Q&A with Jack Chamberlain and Maureen Lennon of Virtual Horizons

An innovative and eye-opening adventure set in Hull’s near future, Virtual Horizons takes place at Hull Truck Theatre from Wednesday 1 to Saturday 4 November.

Blending cutting-edge virtual reality technology and theatre, Virtual Horizons takes you on an immersive experience and back again. It is a unique tale of climate hope and resilience created with people living in the HU4, HU7 and HU9 communities.

We had a chat with its creator and director, Jack Chamberlain, and writer, Maureen Lennon, about what audience members can expect from this fusion of storytelling, technology and community collaboration that ignites the imagination and inspires a brighter future.

Why did you choose this topic for the show, and why now?

Jack: I’ve been planning on making a show about the climate for a few years now but had never quite found the right moment, as it’s such a huge topic. I wanted to make a well-informed, helpful and enjoyable experience through a community co-created show, which shares ideas from people in Hull.

In recent years I focused on building up my confidence to collaborate with local communities whilst working on the University of Hull’s Risky Cities project. This show is a continuation of the work we did with those communities, so now is the perfect opportunity to create a unique experience that discusses the climate and shares real conversations.

Which VR platform is the show hosted on?

Jack: A skilled developer has come on board to make us an app, so the VR side of the show will be hosted on our very own platform. The technology allows it to be played simultaneously through multiple headsets and we have complete control over the user experience. It’s all very exciting!

Are there any unique challenges when writing for a VR show?

Maureen: It’s interesting figuring out what VR can do really well in the story that theatre might be less equipped for, all while ensuring that the storytelling is intrinsic. I really like challenges of form: how it can move us through time and space, creates another world, can take us to the future and the past – we’re playing with all of these ideas and more. It’s hard to really imagine a world that’s so different from what we know today, so using VR is an opportunity to take audiences to familiar places that have changed dramatically.

Jack: You can use VR whilst sitting down, so we decided that the audience will be seated for comfort and accessibility purposes. We’ve had the joy of watching community members use VR for the first time and this immersive tech elicits such a response. I imagine people will be amazed when they come to Virtual Horizons – each experience will be unique because you can choose where to look in the 360 virtual space.

Are the visuals designed around the script, vice versa, or does it follow a different process altogether?

Maureen: It’s very much story-led, as this is integral to creating a whole piece that’s meaningful. We also have a constant awareness of things that will be fun in VR, so we’re trying different approaches and seeing what can be done as part of a collaborative format. All the standard ways of working in theatre are present but with very different tools. For instance, it can be hard to represent travel in theatre, but in can be done very well in VR.

Jack: When we’re exploring what VR can do that theatre can’t, we have more options. We have the freedom to be as abstract or realistic as we like, working closely with the VR developer to bring everything together and make the virtual experience relevant to the physical space side of the show. There are so many different artistic styles available, which create a rich creative well that we can dip into.

Maureen: In a way, it’s not much different from working with a regular theatre designer. I’ll make an offer like “this happens” and the VR designer can create something totally mad and brilliant!

What kind of experience can audience members expect?

Jack: We want to create a safe and inviting space where people can come and be transported through VR and theatre, and be part of a conversation and a community. Our aim is for them to leave the show feeling hopeful, build resilience around the climate and their role in it, and gain more of an understanding of what they can do to protect the future.

Maureen: I find the topic of climate change quite scary. The dread surrounding it is hard to stomach and I’m already worried about it, but I found the process of meeting the communities quite cathartic. The bravery to stare something so big in the face is empowering. We’re all in this together and we should be hopeful; audience members will walk out feeling more equipped with the courage to face what may come and how we can prevent it.

What role do community stories play in the show?

Maureen: We’ve taken ideas, thoughts and experiences from people in our local communities, honouring the opinions and interests of the group. If I see an advert for a show about climate I’m not sure I want to see it, so the main focus was what people want to see as that way it doesn’t feel like a chore.

Jack: They’re integral to the creation of the show and the story, plus we’re inviting them into the theatre-making process in a broader sense by asking questions around stage design, the theatre space, the VR visuals, and what Hull city centre may look like in the future. We’re working with 20+ community members from HU4 Community Hub, Bransholme Chat and TimeBank Preston Road. These areas were targeted originally because they’re susceptible to flooding and there’s a lot of awareness around it, so it was logical to tap into the thoughts and ideas within those communities.

So it’s a serious topic with a fun twist?

Jack: Absolutely! We want to find fun and hope through the format and the central character. It’s not just post-apocalyptic, but rather realistic and constructive. The uniqueness of the hybrid format, moving from VR to live performance, allows people to think about our climate while having fun and experiencing something new.

Maureen: The show is very rooted in Hull, as the characters are based on real people and there’s a strong Hull voice. People round here are funny  and make jokes in the face of adversity, that’s how they deal with really tough topics.

Jack: And don’t worry if you’ve never used VR before, as there’ll be people there to support you. The first time I used it I kept gasping, it was so amazing. A big part of the design process is making sure everyone can enjoy being in the spaces we curate. Don’t be scared, you’re in safe hands from start to finish.

Virtual Horizons

Written by Maureen Lennon and Hull communities.

Created and directed by Jack Chamberlain.

Produced by Mark Ashmore.

Funded by Arts Council England, Hull City Arts and the Sir James Reckitt Charity. Supported by the University of York.

Strictly age 13+

Tickets are £13 each. To book, please call Hull Truck Theatre on 01482 323638 or book online here.