Live theatre has power to shock

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l Peter Draper, front, pictured with fellow survey participants, including Herald editor Amanda Chalmers and her son Daniel, before taking his seat in the auditorium in July. Photo: Mark Williamson.

In the age of big screens and digital video games and special effects does live theatre still have the power to shock?

That was the question the Royal Shakespeare Company decided to answer, with scientific proof, when they collaborated with Ipsos MORI, the global market opinion and research specialist, on a very interesting, innovative project back in the summer.

During the run of Titus Andronicus, which is renowned for being Shakespeare’s goriest revenge tragedy, the company hooked audiences up to heart-rate monitors and gauged their emotional responses as three different groups responded to watching the play in three different ways.

Titus Andronicus (played by David Troughton) has his hand cut off in one of the play’s many gruesome scenes.

One group were watching live theatre as the play was performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; one group watched the performance broadcast live on a big screen at Stratford Picturehouse; while the third group were immersed in a 360-filmed ‘virtual reality’ experience of the production, created by Gorilla In The Room, via virtual reality headsets.

Now all the data crunching is over, we can reveal, rather happily for the RSC and other theatres, that this experiment proves that Shakespeare still shocks as much in cinema and in 360 as in the theatre.

Analysis of heart-rate data from participants watching the same performance of Titus Andronicus under different conditions demonstrated that the number of times the heart rate peaked above average was comparable in all three conditions across the performance.

In fact there were more people with a raised heart rate in theatre at the very start of the performance than was seen for cinema and 360 filmed VR experience.

See panel for more analysis of the results.

Herald editor, Amanda Chalmers, and her son, Daniel, aged 16, were among the ‘guinea pigs’ taking part in the monitored live audience members at the theatre. After hearing the results, she says: “It is a shock to learn that watching this play is equivalent to a five-minute cardio workout! It certainly doesn’t feel like it at the time but, looking back, I can definitely identify with feeling an underlying emotional stress during certain scenes. I wouldn’t call it a relaxing night at the theatre — but it was fascinating to be involved in this unique experiment.”

Sarah Ellis, RSC director of digital development, added: “This presented a unique opportunity for us to compare the emotional reaction to one of Shakespeare’s plays on three different platforms. The results have shown us that even after more than 400 years, Shakespeare’s work still packs an emotional punch to today’s audiences wherever and however it is experienced.

“This was a great way to continue our work to find new ways for theatre to be experienced, and to help us ensure that live theatre performance remains relevant in the 21st century and beyond.”

 

The results

  • Shakespeare still shocks — as much in cinema and in 360 as in the theatre
  • Analysis of heart rate data from participants watching the same performance of Titus Andronicus under different conditions (theatre, live on screen in cinemas and the 360-filmed VR ‘virtual reality’ experience) demonstrated that the number of times the heart rate peaked above average was comparable in all three conditions across the performance.
  • There are more people with a raised heart rate in theatre at the very start of the performance than we see for cinema and 360 filmed VR experience — this is likely to be driven by higher levels of anticipation.
  • Watching Titus Andronicus raised heart rate to a level equivalent of a five-minute cardio workout
  • Audience heart rate is raised to the level of a cardio workout zone for an average of five minutes (3three per cent of time) across the full performance of Titus Andronicus. This is consistent across participants in theatre, cinema and the 360 filmed VR experience.
  • Men showed a greater emotional reaction
  • The heart rate data of the men in the study suggests a very slightly greater increase in reaction compared to female participants.
  • 360 filmed VR experience has the power to transport you into the theatre
  • 91 per cent of those watching the performance via the VR headset felt there were times when they were physically present in the theatre. This compares to approximately 63 per cent for those watching the show live on screen in the cinema.
  • Theatre is the shared experience that brings humour to life
  • The interplay between actors and audience was most apparent regarding ‘humour’, mentioned spontaneously more by those watching in the theatre. People were also significantly more likely to say that ‘it felt good to be sharing’ in theatre as opposed to the those in the in cinema or 360-filmed VR experience.
  • Theatre wins out over cinema in overall positive engagement and empathy
  • Participant feedback indicated greater overall positivity (excellent/awesome, etc), engagement (gripping, thought provoking, empathy, etc) and shock in theatre — with more attention to the elements of staging, costume, set, plot, music and choreography. Those watching via 360-filmed VR also had a higher level of emotional engagement than cinema audiences.
  • Lower shock levels in the cinema may indicate that viewers feel further removed/desensitised to the violence/gore. However, cinema was perceived to be significantly more ‘moving’ than either theatre of 360 video — possibly due to the cinematic style directing the viewers eye to the details of actor expressions (e.g. tear rolling down Lavinia’s cheek) which are often missed by theatre audiences.

*These results are based on the data from 107 participants.

All participants were invited to a briefing prior to the start of the performance (whether theatre, cinema or 360-filmed VR experience). At the briefing session, each participant was fitted with a heart rate monitor before viewing the performance. After the performance, each participant took part in a short exit interview which included capturing their responses to the performance — using a combination of video, explicit and implicit questions.