captured my time lapses of the set up, observed the processes of creating an immersive space and most importantly my camera didn’t come out until the week of rehearsals. For me, its about the people involved, their stories, their experiences and what they gain from it, in a non quantitate method. However it is the natural qualitative experience that I want to capture, in the form of visual anthropology & documentary.

So before I start sharing the experiences of the students let me explain the tech.

Immersive Telepresence in Theatre?

When you say the words out loud it may be hard to actually imagine what it is.

So lets break it down…

Immersive: Usually relating to digital technologies, visual or sound. It will engage a persons senses. It will remove them and effectively create an altered mental state. It also is an adjective; occupying the attention of time & energy of a person, for example colouring-in or listening to music, it transports you from your current world and environment, to a whole new place.

(Back when I started my Masters in October 2015, I wrote a blog post relating to the way that Media can be used to stimulate the sensory & it explores immersive technologies, that we would see in the future and would be adapted into the human way of living and existing.

I didn’t really know 16 months down the line, I would be experiencing this in a whole new light. Sensory Experience Blog )

Telepresence: Well, thats the technology and its simple really: There is a screen with a back projection on one side and on the opposite you stand with a camera in the front of the screen, which sends a live video feed to whoever you are connected too. And hopefully they will also have a big screen as  it becomes even more immersive, as the person is the same size and interaction becomes more believable and normalized easily.

If you can mirror the space and make the technology become invisible, you essentially create an infinitive, and a window of communication is set up and this environment becomes the norm very quickly to the people using it.

Like I say, the technologies need to become invisible. And by having this methodology with setting up immersive spaces, it enables a fluid approach for communication to happen.

The technologies capabilities need to be considered in all of this. While setting up this immersive space, there was a lot of background work between the Tampere & Coventry technicians. This was to test the capabilities of the data packages, Mbps of data being pinged across the 1554.6KM and how the video stream would work, once in full operation, with the rest of the University internet systems.

Latency was also a question that was raised between the techs & project coordinators.  Using the “Clap Method” to test the latency, the first time it was a 3 second delay. But by the end of the set up week, with some fine tuning, the techs had cut this down to around a second. This was still too long, but was more workable than the initial 3 seconds. If using this type of technology, the data package allowance does need a capacity bigger than 10GB.

This international tech-teamwork  between the Coventry & Tampere guys, was real teamwork! On a very cool techie level. Before the students would arrive, we would walk into the room at 7:30am , and there would be Maitias & Samuli on the screen playing with the speeds of the connection and drinking coffee. This level of communication outside of the rehearsal also became normalised quickly and actually enabled the teamwork to happen more fluidly, because they were in the SAME ROOM!)

Throughout the day Craig would messaging Finland, testing the speeds and troubleshooting with any problems, by googling it. at 5pm he would pop and have a tinker with the set-up and the next day there was a slight improvement, and the process would start again. By about Thursday we had it good.

Without these people working on the technical workflow processes, a project like this would not take off. By the technicians testing the systems, it offers a field of information and can help future proof the internal systems & infrastructures.

The processes are not simply,;plug the screen in and let it happen.

There is serious consideration for immersion & how creating infinite spaces can transport the person in this environment. This is particularly interesting when working with actors, as my next blogs will demonstrate. These include mindfulness, embodiment and holistic teaching practices that actors and dancers experience, but they are approaches that could be used in a vast amount of subjects, if it could be enabled by this technology.

This year the Coventry space was linear, using Black theatre curtains, that ran from the roof to the floor, it created a closed in space, next to the screen. It was notable to Jon & Tom this time round, the space had become immersive, compared to last year Coriolanus. Which took place in the wind tunnel, had a brown wooden floor and old blue screen curtain from the TV studio.

Lighting was a simple theatre/studio set up with soft ambient spots, that could be dimmed or turned up. The sound design was laying mics around the room in various locations, along with overhanging speakers. The polycom system, did have a cut off point when to much feedback was coming through, so levels were always being altered to suit, to projection of the actors & teachers.

The feedback from the students, was that space this time round allowed them to be more immersed in the process. It also allowed for Tom as a director to play with his approaches of disorientating the actors, by playing with the technology. 

So this more of a tech summary, of what I have experienced and the backstage work that it takes to set up a project like this. 

Over the next few weeks, I will go over the footage, break it down day by day, and collate my experiences, methodologies and what I am learning about communication and this new method of rehearsing. 

There is something deeper going on here, that has completely changed my own personal perspective on learning, teaching and what technology may do in the future to better connect us.

Not only that, I feel as though I am changing my understanding and practice within my own field. I am being removed from this environment and being transported to an immersive world of telepresence in theatre.  And in 10 days time we board a flight to Tampere to Perform King Lear: Online.



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