Helping to rewrite the narrative on Digital Theatre experience

Philip Caraher, Nuala Trainor of Sentireal, with Erin Hoey, Philip Crawford and Claire Murray, Lyric Theatre

Lyric Theatre Belfast is leading the way on a vital exploration of the future role of digital experiences within theatre. Funded by Future Screens NI and NI Screen, in partnership with Belfast-based immersive technology specialists Sentireal and Professor Pedro Rebelo from the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, the project will explore the use of Virtual Reality (VR) to enhance the audience experiences in context of social distancing restrictions due to Covid-19.

As part of an open call to the Northern Ireland creative industries, ‘Rewriting the Narrative’ by Future Screens NI and NI Screen asked applicants to explore where and how the changes of the Covid-19 pandemic are happening in the creative industries, and importantly how we can learn from the ongoing crisis in order to strengthen the future of the industry.

The global impact of Covid-19 has forced theatres across the UK & Ireland to close their doors as social distancing restricts live audience experiences. At the Lyric we estimate that only 10-20% of our audience would be able to return to the venue to experience theatre live, with socially distanced measures in place. With the impacts of Covid-19 likely to be in place for many months to come it poses the questions – how can audiences return to theatre in a safe and socially distanced way and in what ways can the digital experience replace or enhance the live theatre experience?

We had already been exploring the potential use of digital technology on audiences. Earlier this year, we received a £10,000 Creative Industries Seed Fund grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Department of Communities to enhance our Schools programme ‘Blackout’ with an immersive technology experience. The project, also supported by Future Screens NI and Digital Catapult will now take place in later in the year but will form the basis for the ‘Rewriting the Narrative’ research project. The use of new, emerging and immersive technology within ‘Blackout’ will help to provide an understanding of technological experiences on live theatre.

We have always been interested in exploring the Lyric’s ever-evolving relationship with its audience, including how we can harness digital technologies to enhance the audience experience and widen the scope of live theatrical performance. ’Rewriting the Narrative’ will enable our team to enhance, reshape and adapt the original plan to focus on testing if and how digital can complement the ‘reduced’ and limited live experience of theatre.

This research is now a much more urgent consideration for all arts organisations and venues, and we hope that the results can provide insight and recommendations for the whole industry.  We will keep you updated on our progress throughout the project.


Professor Paul Moore from Future Screens NI commented:

“Covid-19 has changed the nature of activity within the creative economy. Future Screens NI is delighted to work in partnership with the Lyric Theatre to develop new forms of audience engagement using new, immersive and emerging technology. Extending the audience and experience of theatre beyond the physical has the potential to place the audience at the heart of the performance, and Future Screens NI is privileged to work with such recognised partners to con-sider ways in which this can be achieved. It is our hope that this project will play a considerable part in the crafting of new forms of creative and theatrical experiences.”

Matthew Malcolm, Creative Industries Development Officer at Arts Council NI, said:

“The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on our theatres and live audiences. Whilst it’s heartening to see a date announced for reopening, theatres and performances spaces still face the huge challenge of reduced audiences due to social distancing requirements and will need to adapt and explore alternative ways to engage audiences. The Lyric Theatre’s ‘Rewriting the Narrative’ research project is leading the way in the exploration of innovative technologies for audiences to experience and enjoy live theatre remotely and we look forward to seeing the results of this impressive undertaking which potentially could have far reaching impacts for the entire Northern Ireland arts sector.”

Nuala Trainor of Sentireal added:

“We are delighted to be involved with the Lyric Theatre for this project. Immersive technologies provide perfect opportunities for audiences to enjoy remote experiences, which is ever more important during the current situation. We aim to focus on how Virtual Reality can make this possible, making theatrical experiences accessible for a wider audience to enjoy in the comfort and safety of home or school environments. ‘Blackout’ represents an excellent theatrical production as a basis for this innovative project.”