I turned my head and looked around an immense but dilapidated great hall. Inches from my face was Hamlet himself, reciting his famous “To be, or not to be” monologue while sitting in a bathtub, reflecting on his life and contemplating its end. Suddenly he submerged himself into the water, and before I had the chance to understand what had happened, I was underwater with him.
It was only after removing my headphones and headset that I was transported back to my office and out of the world of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s new immersive theatre experience, Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit.
CSC artistic director Steve Maler had been working with Google’s AR/VR Lens team on other projects when he thought of the perfect way to bring theatre to life for a vast audience: virtual reality (VR). Google’s fundamental mission of making information accessible to the world dovetailed with Maler’s goal, and made for a fruitful partnership.
Though the initial idea had been to film scenes from some of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, the team grew to see this experiment as their chance to dive into the deep end with a full narrative. What eventually emerged was a 60-minute virtual reality version of one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies, Hamlet. While most VR pieces run about 5-10 minutes, this piece, made up of five 7-minute acts, is apparently one of the longest narratives ever shot in this medium.
One pivotal step in creating this groundbreaking new version of the Bard’s age-old tale was finding actors who would be able to tackle the long, tiresome takes and who could establish a relationship with a non-existent “ghost”—which in this case is the camera itself. Indeed the viewer is “cast” in the point of view of Hamlet’s dead father, so that when the ghost speaks, the stereoscopic and spherical sound reverberates through your headphones.
The piece was filmed with a large, 17-lens, 360-degree camera. In the panopticon-style environment this technology creates, any actor in the room can be watched by the viewer at any point in the show.
“Everyone’s got to really be on their game,” says Jack Cutmore-Scott, the actor playing the title role. “We were lucky because Steve put together a team of actors with both theatre experience and TV experience, so they had a sensitivity to the camera and what that means.”
With only five days of rehearsal, the cast and crew had few run-throughs to figure out where the camera—a.k.a. the ghost—would be at any given time.
“We established that relationship in the same way you would a play, so that on the day it felt a little less unnatural than it might’ve done talking to the lens,” says Cutmore-Scott, whose TV background has provided him with some experience in directly addressing the camera, a technique often used by his character. Still, he notes, the experience “felt different because of the 360-degree nature of the set. This set encapsulates the camera, so it felt a little like a person—like something more than staring into the black hole of a conventional camera.”
Because of the all-encompassing nature of the camera and set, the actors were frequently forced to rehearse with no knowledge of where the camera would exactly be placed and with their director, Steve Maler, hiding somewhere out of the camera’s view. Luckily actor Jay O. Sanders was often on hand to provide voiceover, film scenes, and stand in place of the ghost/camera to allow the cast to practice with a live human before being faced with his mechanical counterpart. “The fun thing about the camera is that it looks like a giant UFO, and it has what we call the cone of death—you can’t get too close to it, but you also can’t get too far away or you start to lose that intimacy,” says Cutmore-Scott. “It was being aware of the space and giving the viewer the best possible view.”
Maler confirms his own sense of responsibility to provide his audience with a perfect perspective and to fully envelop them in each scene. “Virtual reality puts you inside of a space and transports you to there,” he says. “So you’re not watching the art, you’re in the art. It puts every viewer in the best seat in the house, the seat that we’ve chosen them to be in, as opposed to in a theatre where your perspective is not always optimized.”
If the goal of the production was to make Shakespeare more widely accessible, this too has its limitations. A VR production, after all, is not only expensive to create but to watch. A full all-in-one virtual reality headset will set you back about $400. A more affordable option is the Daydream app by Google, to which you can attach a VR headset. (The current model of Google’s headset goes for $99, but previous generations can be found on sites like Amazon for $30-40). VR Hamlet will also live on the Youtube VR app, and can be watched on a desktop.
Maler is aware of the medium’s constraints, but still feels that today, with screens so ubiquitous and readily available, VR is a great way to interpret and distribute these classic works. “We wanted to be able to put this experience anywhere and everywhere, and have made it accessible to everyone with a smartphone.”
Indeed, Maler sees VR as a way to bridge the passive screen experiences and with the immersion of being at the theatre. “The possibilities as a new medium are really exciting,” he says. “And I think theatre practitioners are uniquely positioned to be successful in this medium—we understand this notion of sustained performance, the immediacy and intimacy you can build with an audience over the arc of a performance. I think there’s a really exciting landscape ahead for theatremakers utilizing this medium.”
Maler also hopes this new medium will allow his Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and other theatres around the country to bring shows into the classroom. One of his goals as CSC’s artistic director has been to teach the Bard’s works to students, an aim that has proven difficult in the face of schools’ financial constraints and the complicated logistics of bringing full productions into the classroom.
“The model of taking shows to schools is not the optimal way for kids to experience this material for the first time,” he says. “We see [VR] as another way of bringing this material to life in the classroom. It is just another iteration of watching a film version of Shakespeare, but one where you actually get to immerse yourself in the play. Virtual reality is not about watching, it’s about experiencing.”
If the question for audiences isn’t to be or not to be but to be or to see, VR may mean we don’t have to choose.