Blyth Festival's Young Company to go virtual (reality) this year
BY DENNY SCOTT
Alex Dault will be helping bring a very unique theatre experience to the members of the Blyth Festival’s annual Young Company program, featuring virtual reality (VR).
Dault, who runs the Single Thread Theatre Company, will be not only showing the members of the youth theatre troup how VR can help tell a story, but also teach them how to use it to make their own interactive theatre experience under the guidance of director Beth Kates.
“What we’re going to be running with this year’s Young Company will involve giving each participant a virtual reality headset, which will enable them to benefit from the work I’ve been doing for the past two years,” he said.
While Dault had wanted to use VR for theatre for some time, it wasn’t until the pandemic struck that he was really able to ramp up his plans for it and start seeing just what it was capable of.
“Single Thread has been exploring the process of working in a virtual rehearsal hall,” he said.
Describing the experience to those who have never come “face-to-goggles” with a VR headset can make it sound like magic or dreams, Dault said.
“You put on this headset and you have two controllers and that allows you to articulate the motion of the arm, hand and fingers,” he said. “The headset gives the position of the head and tracks your eyes and mouth movements. You’re represented in virtual space as an avatar, or a digital version of yourself, that you’re able to customize, to make it look like you or whoever you want to look like in VR space.”
He said that, just like a regular stage, props are somewhat interactive and the laws of physics apply.
“Inside VR space, you can move around,” he said. “Rooms have height and length. You can build things the way you would in real life, but objects resist being moved just like real life… You can’t go walking through walls or anything like that.”
Dault has a proven concept for the show already, with work done that saw artists from across the country create an interactive experience. The group of artists, which included dancers, made a show where people explored a labyrinth in which they made their own characters.
“We’re hoping to share some of that knowledge and some of that practice with the Young Company,” he said. “We want to teach them how to be a performer in virtual space, but also create the world as well.”
While the VR headsets will be necessary to create the show, anyone can experience it, he said, adding that’s an important part of the process.
“It’s super important to me that the maximum possible types of technology can access our world,” he said. “You don’t need a VR headset, but you can attend on a PC or a Mac computer.”
While the experience will be a little more two-dimensional on a computer versus a VR headset, Dault said it will still be enjoyable.
The VR space is just one approach being taken to move theatre online, Dault said, which became very important over the past years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By teaching the Young Company the practice, he says they will be empowered to create theatre for the future.
Dault is from Barrie but is very familiar with Blyth and Huron County, as his family has had a cottage in nearby Kingsbridge for years.
“It’s been a really big part of my life,” he said. “It’s a connection to my family, and super important to me.”
Last year, due to the pandemic, Dault didn’t get to travel to Kingsbridge, which left him feeling ungrounded, so he’s going to be very happy to return this year and to take part in the Blyth Festival.
Dault went to George Brown College Theatre School in 2008 to study acting, but found that he was more adept at being a playwright, and was especially inspired by the stories he had seen in Blyth over the years.
“The stories I wrote were local - about the neighbourhoods and old historical houses in Toronto,” he said, adding that his stories also have the close-to-home nature that makes Blyth’s stories so popular. “The plays kind of caught on and I was invited to do it quite a bit.”
He said he did shows about his hometown of Barrie that proved very popular and were played several years in a row.
Dault wanted to be a part of Blyth, but wasn’t able to connect with the Festival until he was hosting an online meeting this year that was built around VR to allow people to attend virtually. Through the event, he met Kates, a familiar face at the Blyth Festival with a number of credits in recent years, and Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt. At that meeting, Dault was brought in to help with the program.
Dault says his wife, Chloe Payne, is a classically-trained physical theatre performer and has been a big influence in the VR work he has done, and also credits his 18-year-old cat Bella with keeping him grounded.