Dream’s EM Williams on acting in a virtual forest

When EM Williams pictured playing the fairy Puck in their debut Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production, they couldn’t have imagined it would involve wearing a VR headset and relying on other cast members to guide them around a high-tech motion capture stage. But Dream is no ordinary take on a Shakespeare play.

A collaboration between the RSC, Manchester International Festival (MIF), Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF) and Philharmonia Orchestra, Dream invites us to follow Puck through a virtual Midsummer forest. Clad in grey and white-dotted motion capture suits, the cast perform live from a custom-built space (or ‘mo-cap volume’) at the Guildhall in Portsmouth. The actors’ movements drive their characters’ avatars through a virtual landscape created in Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, and influence the interactive soundtrack.

The live action in the virtual forest is beamed instantaneously to audience members’ devices across the globe. Audiences influence the virtual world in real time by launching fireflies to light Puck’s way through the trees and planting seeds to regrow the forest after a storm.

EM Williams on set in Dream

To celebrate World Theatre Day, we caught up with EM to get an actor’s perspective on bringing Dream to life, how it feels to interact live with a global audience of thousands, and their own dreams for the future of high-tech theatre.

Hi EM! Is performing in a motion capture suit, VR headset and COVID-safe face mask as tricky as it sounds?
I nearly fainted in our first physical session because of the mask, so started doing breathing exercises to trick my lungs into taking more oxygen. I also did a backwards roll on a really expensive cluster of motion capture sensors during my first day in the suit… From then on I wore that cluster on my front instead of my back! Then I had to worry about all these wires getting caught in the sensors. It’s a lot to think about, but after a while it becomes second nature.

How did you feel responding to the audience at home?
That was a game changer. We’d improvised the scene with the fireflies in rehearsal, but actually seeing them – it was bizarre. I was in one of the oldest buildings in Portsmouth, but in one of the highest tech rooms probably in the world. So it already felt like a building full of ghosts, and then having that audience presence – it was electric.

Digital avatars of Puck and Cobweb in Dream

Puck and Cobweb in Dream

How do you maintain Shakespeare’s spirit when using state of the art tech?
The dream world of the forest is about the thinning veil – what’s imagined and what’s magic. Maggie (Bain, who plays Cobweb) put it really well: Shakespeare loved using the tricks of the trade. He was a maverick. There have been so many iterations of Shakespeare – if you’re not pushing boundaries and doing something new, why do it? It was unlike anything I’d ever trained for, but I realised this is part of training. You never stop learning and figuring out the best way to tell a story.

The technology in Dream means that the fairies we meet from Shakespeare’s play can now appear completely fantastical and non-human. Tell us about the development of Puck’s avatar?
The avatar was originally going to be made of sticks and wood – I come from a movement background, so I was thinking about the quality of movement, about nature and woodenness – and then it got changed to stone, and these things were being furiously programmed by the people upstairs, so I don’t think we saw stone Puck until a good four or five weeks into rehearsal!

For me, Puck is an adolescent figure – a gangly teenager with the confidence of a child, but some doubt and insecurity setting in – which really worked with stone Puck. I thought they looked like someone who’s growing up and their limbs have gotten really long. It worked with the technology too – going from human to stone, pulling two things together, not fixed in either.

A digital image of the Puck avatar in Dream

Puck in Dream

What can theatre makers learn from digital and gaming specialists?
Accessibility. At the beginning of lockdown it was terrible, but now it’s obvious that if you’re not doing things like audio description you’re making a clear statement about who your work is or isn’t for. It’s not difficult to integrate, and if done properly it becomes part of the enjoyment and the experience.

Also, as a brown, queer, trans individual, I’ve felt unwelcome in lots of spaces. On Dream, I wasn’t the only trans person, I wasn’t the only non-binary person and I wasn’t the only black person – that’s huge to me. So I’m thinking about accessibility and the people coming up after me. Those decisions don’t take much effort in the grand scheme of things – it’s just adding it to a budget, assessment, or schedule and thinking about the people who aren’t in the room.

Photograph of the Dream motion capture studio in Portsmouth

The Dream mo-cap volume in Portsmouth

Dream is part of a research and development process – what excites you about the future potential of this technology?
Theatre is about making worlds for people to suspend their disbelief. A good show does that so well, you forget someone’s an actor. Technology does that too – it’s about the tools we have, and how we use them. If this is where we are now, it’s only gonna grow. Especially with accessibility – I loved that classrooms were watching, because not every kid has a computer. Technology is there to make us feel as connected as possible, removing the distance between people.

Text Billie Collins

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