The National Theatre’s new immersive musical performance, All Kinds of Limbo XR, is an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island. Created by vocalist Nubiya Brandon, alongside composer Raffy Bushman and the Nu Shape Orchestra, the production echoes the book’s theme of Jamaican immigration, exploring the impact of Caribbean culture on the UK’s music scene. The production premiered at the theater in 2019, before making its way to the Sundance Film Festival and Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival in 2020. It has been available for online viewing since January 18.

What separates All Kinds of Limbo XR from other musical performances is that the show is designed to be viewed in multiple formats. At each livestream, participants can choose to view the performance through a virtual reality (VR) headset, sharing a communal space with an audience and the volumetrically captured performers; or “place” the production within their physical environment using an augmented reality (AR) app on a phone or tablet; or navigate the performance space on their desktops. Besides ensuring digital engagement across geographical divides, the production aims to recreate the communal theater-going experience in a way that would appeal to both seasoned and new audiences.

“We see mixed reality as potentially being a gateway to theater for people who don’t classify themselves as theater-goers,” said Toby Coffey, Head of Digital Development at the National Theatre. Image: National Theatre

All Kinds of Limbo resulted from a collaboration between the National Theatre and Microsoft, and took approximately six to 12 months to complete due to COVID-19’s impact. The digital content was volumetrically captured in the Microsoft-enabled Dimension Studios, while the agency, All Seeing Eye, created the virtual environment. For the National Theatre, the bigger design exercise was adapting the presentation into VR and AR. “We didn’t want to parallel an AR and a VR experience, so the AR experience is a derivative of the full VR staging,” Toby Coffey, the National Theatre’s Head of Digital Development, says. “We take key components and rearrange them for augmented reality, and we did that scene by scene.” 

The production was created in collaboration with Microsoft, which helped volumetrically capture the live performance for the virtual platforms. Image: National Theatre

Ultimately, the National Theatre hopes to democratize access to immersive works, regardless of what technology audiences have available. “We know VR and AR headsets are going to be more prevalent at some point in time,” he says. “The important thing is audiences are willing to consume performance and content in their own homes, and not everyone has the same setup and options available to them.” This is in line with the company’s push to leverage creative technologies — particularly with its Immersive Storytelling Studio, established in 2016 — to enrich the look and feel of a stage performance.

So far, All Kinds of Limbo XR has gained significant international viewers. “We’ve just extended the run. It was going for two weeks originally, and we’ve extended it by another week,” Coffey says. “What I do know is we are getting proper worldwide distribution. As much as a third of audiences are coming from Asia, as well as America and Europe.”

This mixed reality production, says Coffey, is merely “the first outing of a framework we’ve developed.” He emphasizes that the role of the Immersive Storytelling Studio is to introduce and pair creative technologists with storytellers, and see what is ultimately created — a future that All Kinds of Limbo hints at. “We are looking at what projects will relate to both future projects and potentially past projects,” he says. “At the moment, we’re planning what the next five years look like.” 


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