Two people with VR headsets surrounded by red lights

10 Minutes With... Catherine Allen

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Next week, Warwick graduate Catherine Allen returns to the Arts Centre with her company Limina to turn the Helen Martin Studio into a special VR theatre. She answered to some questions on her time here as a student, VR technology and future project.

Limina is bringing two shows at Warwick Arts Centre – could you briefly describe what they are about?
Over the week we are showing Empire Soldiers, a VR piece made by the pioneering theatre company, Metro-Boulot-Dodo, a team who happen to be based in the Midlands. This is a stylistic VR experience that explores the experiences of Caribbean soldiers coming to Britain after fighting in World War One. Audiences are invited to hear the captivating stories of the battlefield whilst they are joined by a returning soldier, sharing his emotional experience of the return home. As the piece progresses, the focus turns to the today’s Britain, and presents us with some hard truths. I am really excited to be showing this piece to audiences as it demonstrates the urgent modern relevance of historical events. 100 years isn’t really that long…!
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday we are showing two gorgeous, surreal arts experiences from the talented VR studio, BDH. One piece lets you fly through the work of Hieronymus Bosch, on the back of a flying fish. The other takes you on fantasy journey through the work of René Magritte.

What do you think is so special and unique about combining VR technology and performance/art?
VR allows artists to imagine, design and bottle up human experience. When an audience member sees it, that experienced is unleashed; in a sense, it is performed. Because VR utilises physical space, it has many parallels with theatre. This means that there is a lot of creative potential for creators to use performance theory and technique in their VR work.

How did you choose the specific VR technology you are using for these shows and why?
We choose the most high end headsets, the Oculus Rift. We chose them by doing lots of testing with sample audience groups in Watershed (where we are based in Bristol) and asking for their feedback. As well as having depth perception and a higher resolution than most other headsets, the Oculus Rift is lighter and more comfortable to wear. We take audience comfort really seriously.

Tell us more about Limina
I founded Limina in 2016 after feeling frustrated that the VR I was making wasn’t getting to the audiences I had made it for – simply because these audiences tend not to own headsets. Limina is on a mission to bring VR to broader audiences. We do this by working with cultural venues who share the same passion as us (like Warwick Arts Centre!). Our target audience are culture lovers who are the technological ‘early majority’. These are people who don’t consider themselves ‘early adopters’, and wouldn’t try a new technology just for the sake of it.

How has your time at the University of Warwick influenced you in your career?
Whilst studying Theatre and Performance at the University of Warwick, I’d become increasingly interested in the performance of ritual, and the idea of liminal spaces. Liminality stems from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”. Participants let go of their usual identity and social differences while being on the edge of a transformation. In ritual terms, it is the middle stage of a ritual – the unknown space where change happens. Spaces, thought history have been known for their liminal qualities: for instance, caves have almost certainly been places of liminality for millennia: from Stone Age people to Mayans.
VR experiences can be liminal because they take you to a different, in-between place, a place that requires us to temporarily suspend reality. A good VR arts experience is a liminal experience. In a liminal moment, one’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent, brining about the possibility of new perspectives.
My time studying Theatre and Performance at Warwick in the 2000’s has been a huge influence on my work in VR. It is a joy to come back, full circle, in order to share artistic, performative virtual reality with Warwick Arts Centre audiences.

What advice you would give to young students who would like to start working in this field?
You don’t need to ask permission to enter this industry – it is new, everyone is welcome. There are very few gatekeepers. The only thing you need to be at this stage is entrepreneurial. We are building an entire industry from the group up, so there are lots of dots that need joining and connections to be made. Practically I would advise you to see as much VR as possible and have a go at making some. You can download creation software, Unity, non-commercially for free… have a play!

Do you have anything new and exciting in development at the moment?
We are currently mapping current and future VR genres and formats as part of a big immersive media research project that Digital Catapult are doing. If you’re interested in the growth of this medium and how it is panning out then watch this space…! (and follow me and my colleague Emma on Twitter, _CatherineAllen and emmahughes95)

Finally, if you had to describe the VR shows/experience coming to Warwick Arts Centre in one word, what would you use?

For more information on the VR programme and tickets click here.

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