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The magic of theatre – Bath Spa University

Researching the magic of theatre


Bristol Old Vic announces research project with local universities to explain magic of theatre

Thursday, 12 January, 2023

Bristol Old Vic has announced a major £150,000 research project – of which Bath Spa University is a key partner – bringing together the worlds of science and art.

Funded by MyWorld and working with MyWorld partners Bath Spa University, University of Bristol, University of Bath and University of West of England, this investigation will centre around award-winning international touring company Complicité's highly-anticipated new production, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

What is it about the magic of theatre that makes our hearts race? When are we so immersed in the show that we lose track of time? Do we all shed a tear at the same moment, and do we collectively hold our breath? That is what Bristol Old Vic and the team of researchers want to find out.

Becoming totally immersed in a show and moved by a performance is something many people have experienced in the theatre, but little is known about why it happens and in particular, why when we're watching with others, we start to behave in similar ways - right down to the synchronizing of our heartbeats.

This is the biggest research project of its kind so far, with the aim of capturing the hidden audience experience. It has not been done at this scale in a theatre setting before.

Up to 140 audience members over 10 performances will be invited to participate in the study. By wearing a simple wristband packed with state-of-the-art sensors, heart rates and other physiological responses will be recorded as they watch the production - to see if they all have similar responses at the same moment during the play.

The research will reveal in real time the hidden responses our bodies give when we're immersed together in a live theatre experience, helping Bristol Old Vic further develop its on screen experiences to deliver that same sense of connectedness and magic to audiences at home.

Iain Gilchrist, Professor of Neuropsychology at University of Bristol, is leading on the project. He has spent the last five years looking at what happens to people when they are immersed in a creative experience. He explained:

"There is something unique about all sitting together and sharing in a story – we don't really know what that is – so we're trying to unlock that collective experience when we forget about everything else that's going on in our lives and we're all in the moment together. Storytelling has been a part of human culture for as long as we know – something happens in the brain when we tell stories and it's fascinating to begin to unlock why that has endured."

Also announced is a strictly limited run of preview Live Broadcasts of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead from Bristol Old Vic on 7, 9 and 11 Feb. These broadcasts will form part of the second stage of the research project, monitoring a sample of on-screen viewers per night in a similar way. The intention is that by being able to compare the responses from both groups, Bristol Old Vic can use the research findings to enhance the work it produces for the screen, creating experiences for viewers that get closer to the magic people feel in the theatre. A Watershed Fellow in Residence, Ben Samuels, funded by MyWorld, will also be embedded at Bristol Old Vic to support the development of its on screen experiences.

Tickets for the preview broadcasts are limited to 100 per performance and available to viewers across the world. Tickets are expected to be in high demand. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was conceived and directed by Complicité's Artistic Director and Co-Founder Simon McBurney. The piece, based on Nobel Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk's genre-defying novel of the same name, will run at Bristol Old Vic from 19 January-11 February.

Bristol Old Vic's Executive Director, Charlotte Geeves said:

"Presenting theatre shows on screen is still a relatively new and very exciting medium. We have spent the last few years learning how to translate our stage work to screen in order to engage audiences in a different way. It involved a lot of experimentation to get to where we are today - generating industry-leading, high quality filmed theatre distributed across the world.

“Being part of one of the MyWorld research projects enables us to continue innovating. That we're able to do this with Complicité – one of the world's leading theatre companies, known for their immersive storytelling and experimental theatre-making – is hugely exciting for us."

The MyWorld Program is funded by UKRI’s Strength in Places Fund. It is a unique collaboration between industry and academia to transform the West of England's creative cluster from one of the best in the UK, to one of the best in the world.

Kate Pullinger, Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University and academic lead for this MyWorld experimental production said:

"Digital technologies have transformed many industries, including arts and culture sectors. Theatre has always used technology to create magic on stage, and this MyWorld investment will help us think about the ways audiences experience shows, both in the lovely theatre space of Bristol Old Vic, as well as at home, on screens."

Over five years, partners from across Bristol and Bath will deliver pioneering research and development projects across the creative technologies sector. The programme will create new experiences across fiction, documentary, games and live performance, attract inward investment and deliver employment and training opportunities across the region. To find out more, visit the MyWorld website.

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