David Troughton (Titus Andronicus) Photo by Helen Maybanks
In August 2017 Becky Loftus, Head of Audience Insight at the RSC, told us about an exciting new project, Project Titus, which would measure the heart rates of audience members watching Shakespeare’s bloodiest play to see how responses differed between theatre vs live-to-cinema streaming. So what did the results show and what do they mean for the future of theatre?
The changing of the year is a time for reflection on the past and looking forward to the future. How apt that we decided to add another element to our Titus project last year by including Virtual Reality (VR) as an additional format to understanding emotional engagement in addition to understanding the differences between Theatre and Live to Cinema.
We had set out to compare the emotional reaction at the theatre and a live cinema broadcast of the same play, but our research partner Ipsos MORI brought another company, Gorilla in the Room, into the equation who captured a performance of Titus Andronicus in 360° film for us and we added a third leg to the research in order to explore the experience of watching through a HTC Vive Virtual Reality headset. How would people feel watching the play through a VR headset, sitting in a room with a researcher but feeling as if they were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre?
Amazingly all 30 respondents sat through the full play wearing the headset. We gave them an additional 5-minute comfort break every half hour in addition the standard “interval”. During one interval people were discussing “the person sat next to me” when it dawned on them that it was the same person sitting next to each of them. One person kicked off their shoes whilst watching the performance through the VR headset, then looked down and jumped, shocked that their own legs weren’t there sitting on the virtual theatre seat.
Indeed, this sense of replicating reality came through in our results, with 91% of VR headset users saying they felt there were times they were actually in the theatre vs. 64% at the cinema broadcast. Sixty-three percent considered it as a potential way to experience theatre in the future. Whilst the RSC isn’t looking to use this particular method to distribute its work, these findings were significant for the explorations of virtual and mixed realities by our Director of Digital Development.
What about the answer to the original question? Well, the heart rate data was complex to analyse but we did observe significant rise and fall in the heart rate at key moments during the play, particularly the climax when Titus kills his own daughter to end her suffering. Indeed, over the whole play and across all formats we saw heart rate rises equivalent to 5 minutes of cardio exercise which is no mean feat for people sitting still in a seat.
What surprised me though, was that there was no significant difference in heart rate rise between the three different formats. There was a very slight but consistent increase of males’ heart rates compared with females’. However, there were differences across formats in the types of response.
The theatre and 360° VR video were more “shocking” than the cinema. Are we inured to shock and violence on the big screen at the cinema? Or is it the environment being so comfortable and the screen a distancing factor? We did find that the cinema was the most psychologically and physically comfortable environment for respondents.
The cinema, however, was the most “moving” format. Some of this is due to the close-ups of actors’ expressions, in particular Lavinia after she is brutalised, when a single tear rolls down her bloodied cheek. The focus on the acting was much more visible in the results for the cinema group, whereas the other two formats gave rise to more focus on the set and staging as well as the acting.
The unique strength of the theatre, however, was the “comedy”. Humour didn’t translate as well onto either the 360° VR video or the cinema. Sharing the experience with others seemed to be the crucial factor for the comic moments. A few people laughed as they watched through their VR headsets, but it was muted and apologetic as they realised the people laughing around them were not actually there.
So, what do we take from these results? Plenty of food-for-thought for our “Live from Stratford-upon-Avon” cinema team as well as implications for explorations into new technologies. That food-for-thought will include Titus’ pie containing the faces of his enemies!