A digital space on Mozilla Hubs populated with artwork for the First Three Drops, the show plays on the back wall whilst avatars look on

Clwstwr: Merging Digital & physical theatre to improve access

Elise Davison talks to Kayleigh McLeod about our Clwstwr project.

Many potential audience members are denied access to the arts.

From our work and research, we know that there are lots of things that could stop someone from enjoying theatre. For example: physical barriers can restrict people from being able to get in or around a space; other people’s attitudes can make people feel unwelcome; loud noises or crowds can cause overwhelm; the performance may not be BSL interpreted, captioned or audio described; the website or marketing might not be in an accessible format; show times might not fit with caring responsibilities… the list goes on. While a number of these barriers can be removed through training and physical adaptations, for some people a physical visit to the theatre is just not an option.

We focus on deaf and disabled audience members who have been let down by inaccessibility.

For our shows, we try to make everything as accessible as we can. We also make ourselves available to chat with people about how they can do similar things. Everything we know, we’ve learned from the deaf and disabled creatives that we’ve worked with. There’s always more to learn.

Prior to Clwstwr, we did R&D into creating multi-sensory theatre that works on multiple levels.

We wanted to find a way to put on shows for audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) and their families to enjoy together. We looked at creating a multi-sensory piece of theatre that was able to be accessed on a number of different levels. We considered having a gaming feel to make it challenging enough for some members of the family, while still being accessible for everybody. Bear in mind that I’m not very digital-savvy, so the games would probably be physical in-person ball games or similar! Unfortunately, we simply couldn’t fund it.

Clwstwr inspired me to consider doing something digital with our ideas for the first time.

Lockdown made us realise that we’re all now accessing things in a digital sphere and engaging in art activities from our own homes. When I saw the opportunity for Clwstwr funding and support, it made me think that maybe there was a way to create our piece of theatre on a digital platform – perhaps using VR, gaming technology or something else.

All the things we were trying to achieve in this physical theatre piece we’d been hoping to make could exist either solely on a digital platform or as a hybrid of digital and physical. It’d mean that some of the people who couldn’t access physical theatre spaces could potentially access digital theatre spaces from their own home.

Around the time of the application, we were involved in accessibility at the Neverthere Festival.

Put together by Barra Collins, it was a festival held on digital platforms, including Mozilla Hubs. I saw so many possibilities that I’d never thought about. It tightened our application; with time to research, see what’s out there and play with technology – without having to necessarily create an end product – we could find a way to provide a digital experience, either solely on a digital platform or in collaboration with a physical incarnation, that would mean the arts could be enjoyed by people how they want to enjoy it.

Our Clwstwr journey started in summer 2020, but I wasn’t sure where to start!

I left our first few Clwstwr meetings feeling like there were many potential directions to go in. I had no concrete idea of what we we’re going to do, but I knew there were lots of things I wanted to find out in order to make something. I realised quickly that VR costs a lot to make, which pushed me to consider what might be possible with the small budgets in a theatre landscape. Rather than diving straight into creating something, I wanted to use the seed funding to learn as much as possible about the options available by speaking to industry experts.

We gained so much guidance and understanding from speaking to industry experts.

We spoke to some people we knew, then Clwstwr put us in touch with people we didn’t know. It was a mix of theatre practitioners, technicians, people who were working in immersive technologies and access specialists. Paul Long, who works in VR and immersive technologies, helped us consider how we might realise a book – Elen’s Island by Eloise Williams – as a VR experience. We thought about how the audience might be able to choose their own adventure, possibly jumping in and out of a map, and how we could create such a world.

We spoke to James Simpson, who runs the creative technologies company Copper Candle and is the Head of The Centre for Digital Production at Rose Bruford College. He specialises in immersive technology, particularly with a focus on theatre performance and live events, so we went to a webinar with him before talking about what he thought was possible.

We also spoke to people with other experience in the digital performance arena, such as the video artist John Collingswood. He works for a company that has been integrating live dance into performances that are then streamed to theatres. Nick Llewellyn at Access All Areas, who had done a VR performance in London, gave us an insight into how access can come into play, particularly from a theatre director’s perspective.

After our conversations, we pivoted to look at using open source software rather than VR.

We took the advice of James at Copper Candle; he suggested that we look at open source as it could save us money on the build that we could then invest in exploration. We refamiliarised ourselves with Mozilla Hubs, figuring out ways we could digitally build a theatre set, implement lighting design, bring actors in, add soundtracks, use audio description and BSL interpreters without latency and control the audience to give them the best experience.

Our project culminated in the creation of a digital theatre show and arts centre.

We invited people to log in to our promenade performance in a digital set that we’d built, lit and put sound effects into. Alongside it, we had a virtual arts centre with a live streamed show and spin-off activities (which we paired with offline activities we’d sent people). Audience members could pin interpreters to their avatars so that they’d always be able to have access to what was going on.

To explore the idea of having a physical touch tour alongside the performance, we sent a tactile board to Tafsila Khan, a blind theatre consultant. Before she experienced the show, our audio describer talked her through what the visual world was like using the tactile board to provide textures like brick, sand and flowers. We were amazed at how well it worked.

The feedback from our audience was really good.

People loved being able to choose where they stood and moved to as an avatar; it gave them freedom. They also really liked how they could experience the sounds and sights of the arts from the safety and comfort of home, and some said they felt a sense of connectivity that they hadn’t felt since lockdown. The overall success of the experience has inspired us to do more exploration of the digital-physical hybrid theatre space, so we are applying for another round of Clwstwr funding.

Personally, I’ve had the biggest learning curve of my life through this project.

I’ve made four shows on different digital platforms now, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to making work that doesn’t have a digital format of it. There will always be a hybrid way to do it. I don’t know what the hybrid thing will be, but I don’t think there’s any excuse or reason why I can’t provide a version of what I’m making that can’t be enjoyed at home. This project has made it really clear that that’s actually possible, and it’s really going to impact our work moving forward.

Thanks to Clwstwr for allowing us to share our case study here. You can find out more on their website

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