Theatre’s virtual reality future feels at home with the avatars at York Theatre Royal

Home X: Theatre, dance, music, gaming, avatars, widescreen projections, virtual reality and 3D design combine in Kakilang and Don’t Believe In Style’s collaboration in the York Theatre Royal Studio

The arty bit

THE future of theatre arrives at York Theatre Royal Studio tomorrow night in the cutting-edge form of Home X, an experimental UK and Southeast Asian collaboration that piches musicians and dancers into a virtual reality world.

Presented by Kakilang (formerly Chinese Arts Now) and Hong Kong partner Don’t Believe In Style and soon to open the Kakilang Festival 2023 in London, An-Ting Chang, Ian Gallagher and Donald Shek’s show combines theatre and music, gaming and virtual reality technology, live performance and audience participation. Soprano Colette Wing Wing Lam and actor gamer Mia Foo play their part too.

After tech rehearsals all this week, tomorrow and Saturday’s previews at a reconfigured Theatre Royal Studio, with 270-degree widescreen projections on three sides and the audience in the middle, can be followed online worldwide too. Further live performances will follow at the Barbican in London later this month.

Created in tandem with technologists and artists in London and Hong Kong, Chang, Gallagher and Shek’s three-dimensional world can be joined by digital audience members as avatars. 

Live performers in York (Si Rawlinson) and Hong Kong (fellow choreographer-breakdancer Suen Nam) will be captured as 3D images by depth-sensing cameras and then added to the world. In-person audience members in both locations will see one performer live in the venue, the other half as 3D projections on the widescreen.

After winning Arts Council England’s Digital Culture Award for storytelling, director, composer and Kakilang artistic director Chang, creative technologist Gallagher and architect in 3D design Shek are inviting audiences to “witness the future of live performance”, first in York.

“In Home X, we’re using technology as a form of artistic expression to create a new way of experiencing and telling stories,” says An-Ting. “Through this project, we aim to explore the potential of technology to bring people together and transcend physical boundaries.

“The remote audience will actively participate in the game, while the live audience witnesses these different realities intersecting in various ways. We aim to create a powerful and engaging experience that brings people together in a meaningful way.”

Home X explores the concept of home while celebrating the power of connection and togetherness in the belief that this show has the potential to revolutionise the way people experience theatre through fusing live performance with gaming technology, and “seeing where this technology can take us in the future”.

An-Ting Chang: Electronic musician, composer and director for Home X

“The two dancers have only ever ‘met’ on the VR headset; I’ve only ‘met’ Suen online, but what’s incredible about technology is that you can reach out to people you can’t meet physically,” says An-Ting. “It opens your eyes because there must be things you can learn from each other, from each other’s worlds, when you’re working in different spaces.”

An-Ting first brought a show to York Theatre Royal in February 2020, just before the pandemic lockdowns, presenting Overheard in the theatre foyer, where the audience used headphones to eavesdrop on family discussions (“because they often take place in cafés”).

“It’s lovely to be back here, doing Home X in a co-commission with York Theatre Royal as one of the partners,” she says. “After we did the digital theatre show Every Dollar Is A Soldier online during lockdown, where we used the gaming engine too, that show became very important for Home X, where we wondered how a digital audience could really engage with a live performance, choosing an avatar and taking part in a promenade performance where you can really feel yourself jumping around in the space and engaging with other avatars. For those in the Studio, you can turn it into a theatre people couldn’t imagine.”

An-Ting has a background is both science and art with a degree in Chemistry from National Taiwan University and a MMus and PhD in performance from the Royal Academy of Music.

“I came to the UK 14 years ago, first to study at the Royal Academy as a concert pianist, and afterwards went to Germany to more studies, and then came back to do a PhD at the Royal Academy, looking at how to bring piano and theatre together,” says the director,  who has since put those studies into practice by combining different media, music, physical theatre and technology, while also travelling hither and thither as a concert pianist.

Where is ‘home’ for Taiwan-born An-Ting? “Home X is my personal story. Coming here 14 years ago, ‘home’ for me is confusing. Even after 14 years, I can still feel quite foreign but when I go back to Taiwan, I also feel foreign,” she says.

“Because ‘home’ is such a universal subject, I also interviewed lots of people about how they feel about ‘home’. People who had to leave Ukraine and Iraq. ‘Home’ is complicated but important to everyone, and I wanted to share those stories through Home X.”

Brought up in the Taiwanese countryside, An-Ting’s next move will be to move into the English countryside, a new home.

Home X, York Theatre Royal Studio, tomorrow (10/2/2023) and Saturday, 7.45pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or Online: 

“The future of theatre”: Home X at York Theatre Royal Studio tomorrow and Saturday night

The science bit

IN Home X, live on stage in the UK and Hong Kong, depth-sensing cameras capture 3D video of the performers, using infrared light to convey the shape and movement of the performers’ bodies in real time.

The live audience will watch as they are digitised and streamed into the 3D world. This world will come alive for the audience through a 270-degree widescreen projection, with a live in-game camera following the digitised performers, the digital audience and the other creatures of the world.

Home X uses the gaming engine Unity to create a three-dimensional, virtual world. The digital audience members can engage fully with the performance by entering the virtual world as avatars. They may interact with other audience members and the performers using gestures and emojis, and even play a role in driving the story forward.

The use of bespoke streaming technology allows for a lag of less than half a second between the UK and Hong Kong performers, making it feel as though they are truly performing together in the same space.

Copyright of The Press, York

York actor Sam Rippon to take his next step on MA course at Royal Academy of Music

York actor, director and choreographer Sam Rippon

YORK actor, director and choreographer Sam Rippon has won a place at the Royal Academy of Music, London, to study for an MA in musical theatre from September.

For the past three years, he has been reading for a BSc in Government and History at the LSE (London School of Economics).

During that time, nevertheless, Sam, has kept his love of theatre aflame by performing and directing while president of the LSE Drama Society.

“A one-year prestigious and intensive MA course was an attractive option,” he says. “Musical theatre has been of immense importance to me ever since I first stepped on stage in York Stage Musicals’ production of Oliver! over a decade ago.

Sam Rippon takes to the stage for the first time in Oliver in 2009

“It has been an essential part of my life, but often a subordinate one, based in extra-curricular activities. The decision to go and undertake this course is motivated by a long-term desire to put musical theatre first in my life, and to build the skills, connections, and foundations necessary to enter a career in the theatrical world.”

Sam, from Heslington, had a choice to make. “I’d received offers from the Guildford School of Acting and Mountview [Academy of Theatre Arts] too, but chose the course at the Royal Academy for its prestige and first-class alumni network.

“I was humbled to receive offers from all three of the places I auditioned for, but RAM felt, from the first audition, like the place that I wanted to be, and which would suit my existing skill set.”

Sam, 22, first auditioned at the Royal Academy last December with a 15-minute presentation of his prepared performances, before being invited to recall in April. “As I was based in London at university, it was easy to make my way to the academy to audition, but little did I know that my recall would have to be from right in my living room,” he says.

Sam Rippon in the role of Marius in York Light Youth’s production of Les Miserables School Edition in November 2014

“Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, our recall was adjusted to be a video audition, for which I was required to record my performances, a video about myself and some skill-based work.

“So, my living room turned into a makeshift recording studio with my phone carefully balanced on top of a step ladder!”

Recording performances was not something Sam found particularly enjoyable. “Perhaps, as a stage performer, the thrill of what I do is that it is live and changes, even lightly, each time. Having to get one perfect take, that I was happy with, was not an easy thing to do!” he recalls.

“Final decisions were made following these video submissions, and I was informed of the outcome at the end of April.”

No lying: That’s Sam Rippon, right, as Pinocchio, in York Stage Musicals’ Shrek The Musical at the Grand Opera House, York, last autumn

Will Sam be able to begin in September, given the on-going Covid-19 scenario? “As far as we know, we’re being prepared for a September start as usual,” he says. “Given the smaller classes, it may well be possible to conduct teaching as normal – to an extent – but I guess we should await confirmation of this.”

Sam was seen most recently on the York stage in September 2019 as Pinocchio in York Stage Musicals’ Shrek The Musical and earlier last year as Rolf in York Stage Musicals’ The Sound Of Music, both at the Grand Opera House, where he also has worked front of house.

He had played Schlomo in the York Stage Experience summer school production of Fame at the same theatre in 2017.

At the LSE, he starred as Anthony in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street in 2019 and the multi role-playing Clown in The 39 Steps in 2018, as well as being the director and choreographer for Sister Act this year and Made In Dagenham in 2018.

“It is impossible to describe the extent to which York has had an impact on where I am today and hope to be in the future,” says Sam Rippon

“The 39 Steps was undoubtedly the most fun I have had on stage or in a rehearsal room,” says Sam. “Bringing so many different characters to life was not only the greatest joy but encouraged me to learn new accents and physical theatre skills that will stick with me.

“Playing Pinocchio last year was a highlight too. The entire Shrek company was oozing with talent and it was a privilege to perform with every one of them, but bringing to life such an iconic and fun character made the experience even more enjoyable.

“Working with Damien [Boston Spa director-choreographer Damien Poole] and the ever-professional York Stage team on this complex production was such a joy.”

York has had an “immeasurable” influence on Sam’s acting and musical skills. “The first show I watched was in York, my first venture on to a stage was in York, and my first classes were held here,” he says. “I was brought up here, and it is impossible to describe the extent to which the city has had an impact on where I am today and hope to be in the future.

“York is blessed to have so many fantastic amateur musical theatre companies, and I have personally been blessed to have performed in several of them.”

The stage awaits: Sam Rippon contemplates a career in theatre

Sam has indeed spread his talent widely in the city. “York Stage Musicals gave me the opportunity to step on stage for the first time in Oliver back in 2009; York Light Opera Company provided me with my first named part as Friedrich in The Sound Of Music in 2012, and York Light Youth have given me countless opportunities to develop new skills,” he says.

“Performing as Marius in Les Miserables in 2014 and Ugly in Honk! in 2015 remain some of the most formative experiences in my passion for musical theatre. This is not to mention York Stage Experience and York Musical Theatre Company, with whom I had further opportunities to develop new skills and make more friends.”

Sam considers himself “fortunate to have grown up in a city that has so much to offer with regards to theatre, and for that, I will be forever grateful”, he says.

“Crucial to my interest and passion too is my school, Archbishop Holgate’s, who have the most engaging and passionate music teachers, who taught me so much and gave me so many opportunities to develop.”

Looking ahead, to beyond his MA, Sam says: “I would love to turn this training into a career on stage. I understand and appreciate the difficulty in making this step in a competitive environment, probably exacerbated by current events, but that is where I want to be, and I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t going to give everything to make it happen.”

Such determination, such talent too, deserves to be rewarded.