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AIONOS: A Case Study in Building Sustainable Theatre

By Sophia Katzell MA/MBA '25, Content Development Research Assistant

In the summer of 2023, I stage managed ToasterLab’s production AIONOS, a devised Virtual Reality (VR) theatre production nominated for the Young Howze Theatre Journal “Freefall Award” for immersive theatre. The show debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at Zoo Playground, though it was viewable anywhere in the world, due to its several viewing formats: in person, in VR, and via livestream. Albeit hindered by the restrictions of a still-developing technology, this production provided a promising first glimpse at the potential for increasingly sustainable theatre across several different dimensions. 

Image: AIONOS viewing options

Economic Sustainability

Despite the production debuting at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, all of the participants of the production hailed from in and around Toronto, Ontario, primarily students of York University. The show had a cast and crew of over fifteen individuals, however due to the nature of VR, many were able to perform their roles from Toronto, rather than travel to Edinburgh. For students with limited budgets, this meant that they were able to participate in a production at the world’s oldest and largest Fringe Festival without having to pay to fly to and live in a country on the other side of the world. This both trained up-and-coming actors in acting in a cutting edge format, (and improv-ing out of the technical difficulties associated with using a cutting edge format) and built their work portfolio to strengthen their applications to future acting roles. From a purely economic standpoint, the choice to stage a VR production immediately decreased the barrier to participation. 

Of course, the cost of VR headsets must be acknowledged when assessing the economic benefits of a VR production. AIONOS is performed through the Meta Quest 2 Headset, which was no small investment at the time of this production, as the Quest 3 headset had yet to be released. These headsets were procured for the members of the cast through a grant to be specifically used for this used for this purpose, and as such were not a barrier in this instance. Should another company choose to take on a similar performance style, the initial tech investment should be an important consideration.

Image: AIONOS Cast and Crew

Environmental Sustainability

In the same vein as saving cash-strapped students save on flights by performing remotely rather than traveling to Edinburgh, the concept of distanced performance promotes notable environmental benefits. Airline carbon emissions has been a hot topic as of late, and while traveling student actors are by no means chartering private jets, every bit helps. Should distanced performances augmented by VR increase in prevalence for, say, touring theatre companies, we could be seeing a potential path to a reduced environmental impact for theatre.

Overall Sustainability

I think it goes without saying that once the kinks are ironed out, VR theatre will be a boon for the accessibility of theatre as a whole. We need only to look as far back as the “Zoom Theatre” that emerged in 2020 to know that the show must go on, and that technology has a key role to play in ensuring that happens. I myself contracted COVID-19 during the middle of the run, and while my Assistant Stage Manager masterfully took over lighting and sound in my absence, I was still able to manage the stream from my dorm room quarantine.

Having a show be digitally available not only improves theatre accessibility in the event of illness, it also has a significant impact on the physical accessibility of the show. There are a myriad of reasons a person may find a show physically inaccessible. This could range anywhere from mobility issues exacerbated by inaccessible theatres, to small children whose strollers can’t fit in venues, to sensory issues that make attending live theatre challenging. The rising trend of relaxed theatre performances begins to address these needs, however I purport that VR theatre can be another tool in theatre makers’ arsenals in opening shows to a wider audience.

Image: AIONOS promotional image

Key Takeaways

It is undeniable that VR theatre has a long way to go technologically before it can be a sustainable theatre form practiced on a wide scale. After all, our production had a “panic button” alternate ending in the event of a serious tech malfunction that had to be used on more than one occasion in our month-long run. That being said, the technology will not improve unless it is used. VR theatre offers some serious inroads into making theatre more accessible and sustainable in the long run, and I encourage any producer looking to take a risk on innovation to consider developing a VR production for their repertoire in the coming years.

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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Really thought provoking Sophia, thank you for sharing :)

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