Making virtual Shakespeare a Dream for audiences

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Goldsmiths, University of London research into the impact of Covid-19 on audiences has helped shape an innovative new performance piece which could be a model for post-pandemic theatre.


Dream, created by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), in collaboration with Manchester International Festival (MIF), Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF) and Philharmonia Orchestra, brings together the latest gaming and theatre technology with an interactive symphonic score that responds to actors’ movement during the show.

While theatres remain closed, audiences can experience a new performance environment on a mobile, desktop or tablet via the website, and are able to directly influence the live performance from wherever they are in the world. 

i2 media research is a Goldsmiths-based group using psychological principles and research methods to understand technology, media and consumers. As a member of the Innovate UK-funded Audience of the Future Performance Demonstrator consortium, they worked closely with NESTA to find out what audiences want and how new audiences can be engaged with live performance. 

Originally starting in January 2019, i2’s programme of research for the project changed drastically with the closure of UK theatres in March 2020 due to the pandemic and the cancellation of the originally planned location-based RSC event. 

i2 developed new in-depth research to guide the project's pivot to the production of a digital only production addressing the moods, needs and capabilities of audiences at home.  

Key findings from a survey of over 2,000 people conducted by i2 media research via YouGov include:

  • 55% of audiences feel more troubled since lockdown
  • More than 50% say they feel unhappy and afraid
  • 37% say they are feeling more exhausted and 32% are more angry since lockdown
  • They have a desire for uplifting events which counter the emotional lows of lockdown life
  • Audiences miss live events but feel positive toward digital offerings and are willing to spend money on digital content

Surveys and consultations sought to characterise audiences to find out what they need, want, and are missing, and evaluate audience responses to the developing creative approaches and new technology. Specially developed metrics also looked at the audience’s quality of experience. 

i2’s work expanded to include a focus on post-pandemic sector recovery, exploring how new technology and remote audience engagement can be financially viable for the creative industries. All findings and research will be shared with the wider UK cultural sector after the project is completed this year. 

i2 media research founder, Professor of Psychology and Academic Lead for Knowledge Exchange at Goldsmiths, Jonny Freeman, said: “We've loved collaborating so closely with our creative and tech partners, and seeing the audience insights we've been gathering influencing so directly the production they have created. 

“This collaboration stands out for us, in being genuinely focused on audience needs. We’re also very mindful of the value of the project’s experience for the sector more widely and are developing plans, with our partners, to share what we have learned.” 

Dream is inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the live performance set in a virtual midsummer forest. Under the shadow of gathering clouds at dusk, lit by the glimmer of fireflies, Puck acts as the guide. Audiences are invited to explore the forest, meet four sprites and take an extraordinary journey into the eye of a cataclysmic storm. Together with Puck they must regrow the forest before the dawn. 

With seven RSC actors in a specially created 7x7m space, motion capture and facial rigging technology will reproduce their movements for virtual avatars, essentially creating real-time live animation made by live performers. 

The 50-minute online event will be a shared experience between remote audience members and the seven actors who play Puck and the sprites. Audiences can choose to buy a £10 ticket to take part and directly influence the world of the actors, or to view the performance for free. 

The Audience of the Future Performance Demonstrator consortium is a multimillion-pound investment into how developing immersive technologies such as virtual reality will bring new performing arts experiences to audiences around the world, funded by Innovate UK. Partners include De Montfort University, Epic Games, i2 media research limited, Intel, Magic Leap, Manchester International Festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast, Nesta, Phi Centre, Philharmonia Orchestra, Punchdrunk, University of Portsmouth, and The Space. 

More information and tickets for Dream are available from the RSC:

Find out more about i2 media research at